We are told that so-called “alternative facts” are a new threat to us as a society; to how we view and understand the world and how we make decisions about the world (policies etc).
But I think the idea of an “alternative” fact is far older and, worse, rooted in the very basic ideas most of us who’ve grown up with Christianity and Western philosophy believe to be true.
I blame Plato for alternative facts.
Okay, I don’t just blame Plato for alternative facts, I blame Western normative philosophy. But, as the saying goes, Western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. Account for yourself, Plato!
Plato’s Rejection of Objective Reality
When Socrates, Plato’s teacher, was developing his ideas about the world, we knew a lot less about how the world worked. In fact, I think it’s rather hard to imagine how little people knew about the physical world in Ancient Greece compared to what we know today. Though some of the educated guesses of that era proved to be correct or mostly correct, the vast majority of those guesses turned out to be completely wrong. We forgive this with Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics but we still think the Greeks have a lot to tell us when it comes to philosophy, spirituality and other ancient disciplines and arts, but also with regard to disciplines which didn’t exist at the time, such as psychology.
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and the other, less famous Greek philosophers, were usually as scientific as people could get back then.[1. Of those three, Aristotle in particular, was as scientific as he could be, basing his ideas more in observation than logic, relatively speaking.] But they were limited in what they could know and learn about the world because most of the techniques we use today to understand our world had not yet been developed. Nowhere is this more clear than in normative philosophy.
Normative philosophy is the study of what “ought” to be. And that’s where we encounter our first problem. The vast majority of ancient Greek philosophers — like the vast majority of human beings throughout history — strongly believed that there is “what is” and “what ought to be,” and that these two things are different. Until relatively recently, it has been hard to argue the opposite — that there is only “what is” and not “what ought” — and be taken seriously. Even today, most people who argue that we cannot discover an objective “ought” are dismissed (at least popularly) as ‘radical’ or as ‘crazy.’
Moreover, the Greeks didn’t just decide that there is an objective “ought” that can be discovered through reason, they decided that this objective “ought” was more important — and prior to — objective reality. What that means is they didn’t just decide that one could find out the true way the world should be through thought experiments and logical argument, they thought the things they discovered through reasoning caused the world to exist in its current form.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Plato’s (in)famous Theory of Forms. The dumbed-down, layperson version of The Theory of Forms is that, in order for a carpenter to make a table, he must first access the essence of The Perfect Table, which has existed before any human-made tables. The carpenter uses the essence of The Perfect Table as his blueprint to make his flawed, human table for you to eat your dinner on. Basically, the essence of the thing (be it a table or a human, or a philosophical doctrine) is prior to the existence of that thing in our world. The idea (essential nature) must exist first.
There is no nice way of putting this but Plato was completely, utterly wrong. 100% incorrect. The perfect ideal of something is not prior to its flawed existence in reality. The first person to make a table was not accessing the platonic ideal of The Perfect Table and then creating an imperfect copy. Rather, that person had tried and failed multiple times to create something human beings could eat and work on at a given level while sitting (or perhaps standing) and one day hit upon a table. People like to eat on things, it turns out, rather than holding their food in their hands.
Human beings have always created things through trial and error: The Perfect Table did not exist in the ether before the first person built a successful table no more than The Ideal Internet existed for billions of years in the ether before it was built (slowly, over decades, in a flawed and rather directionless manner). The Theory of Forms tells us that every idea we’ve ever had existed before we did, and we’re just accessing it, and that is 100% wrong.
Everything we know about the evolution of the human species and how the universe was created is in direct contradiction to The Theory of Forms. Human life evolved incredibly slowly over hundreds of thousands of years. What we have invented, we have invented through trial and error, not through accessing the essential natures of things and ideas which pre-existed in the universe.
Unfortunately, the basic premise of The Theory of Forms underlies the vast majority of Western philosophy, both normative (where it at least makes a little bit of sense), and explanatory (where it makes zero sense and is deeply harmful). For example, the idea of Heaven, a perfect place where we all go when we leave this vale of tears is, essentially, the idea of a perfect version of the world prior to this world. It may not be chronologically prior to our personal experience of life, but its existence is prior to the world, as God divided the heaven from the earth before we humans were created, leaving a perfect essence for us to access when we die.
Let’s take libertarianism as an example of how Essence Before Existence infects our ideas to this very day. Libertarians believe that there is this thing called Freedom and we need to do specific things to allow us all to become Free. They believe this in spite of the history of the world, during which no libertarian ideal society has ever existed or has come close to existing and despite the endless practical problems with a society that has a government whose sole job is to protect the society from external threats.[2. I understand the logical fallacy here that just because something has never existed does not mean it can never exist. Take the internet as proof of that. If you want to discuss why I don’t think this is a problem when critiquing utopian ideology, we can discuss it in the comments.] They believe it is possible to achieve an ideal amount of freedom in a human world in spite of all evidence — thousands of years worth — to the contrary. What society has ever been completely, totally fully at liberty in the ideal libertarian mode?
I’m not trying to pick on libertarianism. I just think it’s a pretty good example of the problem. This problem is true of all ideologies:
- liberals used to believe the same thing as libertarians (albeit a slightly less radical version of it) and now mostly believe that we are progressing (slowly) towards some kind of perfect harmony between negative and positive liberty, which will result in a Just Society that realizes the modern liberal ideal of Justice;
- conservatives believe in a recently departed past that was totally perfect and had no problems which realized the neo-conservative ideal of Justice (even though that ideal was recently invented);
- socialists believe in a very distant, perfect pre-industrial past that can somehow be created anew with the benefits of industrialization, realizing the socialist ideals of Justice and Equality.
All of these perfect words have been arrived at through reason and logic, of course.
Essence Before Existence infects many other aspects of our beliefs (religion, for example), but it is most visible in utopian ideology, where it is also the most dangerous. (See Mao or the Khmer Rouge, for examples.)
There have been two major attacks against this belief that our subjective ideas are actually objective and are better and more important than objective reality.
The first is the scientific method, which allowed human beings to observe objective reality instead of subjectively observing it, as we had been doing for the millennia prior to the invention of the method. When we know the process another human being used to observe phenomena, we can repeat that process to see if we observe the same phenomena, (hopefully) removing subjective experience from the equation thereby learning how human beings actually exist rather than how we would like to believe we exist in the world.
The second critique is that of what we might call “critical philosophy,” philosophy that attacked “Essence Before Existence” (or “essentialism”) as merely subjective reasoning; subjective reasoning which acts as a defense of the subjective views of someone privileged enough to spend their time reasoning instead of struggling for survival (such as Plato), or as a defense of the subjective views of the powerful who want to stay powerful, which is how Hegel could have spent thousands of hours developing a “pure” philosophy that justified the existence of the German state he was living in, or how John Rawls could spend thousands of hours developing an objective theory of liberalism that justified the post-war US welfare state he was living in.
Neither critique has been very successful within the world of popular ideas, and specifically within our ideologies, even though the scientific method is now the basis for much of how we understand the world and critical philosophy has been extremely successful (perhaps too successful) within certain areas of academia.[3. I recognize that these critiques are opposed to each other in many ways, in addition to being opposed to traditional normative philosophy.]
What Does This Have to Do with Alternative Facts?
We know from studying human behaviour through the scientific method that beliefs are extremely resilient. Human beings rationalize their beliefs even when — especially when — those beliefs contradict objective reality. In philosophy the name for this is the Law of Infinite Cornucopia: every belief system will use any and all evidence — including evidence that contradicts the belief system — to justify its existence and perpetuate itself. In psychology, it’s called reducing cognitive dissonance: human beings need to create narrative rationalizations to explain things which contradict their beliefs, rather than change their beliefs when confronted by the contradictory evidence.
But, we are still taught from an early age that objective reality is not all there is. We are taught by religion that there is some other place outside of our existence which is perfect and which we can get to if we behave just the right way. This “right” way depends on a particular sect’s view of the world. But more importantly, this “right” way involves aspirational moral ideas we cannot live up to at all times, such as “Though shall not covet” such and such thing. Who doesn’t covet things?
At the same time, we are taught by schools and society that there are metaphysical ideals that are achievable as a society, such as Justice, Freedom or Equality, even though none of these ideals has ever been achieved anywhere anytime by any society. Ever. We are taught that these ideals are noble and we should all pursue them, sometimes at the expense of other people. Many of us if not most of us grow up with the idea that our principles are more important than the feelings of others, or compromising with others on our ideas, regardless of what the content of our ideas is, or how objectionable that content might be to society at large.
At the same time, we are taught that ideas are more important than practical considerations, and what matters about our ideas is their inherent logic, not whether or not they are practical and realizable. Those who are practical are often considered to have “sold out” or compromised with society in some immoral way.
All of this is the fault of Western philosophy.
The United States of America is very much a product of Western philosophy. It was founded by men who were raised in the ideas and ideals of the enlightenment and who looked back on Classical Rome and Classical Greece with reverence and awe. The higher educational institutions of the USA have taught normative Western philosophy since there were higher educational institutions in that country. The US is also a very Christian nation, and Christian ideals (or vaguely Christian ideals, more often than not) have allowed those without access to higher education to learn essentialism as well. Essentialism is a core part of American culture and has been since the country was founded. This is most apparent in the idea of American Exceptionalism — the idea that the United States is somehow The Best Country that Ever Was despite any and all evidence to the contrary.
If you have been brought up to believe that ideas are more important than reality, it’s easy to see why it doesn’t matter whether your ideas are “right” or “wrong.” As long as you believe you are starting from acceptable premises, and you believe you have reasoned correctly from those premises to your conclusions, your conclusions are therefore correct, regardless of what reality has to say about it.
If the premises you start from are flawed — say, that the world is only 6,000 years old — you will still believe your logical/reasoned conclusions are thoroughly reasonable. There’s nothing in essentialism to help us understand what’s a good premise versus what’s a bad premise. With essentialism a good premise is something we’ve been taught as children or something we have observed ourselves, in our own personal, limited experience.[3. I.e. the basis for inductive logic as opposed to the deductive logic of the scientific method.] Essentialism is all about a defense of our own subjective, learned views of the world, posing as objective, logical reasoning.
Alternative facts are not the result of mass hysteria that has gripped the US recently. Rather, the belief in alternative facts in the United States and elsewhere is completely natural. People have believed alternative facts for millennia, which is why there is a long history of people believing absolutely insane ideas about the world and continuing to believe these things, all evidence to the contrary. It’s just taken a different form recently.
Here are some of the false premises fueling our current alternative facts fad:
- The United States is/was the best country in the history of the world.
- The United States and its constitution was created miraculously by the best people in the history of the world.
- Black people and/or immigrants are subhuman.
- Non-Christians are subhuman.
- Belief in something other than the Christian God makes you immoral or amoral.
- Small government equals good government.
- The Mainstream Media is a monolithic liberal propaganda machine out to destroy the old, pure America.
- The Democrats are a monolithic liberal army out to destroy the old, pure America