λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια;

25 January 2017

Years ago, National Lampoon had a monthly column that they entitled True Facts. The title was a joke, not because the contents weren't true (they were an assembly of extraödinary news reports), but because facts cannot be untrue; something untrue is not a fact. Yet many people in various contexts were using terms such as actual fact, real fact, and true fact, almost as if it were possible for some facts to be false, imaginary, unreal. People still do, perhaps even more often. One can find lots of instances of people using imaginary fact; sometimes they do so ironically, but more often they are quite serious. By imaginary fact they mean a proposition that may be untrue, is likely to be untrue, or simply is untrue. In this retasking of the word fact, they've lost the use of the word to talk about facts, unless they add a word such as true. But, with that change in meaning, it not only becomes possible to use a term such as alternative fact to refer to a rival claim, but it becomes harder to see that untrue rival claims don't have equal standing with true rival claims, as they are all supposedly facts.

We aren't at all helped here that a great many people don't understand the words true and truth. That's not simply a problem of vocabulary. Truth is a hard concept, because it entails a meta-propositional act of mapping from a proposition back to itself. That is to say that, in most cases when we apply the word true or equivalent and certainly in the case of true facts, we are explicitly or implicitly making a proposition about a proposition. When we say It's true that I went to the store, that actual referent of the grammatic subject is not I, but the proposition that I went to the store, yet the upshot of this sentence is merely what would be conveyed in saying I went to the store. We perhaps don't need this device of recasting a proposition (I went to the store) as a meta-proposition (It is true that I went to the store), but it is useful because we are not omniscient, and must entertain propositions that are uncertain or discovered to be false; the concept of truth complements the conditions of falsehood and of uncertainty. Yet it is very hard to see that function, exactly because we use the concept to discuss itself. Truth is more easily named than described, if indeed a description is possible.

The difficulty in understanding the nature of truth makes it psychologically easier to embrace such notions as that all aspects of of past, present, and future are simply artefacts of individual belief or of group belief (expressed with formulæ such as truth is a social construct) or that what one wants or ought to want is to be treated a true. The word fact may then be used for components of narratives; embracing one narrative is seen as licensing one to accept propositions as fact that are alternative to components of rival narratives, and to reject propositions for no better reason than that they participate in rival narratives. Evolution of narratives is seen as licensing one to change the status of a proposition from fact to falsehood, or vice versa, even when discussing history. And we may even observe those socially identified as fact-checkers testing claims against narratives which are themselves never fact-checked, because the checkers implictly treat their favored narratives as the ultimate determinant of fact.

When Pilate asked What is truth?, perhaps he was truly curious as to the nature of truth, but he may merely have been asking why he should give a damn about it. Our political leaders have become ever more disdainful of truth. They have long offered us alternative facts, and their followers in each of our major political tribes and in most of the smaller groups as well have decided that, for them, these are the facts. Now we have an Administration that does so more baldly and less artfully. One might hope that this practice will explode on them; but, even if that explosion should happen, their opponents are likely to see an expansion of the envelope within which they may disregard the facts.

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7 Responses to λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια;

  • J_D_La_Rue_67 says:

    I think it was Michel Foucault who said "Reality is shaped by the performing power of a Speech"... or something like that.
    Anyway, I see Trumpusconi is not wasting his time...


    Blatantly doing pointless, and potentially harmful things, just to appease the rednecks, while fixing his own business, that's all he cares about...
    Yeah, that's the style. We've seen a lot of this shit in the last 25 years...

    Hi Daniel, long time no see... 😀
    And sorry, no grammar check on this comment

    • J_D_La_Rue_67 says:

      Matter o'fact, I think it's "performative" power... 🙂

    • Daniel says:

      Hello, J.D.! I was wondering whether Pappy might have heard from you.

      Elsewhere, I too made a comparison between Trump and Berlusconi, in the context of a conversation in which the other person had been swept-up in the notion that Trump were someone like Hitler. But I worry that Trump will prove to be more like Mussolini than like Berlusconi.

      I detest what Trump is doing and may be expected to do concerning immigration; but it is important to understand that such measures don't simply appease rednecks. There is little hope of moving the hearts and minds of those with whom one disagrees if they find themselves insultingly mischaracterized.

      Nor do I think that Trump simply cares about fixing his business. As a practical matter, while he could reduce his conflicts of interest, there is simply no way for him to eliminate most of the conflict without discarding his wealth and persuading his closer relatives to do so as well. No US President has ever previously been asked or expected to do such a thing, and I'm skeptical that it would result in better Presidents. In any case, I think that he has some sincere and dreadfully wrong-headed ideas — authoritarian and technocratic — about how a national interest is to be advanced; and that, in the context of these wrong-headed ideas, will seek to be another great President. G_d save us all from great leaders, and from would-be great leaders!

      • J_D_La_Rue_67 says:

        Thanks for your kind reply Daniel.
        Your reference to Mussolini worries me a little.
        Simply put, Il Duce was a successful demagogue but an overconfident egomaniac who senselessly threw an unprepared, unequipped nation into a bloody war that in my opinion could have been avoided, despite the common vulgata.
        If Trump HAS to be compared to a dictator of the 20th. century, I hope it's Francisco Franco. Vile and bloodthirsty as he was, he was nevertheless smarter than Mussolini, because at least he kept his country out of WW2.
        Now, in my opinion, the damages made by Berlusconi in 25 years of more or less occult political/cultural influence are, of course, less dramatic though equally tragic.
        To cut a long story short, he simply dismantled a long established moral, cultural and ethical code (even though more formal than substantial) and gave us in exchange a new aggressive "pitchman" model based on arrogance, on lies, and on a boastful style of communication.
        For example, he made perfectly clear from the start that his goal as prime minister was not to reduce his conflict of interests, but to obliterate the very notion of conflict of interests; to reshape the concept of "tax fraud" and "patrimonial felony" (and his lawyers, now members of the executive, were sharp tailors).
        The "rules" were never a problem: he always found a clever way to bypass and eventually to revise them.
        That, of course, applies to my country: I'm not familiar with U.S. regulations but I take for granted that are more strict and serious.
        I mean, If memory serves me well, Berlusconi once HAD to discard one of his TV stations (or was it a newspaper?), so he sold it. To his brother.
        Now, while old politicians like Giulio Andreotti would never have been so cheeky, young and successful ones like Matteo Renzi imitate Berlusconi's "braggart" style.
        I'd say Trump's style is a little more aggressive, with a touch of Boris Eltsin maybe.

        • J_D_La_Rue_67 says:

          On my "disappearence": I'm pretty much out of the loop since july.
          I think I'd call it "depression", that is to say, when you start to analyze, realize and hopefully accept the fact that a bunch of things have gone / are going awfully wrong, and you just want to sit on your bed and watch the wall. You know how it is, I think.
          I'll get through it, and get back to Pappy's blog sooner or later, meanwhile give him my best regards...
          Is "Redneck" perceived as some kind of insult? I thought it meant "strictly conservative", or words to that effect.
          Thanks again, see you. 🙂

          • Daniel says:

            Actually, I live with chronic, clinical depression. So I understand and wouldn't wish even a transitory depression upon you.

            The word redneck refers dismissively to working-class persons lacking formal education (and thus taken to be ignorant), especially to such persons who are Caucasian and from the the American South and who hold populist views of a reäctionary sort. The idea was that these people had red necks from exposure to the sun while working outside.

            While people on the political left tend to label all non-leftists as conservative, if we use conservative in anything like the sense that it originally held, then Trump's supporters are not conservative, and he has many very clear and out-spoken conservative opponents such as George Will.

        • Daniel says:

          Unfortunately, our President had already ascended to the status approaching that of tyrant before Trump was elected, with our political left sure that this were a good thing because his predecessor advanced their programme in the face of opposition by the legislature, and because they believed that they would win the most recent election and lock-in their own tyranny with anticipated upcoming appointments to the Supreme Court. Yes, the idea of Trump as being potentially like Mussolini is extremely disturbing, but I regard it as quite plausible at this point. But it also is no more than plausible at this point. Still, unless the power of the Presidency is reduced, it would seem that someday we will have a Mussolini or a Franco, even if it is not Trump. And, unlike Mussolini or Franco, ours will direct a superpower.

          There has been a long-standing struggle with the United States over regulation of political expression by those of wealth or with commercial interests, but the First Amendment of the US Constitution is unequivocal, and has thus far pushed aside most attempts at such regulation and is likely to push aside in future those which the Supreme Court chose to allow. As an uncompromising liberal — in the original and proper sense of the word liberal — I support a broad right of freedom of expression. Both as a liberal and as an economist, I say that the only way to keep the state from being bought is by limiting it so that is not worth buying.

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