Saturday, December 24, 2016


295. The commons of truth

The classic case of the commons is a common pasture for grazing animals. It is the duty of each user to beware against overgrazing and contribute to maintenance, but each is tempted to shirk the duty and free ride on the maintenance performed by others. Here I look at public, shared truth as a commons.

Objective, shared truth cannot easily be had, but we need it. Opinion is personal, fact is public, and without it the public collapses. If everyone’s opinion becomes personal truth, politics ends in pandemonium. Today, in public communication, lies, libel and opinion seem to dominate truth, in social media and even also in newspapers, and media are shirking their duty of  checking facts. From the pandemonium, everyone picks up what suits him, and nobody seems to feel responsibility for maintaining shared truth.  

In this blog I have repeatedly defended a view of knowledge and truth that is a form of relativism, but not a radical form. We interpret the world according to mental frames that we have developed in the course of life, and hence depend on its trajectory. All the more reason to enter into conversation and debate with other people with other mentalities. It is our only chance to correct our prejudices.

We cannot achieve more truth than warranted assertibility, and the warrant is achieved in dialogue, debate.

That requires the ability to engage in giving and assimilating constructive criticism, trying to establish some commonality of truth. That requires the crossing of cognitive and cultural distance, which requires openness, empathy, and the determined effort to engage in voice, falling back on exit only as a last resort.

What we observe, in present culture wars, is the opposite: a flight into self-righteousness, seeking exit. Moulding apparent facts, fabricating outright falsehoods, and filtering news for the confirmation of prejudice. Like other commons, the commons of truth requires joint tending, not the self-serving ravaging of it. Conduct does not need to be self-effacing, as long as it is not self-enforcing.

Truth needs institutions to help carry the care for it. Perhaps, first of all quality media that dig the deep, sift the fair from the foul, and bend right what is hammered askew. If markets force them to fail in this, competing on hype and low price, then they should be subsidized, to enable their task, hiring and keeping the best of journalism. That is one of the requirements of a politics of virtue.

But how about creative destruction? Can the commons be reconciled with creativity? Creativity creates self-confidence and the will to break rather than preserve established order and truth. Boundaries can challenge rather than subdue.

Yes, but creation must prove itself, demonstrating that ‘it works’. It must establish a new warrant. It should accept that challenge and should not shield itself from such tests. It should demand the opportunity to prove itself, not deny the need for proof.

The commons of truth is not a thing, a pasture, or a bedding laid out with ready doctrine, but rather a process, a practice of seeking warrant, testing it, rejecting and remaking it. The trick is to tolerate disagreement and give it the treat of curiosity. Creating distance as a challenge to cross.