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Ian I. Mitroff Headshot

Is Truth in Politics Possible? Is Truth Possible in Anything Human?

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With so much deception, if not outright falsehoods and deceit, offered up daily by the current and recent crop of Republican candidates, one has ample reason to ask, "Is truth possible in politics, let alone in anything done by humans?"

To respond adequately to this ponderous question not only requires a lifetime of study of science and philosophy, to mention only two of the many fields of knowledge that are relevant. Therefore, let me merely consider four of the primary means that humans have used historically to establish "truth." These four also capture the major meanings that humans have meant by "truth."

The first of course is traditional science. In this view, truth is that which is arrived at by the careful, and often painstaking, gathering of facts and their impersonal analysis by the accepted methods of science. Something is not only true if it has been produced by acceptable methods, but if in addition, it has passed rigorous review by the community of scientists.

In other words, it is not enough just to gather facts and to analyze them. The facts must be reproducible and verifiable by independent investigators. The more reproducible and verifiable the facts, the greater their "truth standing."

Historically, science was thought to be value and theory free. Facts were presumed to be independent of values and theories. Presumably, all one needed to do was merely to open one's eyes and look at facts by means of sophisticated instruments. Modern philosophers have rejected this view completely since values play a fundamental role in determining what we think is important to observe in the first place and how much we are willing to spend in time and effort in gathering and analyzing them.

The second way is not necessarily based on facts, although it can be. It is based primarily on the logical-philosophical, and even speculative, powers of the human mind. In this view, something is true if and only if it follows from clear, self-evident and/or verified premises and tight deductive arguments. For thousands of years, Euclidean geometry with its rigorous insistence on proofs before something was accepted as true was the gold standard. The fact that this way of thinking eventually showed that Euclidean geometry was not the only kind of geometry that was possible only added to the stature of this approach.

The third way is based on the mores of a community. It is not only what a community as a whole takes to be true, but what its ultimate values are. It includes the customs, ethics, traditions, values, and religious views of a people. At its best, this way strives to find a set of principles and values that represent and unite all of humankind. Thus, for example, it redefines marriage as "holy act that bonds two loving people irrespective of their sexual orientation."
The point is that fundamental questions of values on which we depend cannot be fully answered by science. And in fact, science needs values--the belief that science is valuable--to get started in the first place. For instance, historically, the prime belief that the universe is both orderly and understandable comes from religion. Thus, science is more dependent on religion that it knows and acknowledges. One does not see the metaphysical concept of "intelligibility" when one looks through a microscope. Indeed, one presupposes the concept in order to be able to see anything.

Finally, the fourth way is the particular set of truths that a small group of people, typically a family or tribe, uses to guide their daily and spiritual lives. Truth is not universal in this way of being and knowing. Something is "true" if it helps a small group to live well. Nothing more.
One of the first and most fundamental points to be made is that all four of these ways presuppose and depend on one another. For instance, for all its pretensions to impersonality, science is heavily dependent on the intensely personal values of an extended community of scientists just to exist, let alone to function. Science is fundamentally dependent on a community of scientists who share the values of science. It is also dependent on the values and institutions of liberal societies. This doesn't make the "facts" of science any less "factual." It merely means that "facts" cannot be decoupled from human psychology and institutions.
Next, all four ways can be perverted. The Nazi scientists certainly used science for inhumane ends. And, we are all aware of how science can often be mechanistic and cold in its pursuit of truth such that it tramples on human concerns and feelings.

I stress this because as a general rule we are more inclined to see the abuses of the third and fourth ways. Because they are concerned primarily with feelings and values, we tend to see them as especially prone to emotional outbursts and prolonged bouts of irrationality. They are also prone to subscribe to the narrowest and small-minded set of values. To be sure, we have plenty of instances from the Republican candidates. For this very reason, many conclude that there is no truth in politics.

I would have us reach another conclusion. The current crop of Republican candidates not only fails miserably on all four ways (need I say more than their failure to embrace Evolution?), but the wider public does not in general fare any better.

Truth neither exists, nor is it to found, in any one of these four ways exclusively, or by themselves. In a world that is more interconnected than ever before along every conceivable dimension, we should have learned by now that "truth" is highly interdependent as well.
Now that is a scorecard on which not only to judge politicians, but all of us.

When it is based on one and only one way of thinking, run like mad whenever you hear anyone speak as if they have the "truth."

Ian I. Mitroff has a PhD in Engineering and the Philosophy of Social Systems Science from UC Berkeley. He is currently an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley. He is the co-author of Dirty Rotten Strategies: How We Trick Ourselves and Others into Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely (Stanford, 2009). His latest, and 37th book, is: Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega Crises and Mega Messes (Stanford, 2011). He is one of the founders of Crisis Management as an interdisciplinary field of study.