Monday, October 8, 2012

Truth is not a democracy; and why it matters in 2012

Aaron Smith

Romney has already stimulated the economy by requiring news agencies to hire droves of fact checkers.

Whether one's political partisanship is founded in a right-wing or left-wing political theory, the crux of any political conviction ought to be grounded in truth. Though ‘truth’ itself could be argued by some to be subjective or culturally relative, I do not believe this to be the case. If we were to take the contra positive – a lie – and apply the same logic (that it is subjective or culturally relative) we may find it hard to convince ourselves that ‘lies’ are subjective in nature. Thus for the purpose of this article, I will try to focus on ‘truth’ as a valuable resource with regards to politics and our current election this year rather than focus on the many philosophical arguments dealing with  ‘truth’ vs. ‘non-truth.’ Before we apply the subject matter of “truth” in accordance with the Obama and Romney campaigns, let us substantiate an understanding, not only of the utility of ‘truth’, but also its residency within human knowledge.

The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza examined knowledge and its multiple facets in relation to us. In short, he categorized knowledge into three tiers according to hierarchy: imagination, reason and intuition. Imagination is simply knowledge we accumulate from sense perception (i.e. sight, smell, taste). Reason, his second form of knowledge, is classified as “common notions and adequate ideas of the properties of things” (Ethics II.40). In other words, this type of knowledge resides in a deductive system such as mathematics or logic. The third and highest form of all knowledge is intuition. Spinoza regards intuitive knowledge in Part V of the Ethics as not only being more “perfect” but also having positive effects on humanity. Though one could confuse intuition with reason simply based on their similar qualities, the distinction is found in the immediate inferences that do not follow general rules (i.e. having an intuitive understanding of why gas prices are higher than previous years without calculating the average price per barrel). 

Given these classifications of knowledge, Spinoza has difficulty explaining the possibility of false ideas or beliefs; he suggests that false ideas or beliefs are merely incomplete based on the type of knowledge used. An example he uses is looking at the sun and believing it is 200 feet away. This false belief is simply our imagination giving us an incomplete idea based on our sensory perception (Ethics II.35). So how does a 17th century philosopher relate to our concept of truth today?
If we think about “truth” in general and apply it to different fields (i.e. engineering, history, chemistry) we see separate truths within those fields. The engineer relies on laws of physics, while the historian relies on primary sources.  Hence the pragmatics of truth to an engineer is quite different than truth to a historian. As Harry G. Frankfurt best described, 

“None of these seekers and employers of truth is necessarily concerned with truth as such. They care primarily about the discrete facts, and about inferences that these facts may support. This does not require them to care about the abstract notions of factuality or of truth.”

Thus, when understanding the general concept of “truth” compared to separate individual truths, Spinoza gives a compelling categorization of where the two reside within human knowledge, reason and intuition. Furthermore, in grasping the concept of “truth” we understand reality and the limitations impressed upon us. This imposes a valuable utility: self-identity. Consider a world where facts and truths became whatever we fancied? It would be considerably difficult to identify ourselves from what is other than ourselves. Only through our understanding and “recognition of reality, fact and truth that we come both to recognize ourselves as beings distinct from others and to articulate the specific nature of our own identities (Frankfurt).”

As with any Presidential campaign, the ability to discern fact from fiction becomes tedious; Obama and Romney are no different. Since the beginning of the election season, “fact checking” websites have multiplied ten-fold.  ‘Fact checks’ regarding campaign rhetoric and partisanship propaganda have politicians paying more attention to detail than ever.  Popular “fact-checking” websites that have created this trend include: PolitiFact and With gimmicks such as the “truth-o-meter” large audiences are captivated by the amount of, or lack of, honesty surrounding the campaign.  One positive to such a cultural trend is the mainstream attention to political issues. The downside of course is the “nitpicking” that has evolved from this type of journalism. 

Political consultant Wiley says fact-checkers would be more effective if they skipped the nitpicking and focused instead on the overarching message. Instead of using journalists to make all the calls, Wiley suggests news outlets hire former campaign staffers who understand how messages are being spun by candidates. "Now [fact-checkers] are choosing black and white statements. But if you had some political hacks, they would look at an ad and say, 'C'mon guys, this is what they're really saying.'" (American Journalism Review)

The pressing question still stands; even with “fact-checks” at our disposal, how can we be certain that we are listening to a “trustworthy candidate” or just a “demagogue"? Consider once again the hierarchy of knowledge that Spinoza outlined: imagination (sensory perception), reason, and intuition. Roughly speaking, this outline of knowledge could serve instrumentally when observing candidates.  Imagine YOUR ideal president, and then superimpose this image upon what you ACTUALLY perceive these two candidates publicly doing. Research reasons WHY the candidate acted or voted on bills the way he did. And most importantly, be skeptical of the knowledge you’ve acquired. By doing this, and furthering one's grasp of the truth, we may intuitively identify which candidate to vote for and have a firmer grasp of the trajectory of our nation for the next four years.

Aaron Smith received a B.A in Philosophy and English from the College of Wooster in Ohio.

1 comment:

  1. Never thought of utilizing Spinoza politically... Superimposing my ideal candidate on hamburgular Romney and Ronald McDonald Obama, makes me feel worse about this election... Obama has no understanding or at least faith in history and statistics... Romney thinks he has to lie to majority of the country to be "cool" and has managed to dodge attaining any sort of individual integrity... It just seems like another long 4 years being bought by wall street without the real issues of investment and finance reform and even our countries budget and borrowing policy being scrutinized thouroughly by each party.