You Lie!

One of the questions epistemology tries to answer is, how do we know? This broad question breaks down into a number of narrower questions, among which is how do we know that what we know is true? Hence, how do we know that a statement (an assertion) by another person is true? How do we know that an assertion is not true? How do we determine that a statement is a lie?

Just as interesting: How is it that we are susceptible to believing a statement is a lie when in fact it is not?
How is it that climate deniers can continue to believe that climate change is a hoax, a deliberate lie, a conspiracy by a world-wide cabal of leftists and humanists (synonyms, I suppose)? I don’t refer here to the oil executives and conservative politicians who know perfectly well that climate change is real and that it is human activity that is causing it (i.e., the real conspirators), but the average Joes and Janes who believe firmly and without doubt that climate change is a lie, the ones who pepper the reader comments of, for example, the Wall Street Journal, with their skepticism at every opportunity—even when the article in question has nothing to do with climate change, or even the weather. Climate change deniers are just a convenient example of the problem—there is virtually no end to the number of topics on which people firmly, often violently disagree, on the left as well as the right.

There are two basic means by which we determine the truth or falsehood of statements (assertions), the specific and the general. By the specific I mean such things as data, facts, direct observation, and so forth—the basic stuff of science. Objective evidence, if you will. We determine the truth of a statement by the degree to which it conforms with the facts. If someone says, “It’s a bright sunny day,” but in looking out the window I can see that it is gray and raining heavily, I have proof based on direct observation that the statement “It’s a bright sunny day” is false. It might even be a lie, depending on the motive of the person who made the statement; or it might not be a lie but simply an error.

However, if I’m in the depths of an office building where there are no windows, and someone comes in and says, “It’s a bright sunny day outside,” how do I determine if his statement is true or false?
By the general I mean the use of such things as theories, ideologies, world views, traditions, beliefs, etc., as templates to determine the truth of statements by, in a sense, measuring how well the statement conforms to the parameters or principles of the theory (etc.)—a theory (etc.) which, of course, we have already accepted (through one or more of the various ways in which theories become accepted). For example, diehard creationists evaluate the claims of Darwinism according to a strict Biblical literalism, the theory that every word of the Bible was directly inspired by God and is therefore true and that the Bible taken as a whole conveys His divine plan of human history from beginning to end. So Darwinism, which not only denies the seven days of creation (in 4004 BC) but also provides no basis for teleological views of the history of life, is godless and therefore untrue. The “so-called facts” of Biblical scholarship and biology aren’t facts at all and can be dismissed out of hand.

Something not dissimilar occurred among Marxist intellectuals in England, France, and the United States during the Stalin era when such luminaries as Sartre refused to believe the horrors being perpetrated in the Soviet Union because they did not conform to Marxist theory. Theory trumps reality in multitudes of cases, usually in ways less obvious than the errors of creationists and Marxists. Consider the political situation in the United States today as a near at hand example of the power of ideology, any ideology, to deny facts, or worse, to consider facts, and the people who bring them to our attention, outright lies.

“It’s a bright sunny day.” Perhaps the person who makes this statement is an extreme optimist who believes that if he repeats the assertion often enough, it will be true; or perhaps she will point out that somewhere on this planet it is a bright sunny day even if it isn’t here. Or maybe it’s a cruel lie perpetrated so that you will walk out to lunch without your umbrella and get soaked to the skin (ha, ha!). Or maybe he’s a politician who fears that if he speaks the truth (“There’s a mighty storm brewing.”) he will lose the election. And if you are a true believer, you will believe him, walk out to lunch without your umbrella, get soaked, and declare that the Senator was right, it is a sunny day—or maybe deny that he ever said that it was. You might recall years later that the Senator said it was a sunny day, or morning in America or whatever, and by golly he was right and history will recognize him as a great man. There are people in Russia who are nostalgic for the days of Stalin. It is said that the current head man of China wants to return to the ways of Mao. Could the Confederacy rise again?

Theories, ideologies, world views, all the general ways in which we measure truth and falsity are particularly resistant to correction or debunking, in part because we invest a great deal of life’s meaningfulness in our own special theory, in part because once we have adopted a theory (which we often do, without thought, very early in life), we get in the habit of measuring, evaluating, judging, and deciding according to its parameters. It is our paradigm, our gestalt, without which we could not make sense of the world. True or false, creationism and the whole system of beliefs of which it is a part makes sense and gives meaning. True or false, evolution and all that follows from it makes sense, though for most people it does not provide much meaning. Many people think that the sciences in general don’t provide humanly useful meaning, the kind of meaning that motivates us to get up in the morning, to care about voting, to raise children, to have something meatier than “values” to guide our lives. We are even willing to “[depart] from the truth in the name of some higher order” rather than risk meaninglessness. Hence the attraction of -isms: Communism, Darwinism, Creationism, Capitalism, Feminism, Terrorism—any -ism that can confer on us something other than the inevitable insignificance of being only one out of seven billion people, who are only seven billion out of the 107 billion people who have ever lived—and who knows how many more in the future. The less significant we are, the more selfies proliferate. Every -ism is a kind of selfie.

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