Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
Everyone knows that campsite disputes can escalate, especially if brewed liquids are involved, but a recent dust-up near Brockville, Ont., struck even seasoned campers as a little, uh, stupid. An argument over whether the Earth is round or flat prompted an angry man to toss various items, including a propane tank, into a fire. He left the scene before firefighters arrived.
Turns out the outdoorsy Flat-Earther is girlfriend to the tank-tosser's son – so, you know, family dynamics. Still, despite the existence of a whimsical society for people like her, we don't expect otherwise sane people to dispute centuries of scientific knowledge founded securely on the work of Pythagoras, Galileo, and Giordano Bruno.
Or do we? It can seem as if we are living in a world where fact, truth, and evidence no longer exert the rational pull they once did. Our landscape of fake news sites, junk science, politicians blithely dismissive of fact-checks, and Google searches that appear to make us dumber, renders truth redundant. We are rudderless on a dark sea where, as Nietzsche said, there are no facts, only interpretations.
We've been here before, of course – if not so comprehensively. Misinformation, rhetorical deceit, bogus belief-systems, and plain ignorance are the norm, not the exception, in human affairs. But in most ages there has been a sense that this is a bad thing, something to be combatted actively. Plato acknowledged the sad dominance of doxa, or opinion, in everyday life. He countered with a stout defence of episteme, true knowledge, which philosophers alone could discern.
Even philosophers no longer believe in that kind of philosophy, and the less modest notions of truth we have offered instead – pragmatic, empirical, falsifiable – can't halt cascades into skepticism and relativism. If it isn't divinely ordained or metaphysically copper-bottomed, truth looks like a sick joke or power-grab, an epistemic cheque-kiting scam. Maybe Pontius Pilate was right to mock the idea rhetorically – "What is truth?" – and not even tarry for an answer.
The costs of giving up on truth are pretty severe, though. In this perfervid summer of 2016, it's difficult to address any issue of public life without mentioning the presumptive Republican candidate for president of the United States, but Donald Trump really does represent a new stage of post-rational campaigning.
The cynical, political-realist aides of George W. Bush argued that they created reality out of power. That position was doctoral-quality compared to the haphazard, say-anything approach of the new Republican regime. The shooter is an Afghan even if born in New York. The president is a Manchurian-Candidate Islamic State mole! Muslims and Mexicans are – you know!
What's significant is that rational push-back on this dangerous nonsense has so little traction. Correction used to cause shame and confusion; now it just prompts a rhetorical double-down. A lot of people are saying this! Actually important things – climate change, foreign policy – get dragged along for the moronic ride. For the record, yes, Hillary Clinton has lied pretty widely, too, albeit with more consistency.
Claims for the authority of reason have always been more hopeful than stable. There is, we want to say, a basic regard for truth in making any claim, however bizarre or unproven. Watching the nightly pundit-parade, or the scroll of toxic opinionating on Twitter and discussion boards, we have cause to doubt it. This is the carapace of reason, a shell of discourse preserved in debate-club tactics and the collective delusion that this constitutes the real thing.
We must distinguish, as Martin Luther did, two kinds of reason (though he got the priority wrong). Ministerial reason deploys argument-forms in the service of existing conviction, convincing someone else that I will not be convinced otherwise. Magisterial reason, by contrast, is autonomous: It engages in dispute openly to pursue – if not always find – the truth. If evidence and argument are contrary to my pre-existing beliefs, reason demands that I change them.
Meanwhile, for those tracking these things, Google itself seems to be getting smarter; it might even constitute a new form of artificial intelligence. Maybe we should stop worrying and welcome our new search-engine overlords. Or maybe we should recall that rational thought really just means this: an ongoing agreement to take each other seriously. It's true – you could look it up.