This post appeared first in The Finger Lakes Times, this week’s installment in the “Denim Spirit” series: http://www.fltimes.com/opinion/denim-spirit-end-of-truth-as-we-know-it/article_5c5cdfa4-5101-11e7-9cba-57f4a6dfe738.html
The end of truth as we know it began a long time ago.
Back in the day, (1893), a man much less famous than Albert Einstein put forth an elaborate theory that would lay the groundwork for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. F. H. Bradley theorized that the purpose of the human mind is to investigate truth. But more importantly, his sophisticated argument said that no object has an absolute contour, rather, its shape is determined by which angle it is observed from. In other words, the definition and identity of an object is based upon the perspective of the onlooker.
One of the consequences of Einstein’s theory that riffed on Bradley’s, is that time and motion are relative to the observer. That means there is no such thing as universal time, and therefore every experience is uniquely different from person to person. Alfred North Whitehead, a British mathematician and hugely influential theological thinker who was a contemporary of Einstein’s, affirmed Bradley and Einstein and added a twist. He said that not only are all things relative to each other, but also relevant to each other – every single thing is potentially influenced and influencing all other things.
Welcome to the birth of modernism.
Universal and absolute Truth (with a capital “T”) took a dive at the beginning of the twentieth century. The significance of relativity was not only related to the physics of time and motion, it meant that common human experience and judgment is also relative. The claims of Western Civilization’s religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam; as well as Marxism, Capitalism, and Nationalism (yes, they became secular religions too) – cannot be universal or absolute in an epoch ruled by relativity.
That is when Christian fundamentalism was born, by the way. It was and is, an angry reaction against modernism. Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism are also reactions to the flagrant relativity imbued in Western culture, and our culture’s popular version that has profusely leaked out of North America and Europe into other parts of the world.
Likewise, the current news phenomenon born with Fox News and carried to new extremes by Breitbart, and imploding into countervailing versions on the Left, is also a seething reaction to the studied relativity of modernism. The notion that truth is in the eye of the beholder, and depends upon where the beholder is looking from, makes us anxious and then angry. We would prefer to insist that there is one truth and we know it. The days of Walter Cronkite and three networks with a monochrome view of current events, probably masked the actual diversity of perspectives that existed before the Internet. But now, unleashed by the fire hose of information we are awash in, truth and reality have splintered.
If we allowed difference of opinion about truth to make us curious, instead of causing us to be entrenched in our own perspective, something new might happen.
Rather than insisting that we know what is right, and that our version of truth is the only one that holds water, we would do well to recognize that where we are looking from forms and limits what we see. If we could do that, then people sharing what they see from other perspectives might expand our version of the truth.
We have been struggling for nearly a hundred and twenty-five years to catch up with the birth of relativity and modernism. But we need not feel too badly about our slow progress, because it took Western civilization centuries to truly catch up with Copernicus and Galileo. Maybe that is what we are still doing.