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The Hindu Vocabulary 04th Feb 2018

The myth of post-truth

The assumption is that my truth is as good as your truth, and hence all truths are immaterial (अनावश्यक) and irrelevant. Such extreme relativism (सापेक्षवाद) is a problem. It has been remarked that ‘post-truth’ is very different from similar terms with the prefix post-, such as post-colonialism and post-modernism. No one who uses post colonialism or post-modernism argues that colonialism and modernism are no longer relevant. However, the assumption behind ‘post-truth’ is that the concept of truth is no longer relevant.

Why is there no post-falsehood?

The philosophical (or, in my view, anti-philosophical) aspects of ‘post-truth’ cannot be covered in a column — they would require a voluminous (विशाल-काय) thesis. However, it is worth asking: why do we not talk of ‘post-falsehood’? After all, the opposite of truth is not post-truth but falsehood. In that case, if we can have an age of post-truth, we should be able to talk of an age of post-falsehood too. Having gone past truth, we should also be able to go past its opposite: falsehood. This, however, is not the case.

Partly, this has to do with the nature of truth and how we have understood it across cultures. Truth is seen as singular and fixed: it is generally felt that there can be only one truth, while there may be many falsehoods. Hence, we feel that to go past truth is to go past a singularity, but to go past falsehood might well mean to choose among multiple falsehoods.

There is another reason why ‘post-falsehood’ does not exist: strangely enough, it would come to mean ‘truth’. We instinctively (सहज-ज्ञान से) feel that to go beyond generic (जातिगत/ वर्गीय) falsehood is also to reach truth. That is because the positivity of truth cannot exist without the negativity of falsehood. The essential lie of ‘post-truth’ is exactly this: it is supposed not to suggest falsehood. But if there is no falsehood on the other side of truth, then there is no truth either. ‘Post-truth’ dismisses the very possibility of truth — and, by that act, it dismisses the existence of falsehood.

In short, it dismisses critical and scientific thinking, which are based not on eternal truth, which is religion’s penchant (इच्छा), but on a methodical and endless elimination of falsehoods. This is essentially what Karl Popper meant when he stressed that a scientific statement needs to be falsifiable.

It is nevertheless (हालाँकि) interesting to stand the matter on its head and pose this question: if we cannot talk of ‘post-falsehood’, surely the fact that we are talking of ‘post-truth’ means that there is actually a difference between truth and falsehood? And if that is the case, then, by definition, we can never have an age of ‘post-truth’ — in the sense of equating truths and falsehoods.

Truths are contextual

On the other hand, belief in a singular, unchanging truth is also what has led to the mistaken notion of an age of ‘post-truth’. That is so because the idea of one eternally (अनन्तकाल तक) fixed truth has been radically (मूलतः) shaken over the past few centuries in different ways, most of which do not lead to extreme relativism but instead to a kind of contextualisation. However, this necessary shaking of given and fixed truths can be and is often converted into an extreme relativism by the loudly ignorant — a relativism in which all truths seem relative to you as an observer, and not to the complex context of the observation. This slippage inevitably (निस्सन्देह) leads to talk of post-truth, especially in fields outside the hard sciences.

In fact, truths are contextual (प्रसंगाधीन) — not relativist — in hard science too: the ‘truth’ of subatomic particles exists in the context of atoms, and the ‘truth’ of planetary systems in our universe exists in that context. These are not necessarily exclusive contexts, but only a seriously confused student would expect the rules that obtain within an atom to be the same as the rules that apply to our planetary system. This is what I mean by contextualisation.

Relativism, on the other hand, or at least extreme relativism (for many versions of what is called ‘relativism’ are basically contextualisation), extracts the observer from the context and makes the observer’s version paramount.

This is what lies at the core of ‘post-truth.’ The assumption is that my truth is as good as your truth, and hence all truths are immaterial and irrelevant. Need I note the problem of such extreme relativism, for it puts the observer outside a context, a context that can be and should be used to determine the ‘truth’ of his or her observations. Truths might not be eternally fixed, but we do get closer to what is true by comparing and contrasting our versions of it: to you it might be superman, to me it is a bird, but enough and better sightings will ascertain that it is actually a plane.

Hence, while one can argue about the details of evolution, the fact that both human beings and apes evolved from a common ancestor is more true than the claim that human beings were directly handcrafted by a god. There is overwhelming (अपरिहार्य) evidence of the former, and it can be dismissed only by stubborn (अड़ियल) acts of belief (or disbelief).

However, one should not oppose the myth of post-truth by returning to older and faulty myths of fixed, eternal truths. This too would block the necessary and fledgling (अनुभवहीन) project of critical inquiry. We need to maintain a balance between the dismissal of the difference between truth and falsehood and blind acceptance of given truths. The future of humanity depends on our precarious (अनिश्चित) ability to maintain this delicate balance.

1. Immaterial: Unimportant under the circumstances; irrelevant.
Synonyms: irrelevant, unimportant, inconsequential, insignificant, of no matter, of no moment, of little account, beside the point, not to the point, neither here nor there, inapposite, not pertinent, not germane
Antonyms: bodily, corporeal, material, physical, substantial, detectable, discernible (also discernable), noticeable, observable, palpable, sensible, tangible, visible
2. Relativism: The doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.
3. Voluminous: of a size greater than average of its kind
Synonyms: big, biggish, boxcar, bulky, considerable, goodly, grand, great, handsome, hefty, hulking, husky, largish, outsize (also outsized), oversize (or oversized), sizable (or sizeable), substantial, tidy, large
Antonyms: bantam, dinky, dwarf, dwarfish, little, puny, shrimpy, small, smallish, undersized (also undersize), diminutive, half-pint, infinitesimal, Lilliputian, little-bitty, microminiature, microscopic (also microscopical), mini, miniature, minuscule, minute, pint-size (or pint-sized)
4. Instinctively: Without conscious thought; by natural instinct.
Synonyms: automatic, instinctual, involuntary, knee-jerk, mechanic, mechanical, robotic, spontaneous
Antonyms: nonmechanical, advised, aforethought, careful, considered, foresighted, forethoughtful, measured, meticulous, reasoned, studied, thoughtful
5. Generic: belonging or relating to the whole
Synonyms: across-the-board, blanket, broad-brush, common, general, global, overall, universal
Antonyms: individual, particular, cross-sectional, divisional, fragmentary, partial
6. Penchant: a habitual attraction to some activity or thing
Synonyms: affection, affinity, aptitude, bent, bias, bone, devices, disposition, genius, habitude, impulse, leaning, partiality, inclination, predilection, predisposition, proclivity, propensity, tendency, turn
Antonyms: allergy, averseness, aversion, disfavor, disinclination, dislike, disliking, disrelish, distaste, apathy, disinterestedness, indifference, insouciance, nonchalance, unconcern
7. Nevertheless: In spite of that; notwithstanding; all the same.
Synonyms: in spite of everything, in spite of that, nonetheless, even so, however, but, still, yet, though, be that as it may, for all that, despite everything, despite that, after everything, having said that, that said, just the same, all the same, at the same time, in any event, come what may, at any rate, notwithstanding, regardless, anyway, anyhow
8. Eternally: In a way that continues or lasts forever; permanently.
Synonyms: forever, permanently, for always, for good, for good and all, perpetually, evermore, for evermore, for ever and ever, for all time, for all future time, to the end of time, until the end of time, world without end, endlessly, timelessly, for eternity, in perpetuity, everlastingly, enduringly
Antonyms: ne’er, never, nevermore
9. Radically: In a thorough or fundamental way; completely.
10. Inevitably: As is certain to happen; unavoidably.
Synonyms: naturally, automatically, as a matter of course, necessarily, of necessity, by force of circumstance, inescapably, unavoidably, ineluctably, certainly, surely, definitely, incontrovertibly, undoubtedly
Antonyms: unnecessarily
11. Contextual: Depending on or relating to the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea.
12. Overwhelming: Very great in amount.
Synonyms: very large, profuse, enormous, immense, inordinate, massive, huge, formidable, stupendous, prodigious, fantastic, staggering, shattering, devastating, sweeping
Antonyms: drain, dehydrate, dry, parch
13. Stubborn: sticking to an opinion, purpose, or course of action in spite of reason, arguments, or persuasion
Synonyms: adamant, adamantine, bullheaded, dogged, hard, hardened, hardheaded, hard-nosed, headstrong, immovable, implacable, inconvincible, inflexible, intransigent, mulish, obdurate, opinionated, ossified, pat, pertinacious, perverse, pigheaded, self-opinionated, self-willed
Antonyms: acquiescent, agreeable, amenable, compliant, complying, flexible, pliable, pliant, relenting, yielding
14. Fledgling: a person who is just starting out in a field of activity
Synonyms: abecedarian, apprentice, babe, colt, cub, beginner, freshman, greenhorn, neophyte, newbie, newcomer, novice, novitiate, punk, recruit, rook, rookie, tenderfoot, tyro, virgin
Antonyms: old hand, old-timer, vet, veteran
15. Precarious: Not securely held or in position; dangerously likely to fall or collapse.
Synonyms: dangerous, hazardous, perilous, unsafe, risky, deceptive, unreliable, undependable, unstable

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