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Truth: The Changing Paradigm

Amit Khanna is a writer, poet, filmmaker and media guru
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Truth is immutable but the combined knowledge, interpretation and development of society have led to its shifting planes

At a time when there is a lot of talk of post-truth, it’s important to determine the genesis of truth. One of the most significant transitions in the evolutionary cycle of life is the development of the human brain. Thousands of years ago our ancestors honed the ability to think and moved away from mere primordial behaviour based on survival and its manifestations—nutrition, reproduction and shelter. From instinct to reason led to knowledge. A familial bonding and kinship grew and around this taxonomy emerged society, religion and morality. Thus was born right and wrong—truth and lies. In fact we can actually trace human history  from a perspective  of  this construct. Though we may feel reason, logic or simple mathematical and scientific knowledge can be a cornerstone of what is termed as truth. This is not so. We have all heard how a few centuries ago it was thought the earth was flat. Or in earlier civilizations there were different interpretations of what today is common scientific knowledge. Someone somewhere discovered that two plus two is four (and so on) but it could also have been any other equation. Modern scientists in the last 100 years (forget all other discoveries for a moment) have made startling discoveries (for example, gravity, atoms, genetic code, galaxies—in fact, as Stephen Hawking puts it, The Theory of Everything). Does this mean that people who talked about the universe, human body or even time were not telling the truth?

During the early millennia of human existence, probably nature was worshipped through various natural phenomena. Animism, arguably the earliest faith, was based on fear and truth was ascribed to the Natural, and by extension, the Supernatural. The Hindu concept of Shakti is also a manifestation of such belief. This later morphed into  notions of right or wrong, good or evil, truth and lies. Therefore the antecedents of all religions lie in epics and legends like Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Avesta and the Old Testament. Now let us look at how major religions define truth. In Hinduism, Satyam Shivam Sundram (truth is divinity itself) is the basis of all existence, which is impermanent except for the Brahman, the ultimate reality. Buddhism though has its roots in Hinduism and believes that truth is a four-stage search for the end of suffering (nirvana), which is a permanent state of bliss. Jainism in a way defines it as Anektavad or multi-faceted truth. Semitic religions believe in the word of God as truth. In Judaism, it is what is written in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud. The Christian truth is the truth of God, through Jesus Christ and his Word. The word of Prophet Mohammad as revealed in Quran is the absolute reality. Of course, within these faiths and others there have been iterations over time and codification by various seers and sages.

The world in the past two thousand years is based on the then accepted norms and the triumph of good over evil. Every philosopher from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle talked about true beliefs and true statements which correspond to the actual state of affairs. Chinese thinker Lao Tzu says: “The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.” Vatsayan, the great Indian philosopher, talks of the concept of the apparent being whatever presupposes the concept of genuine variety [formed from previous experiences of people]. René Descartes, the 16th century philosopher-mathematician and the original sceptic, based his theory on the premise that doubt held all notions, beliefs, thoughts and ‘facts’ as unproven. He showed that his grounds, or reasoning, for any knowledge could just as well be false. His assumption was that all sensorial experiences could be a hallucination and therefore must be doubted. Many centuries later, philosopher Immanuel Kant put it another way, “Truth, it is said, consists in the agreement of cognition with its object.” Nietzsche, on the other hand, rejects the idea of universal constants and says that truth is merely a collation of metaphors. Taking this argument forward is Michael Foucault who abhors the term ‘truth’ itself. According to him, “truth to be something that was itself a part of, or embedded within, a given power structure”.  Closer home, Swami Vivekananda defines truth thus, “All truth is eternal. Truth is nobody’s property; no race, no individual can lay any exclusive claim to it.” The founder of Communism, Karl Marx, believes “scientific and true knowledge is in accordance with the dialectical understanding of history”. Bertrand Russell has his own interpretation: “Thus a belief is true when there is a corresponding fact, and is false when there is no corresponding fact.” Finally, Mahatma Gandhi talks of a universal truth (actually in the Hindu tradition): “The word Satya (truth) is derived from Sat which means ‘being’. Nothing is or exists in reality except Truth.”

I  can quote dozens of other thinkers but a few mentioned here give us an idea of how truth has been defined in the last. British philosopher Francis Herbert Bradley sums it well, “True and false, in many cases does not seem to be a simple black and white situation. There could sometimes be no grounds to decide what is true and what is false. All truths are a matter of opinion. Truth is relative to culture, historical era, language, and society. All the truths that we know are subjective truths. The author of The Selfish Gene and renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has a tangential view emphasizing that reasoning is the only means by which truth can be known, and it is a product of human intellect. Using this hypothesis, it is apparent that the definition of truth is subject to change with an increase in our knowledge and logic. It’s not uncommon to interpret actuality on the basis of ideology, religious and political compulsions. Science too keeps challenging or proving hitherto known facts and assumptions. Who could have thought Einstein’s theory could be challenged, and perhaps in not so distant a future, be disproved?

Truth however in the recent past has acquired newer definitions. Now in the post-modernist age, with the development of science and technology, it may often seem that truth like many a human attribute, is subject to the concept of relativism. All narratives are based on what  many scholars (including economist Amartya Sen) call positional objectivity. Political rhetoric and cultural constructs too impact value systems. Literacy, social emancipation and omnipresence of the media give it another twist. Incontrovertible facts are sometimes based on biases or interpretations. For decades, well accepted certitude has many faces. We may agree simple assumptions of mathematics (two plus two) or the physical state  (hot or cold) but here again, there were and are different ways to conclude the veracity of the truth, or otherwise. Reasoning  and rationale  are no longer valid in eternity.

The watershed this Truth debate was the advent of the digital age three decades ago. Since then, the internet has emerged as the primary source of all facts and ‘knowledge’. How often when you want to find or confirm a fact or the true meaning of it, do you Google and then search across sources of information. Wikipedia is often quoted as the basis of all that is true. What most people do not realise is that algorithm-driven portals/sites merely collate information of thousands (and many more) of sources but have no independent means of verifying it. The cascading effect of all web-based information over time gets crystallised as fact. With social media, this decade has witnessed how 5 billion people with mobile phones and 3.5 billion connected to the internet have an ability to not only be interlocutors but become fountainheads of purported facts. This ultimate democratisation of knowledge, and consequently truth, is both empowering and scary. Anyone can claim authenticity of her statement to be the ultimate reality. How often do we find this to be so off-the-mark from actuality?

In this always-on, networked society social media in the last 10 years has changed human discourse. People live two lives, real and virtual. Almost anyone from anywhere keeps posting news, views and images of people, places and events. Internet is an amplifier which can and does transmit this information instantly across geographies, demographics and psychographics. The top 10 social network platforms—Facebook, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, WeChat,  QZone, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Snapchat—generate more traffic in a day than what people communicated in a lifetime. Much of this is either forwarded from someone or self-generated, and often unsubstantiated. Now with the ease and ability of manipulation of images in sound, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, rhetoric and meaningfulness, politics and polemics, fame and notoriety. Rumours, propaganda and false notions have always existed; hyper-connectivity has only made them apparent and widespread. A perspective is not a fact but it may still be true. Often individuals, media and communities/nations think fact and truth are interchangeable.

The very nature of the internet makes it open and free, yet with advanced intelligence and smart algorithms, social media sites offer you more of what you like. What is common to these struggles—and what makes their resolution an urgent matter—is that they all involve the diminishing status of truth. This does not mean that there are no truths. It simply means, as this year has amply demonstrated, that we cannot agree on what those truths are, and when there is no consensus about the truth and no way to achieve it, chaos soon follows. Often what counts as merely a point of view or personal bias is instantly circulated to millions. In the good old days, the printed word was held as truth. Today, bots and anonymous posts are manufacturing news, and more. Eager users of social media not only believe in what they like, but help spread the word far and wide.

In an age where instant gratification and attention-deficit plague societies around the world, other media like TV and newspapers, radio and online news providers pick up from social media and legitimise it. No doubt breaking news and controversial tweets may grab eyeballs but invariably, truth gets drowned by shrill sounds and images. Politicians and plebeians alike are willing participants in this race to create the truth. Perception is reality.  Democratisation of information is constantly unleashing bursts of hate, idolatry, racism, sexism and, of course, radicalism. The rise of nationalism and parochialism, claims and counterclaims, in every field of human activity is fanned by social media. Terrorism is abetted by the use of digital communication tools where anonymity is easy. Recent developments in blockchain and digital currency have further deepened the crisis. What is unfortunate is that the so-called liberals are equally guilty of bending reality to suit their ideals.

Fake news and post-truth are fancy aphorisms but do they understand the complexities of a war involving media and the individual? As we move into the next generation of technology, there will be more iteration. Many theorems and dictums will be challenged, some will lose their validity. News and information will be created, curated and distributed. How will you apply the present yardstick to determine what’s true or factual? Neil Burton, a psychologist, raises some pertinent questions in an article in Psychology Today, ‘Truth is constructive and adaptive, while lies are destructive and self-defeating. So how useful is a self-deceptive thought or reaction going to be for you? Are you just covering up an irrational fear or helping to create a solid foundation for the future?” 

However, there is a difference between fact and truth. A fact is a reality which cannot be disputed logically. Let’s say, if I ask you a simple question, is the obvious answer would be ‘yes’ because you can touch and feel it. On the other hand, another person may say it isn’t. Would he be lying? No, he would just be factually incorrect. Many thousands of years ago, primitive man must have figured out numbers, laying the foundation of math. So it is a fact that 2+2 = 4, and so on. All subsequent calculations are based on this assumption. Is it a lie to say that calculus did not exist 500 years ago? Of course, yes. It may have been discovered by Newton and Leibniz in the 17th century, but it has always existed. Facts, in a way, are concrete realities that no amount of reasoning or logic will change.

A truth is however quintessentially a perspective or judgement. You may be an atheist and say God doesn’t exist and you are speaking the truth  according to your belief. Similarly, a follower of a religion may go by the definition of what his faith teaches and he too will be speaking the truth. Truths, as opposed to fact, are much more fluid and malleable than their empirical counterparts. Truth is immutable but the combined knowledge, interpretation and development of society have led to its shifting planes. A similar shift is taking place now.