Post-Truth and the History of Philosophy: Part 1

May 1, 2018

by Dr. H.A. Nethery IV
Assistant Professor of Philosophy

It is not uncommon to hear that we live in a “post-truth” or “post-fact” world. In fact, Oxford Dictionaries even selected “post-truth” as their international word of the year in 2016. What do we mean by this term?

Generally, the term is meant to denote a situation in which truth is determined through appeals to emotion, rather than through argumentation. This is what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness” back in 2005 – the idea that what is true is what feels good in my heart, not necessarily in my head. It is not that an appeal to our emotions is inherently bad – there are a number of situations in which appeals to empathy and suffering are both valid and necessary – but rather that an appeal to our emotions can often get us to take our eye off the ball, so to speak, and deceive us into accepting something as true which, in fact, is not.

“So, if I believe that the world is an inherently peaceful place, and this belief makes me feel good, I am more apt to find evidence that supports this worldview, and less apt to find evidence that would contradict this worldview.”
H.A. Nethery IV

One of the factors that is often credited in the rise of post-truth is the psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Coined by the psychologist Peter Watson in 1960, confirmation bias is an error of inductive reasoning, in which human beings tend to only gather evidence that supports a given belief or hypothesis. As regards post-truth, confirmation bias functions through the idea of truthiness – we confirm evidence for beliefs that make us feel good (e.g. that some politician is a “good” person) while ignoring evidence that would stand against these same beliefs.

While the problem of post-truth is a relatively new phenomenon, accelerated by social media, philosophers have long worried about the impediments between us, as human beings, and the truth (whatever that might mean). I would like to briefly highlight two: Francis Bacon and Arthur Schopenhauer.

The early enlightenment British philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626), in his 1620 text The New Organon, argues that there are a number of impediments that stand between human beings and an objective knowledge of nature. These impediments are what he calls “idols” or “false notions,” that “possess the human intellect” in such a way that not only can truth “hardly get in, but also when a truth is allowed in they [the idols] will push back against it, stopping it from contributing to a fresh start in the sciences.” Bacon names four sets of idols:

  1. Of the tribe (errors based in our own human nature)
  2. Of the cave (errors based on our personal upbringing and cultural context)
  3. Of the marketplace (errors based on the vagueness and ambiguity of language)
  4. Of the theatre (errors based on accepted philosophical, scientific, or religious dogmas)

Particularly striking are Bacon’s idols of the tribe – false notions that “have their foundation in human nature itself.” Here is where we find an early articulation of the psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias. He writes,

“Once a human intellect has adopted an opinion (either as something it likes or as something generally accepted), it draws everything else in to confirm and support it. Even if there are more and stronger instances against it – than there are in its favor – the intellect either overlooks these or treats them as negligible or does some line-drawing that lets it shift them out of the way and reject them.”

British philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626).
British philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626.)

Bacon is arguing here that we, as human beings, seek evidence that support our currently held beliefs, while we actively ignore evidence that would stand against these same beliefs. So, if I believe that the world is an inherently peaceful place, and this belief makes me feel good, I am more apt to find evidence that supports this worldview, and less apt to find evidence that would contradict this worldview. Or, if I believe that some politician is a fundamentally good person, then I will tend to ignore evidence to the contrary (perhaps the existence of some scandal, or some number of scandals). Ultimately, for Bacon, the human intellect “is like a distorting mirror, which receives light-rays irregularly and so mixes its own nature with the nature of things, which it distorts.”

Nearly 200 years later, in his 1819 text The World as Will and Representation, philosophy’s most famous grump Arthur Schopenhauer also argued for an early version of confirmation bias, though for different reasons and on different grounds than Francis Bacon. While Bacon highlighted his idols so as to help us move forward with scientific knowledge, Schopenhauer calls into question the very idea of moving beyond them at all. That is, for Schopenhauer, confirmation bias is a part of human reason. What does this mean?