By: Brannon Gerling
We often find ourselves at the informational crossroads, wondering whether we should go left or right. A new friend wandering homelessly and in need asks for a significant sum of money. Do you lend it to her and have faith in her resourcefulness to pay you back? You want to buy sold-out concert tickets on Craigslist. How do you know that after the money transfer they’ll indeed be delivered? Or a woman you’re recently intimate with tells you condoms aren’t necessary because she’s on the pill. Why would she lie?
How do we know when to trust when the law is unable to reverse a transgression?
Knowing whether our beliefs are true or false, says Bertrand Russell in The Problems of Philosophy, is a question of the greatest difficulty, a question that has been challenging philosophers, and specifically epistemologists, for centuries.
When wagering is less personal, but perhaps carries more gravity—like in democratically deciding the future of a government—knowing what to believe can mean the difference between war and peace. There are many examples to draw with varying relevance, but the most dangerous one is the Iraq War. Americans, especially the 50 million people who voted in the W. Bush administration in 2000, are to some degree responsible for that war that belligerently invaded a country with false reasons. A preferential utilitarian or Randian type theory could, dodging the reasons, justify the war and debt on some narrow egoistic grounds, but charges ultimately have to be paid, one way or another. As sound Americans, preventing frivolous wars (that only benefit the war machine and special interests) is an obvious inherent democratic duty.
We can democratically prevent political mistakes by considering a wide range of material. And, getting real: by expanding our knowledge beyond our habitual channels so that we’re comfortably objective and socially lithe. Cherry picking our news, for instance, merely deepens the grooves of our established consent, building walls around us and latent experiences. We mustn’t let our fears and animal instincts pilot our intrinsic moral reason.
A conscious citizenry must compare ideas in existential light. To liberate ourselves from ideological restraints, we must confront the hackneyed language that supersedes and spoils free thinking. Here is a foundation and theory of truth, along with eight concrete and practical ways to understand political language better and cut through the bullshit.
Unlearning to learn
Revealing the cognitive foundation is imperative for understanding language. By examining our thoughts, we can understand them better. As Lao Tzu says in the Tao teh Ching, we must unlearn what we’ve learned to clearly understand. This doesn’t mean forgetting what we’ve learned, which is deliberately impossible, but rather breaking down the mental constructs that we’ve since assumed to be true then measuring them on the universal foundation of understanding.
Let’s look to a simple example. If we’ve always been told strawberries are healthy and merely accept that information as true without understanding what constitutes a healthy strawberry in general or what nutritionally defines a particular strawberry we are about to eat, we won’t exercise much dietary understanding about strawberries. We won’t be in possession of the knowledge that determines our course of action. Our choices will teeter with the flow of trending propaganda. Luckily cognition isn’t all about semantic conceptions of information. We have other cognitive faculties like intuition and sensation which can inform us that, to our example, if a strawberry tastes fresh and delicious it’s probably going to be well-received by the body.
When we find confidence in something, we feel whole, because our faculties have come together to make some sort of confirmation. When this happens collectively, we call it ‘objective knowledge’ and it gathers ‘common sense’. But when details go unexamined, what gathers in the stock of common sense can be degradingly false to an entire population. No wonder why common sense has caught a bad rap in these pro-scientific postmodern times, because it’s seen by some—namely postmodernists—as an excuse not to think. Of course, we need all the sense we can get, and gathered on rational grounds. If that’s uncommon, then common ground must be recultivated through collective education.
Upon the deconstructive cognitive base is where we can judge and value clearly and combat the naivety that stifles our control over language and the fallacies that lurk within it. For citizens who feel themselves in the volatile political environment, it’s not endurable to follow suit. Not knowing which group to emotionally convoy, they easily fall for a contradictory shift between the radical or reactionary with the cheapest language. If we don’t gain control over language, language will gain control over us.
Naivety and belief
Perhaps it’s not very surprising that naivety hasn’t gotten its share of literary press. Naive acts are painfully forgettable. When we’ve committed some error, we wish to disremember it. We want to incline ourselves to trust people—at least towards those within our inner circles and communities—but when contravened, we feel guilty, played, schooled, had.
If trust was made consciously in good faith, however, there’s not much shame in being fooled. There are several kinds of naivety, besides, which makes it difficult to draw the line. Kant draws it by way of comparison. He says in Critique of Judgment, “Naiveté must not be confounded with open-hearted simplicity, which does not artificially spoil nature solely because it does not understand the art of social intercourse.” Open-hearted simplicity doesn’t disturb the truth that shines proper light over transgressions. Naivety, on the other hand, is hasty and thus accident-prone, and awfully confusing, besides—like having faith without a prayer.
Where does the term arise? Naivety comes from the Latin ‘not artificial’, and in the Middle Ages related to a native in their rustic simplicity. One could expect a kind of sincerity and freedom from dispositional duplicity from the European peasantry, much like today’s traditional villagers throughout the world.
Such ethea gathered upon the land and seasons an earned confidence born gradually in time. Like Alyosha Karamazov, an able and unconcerned peasant had little reason to slight and ruin, especially within the margins of a small population, since aspirations were ordinarily modest or spiritual. Truth usually didn’t need to be confirmed with scientific justification—peasantry in the Middle Ages did what fed and supported social cohesion; they were bucolically content or dreamt of some kind of miraculous emancipation. Their manias were often their amusements taking shape in the beliefs that became their identity. Hillock, brook, church, family, speck of witchery perhaps, and homemade grog: what more did the lads need? Living off the land, categorically bartering, and feeding their spirits with mythological elements, they were less critically held to truth than we are today, whereby much of the modern world relies on the flow of remote and intangible digital currencies rather than local and tangible husbandry to survive.
Hegel’s universal truth
Kant’s open-hearted simplicity accepts the threshold of truth in the holistic universal sense, famously captured by G. F. W. Hegel when he said, “The truth is the whole.” But this form of truth simply represents a sentiment or state-of-mind that attempts to capture entire existence and doesn’t help us make evaluations in real time. Truth in its particular sense has to be concerned with some kind of belief if it is to reveal itself. Russell says, “…if there were no beliefs there could be no falsehood, and no truth either, in the sense in which truth is correlative to falsehood.” Hence beliefs, however fallacious, are the phenomenological starting points in the discovery process to reach veritable conclusions.
A symbol of light, truth nevertheless remains quite mysterious. Cinematically portrayed by renegades and swashbucklers like John Wayne and Bruce Lee, truth isn’t always honest, yet is always authentic and carries some high duty. A moral hero, portraying some shade of truth, could never universalize particular falsehoods consciously; but paradoxically, as Yuval Noah Harari develops in Sapiens, the reason people have united in great numbers is from the circulation of fictive belief structures. Without fiction, the population threshold of individuals grouping together doesn’t exceed 150 individuals, he says.
Does this mean that humans, within their networks at least, are unpleasantly disposed to truth? Sure, truth can seem drab. It does addle and divert us from those outward ticks that are secreted from our insulated muses. In its supreme, truth threatens the ego (everything that we think we know about the self, says Freud) to dissolve on the brink of universal reality. Why wouldn’t we thus guard against truth, the gloom thrower that bares everything in its real place? Well, we actually do. Ignorance isn’t bliss per se, but it does accord the chimerical. There are many psychological and sociological constructs that utilize ignorance for phlegmatic reasons.
This raises another question. Does truth seeking make truth-seekers less human than, say, pleasure vagrants? In a weird sense, yes. If truth can align with spirituality in the non-descript and non-denominational sense, if it elevates us into universal reality, if it reconciles our limitations in a limitless milieu of discovery, if it transcends us beyond the gripes and asymmetries of our world and bodies, then yes, truth does challenge human boundaries by according us with interstellar elements. In the same way, however paradoxically, by reaching out into the space beyond our familiar boundaries, we develop our personalities and distinguish our attributes with new experiences.
Universal truth vexes most people, because it can only be captured by comprehensive feeling and when explained semantically bristles with belief systems that lay claim to ‘one truth’. As inclusive as it is, truth can be offensive to the frenetic collateral of groupthink. Not for that reason alone is truth better exercised and purveyed through example as opposed to declaration.
To this end, we can see that in contrasting Hegel’s universal truth we point to nonexistence, and in doing so we lay focus on the positives that we can confirm, rather than the negatives that simply cannot be verified and thus taken seriously.
Critical guide for campaigns
Upon such a positive foundation is where we seek to understand our political system—and our political relationships within the political spectrum, not as the spectrum itself. The starting point for understanding politics is simply to consider the compositional issues. Following them all is extravagant, but acknowledging how they might relate to one another is important. To break the political campaigns down, uncover sincerity, and leverage truths behind policymaking, we can follow this eight-step guide.
- Don’t focus on commentary. Just because we’ve gone somewhat sedentary doesn’t mean talk isn’t cheap anymore. Some political campaigns are built with misinformation (see Roger Stone) and dreamy rhetoric (see everyone else). As citizens, putting focus on action-oriented primary account information will eventually compel campaigners and content producers into action-based strategies. Propaganda could thereby dissipate to less invasive levels if we visit government websites like House.gov and Congress.gov to read what bills are being proposed by whom. Visiting Presidential websites, however, often reveals advertisements of unilateral opinion.
- Pair up words with track records. Like the point just made, buy the facts, not the promises, and try to find the defining characteristics of political figures. In the predominantly binary American political system, inclinations are somewhat easy to predict, but since voter interests are oftentimes at odds with business interests, politicians are tempted to say what voters want to hear and afterward cater to their donors. Most everyone knows this today, so much so that it’s been used as reverse psychology in recent campaigns. Apps like Govtrack and Countable can help. They break issues down and expose what bills your assembly people are voting for. Countable also provides links to join conversations to boot.
- Find the value of statements and questions. Do statements and questions expose problems and issues, speaking to them directly, or are they red herrings that reveal shallow familiarity or an indifference with issues that you care about? Connect the dots.
- Expose personal assumptions. Assumptions are statements made without statistical facts or other forms of proof. They reek of subjectivity when politicians are supposed to be democratic vessels that represent the entire government body.
- Visualize the structure of arguments. Put simply, does claim + reason => conclusion? Are there any grounds for objection? These kinds of logical experiments develop skills and dissipate illusory possibilities.
- Start with your conclusions. Ask yourself, “How did I reach this conclusion?” and work backwards to verify premises. Doing this will naturally lead to the possibilities (that led to the conclusion in the first place), which can open the mind both to prejudices and cogent alternatives. When premature conclusions are associated with stereotypes, tracing your conclusions backwards can lead to empathy. Empathy is a useful companion to critical thinking, because it cedes tactlessness for emotional deftness in matters that inevitably involve the emotional dispositions of stakeholders.
- Imagine the consequences. What would happen if people were to be incited by a certain proposal, fear-mongering or half-truthy news style, or straight-up lie? Are the consequences more likely to be destructive or constructive? Imagining the consequences can help expose the value behind political opportunities, and perhaps more importantly, prevent ideological disasters.
- Uncover the ideology and -isms. Can the points of view that a politician is campaigning for be built upon an existing ideology? What does the belief system entail? What does it reject? How do particular ideological statements pull at your heartstrings? Understanding ideologies usually leads to evaluative vantage points that can be assessed with the lessons and literature of history.
Following these steps can help uncover the bullshit in politics, one piece at a time. If we can exercise the foundation of truth that we set out to clarify above, we are in pretty good shape to see the rose within the lenses that we sometimes unknowingly don.
Russell’s theory of truth
Taking critical steps to separate political substance from political design won’t take us very far unless we establish a theory of truth that acts as the groundwork for truth-seeking. Russell points out basic components that a theory of truth must have. He shows us the difference between political statements that can be true and political statements that simply can’t. He says,
…we have to seek a theory of truth which (1) allows truth to have an opposite, namely falsehood, (2) makes truth a property of beliefs, but (3) makes it a property wholly dependent upon the relation of the beliefs to outside things.
Implicit here is the difference between matters of taste and perception and matters of fact versus fiction. Some statements can’t logically be opposed because they aren’t falsifiable, that is, they are matters of taste, imagination, or experience. They sound like: “This dish is delicious.” “I bet she is happy right now, wherever she is.” “Atlanteans are so unfashionable; I can’t stand them.” Such matters of taste or perception are unarguable; they simply exist. Sure, they are matters of fact in that they exist (as matters of taste and perception), and thus have Hegelian truth, but that notion doesn’t make them true in the sense that their declarations can be made verifiable.
Once we accept this, we can see with Russell that “…there is no reason to suppose that only one coherent body of beliefs is possible.” Through symbolism and allegory, everything can be made real. Curiosity and tolerance, however, open the eyes to the cultural indications within systems of belief that contrast with verifiable declarations. But there’s no highbrow collision here. Without systems of belief, we run out of culture, the programs of civilization. We’d do better to appreciate and marvel at cultures rather than struggle with them in circuitous battles that can’t be won.
In this ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-trust’ era, with our ‘post-Inversion Internet’, where much of our professional lives is spent recording and transferring digital information, we could use some classical skepticism and should certainly leverage technology. Blockchain could help keep information secure and accurate, but, alas, we can’t discover truth with it. To discover truth, we must seek a coherent theory of truth, which we’ve just established above with Russell, and lay focus on the positive strokes of achievement, exposed by Hegelian universal truth. Then can we assess the particulars and, hopefully, give proper support to our governments.
Though the truth will always be tough to grasp. Only the trials and errors of our experiences are the conduits that thrust the efficacy of the greater truth out there—in fact, right here—in and before our eyes. Ultimately, we must express the truth to realize the truth.
Brannon Gerling teaches philosophy and writes about practical issues within ethics, politics, and society.