The postmodern view that truth is subjective has important epistemological consequences. We no longer have to listen to each other: we don’t have to try to reconcile competing claims and information. If you maintain that thousands were massacred at Wounded Knee on that day in 1890 while I contend that no one was killed, if we believe that there is an objective truth, we would engage each other. We would investigate what support there is for the competing positions, and perhaps do more research. As a result, we might abandon or modify our original assertions. If, however, truth is subjective, if truth is what is true for each individual, we will not undertake this shared enterprise seeking a better understanding of the truth. Thousands dead is true for you. Nobody died is true for me. End of story. It’s all relative.
The notion that truth was relative wedged its way into a wider world and crept into many areas of thought outside of academia. For example, Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard wrote: “What is true is what is true for you. No one has any right to force data on you and command you to believe it or else. If it is not true for you, it isn’t true. Think your own way through things, accept what is true for you, discard the rest. There is nothing unhappier than one who tries to live in a chaos of lies.” (Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.)
It also entered an Ivy League seminar room. I don’t remember the topic discussion for the class I was recently leading, but when I called on one student, she said, “Don’t you want to know what my opinion is?” I snapped “No!” The bright young woman had a shocked look. Surely her opinion was valuable. Others around the table were concerned. Many looked as if this was the first time a student opinion was rejected. I went on to say, “I want your facts; your information. What relevant experiences have you had? Then you can tell me how your opinion arises out of those data.” She went silent. But in a world where truth is subjective, all opinions are equally valid, and she probably thought that I should have allowed her to present her truth no matter how it was derived. (I got one bad teaching evaluation from this seminar. I assume that it was she, but that is just my opinion; I don’t have facts to back it up.)
Postmodern thinking has affected diplomats. Michiko Kakutani’s book The Death of Truth quotes a Russian propagandist. “All narratives are contingent, Surkov suggested, and all politicians are liars; therefore, the alternative facts put out by the Kremlin (and by Donald Trump) are just as valid as everyone else’s.” Surkov “invoked Derrida-inspired arguments about the unreliability of language—to suggest that Western notions of truthfulness and transparency are naïve and unsophisticated.”
Postmodernist thinking even invaded science. On The Big Bang Theory it is a laugh line when Penny’s not-overly-bright boyfriend says to Leonard and the rest of the Caltech crowd: “Agree to disagree. That’s what I love about science. There’s no right answer.” But supposedly bright people began to maintain that science was merely socially constructed and that science could not claim to be neutral. Science could not seek universal truths because it was fatally affected by a scientist’s identity and cultural values. (Tell that to the scientist spouse and watch her seethe!)
One of my leftist academic colleagues adopted this anti-science position. The United States Supreme Court had written an opinion about what scientific evidence could be admitted into trials. I appeared with my colleague on a panel at a neighboring law school discussing this decision. My colleague denigrated the decision by glibly saying that science like other knowledge was merely “socially constructed” and subjective. On the other hand, I knew that she had taken an elevator to the conference room, and I wondered if she truly thought that the principles that allowed that lift to ascend and descend were mere subjective social constructions. If we truly believed that there was no objective scientific truth, we could not operate in the world. No one really believes what she was trying to peddle. Instead, a more sophisticated approach might have allowed that science does not produce absolute truths because it is always trying to refine its knowledge or that scientific funding, which influences what gets studied, can be affected by cultural and society forces. But we all know that there is a universal truth behind the physics of gravity and friction.
(continued January 10)