The Conversation: “The concept of truth is under assault, but our troubles with truth aren’t exactly new.
What’s different is that in the past, debates about the status of truth primarily took place in intellectual cafes and academic symposia among philosophers. These days, uncertainty about what to believe is endemic – a pervasive feature of everyday life for everyday people.
“Truth isn’t truth” – Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s lawyer, famously said in August. His statement wasn’t as paradoxical as it might have appeared. It means that our beliefs, what we hold as true, are ultimately unprovable, rather than objectively verifiable.
Many philosophers would agree. Nevertheless, voluminous research in psychology, my own field of study, has shown that the idea of truth is key to humans interacting normally with the world and other people in it. Humans need to believe that there is truth in order to maintain relationships, institutions and society.
Beliefs about what is true are typically shared by others in one’s society: fellow members of one’s culture, one’s nation or one’s profession.
Psychological research in a forthcoming book by Tory Higgins, “Shared Reality: What Makes Us Strong and Tears Us Apart,” attests that shared beliefs help us collectively understand how the world works and provide a moral compass for living in it together.
Cue our current crisis of confidence.
Distrust of the U.S. government, which has been growing since the 1960s, has spread to nearly all other societal institutions, even those once held as beyond reproach.
When we can no longer make sense of the world together, a crippling insecurity ensues. The internet inundates us with a barrage of conflicting advice about nutrition, exercise, religion, politics and sex. People develop anxiety and confusion about their purpose and direction.
In the extreme, a lost sense of reality is a defining feature of psychosis, a major mental illness.
A society that has lost its shared reality is also unwell. In the past, people turned to widely respected societal institutions for information: the government, major news outlets, trusted communicators like Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley or Edward R. Murrow. Those days are gone, alas. Now, just about every source is suspect of bias and serving interests other than the truth. In consequence, people increasingly believe what they wish to believe, or what they find pleasing and reassuring….(More)”.