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What Ever Happened to Truth?


Last year, Der Spiegel, the German equivalent of Time magazine, published a disturbing interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In it, the president suggested to the somewhat bewildered interviewer that the existence of the Holocaust should be a matter of debate and “impartial” research. As shocking and outrageous as such statements always are, what was almost more disturbing about the interview was the clever way in which the Iranian leader managed to imply that by accepting the Holocaust as historical fact, the German journalist was somehow rejecting the ideals of open debate, rational inquiry, and intellectual freedom. “We are of the opinion,” he declared, “that the truth [about the Holocaust] will be revealed all the more clearly if there is more research into it and more discussion about it. . . . An impartial group has to come together to investigate and to render an opinion on this very important subject.” Ahmadinejad cloaked his own anti-Semitism and Holocaust revisionism in the guise of the values that so many Westerners hold dear—impartial inquiry and the need to give equal hearing to all sides of the debate. And the worst part was that in doing so, he seemed to have the journalist on his heels.

The same tactic is well employed (albeit less egregiously) in debates over evolutionary theory. As humanities professor Stanley Fish points out in a 2005 article in Harpers, Intelligent Design theorists have shifted the focus of the science-religion debate from truth and reason to open and unbiased discussion. “Teach the controversy” is the battle cry of ID theorists who much prefer an argument over whether or not Intelligent Design is getting a fair shake in the public eye than one over the merits of its science. On this new playing field, Fish explains, Intelligent Design theorists become not the purveyors of a questionable scientific hypothesis with few empirical credentials but the casualties of scientific and academic marginalization, the abused victims of an intellectual mainstream that has already made up its mind and is therefore by definition “closed minded.” And we liberal postmoderns tend to love victims—often more than we love truth.

Fish explains how this line of argument is a “logical consequence of liberalism’s privileging of tolerance over judgment.” In other words, it seems to be more important these days that we are tolerant of divergent opinions than that we judge those opinions as true or false based on their merits. The reason tolerance has more intellectual cachet than judgment is largely because we have lost confidence in our capacity to ascertain truth. We have seen how “truth” is so often, well . . . not true. We have witnessed how easily it can be manipulated by the powerful—politicians, intellectuals, historians, dictators, even moviemakers. We are embroiled in a war that was initially justified on (some say intentionally) distorted perceptions of what was true. But not all distortion is intentional. Indeed, postmodernism has pointed out again and again that what we see and what we believe to be true about life and society are fundamentally conditioned by the worldview or metanarratives of our own culture, and those change over time. For example, I may know it to be true that women have the same inalienable rights that men do, but I also know enough to understand that this conviction is a product of a very particular worldview and set of historical circumstances.

Moreover, much to the consternation of scientists the world over, we have begun to recognize that science, for all its extraordinary power to explain the natural world, is not immune to this conditioning. In fact, science can be deceptively and disastrously conditioned by worldviews as well. Eugenics, anyone? Remember when the universe was like a clock? Listen to scientists today and you’ll start to think it’s like a giant information processor. In his recent book The Trouble with Physics, esteemed physicist Lee Smolin sounds like he’s been reading his Foucault as he laments the way in which the “power games” and “sociology of science” are influencing the pursuit of truth in string theory. Truth, postmodern philosophers love to tell us, is not real; it is constructed.

As these kinds of fundamental questions about the objective pursuit of truth have come to the fore over the last decades, so also has our cultural withdrawal from making truth claims. Truth, like beauty, has been knocked off its mythical pedestal as eternal objective fact and has tumbled headlong into the eye of the beholder. Call it political correctness, call it relativism, call it whatever you want, but it is endemic. And today’s alternative spiritual culture is a prime offender. Indeed, every time your New Age friends refer to “my truth” or “your truth” when talking about their personal spirituality, they are performing two fundamental metaphysical acts. First, they are defending the legitimacy of a plurality of perspectives on the nature of reality. But second, they are committing a sort of metaphysical hara-kiri. By relating to truth as a primarily subjective matter, they are undermining the very idea of objectivity and truth-seeking and, in that, subtly supporting a lack of confidence in objective truth that ultimately allows anyone from the Iranian president to Intelligent Designers to declare that their way of seeing reality is just as valid as anyone else’s.

Now, Holocaust revisionism is hardly new, and few in the West give much credence to Ahmadinejad’s comments. Moreover, Intelligent Design hasn’t exactly captured the mainstream yet. But these are gross manifestations of a trend whose roots lie deep in the worldview of postmodernism, one that is helping to fan the flames of today’s culture wars. In an article several years ago in The Atlantic, scholar Alan Wolfe noted that students at evangelical universities today are studying the works of postmodern philosophers such as Foucault and Derrida. Adopting the old dictum that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” evangelicals have decided that postmodernism can be a friend to traditional religion by undermining faith in the certainties of science, reason, and rationality. But science and reason are not taking such attacks lying down. Led by scientist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett, a new special interest group has formed. Championing science, rationalism, and “better living through reason,” the self-named “Brights” have invoked victim status as well, declaring themselves to be unfairly marginalized and persecuted by mainstream culture for their atheistic views.

Rehabilitating confidence in truth and reason will undoubtedly be one of the tasks of the twenty-first century. As a culture, we must begin to recognize that while truth and objectivity may not be absolutes that exist perfectly free of time and history, neither are they hopelessly embedded in personal perspectives. Simply because truth is always subject to revision does not and could never mean that all truth claims deserve equal space at the table of cultural discourse. Let’s not put reason and science on the pedestal of perfection, but let’s also not confuse leaps of faith with rational inquiry. If the twenty-first century is being defined by an ongoing clash of traditional, modern, and postmodern worldviews both in individuals and in societies around the world, then escaping that clash with minimal harm and maximal development will mean finding a fourth way. It will mean learning to steer our ship of culture away from the overconfident certainties of theology and science but also away from the overwrought uncertainties of contemporary philosophy.

Einstein is said to have remarked that the hardest thing to understand about the universe is that it is understandable. Socrates is said to have claimed that the only thing he knew for sure was that he knew nothing. Surely, somewhere in between those two perspectives we can find both truth that we can trust and our way into the future.


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This article is from
Our Future of Women's Liberation Issue


July–September 2007