What Is Objective Truth?
PART 1: Post-Truth implies the existence of truth.
At the Southern New Hampshire University Arena, the night before that fateful brain-breaking 2016 election, Donald Trump bounded onstage to raucous applause and the booming, anthemic riffs of “Proud to be an American.” He stepped to the lectern and did his whole Mussolini routine: a nodding wave, a half-sneer, a little US Open-style applause back to the crowd, and flashing a thumbs-up that looked like a protruding breakfast sausage. I was standing about a hundred feet away from this repulsive bog orangutan, lost in a sea of several thousand whooping New Englanders appropriately decked out in red MAGA hats and beer guts. As reactionary patriotic theater goes, this scene was bizarre, but just about everything you’d expect from a Republican rally. There was the pyrotechnically performative god-and-country stuff, the obligatory Obama and Hillary bashing, the boilerplate free-market worshiping, the WWE ambiance. It was pure camp, a variety show. But the freewheeling riffs felt especially pandering when Trump announced he received a congratulatory letter from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and recited it as a public address.
“Congratulations on a tremendous campaign. You have dealt with an unbelievable, slanted, and negative media and have come out beautifully. You’ve proved to be the ultimate competitor and fighter. Your leadership is amazing. I have always had tremendous respect for you, but the toughness and perseverance you’ve displayed over the past year is remarkable…”
Surrounded by a bellowing horde of innumerable interchangeable loathsome smirking morons, initially, my inner professional copywriter smirked at Trump’s hamfisted attempt at nailing Belichick’s voice. In the hours—and even days—after wandering into this alternate universe portal that existed a roughly 45-minute drive from me (I lived in Boston at the time), I began to ponder the magnitude of this perverse experience, deliberating over why I didn’t want to believe Bill Belichick wrote that letter. Is it because Trump is an honesty-averse narcissist? Or is it because of my stubborn refusal to accept the possibility that the coach of my favorite football team would quasi-endorse someone like Trump? Discerning the true nature of the Trump phenomenon is a truly baffling enterprise, one that has bestowed humanity’s more reasonable thinkers with a host of brain diseases. A Frederich Nietzsche quote felt chillingly relevant: “Every belief, every considering something true, is necessarily false because there is simply no true world.”
If enough people believe in something with concentrated vigor, they can reshape the world in the image of whatever they want, no matter how disconnected from physical reality it is. There has to be enough of these people, and they have to believe in this image sufficiently. Then, they live and act from that belief. America’s COVID response was a tug-of-war between Democrats who Believe In Science and Trump governing from within the fantastical epistemological bubble of Fox “News.” Both sides were operating from a wildly different actuarial calculus: Democrats refused to risk permanent lung damage to run Applebee’s at full capacity while Republicans were urging Americans to consider opting into a mass death to keep various numbers going up and up.
Søren Kierkegaard observed, “Truth is subjectivity,” noting that absolute objective certainty is an illusion. This sentiment does not deny the existence of concrete, propositional realities. Different personalities and perceptions of the world are based on how the brain processes information. Everyone is led to a feeling that adheres to a system of symbols and frameworks because there is no truth that does not adhere to emotion. When the Ben Shapiros of the world say, “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” they fail to understand basic epistemology. Facts literally are feelings.
None of this is to say all truths are created equal—of course, some will inevitably be more or less well-reasoned, well-researched, well-articulated than others. But we are not living in what some would call a post-truth era because Objective Truth never really existed outside of default consensus, arbitrary societal expectations, and mainstream values. Trump’s presidency unfolded as a vicious satire of American life in the way that it stripped every cheesy grift and smug savagery of its familiar euphemism and institutional legitimacy. This may have been both the apotheosis and grim reckoning of social media fragmenting us into camps of frothing and self-reifying news consumers, subverting the idea of universal principles in the process.
To repair the fraying bonds that tether us to a shared reality, many have turned to ideals like Objective Reporting or fact-checking. There is a certain strand of Democratic normie who is convinced that they have evidence and science on their side and therefore everyone else should get out of the way and let them make all the decisions. This sentiment, though, misses a broader and more fundamental point: A truth can be real — even if it’s not valid — if a person sincerely believes in it.