IN this world of alternative facts and relativism it’s comforting to know that there is a hilltop far away where the light of truth still flickers – if somewhat dimly. Indeed, towards the end of the 16th century the metaphor of the hilltop of truth was used by Francis Bacon – who was to become Lord High Chancellor in 1617 – to exalt the notion of Truth: “It is a pleasure to stand upon the shore and to see ships tost upon the Sea: A pleasure to stand in the window of a Castle, and to see a Battaile, and the Adventures thereof, below: But there is no pleasure comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of Truth: (A hill not to be commanded, and where the Ayre is alwaies cleare and serene;) And to see the Errours, and Wanderings, and Mists, and Tempests, in the vale below:”. (By the the way, spellcheck had a field day in that section!).
But this beautiful description of Truth – almost equating it with beauty – has been seriously undermined by what might be called postmodern epistemic relativism and, as Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom put it in Why Truth Matters, attacks on the ‘canons of coherence, logic, rationality and relevance – which are reminiscent…of counter-enlightenment and reaction’. We can see the results in the shameless lies and, at best, dissembling of the Trumps, Johnsons and Cummings of this world. It should be added that a common tactic of the post-truth brigade is to misrepresent the Enlightenment as privileging reason over everything else and in so doing attempting to eliminate mystery from the world.
However, as D’Alambert wrote in response to Rousseau’s contempt for Enlightenment rationality: “In sum, even assuming that we might be ready to yield a point about the disadvantage of human knowledge, which is far from our intention here, we are even farther from believing that anything would be gained by destroying it. Vices would remain with us, and we would have ignorance in addition.” Without an appeal to truth and reason he who shouts loudest wins, so we are ill-advised to deliberately try to undermine reason and respect for truth-seeking because, ultimately, these are the only tools we have against the tyranny of ignorance.
It is easy to despair sometimes in the face of the constant flow of almost wilful ignorance, the siren calls of the tech giants and the effluvial stream of postmodern irony – but there are still beacons of hope out there, standing atop the mountain. The economist Tim Harford is one such beacon and his popular Radio 4 programme More or Less is a paean to Truth, attracting a loyal following. And his book How to Make the World Add Up – which was Book of the Week on Radio 4 towards the end of last year – is an appeal to the sort of rationality that is despised by people like Trump with their ‘alternative facts’.
In this book Harford provides 10 rules to deploy when we are trying to navigate our way through the dense thickets of statistics, and the first is to search your feelings. He writes: “Our emotions are powerful. We can’t make them vanish, and nor should we want to. But we can, and should, try to notice when they are clouding our judgement.”
Other chapters take us through issues like the importance of taking our own experiences into account, as well as the statistics , because both can be true; avoiding jumping to conclusions too quickly; attempting to put statistics into a wider context; checking to see if there is any information missing; demanding transparency; not taking statistical bedrock for granted; and keeping an open mind. But his golden rule, if all else fails or is forgotten, is to ‘be curious’. Curiosity may be the cure for boredom and, as Harford writes, makes us ‘burn with the desire to know more.
Once we have donned the crampons of Harford’s rules, we can begin to climb Bacon’s hilltop of Truth but what about the muddy waters of ethics? A moment’s thought, however, demonstrates that the ‘canons of cohesion, logic, rationality and relevance’ must also surely apply to ethics, even if our conclusions might be less firm than in in the realms of statistics and science. As Alasdair MacIntyre notes in The Nature of the Virtues even a ‘relatively coherent tradition of thought’ does not necessarily produce any real ‘unity of concept’. On the other hand not all is lost because he is able to come up with three conditions that would have to be met – and potentially found – for the ‘concept of virtue to be made intelligible’. He adds: “The first stage requires a background account of what I shall call a practice, the second an account of the narrative order of a single human life, and the third an account of what constitutes a moral tradition.” Thus, although we haven’t come to any conclusions, Macintyre does provide a ‘coherent, logical, rational and relevant’ framework within which we may be able to make progress.
And indeed progress has been made in other areas of moral theory. For example, Act Utilitarianism focuses purely on those acts which are likely to generate the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Deontology, on the other hand, is usually thought to eschew consequentialism because of the odd conclusions that the latter can, sometimes, throw up. The development of Rule Utilitarianism, however, is an attempt to reduce some of these uncomfortable conclusions while moving closer to Deontology, while some advocates of the latter do acknowledge that it does take some account of consequences.
As we have seen, the search of truth and reason in the uplands is far from dead – but it requires effort, something that the psychopolitics examined in a previous blog tends to undermine as Big Data and neoliberalism seek to turn us all into gibbering infantilized consumers. But surely it is worth the climb – even if we only get as far as the foothills.