Opinion | Shoring up truth

Opinion by Zora Ilunga-Reed
Feb. 23, 2021, 7:37 p.m.

Every so often, I find myself unsure of what is real. I can’t trace the origins of this line of thinking to anything specific, but, retrospectively, I think it’s at least partially due to the dissolution of shared public truth over the past four years.

It is easy to offhandedly agree that every human perspective of the world is different, unique. As Proust puts it, “The universe is real for us all and dissimilar to each one of us.” While beautiful, this notion is also useful: It helps us to assuage small disagreements and friendly spats. “You and I just don’t see things the same way,” we’ll say, and leave it at that. Similar to other facets of human existence, it’s commonplace when we zoom in, but absurd when we zoom out.

So, when I read last week that a majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, the fact that they and I “just don’t see things the same way” was an insufficient conclusion to the debate. This disagreement is far from friendly and certainly not small. It’s big enough to encompass, perhaps, the biggest principle that underlies all of our lives: truth.

Here, I’m looking to understand truth in the context of a multi-truth zeitgeist, not to define it. What conclusions I may draw or solutions I may suggest are limited in temporal scope and, of course, by my own biases. On this journey through truth, I am taking one main concept for granted. There seems to be a plurality of communal truths in the world. For example, there is a disagreement about the truth of the statement “Biden won the election.” To some, this sentence is false while “The election was stolen from Trump” rings closer to true. I call the different truth-statements that arise from these disagreements “other truths.” It seems that in the minds of those who believe in them, these supposed counterfactuals like “Trump won the election” are true. Perhaps, we could call them “perceived truths.”

So, in the larger category of truths about the 2020 election, there is the truth that Biden won, the truth that Trump won, the truth that the election was stolen from Trump, the truth that some specific kind of voter fraud occurred, etc. Clearly, not all of these truths can coexist. The absurdity, though, is that they do all exist, albeit separately, in the individual minds of the American population.

In her essay “Truth and Politics,” Hannah Arendt tried to define and make distinct different types of truth. Here, I’ll focus on the broadest categorical distinction she makes within the mass of truth: rational truths versus factual truths. The former describes scientific, mathematical and universal truths — the truths that dominate philosophy and the sciences. These lofty truths don’t enter the political realm, are not the basis of political debate and are not the focus of Arendt’s essay. Instead, she focuses on the latter. “Factual truth … is always related to other people: it concerns events and circumstances in which many are involved,” she writes. “In other words, factual truth informs political thought just as rational truth informs philosophical speculation.” Clearly, this species of truth is far more interesting and more obviously relevant to politics.

Reading Arendt’s essay, I found myself drawn to a sort of factual-rational truth hybrid. The Earth is currently undergoing systemic environmental changes as a result of human pollution. This is a rational truth — it’s been scientifically proven time and again. Yet, climate change could also be characterized as a series of events that will affect millions of people. A similar argument could be made about abortions, vaccinations, systemic racism. We can define scientific and mathematical truths within these realms, but each truth brings complications related to the involvement of millions of people and, thus, billions of opinions. This distinction between factual and rational truths isn’t satisfying, nor is it useful. I’m still lost in a sea of truths, some of which have scientific proof while others do not.

How can I make it to shore? To return to my goal, I want to understand truth in today’s world. And to understand something does not necessitate distinguishing, categorizing, labelling it. In “What good is a will?”  J. David Velleman describes the nature of human will and how it comes into play with theories of intentional action. “With respect to my own intentional actions, then, I can invent my knowledge of the future rather than discover it,” Velleman writes.

Let’s borrow the idea that forming an intention to act necessitates imagining a more desirable future state of affairs. It is through intending and acting that we shape the world. Velleman puts it better: “My will therefore gives me genuine options, in the form of alternative truths of which I could invent either one.” The invention of an ideal future state of affairs seems to necessitate an invention of potential truths which sounds not unlike the multiplicity of truths swirling around us today. Perhaps there’s a way to connect intention in action to today’s multiplicity of truths.

We are driven by the future we wish to see. In order to get there, we must pick up some truths along the way. Since the future is unknown, unknowable, still awaiting a specific shape, these motivating truths can take any shape. If a given Republican voter wishes to see a future in which the U.S. has a completed border wall, in which abortions are illegal and politics aren’t PC, then they will attach themselves to a truth that will motivate them towards that future. Thus, “the election was stolen.”

Of course, I could rotate the example around the political spectrum and use the same logic to describe the future a Democrat wishes to see and the related truth they adhere to. This is to say that we want to believe in our ideal version of the future so we believe that future’s matching truths. Certainly, the relationships between motivating truths and widely accepted rational truths vary greatly: some of the former stray far from the latter, while others don’t.

I’m not sure if I’m satisfied with this yet. I worry that this perspective on truth adds too much validity to those chosen truths that are factually inaccurate and actively oppressive. Arendt’s critique of the philosophical approach to truth applies here: in an attempt to make reality more rationally intelligible I have stripped away many crucial, real-world aspects of false political truths. In its short life, though, this idea of motivating or intentional truths has made the viewpoints of my conservative family members and peers more intelligible to me: I got some of that understanding.

But if you’re dissatisfied with my thoughts so far, perhaps this metric of truth evaluation will help: When I read Velleman’s essay, I got chills. This is to say, if the theory you’re reading doesn’t give you chills, there’s probably still room for debate and questioning.

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Zora Ilunga-Reed is a columnist and a junior studying Philosophy & Literature. A native New Yorker, she was a Copy Editor, Desk Editor and Staff Writer in volumes past. Read her column if you want to hear her thoughts on the woes of humanities students, tech culture and more.

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