Is there a future for epistemology?

hainesRational human beings must never surrender to life in what has been recently labeled in the press as a “post-truth” world.

For those who revere truth, the results of last week’s survey by Public Policy Polling are disconcerting: a large number of conservative voters choose to believe falsehoods that conform to their worldview rather than accept contradictory, but objectively verifiable, facts.

In my first philosophy class, the professor opened up his unit on morality and ethics with a sidebar discussion about the importance of truth in finding our collective way through life. A 20-something student in the front row, with more than a passing knowledge of existentialism, declared rather vigorously that in terms of morality and ethics, “there is no truth!”

The professor smiled and dignified the offering as an “interesting” proposition that had turned the world on its ear for a time. He went to the blackboard and wrote those four words on the blackboard, stepped back and scratched his chin for a good 30 seconds. He sat down at his desk and put his feet up, waiting, as 30 students exchanged slightly nervous glances and scribbled nervously in their notebooks. He finally asked, “what is the first question we must ask ourselves about that statement?”

The answer: Is it true? Therefore, truth does exist, and each of us must decide how much that matters to us.

Truth is where logic and rhetoric intersect. In every human endeavor, the apprehension of truth must remain the highest aspiration of the intellect.

The ability to discriminate between “truth” and “untruth” is essential to the process of gaining new knowledge. The destiny of our species has been to accrue knowledge and pass it from generation to generation. Error, however, is also an inevitable detour on the path to “discovery.” Knowledge does evolve.

In the 21st century, all those capable of rational thought should reject any political punditry capable of uttering the phrase, “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” This statement by Scottie Nell Hughes, surrogate of the President-elect, augurs a disregard for reasoned discourse that borders on Orwellian.

Facts – like truths – do exist. The lie told often enough does not become the truth, as Lenin suggested; at best, an “accepted” lie can only be categorized as propaganda.

“Facts” will occasionally offer up conundrums or be subject to varying interpretations. Two absolutely parallel lines would appear on a path to intersection as their lengths approach infinity. Our eyes can be deceived; empirical observations can betray our reason. Humans must always remain vigilant in the quest for truth, and remember the sage counsel of Mohandas Gandhi, “Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.”

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