A philosopher explains America’s “post-truth” problem

A philosopher explains America’s “post-truth” problem
President Donald Trump speaks at a rally to show support for Ohio Republican congressional candidate Troy Balderson on August 4, 2018, in Lewis Center, Ohio. 



“We can never really be post-truth.”

The president of the United States is a serial liar.


In May, the Washington Post created a tally of Trump’s false or misleading claims. The number they found was 3,001, which averages out to roughly six lies or half-lies each day in office. That number has climbed to nine per day in recent months.


For some, this is a sign that we’re living in a “post-truth” world — a place where shared, objective standards for truth have disappeared. Trump seems to pay no political price for his lying, and the news cycle is dominated by references to “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Some of this panic is overstated, but some of it feels justified.


So what the hell is going on? Does the phrase “post-truth” make any sense? Has something really changed?


To get some answers, I reached out to Simon Blackburn, a philosophy professor at Cambridge University and the author of On Truth. We talked about what’s misleading about the phrase “post-truth,” and why the real problem may stem from a lack of trust.


A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.


Sean Illing


How did we get to this place where the American president is able to lie so shamelessly and so casually without any tangible political consequences?


Simon Blackburn


That’s a very good question, and I wish I knew the answer. For most of my adult life, I lived in what was sometimes called the postwar consensus. There were decent ways of doing politics. There were people who might veer toward free markets, and others who might veer a slightly different way, toward state interventions and subsidies, and so on. But basically, there was a general consensus about baseline facts, and disagreements were rooted in those facts.


Things have changed, though, and people often use the metaphor of a silo. We live in information silos now. The individual is insulated from outside forces and surrounded by people who think and believe the same things he or she thinks and believes. There’s no doubt that Facebook and other social media have played a huge role in that.


There’s always been selection of news — people basically read what they want to hear and gloss over things they don’t want to hear. I don’t think that’s a new phenomenon. But it has become easier to do this, and the insidious power of things like Facebook and Twitter exaggerates it.


Sean Illing


Is the phrase “post-truth” useful? Does it capture something unique about this moment?


Simon Blackburn


I think there are legitimate concerns out there, which I sympathize with, but I don’t think this phrase pinpoints them accurately. The message of my book is that you cannot be post-truth.


You know perfectly well that if you go out in the street and there’s a bus bearing down on you, it’s very important that you believe that there’s a bus bearing down on you. If you’re wrong about that, you could be dead. Your whole life is premised on things like that.


In that sense, we can never really be post-truth.


What we do have, though, is a problem in other domains, like politics and religion and ethics. There is a loss of authority in these areas, meaning there’s no certain or agreed-upon way of getting at the truth.


This is a very old problem in philosophy that goes all the way back to Plato, so it’s not exactly new — although it’s interesting that it’s come to the fore again in the way that it has.


Sean Illing


That’s the thing about this “post-truth” panic — it usually goes too far. We’re only post-truth in a narrow sense.


Even the most ardent Trump supporter doesn’t challenge his oncologist’s cancer diagnosis, or walk into a physics conference and question the validity of string theory. It’s only when a proposition is contaminated by politics that truth suddenly flies out the window.


Simon Blackburn


The problem is that in politics, people get very attached to hope. They hope for a vision which may or may not be realistic, and may or may not be grounded in truth and facts.


It’s a bit like conspiracy theorists, who actually thrive on the fact that all the evidence points against their theory, because that just shows that the establishment is clever enough to conceal what’s really going on. People get attached to certain ideas and nothing will shake them. And when convictions start to live in opposition to reason or truth, that’s a very dangerous thing.



Sean Illing


So preserving these convictions becomes far more important to people than some abstract commitment to truth.


Simon Blackburn


Absolutely. In the book, I write about a great American pragmatist, Charles Sanders Peirce, who thought that doubt was such an uncomfortable position that people would do almost anything to seize on a belief or conviction that removed it.


I think that’s what we’re seeing in politics.


Sean Illing


But is the problem really about trust, not truth? Is the real issue that we don’t trust each other, and we don’t trust the institutions that are supposed to unearth the truth?


Simon Blackburn


That’s an interesting question. One of the first things that a serial liar wants to do is undermine your trust in the providers of fact that would check his lies. If you’re a criminal bent on asserting your innocence, then you undermine trust in the police. You undermine trust in the judiciary. You may be a murderer and a rapist, but you claim it’s the system that’s against you. This is sort of Trump’s best move: It’s the thing he understands most.


He sprays around accusations of fake news while knowing full well that he’s the liar. It’s a tactical move that absolutely works in a media landscape like ours, and he knows it.






Sean Illing


Let me ask you a strange but, I think, necessary question: Why should people care about truth in the first place?


If the choice is between believing something false that provides meaning and comfort or believing something that’s true but inconvenient, why choose the latter?


Simon Blackburn


It’s a good question, and I’m not sure how to answer it concisely. Of course, many people vote with their feet, in terms of believing something that’s false but provides meaning and comfort. After World War I, many people thought they could talk through mediums to their dead children, and unsurprisingly, a whole industry of fake mediums appeared to help them.


Like Nietzsche, who I know you’ve written about, I’m very cautious in matters of truth. If there is no evidence for a belief and lots of evidence against it, it should not matter what you would like to be true or hope or wish to be true. Follow the probabilities and put up with the inconvenience.


That’s an academic or a scholar speaking, but it has always been the only hope for human progress.


Sean Illing


How do we encourage people to care about the truth and to hold liars accountable for their lies?


Simon Blackburn


This is really a moral problem, and it is always difficult to predict what will make people act on their moral compasses. I do point out in my book that perjury is still a very serious crime; maybe it will be the downfall of the Donald one day!


Of course, people are good at shirking the facts and threatening and bullying anyone who challenges them; this has always been the case. But I believe that all decent people eventually reject this kind of behavior, and want to see liars held responsible for their lies.


I can’t say whether or not this will happen ... but I sure hope it does.