This morning I finished reading The Constitution of Knowledge, a book by Jonathan Rauch whose subtitle is "In Defense of Truth."
As noted in a previous blog post about this book, Rauch persuasively argues that truth isn't personal, but institutional. Or social, if you have a dislike of institutions and prefer another word.
Here's a quote from the second to last page of the book that ends with a reflection of this point: "...and outsource reality to a global network of strangers."
As I wrote in chapter 1, the Constitution of Knowledge is the most successful social design in human history, but also the most counterintuitive.
In exchange for knowledge, freedom, and peace, it asks us to mistrust our senses and our tribes, question our sacred beliefs, and relinquish the comfort of certitude.
It insists that we embrace our fallibility, subject ourselves to criticism, tolerate the reprehensible, and outsource reality to a global network of strangers.
For me, this was a fresh idea. Not that I wasn't aware of it. I just hadn't thought of how we humans go about arriving at a shared conception of reality in the clear way that Rauch speaks of.
Understand: he isn't talking about subjective reality, personal experience. It doesn't take a global network of strangers for me to know that I like raspberries. That's a personal truth of mine which requires no one other than me and my taste buds to confirm.
But otherwise, I agree with Rauch that truth has to be social/institutional in order for it to be objective rather than subjective.
Yesterday I went into the south Salem Ace Hardware store to buy some polycarbonate cutting blades for my Stihl trimmer. (I've found they work much better than the usual cutting line for tall grass and brush.)
I told the Stihl specialist that in using the trimmer a few days ago, the poly blades got trashed when I was cutting thin brush. He was surprised. "Have you been storing the blades in water?" he asked. "No, I've seen reviews of the blades that say this is a good idea, but other users say it isn't necessary."
He was adamant that storing the blades in water would harden them. Indeed, when I got home and looked at the back of an old package of blades that I had lying around, I read that Stihl advises just that: storing them in water.
Institutional knowledge. When I looked at comments from people like me who simply use the poly blades, there was a diversity of opinion about storing them in water. But experts, and the Stihl company itself, said to do this. So now I've got a bunch of poly blades soaking in a plastic container.
When you think about it, this is how knowledge passes from a potential truth to a very likely or certain truth. There has to be a community of truth-seekers who assess the validity of a potential truth. An individual can't do this on their own.
Hillary Clinton correctly said that it takes a village to raise a child. And it takes institutions to arrive at shared truths.
Consider the 2020 presidential election in the United States. Even though Trump and much of the Republican Party did their best to overturn Joe Biden's victory, they didn't succeed. As was repeated often, "the institutions held."
County and state election officials. Secretaries of State in swing states. Courts, including the Supreme Court. Congress. Journalists.
These institutions stood up for the truth that Joe Biden beat Donald Trump. If individuals had to argue about who won, we'd still be debating this question. (Indeed, Trump and his cronies continue to refuse to admit that he lost.)
Here's a few more passages from the final pages of the book.
The young Lincoln held that reverence for the law is the true north of America's constitutional culture. Reverence for facts is the true north of the reality-based community.
Sometimes we get facts wrong. Of course. But we do not cheat. We do not cut corners. We hold ourselves accountable -- to others, to our community -- for rejecting convenient fictions and half-truths.
Because factuality anchors our integrity and defines our community, we renounce propaganda and truthiness even if we are the only person in the vicinity who is doing so. And just by doing that, we make a difference.
As the great Soviet writer and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in his masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago, "You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me. The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world."
...My biggest worry is Lincoln's biggest worry: "If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher."
By themselves, the forces of chaos and coercion lack the strength to unseat the Constitution of Knowledge, and if they did unseat it, they would have nothing to replace it with except a Hobbesian war of each of millions of personal and tribal realities against all the others.
What propagandists and social-media bullies and emotional safetyists and subjectivists and all the rest might succeed in doing, however, is to demoralize and confuse and intimidate, so that the reality-based community will lose heart and give ground.
...Yet the reality-based community has withstood much worse. It beat back the inquisitors who imprisoned Galileo, the dictators whose gulags spanned continents, and the racists and homophobes who sought to silence voices of freedom.
"Tomorrow morning," said Socrates, "let us meet here again." The conversation he and his young protege began 2,500 years ago continues, now spanning the world instead of just Athens, despite countless efforts to squash it.