One of the joys of being a science fiction writer is that you have freedom to imagine multiple ‘what if’ scenarios. These tend towards the application of some nascent new scientific discovery, some technology, some theory. However, I also like to extrapolate areas such as social science and philosophy, especially within the perspective of a society operating as a system.
So, recent political events, made me re-consider the supposed sanctity of the concept of ‘truth’. This has been reflected in my series, The Lost Archive (available from all good online retailers), with the assumption that dynamic algorithms that gather news inevitably become corrupted, unless they are cultivated and calibrated by an intelligent external observer.
This lack of confidence in the news is a simple extrapolation of what we see in today’s society, where we should know better than to take newspaper headlines at face value, or to believe what we read in social media.
But what if the concept of ‘truth’ became so degraded that it was no longer seen as important?
Consider how our society works – as a system. We are individuals, that together form small units (for example, families), which form larger groups (communities) and possibly larger units (cultures), which together form a unified whole (the country, or the nation state). In order for that whole to be unified, the sub-units (that is, us individuals) need to be able to interact meaningfully. If there is no social interaction, there is no larger social entity. There are some requisite parameters required for these interactions, from the basic up to the sophisticated. At its most basic, we need to be able to communicate and share our sense of being part of a unified whole. So, we need a shared language, we need a shared set of norms and rules to govern interaction. In our society, and most others across the globe, we need to have faith in the rule of law. These rules govern our interaction, they set the parameters of the acceptable and the unacceptable. If those rules are broken, then the unified whole falls apart.
In a democratic system, we also must have shared belief in the power of democratic decisions. We have a social contract with our government to govern us, assuming they win a democratic mandate – which we have given them. This democratic mandate holds because of the collective belief in democratic rules. That is: the one with the most votes gets to rule. In a democracy, if that core belief is challenged in sufficient numbers (a critical mass or tipping point), then the unified whole break down. This phenomenon is called revolution.
How have we degraded the concept of truth?
Since the Brexit vote, with the election of Trump and the rise of populism elsewhere, there is evidence of a backlash against those who once wielded authority on truth — the ‘experts’. Ideological perspective is now shaping what is considered truth; at least, this is true in reported discourse, as we cannot truly know what individuals believe. To those raised on an early to mid twentieth-century diet of scientific absolutism, to rationalists, to those who seek evidence and logic in the beliefs and decisions, this change is horrifying.
Since the Enlightenment, we have witnessed the rise of the scientific method, which had once been seen as the pinnacle of truthseeking. This replaced the previous uneasy alliance between religion and philosophy, which had held since the Classical area.
The grey areas of science
The scientific method provides explanatory models for the what, how and why of the universe. We have little issue with the ‘what’, as this is little more than naming systems, and we can see with our own eyes most of the data. The ‘how’ is often justified with the results of application — for example, the technology works. But the ‘why’ is most problematic. As we have grown to understand that the universe is a non-linear, complex system, Enlightenment simplicity gets stuck in a new grey area; heavily-caveated hypotheses arise and are crushed with a frequency that leaves much of us bewildered. This is most apparent in the more complex end of the universe, areas such as life, the human mind, social phenomena. And politics and economics.
Some our leaders have started to grasp that this grey area is an opportunity to be exploited. They have noticed that grey areas are difficult to understand – and very difficult to defend. So they push them into black and white, according to the ideological position they want drive. For example: (a) crime is the result of lack of discipline and rules vs (b) crime is the result of poverty and lack of opportunity.
If a scientific hypothesis has been adopted by 95% of scientific community, that still leaves 5% of the cranks willing to go on television and write books about why everybody else is wrong.
And this is how truth dies … or does it?
So, let us extrapolate a little, and assume that these grey areas are stretched and stretched by continued discourse. Every time a crank goes on television and mouths off about this scientific theory or that discovery, a certain percentage of the population are taken in. Because they are on television, giving them immediate credence, and (crucially) because what they are saying aligns with their ideological worldview. Thus, truth ceases to a concept built on rational argument and evidence — shared by the unified whole — and instead becomes something shared only between individuals in smaller cultures of shared ideologies.
Truth would not die. What would die is the ability for smaller groups to meaningfully interact with each other. It would be the equivalent of a language barrier, impeding any constructive cross-border endeavour. Imagine trying to design an air-traffic system for a world inhabited by flat-earthers and those who buy into the spherical world theory?
So, truth would not die. Unified society would die.
Is there anything we can do?
We are so worried about the breakdown of law, that we spend vast energy and resources in maintaining this, through our justice and police systems. We have learned, from history and prior experience, that an absence of a legal system leads to anarchy — at least in a community over a certain size. Even simple systems of shared ownership and consensus, without agreed sets of laws, have repeatedly been shown to suffer the ‘fate of the commons’.
So, in our imaginary future society, we would need the equivalent of a justice division, a legal system, but for truth. We would need new professions, such as truth auditors. We would need to create laws to punish those who degrade truth on a massive scale. This imaginary world would need to invest energy and resources in all of these changes.
It would take a lot of hard work. But a divided social world would emerge naturally without this intervention.