In a recent op-ed in the Post ("Is Truth in Politics Possible? Is Truth Possible in Anything Human?", Huffington Post, 02/28/2012), I made the point that historically there are at least four different kinds and meanings of "truth." (There are of course many more than four, but four is enough for our purposes.)
First, there is traditional, primarily fact-based, impersonal, so-called emotion-free scientific truth (or so it seems on the surface; indeed, many scientists have bought into the notion that truth is not only separable from emotion, but must be). Second, there is speculative, philosophical, and theory-based science.
Whereas the first is firmly grounded in "hard data" that is produced and validated by rigorous experiments and observations -- and therefore is extremely reluctant to stray beyond the facts -- the second not only organizes data into new and bold scientific theories, but it also goes way beyond the current data to imagine whole new universes. In other words, where the first worships data and facts, the second worships imagination and insight.
Third, there is community-based, social truth. This kind resides in the social customs, morals, religion, and wisdom of a community. Fourth, there is also the kind that resides in the social customs, morals, religion, and wisdom of a small unit, typically a particular family, or close set of friends.
I also made the point that all four of these ways presuppose and depend on one another. For instance, for all its pretensions to impersonality, science is fundamentally dependent on a community of scientists who share the values of science for science even to exist, let alone function. It is also dependent on the values and institutions of the broader liberal societies in which it is embedded.
But I want to go further. I want to argue that the current crop of Republican candidates has lost complete touch with truth because it is the captive of primarily one and only one way of knowing.
In brief, the argument is that whenever any one of these four ways of knowing, and producing, truth becomes completely decoupled from the others, then it has not only lost its grip on reality, but it has lost its claim to be anywhere near the truth. All four ways need one another to keep each of them honest and in check.
Thus, when Senator Santorum and former Speaker Gingrich make outrageous statement after statement that is over the top, i.e., not backed up by any facts ("College is for snobs only." "Obama is one of the worst presidents ever."), they are speaking primarily out of the third and fourth ways of knowing, if it can even be called that. They are not only appealing to our basest emotional instincts, but they are using the most degraded forms of the third and the fourth ways of knowing. In short, they are doing nothing but uttering a prolonged series of emotional outbursts.
At their best, the third and fourth ways bind us together into a universal community, i.e., humankind. At their worst, they split us apart by demonizing one another.
Whether the Republican candidates actually believe in what they are saying is almost beside the point. Pandering to our base instincts in order to get elected is no guarantee that it will stop once the election is over. It generally only leads to more of the same.
To be clear, I am not for one moment saying that emotion and truth are separable and therefore have nothing to do with one another. For instance, one cannot live by pure science alone. It is too cold and calculating. It does not move the mass of people to do great things. In this regard, Mr. Romney seems utterly incapable of expressing sincere, heart-felt emotion. No wonder he does not inspire great passion. He seems to have none of his own. If anything, he flips back and forth uncontrollably between the first and third ways of knowing, not giving either one full justice.
Make no mistake about it. Emotion that does not have to answer at some point to facts is not only drastically split off from reality, but completely unregulated by it. It cannot pretend to the truth in any but the most primitive sense. The same holds "true" for the first two ways of knowing as well.
Emotive outbursts may make for good theatre and rouse the "true believers," but they do not serve our perpetual need for truth.
If ever we needed to speak out for truth, this is the time.
Ian I. Mitroff has a PhD in Engineering and the Philosophy of Social Systems Science from UC Berkeley. He is currently an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley. He is the co-author of "Dirty Rotten Strategies: How We Trick Ourselves and Others into Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely" (Stanford, 2009). His latest, and 37th book, is: "Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega Crises and Mega Messes" (Stanford, 2011). He is one of the founders of Crisis Management as an interdisciplinary field of study.