Truth and Lie in the Post-Truth World

Nietzsche’s lifelong thought predicted that this endless relativism would dawn upon the world of the future. He declared that humanity would end up in “nihilism,” a condition in which there was no truth, no values, no meaning—nothingness.

Nietzsche’s lifelong thought predicted that this endless relativism would dawn upon the world of the future. He declared that humanity would end up in “nihilism,” a condition in which there was no truth, no values, no meaning—nothingness.

In the mid-19th century, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote an essay entitled “Truth and Lies in the Extra-Moral Sense.” Nietzsche was a prophet and harbinger of the 20 and 21st centuries. In this essay he could discover no foundation for truth, no way to move beyond endless perspectives, endless images and points of view within which there was no way to distinguish truer perspectives. Nietzsche’s lifelong thought predicted that this endless relativism would dawn upon the world of the future. He declared that humanity would end up in “nihilism,” a condition in which there was no truth, no values, no meaning—nothingness.

He said that there would be wars and cataclysms in the 20th century the like of which the world had never seen before. Was Nietzsche correct that the infamous century of mass-slaughter, the 20th century, was a consequence of humankind’s realization that there are no true values, that all traditional values devalued themselves and humanity was left with nothing but the abyss of power-struggles? Is that our condition today when endless wars of mass-slaughter have continued to the present moment, now with the horrific destruction of the Ukraine causing havoc in Europe and throughout the world?

If this is the case, the question of “truth and lie” would seem to be absolutely fundamental, vital to who we are as human beings. It raises the question of whether there are universal values that human beings can discern that can draw us together and establish a foundation for a peaceful and flourishing world civilization. If there are no such values, then we seem to be left with only power-struggles, with only a dog-eat-dog situation in which life has very little meaning—nihilism.

Children Now, an organization headquartered in Montreal, has undertaken a monumental project to save humanity from climate collapse. They have created a “Charter of Ecological Responsibilities” and are urgently attempting to promote this charter on behalf of the children of the world and their endangered future. But does this really matter? Human beings are the tiniest of tiny specks in this vast universe that exploded 13.7 billion years ago evolving into billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars.

If we destroy our planetary environment and make ourselves extinct within the next century (which a number of climate scientists are predicting), why should this matter? Just one meaningless flea, one “sound and fury, signifying nothing” as Shakespeare put it, flashes into life on planet Earth for a few thousand years and then disappears into the endless silence of interstellar space without a trace. Why not?

The organization of which I am President, the World Constitution and Parliament Association (WCPA) sponsored writing the Constitution for the Federation of Earth which organizes a democratic world government with the authority to end war, protect universal human rights, and establish a sustainable, flourishing environment for the Earth. Why go through all this trouble about ending war or protecting human rights when peace or human dignity are nothing more than perspectival illusions as Nietzsche would say, just meaningless ideas with no more truth than their opposites. Is there really such a thing as “universal human rights” as declared by the United Nations in 1948? Is there really any such thing as truth?

In the United States today there has been much talk about living in a “post-truth” world. Some thinkers, such as renowned integral philosopher Ken Wilber, have seen the phenomenon of a post-truth world as linked to the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA in 2016. Trump is known for his complete disregard of what many people believe is the distinction between truth and lies. He says whatever he thinks without consideration that it might not be true, whatever that means. Anything he disagrees with he calls “fake news.” The distinction “truth versus falsehood” appears to play no part in his thought.

His followers apparently think he will “make America great again (MAGA)” by having America simply impose arbitrary power to dominate in its own self-interest. There are no universal truths, no universal human rights that must be considered, only rhetoric, propaganda, and self-assertion. Ken Wilber wrote a book in 2017 entitled Trump and a Post-Truth World in which he attempts to explain the seemingly retrograde social condition that resulted in Donald Trump becoming President of the United States.

Wilber points out that in the movement called “Postmodernism” scholars have been insisting that all claims to truth are inevitably “context laden.” Postmodern writers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida have undertaken sophisticated analyses of language showing the ambiguity of the relation between “signifiers and signified” leading to doubts concerning our conventional ideas of truth and falsehood. These contemporary heirs of Nietzsche have influenced popular culture, Wilber claims, and have a large segment of people believing that “there is no truth.”

Therefore, why not elect Donald Trump as President who notoriously simply makes endless assertions without considerations about truth or lies? Why not “make America great again” by simply affirming power in the world without caring about anything or anyone except that power and domination? What is missing in all this? Something appears obviously wrong. We know that there should be a difference between truth and lie. We know there should be a difference between good and evil. We know that there should be a distinction between justice and injustice.

Are human beings really trapped in a scenario where all values devalue themselves and all meanings deconstruct themselves? I do not think so. However, the way out of the Nietzschean dilemma requires a shift of understanding, a “paradigm-shift,” so to speak, concerning human beings and the dimension of language within which all normal human beings live their lives. A key to this shift in understanding can be found in the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian-born 20th century philosopher who taught at Cambridge, England, for most of his career.

Wittgenstein recognized that all language is “conventional,” that is, there are no intrinsic meanings to words that are the “correct” and final meaning. There are central uses and more peripheral uses, but no true versus false uses. Nevertheless, in this world of conventional meanings there is a framework of intelligibility that makes sense of normal conventional usages. We normally speak in terms of binary pairs that define the common-sense intelligibility of the world: true-false, good-bad, pleasant-unpleasant, past-future, love-hate, etc.

Something appears obviously wrong. We know that there should be a difference between truth and lie. We know there should be a difference between good and evil. We know that there should be a distinction between justice and injustice. 

Wittgenstein said that we can operate perfectly well within this conventional world, and we only run into skepticism, doubt, and endless relativism when we try to impose an absolute certainty, an absolute truth that is beyond perspectivism and doubt. Yet there is no such thing, according to Wittgenstein. Nevertheless, we can distinguish true accounts from false accounts, and higher probabilities from lower probabilities, normal uses of words from more tangential uses. If all language-using beings (all human beings) live within this conventional world, then we have parameters for intelligibility that can give us, not absolute certainty, but a common-sense intelligibility that works perfectly well in most instances and leads to serious perplexity only in rare cases.

Is the world a huge collection of incompatible perspectives, cultures, religions, and ideologies such that there is no common denominator, not universal truths that “humanists” can cling to claiming that we share a common humanity on this planet? No, for there is our “human condition” that appears to include certain universal features that can point us in the direction of one planetary civilization founded on peace and justice rather than power and domination.

First, all language is conventional and places its users within a conventional, common- sense world.

Second, all languages are translatable into one another as Noam Chomsky and other linguists demonstrated in the 1960s. Their “deep grammar” allows for this common intelligibility.

Third, all human beings share common needs such as food, clothing, shelter, and security of person. As human rights thinker, Anthony Appiah, has argued, what is most basic is that “we do not want to be tortured by government officials, that we do not want our lives, families, and properties forfeited.” As a matter of fact, all human beings are more than 99% genetically identical with one another. Our many small differences exist within the context of the overwhelming sameness of being human.

Fourth, and this is something I focus on within my forthcoming book called Human Dignity and World Order: Holistic Foundations of Global Democracy—all human beings live within a dynamic temporal present that appropriates a remembered past and projects toward an anticipated future. This temporality includes within itself an evaluative dimension. We remember the inadequacies of the past and we want things in the future to be better. If we perceive past injustice, we want future justice. If we perceive past falsehood and lies, we want future truth and honesty. If we perceive past ignorance, we want future knowledge and understanding both for ourselves and others.

Thus, our conventional common-sense worlds are dynamically temporalized to seek a better future with more truth, justice, knowledge, or whatever else we may value. This is our universal human condition. Truth may be conventional with a range of acceptable uses and meanings, but there are some uses of this word that become unintelligible and in violation of our universally shared common-sense reality. If truthfulness has meaning, it is in contrast to falsehood and lying. If knowledge and understanding have any meaning, it is in contrast to ignorance and lack of understanding.

What is universal in our human condition begins to reveal what, by contrast, is not universal—what is parochial, partial, divisive, and incommensurable. We begin to see that we have built illusory divisions between one another and between peoples that are not universal, that generate divisiveness and misunderstanding—national borders, religious borders, military borders, cultural borders, racial borders, and ideological borders. Can we transcend these illusions and focus on what is truly universal about our human condition?

Within this shared conventional world of intelligibility and universal meanings, is it possible to build a universal, planetary civilization based on peace, justice, and sustainability? I believe that it is. All human beings live in a conventional world of shared meanings organized temporally—that is, we all want the future to be better than the past. If this is the case, then a world system founded on peace, human rights, justice, and sustainability is a definite possibility.

We all share a common human dignity that can be distinguished from attitudes of dehumanization and indignity. And we realize that our arbitrary and divisive borders, whether national or ideological, violate what is most universal in the human condition. We all want the future to be better than the past. What is truth and lie may be conventional and not susceptible to absolute determination, but it is powerful and universal in human life, nevertheless. On the basis of these universal qualities of our human situation, we have more than enough to build a truly unified civilization. Whatever else we may have going on in our lives, let us work toward this as our common, planetary goal.