On Truth and Power

| May 13, 2009 | 1 Reply

Recently on Dangerous Intersection, an article was posted about the problem of Power in relation to truth.  I wrote a response and decided to post  it here, at more length, as a short essay on the (occasionally etymological) problem of Truth.

When people start talking about what is true or not, they tend to use the word like a Swiss Army knife.  It means what they want it to mean when they point at something.  Truth is a slippery term and has many facets.  Usually, in casual conversation, when people say something is true, they’re usually talking something being factual.  Truth and fact are conjoined in many, possibly most, instances, but are not the same things.  The “truth” of a “fact” can often be a matter of interpretation, making conversation occasionally problematic.

Image of Rodin's Thinker by santanartist at Flickr (creative commons)

Image of Rodin's Thinker by santanartist at Flickr (creative commons)

The problem is in the variability of the term “truth”—like many such words, we stretch it to include things which are related but not the same.  There is Truth and then there is Fact.  2 + 2 = 4 is a fact.  It may, if analyzed sufficiently, yield a fundamental “truth” about the universe, but in an of itself it is only a fact.

When someone comes along and insists, through power (an assertion of will), that 2 + 2 = 5, the “truth” being challenged is not in the addition but in the relation of the assertion to reality and the intent of the power in question.  The arithmetic becomes irrelevant.  Truth then is in the relationship being asserted and the response to it.  The one doing the asserting and the one who must respond to the assertion.

Similarly, in examples of law, we get into  difficulty in discussions over morality.  Take for instance civil rights era court decisions, where there is a conflation of ethics and morality.  They are connected, certainly, but they are not the same thing.  Ethics deal with the proper channels of response within a stated system—in which case, Plessy vs Fergusson could be seen as ethical given the criteria upon which it was based.  But not moral, given a larger criteria based on valuations of human worth.  To establish that larger criterion, overturning one system in favor of another, would require a redefintion of “ethical” into “unethical”, changing the norm, for instance in Brown vs The Board of Education.  The “truth” of either decision is a moving target, albeit one based on a priori concepts of human value as applied through ethical systems that adapt.

Bringing this into the realm of religion, it gets tricky.  Because the concept “god” can be formulated according to personal criteria that have only desultory relations with what we might call Fact (for instance, “god” can be seen as purely a philosophical notion identifying certain characteristics of human response to the sublime as well as characterizations of personal assumptions about states of being which cannot be derived by deductive reasoning), to make the claim “there is no god” is functionally devoid of truth.  The best you can say is “there is no god for me.”  If I acknowledge, for example, that my “god” is purely a mental construct I carry around inside to allow me to function according to a set of precepts, your claim that there is no god is merely opinion, just as unverifiable or testable as my assertion that there is.  The “truth” lies outside those opposing statements, which are really trying to establish fact in a realm of ideation.  Conversely, to say “there is no god but god” can only ever be a personal statement of belief, unattached to any factual content.  The truth is personal, disconnected in this instance from material fact.

(Agnostics and atheists get into a lather over the validating quality of religious documents, and contest the “facts” stated in the Bible and other tomes, claiming that because these facts do not conform to reality, it invalidates the assertion that there is a deity behind them.  All it really does is take away the material foundation of religious claims—belief remains a personal choice.  This is no mere equivocation.  Finding Truth in this quandary is difficult at best and finding proper expression for deeply held beliefs or disbeliefs drives political discourse.)
Likewise, then, you get into the difficulty of determining moral behavior as opposed to the simply ethical based on these personal apprehensions.

Power introduces a third element that distorts all sides of the Truth/Fact, Moral/Ethical discourse by rendering all elements subject to arbitrary force.  The force is a fact and may well establish an ethical ground, but it will always have a tenuous (at best) relationship to Truth and Morality.

Power should always be suspect and expressions of it always discounted in considerations of truth, even though expressions of power are difficult to ignore.  For instance, the legal power of a religious state may well assert its right to put someone to death for a lapse in religious expression.   This is no way establishes the truth of the verdict or the guilt of the victim in moral terms.  This is no more than power asserting itself and demanding conformity.  But the discourse becomes thoroughly distorted by the acknowledgment that certain expressions may not be uttered.  While within the strict confines of the system in question, the death penalty may be construed as ethical, in a larger context (the innate value of individual thought and expression of conscience) it cannot be construed as moral, even though the state in question claims adherence to a moral dictum.

Teasing these elements apart is essential in deriving a sane methodology of community.

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Category: Civil Rights, Communication, Community, Culture, Language, Law, Meaning of Life, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (1)

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  1. Tony Coyle says:

    Great essay Mark.

    You state

    Agnostics and atheists get into a lather over the validating quality of religious documents, and contest the “facts” stated in the Bible and other tomes, claiming that because these facts do not conform to reality, it invalidates the assertion that there is a deity behind them. All it really does is take away the material foundation of religious claims—belief remains a personal choice. This is no mere equivocation. Finding Truth in this quandary is difficult at best and finding proper expression for deeply held beliefs or disbeliefs drives political discourse.

    I don't disagree, however from my perspective this stance always begs the question: why are atheists getting bothered about the veracity of a book?

    For one reason – we are beset by literalists who claim the absolute inerrancy of the book, and try to impose their skewed perspective upon the rest of us in the political sphere. I'd rather leave it be, but I'm forced to engage, and to engage I must do so with the tools at my disposal. The field of engagement is the veracity of the book's claims. My weapons are history, reason and science.

    We are similarly challenged by the tacit assumption of 'biblical truth' in our country's politics: one cannot (easily) be a politician without acceptance of some measure of this biblical truth. It runs throughout our 'secular' landscape as an undercurrent – and in many cases is well to the fore.

    I can choose to accept this 'truth' and the power behind it, or I can choose to challenge it.

    I challenge.

    I do not challenge the right of people to hold any beliefs, no matter how strange they might seem to me. I do challenge their 'right' to impose such beliefs on me, my children, or on anyone without their informed consent. I also challenge their right to impose their beliefs upon the laws that govern us. I do not challenge their right to attempt to make laws that they think are just, I object to laws that are patently unjust and discriminatory.

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