вторник, 7 октября 2014 г.

What is truth?

I have been thinking a lot about truth recently. 

The obvious reason for this is the crisis in eastern Ukraine which has spawned two rival perceptions of reality.

The dominant view in Russia, held by virtually everyone, is that Russia is being bullied by the west and its agenda of expansionism. The west has orchestrated a coup d'etat in Ukraine, so the story goes, with the aim of bringing Ukraine under its sphere of influence (NATO, EU). Russia has refused to take this onslaught lying down and has been forced to respond at least in the form of tacit sympathy for its compatriots in eastern Ukraine. Bombed by its own government the Russian-speaking population in what is now referred to as Novorossiya is having to defend itself and is justified in doing so. Their desire for autonomy or union with Russia is being hypocritically denied while elsewhere Scotland and Catalonia are free to hold independence referenda. Some even see this confrontation in broader terms as a stand-off between the decadent, liberal west and Holy Russia, the last bastion of conservative Christian values. Russia, in the form of international vilification and potential economic hardship, is now suffering the consequences of western agression and hypocrisy. But, as the local saying goes, "Russians don't surrender."

No doubt most readers of this article will be well-acqainted with a quite different spin on the same events.

Both sides are absolutely convinced that they are right.

So, to quote Pontius Pilate, "What is truth?" Is there such a thing as truth? Can there be any sort of objectivity?

First of all, there are clearly certain factors which make it difficult to 'get at' the truth.
1. For one thing, people believe what everyone around them believes. Any society has its commonplaces, its shared values and beliefs. At the heart of such shared beliefs is possibly always a deep-seated convinction of one's own vindication. In the words of the Scottish poem, "Wha's like us?" Having repudiated the imperialism of the past the western nations nevertheless hold that certain 'values' are universal and need to be shared by all, while Russia believes that its particular brand of managed democracy and patriotic values is what is required to keep the liberal rot at bay.
2. Secondly, people believe what they see on television. Mass media are a very effective means of communicating both news and opinion. Carefully chosen, emotive words combined with images appealing to deep feelings such as pity and hatred are a strong force which few can overcome. In George Orwell's 1984 the Two Minutes Hate was a powerful tool for sublimating primal instincts along party lines. News stories play to stereotypes, portraying political figures in caricature terms and dividing the world into 'goodies' and 'baddies' with one's own interests and values predictably on the side of the 'goodies'.
3. Thirdly, however they have come to such views, people have an in-built resistance to revising those views, even when reason and common-sense seem to point in the opposite direction. It is by no means a rare occurrence for someone to, as it were, look the truth in the eyes and deny it.

So what hope is there of arriving at some sort of objective truth? Is it indeed impossible to persuade anyone of anything? And if one were to do so, might there not be a risk that factors other than the truth itself might be decisive in persuasion?

As a Christian, I believe the words of the gospel: "Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops." (Luke 12:2-3) William Shakespeare expressed a similar thought with the words, "Truth will out." Or, in the famous words of Abraham Lincoln, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."

How might this work?
1. At first glance it might seem plausible that people can believe what they like and no one can tell them otherwise. However there are various factors which can chip away at such feet of clay. Consistency. Plausibility in the light of other knowledge. The views of others (even if they are in a minority). The quiet voice of past experience and history. In 1914 stories of German atrocities in Belgium drove many to sign up as soliders; by 1928 the same propaganda stories were transparently tools used by the government to justify the war.    
2. For another thing maintaining a party line requires a lot of effort and can only be kept up for so long. I am reminded of embattled hotel owner Basil Fawlty (in the 1970s comedy, Fawlty Towers) and how his efforts to hoodwink his wife gradually unravel as a given episode progresses. Given enough time and people it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a false alibi. Sometimes a change in circumstances can provide the jolt that 'breaks the spell'. 3. Thirdly, I have found that a powerful tool in persuasion, rather that attacking someone's view, is to get them to explain it to you, even to convince you. It is one thing to passively hold a given view. It is quite another, and more demanding, to actively propagate it to others. On more than one occasion I have changed my view on a given issue in the process of explaining it to someone else. Anyone who has done any teaching will relate to having to relearn things or fill in gaps in one's knowledge in order to be able to pass it on to others. 

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