|Art by Erik Johansson|
Is life is but a dream, as the nineteenth century nursery rhyme assures us? Liberals, humanists, and naturalists insist that now more than ever, with the rise of fascism in Europe, Russia, and America; with the strange convergence of alt-right grievances with postmodern cynicism; and while demagogues, charlatans, and agnotologists in politics, advertising, and the corporate media are spreading doubt, spin, and propaganda, we should stand up for truth. However, this conflict between so-called rationalists or critical thinkers, on the one hand, and hillbillies and con artists, on the other, is a tempest in a teapot. Those who take the long view are invited to understand how truth died with God shortly after the Scientific Revolution, several centuries ago.
The concept of truth had already been suspect for millennia, when divine reality was thought to transcend human comprehension. What we took to be mundane, worldly truths, such as that the desert is hot during the day or that a normal human face has two eyes, a nose and a mouth, were mere illusions compared to mystical “truth,” the latter being ineffable and at best experienced as awe in moments of heightened awareness. Gods were only posited by our imagination, based on a lack of data (and on a noble lie developed by psychopathic power elites for the sake of pacifying the human herd of betas). Scientists collected the data, thanks to advances in technology, mathematics, and epistemology, and the gods were accordingly replaced with atoms and physical forces. Natural reality is measurable whereas the gods weren’t, but atoms and forces are likewise beyond our understanding in that they’re wildly counterintuitive.
The only thing we can fully understand is ourselves. Everything else must be simplified in the telling of them with concepts and models which idealize and which rest on falsifying metaphors that would humanize the inhuman. The proper subjects of knowledge are us and our societies; reason evolved to enable us to understand only minds and cultures with which we’re intimately familiar since we identify with them. The stories we tell about ourselves aren’t simplifications, since we’re identical with the subjects of those narratives, not with our brains as such. When we seek to understand the wider world, however, we either project human categories onto nature, as occurs in theistic religions and in folk conceptions, or else we effectively exchange the pursuit of truth with that of power.
In the epistemic context, anthropomorphism is philosophically unforgivable, however socially useful might be the gratuitous shrinking of outer reality so that it seems to fit within the human scale. Socrates sacrificed his life for the principle that truth matters more than our comfort. Instead of flattering ourselves with delusions that hold society together at the cost of confining us to an animal mode of life, we should search for a higher calling according to our position in the ultimate, metaphysical scheme. Unfortunately, Plato’s teleological picture of nature is a rehashing of the folk prejudices, losing the human interest of the transparent personifications in popular religion, in exchange for pseudoscientific respectability afforded by the philosophical discourse. Instead of angelic or monstrous spirits flitting about and deciding how events unfold, there are supposedly levels of being, including Forms and their material copies. In any case, scientific naturalism renders such interim philosophical tales obsolete. What isn’t well-appreciated, though, is that the very notion of truth is also outdated.