Jonathan Rauch at National Affairs: “America has faced many challenges to its political culture, but this is the first time we have seen a national-level epistemic attack: a systematic attack, emanating from the very highest reaches of power, on our collective ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. “These are truly uncharted waters for the country,” wrote Michael Hayden, former CIA director, in the Washington Post in April. “We have in the past argued over the values to be applied to objective reality, or occasionally over what constituted objective reality, but never the existence or relevance of objective reality itself.” To make the point another way: Trump and his troll armies seek to undermine the constitution of knowledge….
The attack, Hayden noted, is on “the existence or relevance of objective reality itself.” But what is objective reality?
In everyday vernacular, reality often refers to the world out there: things as they really are, independent of human perception and error. Reality also often describes those things that we feel certain about, things that we believe no amount of wishful thinking could change. But, of course, humans have no direct access to an objective world independent of our minds and senses, and subjective certainty is in no way a guarantee of truth. Philosophers have wrestled with these problems for centuries, and today they have a pretty good working definition of objective reality. It is a set of propositions: propositions that have been validated in some way, and have thereby been shown to be at least conditionally true — true, that is, unless debunked. Some of these propositions reflect the world as we perceive it (e.g., “The sky is blue”). Others, like claims made by quantum physicists and abstract mathematicians, appear completely removed from the world of everyday experience.
It is worth noting, however, that the locution “validated in some way” hides a cheat. In what way? Some Americans believe Elvis Presley is alive. Should we send him a Social Security check? Many people believe that vaccines cause autism, or that Barack Obama was born in Africa, or that the murder rate has risen. Who should decide who is right? And who should decide who gets to decide?
This is the problem of social epistemology, which concerns itself with how societies come to some kind of public understanding about truth. It is a fundamental problem for every culture and country, and the attempts to resolve it go back at least to Plato, who concluded that a philosopher king (presumably someone like Plato himself) should rule over reality. Traditional tribal communities frequently use oracles to settle questions about reality. Religious communities use holy texts as interpreted by priests. Totalitarian states put the government in charge of objectivity.
There are many other ways to settle questions about reality. Most of them are terrible because they rely on authoritarianism, violence, or, usually, both. As the great American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce said in 1877, “When complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion in a country.”
As Peirce implied, one way to avoid a massacre would be to attain unanimity, at least on certain core issues. No wonder we hanker for consensus. Something you often hear today is that, as Senator Ben Sasse put it in an interview on CNN, “[W]e have a risk of getting to a place where we don’t have shared public facts. A republic will not work if we don’t have shared facts.”
But that is not quite the right answer, either. Disagreement about core issues and even core facts is inherent in human nature and essential in a free society. If unanimity on core propositions is not possible or even desirable, what is necessary to have a functional social reality? The answer is that we need an elite consensus, and hopefully also something approaching a public consensus, on the method of validating propositions. We needn’t and can’t all agree that the same things are true, but a critical mass needs to agree on what it is we do that distinguishes truth from falsehood, and more important, on who does it.
Who can be trusted to resolve questions about objective truth? The best answer turns out to be no one in particular….(More)”.