What is truth? Pontius Pilate John 18:38
It has come as a great surprise that public discourse can now be judged as entering a "post truth" age and that our social and personal lives and institutions are being eroded by that move. We are used to dictators using propaganda to tell untruths for political advantage. It does not surprise us to hear Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinpingor Kim Jong Un tell blatant and transparent fibs, but it does surprise us that a president of the United States, a country founded on rationality and truth telling, does the same.
It is surprising to see that the internet, that wonderful "information superhighway" that we all rely on in our daily lives, being used to disseminate obvious untruths. Lies have become a political weapon used to confuse, disrupt and destroy trust in governments and professional opinion so much so that our democracies are under unprecedented threat.
At least, now that Joe Biden is in the white house, we have returned to rational government. But it was a near thing and Trump and his supporters are still waiting in the wings of the next election. His followers continue to believe that the election was stolen despite there being no evidence that that is the case.
The continued weirdness of the world's dictators and the Trump presidency is a sign that something is not right; our grasp of the real is under attack. It appears that we may doubt not only truths of non-evident matters but also, evident matters. An example of non-evidentiary truth is whether my wife loves me or not. While she acts as though she does, it may be that she is putting on an act and despises me. Non-evidentiary truths may be doubted. But evidentiary truths are more robust. Measurements, colours, shapes and the number of votes counted are robust truths that no one in their right mind will doubt. They are facts.
While there has been attempts to throw doubt on the evidence of our senses, it is obvious from our interactions with the world, that the world that is constructed in our consciousness is accurate. If it were not, then our ability to interact with the world would be severely hampered. Certainly, there are optical and auditory effects produced by our nervous system, but they are of a very minor order and are rarely noticed. In philosophical terms, empiricism is alive and well. Our experience of the world is accurate.
Those who spread lies and those who believe them do not recognise this. Their view of the world is dominated not by empirical fact but by what they feel. They have been overcome by emotionalism. It is what I feel that is most important. If I feel that Trump is still president, then he is. The much-celebrated freedom to choose has reached its logical end, we can choose which truth to believe. To add to the silliness, we may even proclaim that it is our right to do so. This is obviously a disaster because we begin to live in an unreal world and our decisions in that world will be baseless.
Ivan, in the Brothers Karamazov, states that if there is no God then anything is possible. Dostoyevsky could not have known that Stalin could sacrifice millions of his countrymen on the altar of the Party or that he could, with impunity, make a list of people to be killed on a nightly basis. Ivan was prescient. The French revolution, which set the standard for the Terror, persecuted the Church. Mao's revolution, likewise, had not room for religion. In all three, dictators were not constrained in sacrificing their own people. It seems that indeed, anything was possible.
There was an attempt during the European Enlightenment to produce a rational ethics that did not rely on the old forms of Christianity. Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book After Virtue, concludes that this was a failure. The philosophers who attempted this task ended affirming the morality of the time. No new world of freedom based on reason ensued.
This project failed because they could not give an account of the purposes of human life ie, they could not define a human end or telos. This failure is obvious in Bentham's positing the greatest happiness for the greatest number as that end. But it soon became obvious that happiness was not something that could be defined. Different people were happy with different things and any scheme that relied on "happiness" was unworkable. The worst part of this scheme was that it assumed that we are all independent actors that act towards our own happiness thus cutting us off from the community and the neighbour. This scheme is present to this day in Liberal politics.
The absence of an end (telos) to human life is the gaping hole in our universe that scuttles all our schemes. We lack a foundation for action beyond survival. The ends that we propose be that the party or wealth or power turn to ashes in our mouths. They are all forms of idolatry. The young sense this and this realization saps them of the will to live.
If God is the truth that undergirds human life, not just morally but as life itself, then Ivan is right, without God anything is impossible. Humanity assumes His place and may believe what it wants, even in things that are not. The curse of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is complete. We are now arbiters of all things.
Without a transcendent telos we are doomed to worship idols, the spirits of the times. Time and time again we have learnt that such worship creates hell on earth. Even so, we resist the voice of the Church that would point us to the only way out of our dilemma because we still fear losing our so-called freedom. But are we not more tightly bound to the spirits of the times that promise freedom but in fact deliver the tightest and most terrible bondage?
There is only one transcendent telos. We are here to glorify God. On Sunday morning I stood in the transept of St George's Cathedral here in Perth and looked at the wafer that was given to me. It was stamped with the image of a lamb, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. My heart was full. At times like this it all seems so simple. It is only the hardness of our hearts that keep us from it.