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Searching for Truth in the Gaslight

By Rachel Robison-Greene
24 Jan 2017

Last week, I saw a group of people cross the street to avoid a guy wearing a Trump t-shirt.  On Facebook several days ago, my friend shared some pictures of a big pile of pink hats made by her knitting circle.  Her aunt, also a crafty type, asked her what they were.  When my friend replied that they were “pussy” hats for the Women’s March in L.A., her aunt replied, “Geez.  Sorry I asked.”  

Then came the inauguration, and, the next day, Women’s Marches against policies that the newly sworn-in president advocated while on the campaign trail.  Friends of one persuasion shared photos comparing President Trump’s inauguration crowds with President Obama’s.  Friends of another persuasion shared news stories exclusively about violent protests, with no mention of the peaceful protests attended by millions of concerned people in cities across the world.  These same friends filled social media news feeds with pithy memes directed toward protesters about putting aside our differences and loving one another.  Through it all, bewildered onlookers felt a sense of dread, as if they were teetering on the precipice of an existential chasm of societally endorsed moral and factual relativism.

What common ground is there, and do we have a moral obligation to find it?  Is it morally acceptable for our society to remain fragmented, separated into isolated groups of “us” and “them?”  Is this the inevitable consequence of unmanageably large populations?  There is a lot of philosophical meat on the bone here.  Questions of this type highlight the intersection of the norms of ethics and the norms of what philosophers call “epistemology.”  The root of the word “epistemology” is the Greek “episteme,” meaning something like, “pertaining to knowledge.”  So, to say that there is an intersection between ethics and epistemology is to say that the norms of moral behavior and the norms that govern knowledge production overlap.

Throughout the history of human thought, many of the world’s great thinkers have argued that the capacity for rational thought is what makes human beings different from most other non-human animals (of course, many of these thinkers were in the dark about the actual rational capacities of many of our non-human friends).  Alan Gibbard, in his book, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, argues that our ability to coordinate in complex situations explains how human beings were able to survive and thrive at all.  Crucially, this ability involves the capacity to come to some agreement, on both facts and on values.  

Imagine, for example, that a group of tribal humans faces a threat.  To deal with that threat, the group has to come to an agreement on two distinct sets of questions.  First, they must agree that the threat is, indeed a threat.  This involves coming to the consensus that the perceived threat is something that is truly bad for the group.  In this sense, resolution of the threat involves an agreement about values.  Neutralizing the situation also requires an agreement on the relevant facts of the case, such as where the threat is located and what tools will be effective in getting rid of it.  We’ve historically been good at arriving at these types of agreements.  When we take steps to actively erode our ability to come to agreements on facts and values, do we undermine our very strength as a species?

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato was the first to argue that knowledge is essentially justified, true, belief.  There has been much debate among philosophers about this account of knowledge.  What most philosophers seem to agree on, however, is that knowledge is more than simply true belief.  Imagine that you have a strong feeling that you will win the multimillion-dollar lottery.  When you tune in to hear the numbers read, against all odds, you turn out to be right.  In this case, you are in the unlikely position of getting lucky in two ways—you are a millionaire and your statistically dubious belief turned out to be true.  Though it might be tempting to say that you “knew” that you would win the lottery, your belief was really no more than a lucky guess.  It wasn’t based on evidence.  It wasn’t formed by some sort of reliable process.  It was simply a hunch.  Hunches aren’t knowledge.  To have knowledge, your belief must be justified, and there are norms that establish exactly what justification is.   

One of the most frightening aspects of our current political climate is that some people seem to be rejecting the idea that there even are such things as epistemic norms to begin with.   Disillusioned with the media, people on all points of the political spectrum are rejecting reports from news agencies in their entirety because they are afraid of biased reporting.  Many have come to the conclusion that if mainstream news agencies are bought and paid for, the only sources remaining from which a person can obtain reliable news are independent online news sources.  This puts the population at a disturbingly high risk of engaging in confirmation bias—the practice of seeking out only the “evidence” the person seeking it was already inclined to believe anyway.

Political philosopher John Rawls famously proposed a thought experiment that was intended to generate basic principles for the construction of a society that would ensure fairness.  In his thought experiment, rationally self-interested people meet behind a veil of ignorance.  What this means is that they are unaware of their particulars—they do not know their race, their gender, their religion, their sexual orientation, or their political affiliation.  They agree to basic principles of government from behind this veil.  Decision makers in this scenario would, theoretically, make fair procedural decisions that wouldn’t skew results in favor of the group to which they, themselves, belong.  After all, they are blind to those kinds of facts.

What if we could construct norms for knowledge under similar conditions?  What if we could shrug off our various political identities, if only for a moment, to simply agree on a set of rules for the game?  A complete set should include answers to the following questions:  What counts as good evidence?  Under what conditions is a person an expert in a given field?  What is education and how is it distinct from indoctrination?  What forms can good arguments take?  What are the standards for good news reporting?  If we could agree on the answers to these basic epistemic questions in advance, perhaps it would be easier to agree about when they have been met and when they have been violated in concrete cases in the real world.  These are more than merely philosophical questions.  What’s more, the central issue is not merely about whether we can arrive at such standards, but is, instead, the more pressing matter of whether we are morally obligated to do so.

These issues should be easy to resolve; the questions are not new.  Discipline-specific experts have been working on answers to most of these questions for centuries.  That’s cold comfort when the political climate gives rise to a skepticism about the very concept of “expertise.”

In an article written in 1877 for the journal Contemporary Review, philosopher and mathematician W.K. Clifford famously claimed, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” This claim was controversial in its own time and the suggestion that we take it seriously might be equally controversial today.  Then again, it might be worth a try.

Rachel is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. Her research interests include the nature of personhood and the self, animal minds and animal ethics, environmental ethics, and ethics and technology. She is the co-host of the pop culture and philosophy podcast I Think Therefore I Fan.
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