A Breach in the Way we Think About Reality

Diego Fares SJ

 Diego Fares SJ / Church Thought / 28 July 2020

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The question of post-truth goes beyond the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs.”[1] The so-called “objective facts” imply the possibility of being recorded and quantified. Today we see that the possibility of quantifying in real time the truth as to whether or not a large number of people approving of a statement or fact can, in fact, transform that “quantified emotion” into something “real” in terms of “public image” and “votes” for or against what is approved or disapproved.

In the same way, the speed with which Covid-19 has spread makes measuring its “objective” data – how many people are reported infected, how many are likely to be infected according to various projective models and so on – a very complex matter. Yet the real threat of the virus has restored, over that of “opinions,” the value of scientific data, however complex and hypothetical it may be.

This is what we are experiencing. While the virulence of fake news over the past few years has made us feel that “reality is crumbling,” the deadly virulence of Covid-19 has made us realize that “post-truth is also crumbling.” If previously so-called “objective” reality gave way under the impact of false news, now everything yields: the reality of life because of illness and death; “scientific” news because we cannot measure and objectify it; false news because its effect lasts briefly, until we find a way to neutralize the virus.

The social distancing that has been imposed on us seems destined to last. It is not just a crack that opens up by physically distancing ourselves from others, but a rift that stands in the way of everything. It makes us take a step back and critically rethink everything we have created, what we do and say.

Reality has given way

The Death of Truth is the title of a book by New York Times journalist Michiko Kakutani.[2] Two years ago, quoting Jorge Luis Borges, she provided an aesthetic key to her merciless analysis of the manipulation of information as an instrument of power in the Trump era. To argue her thesis, she cited a story by Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.

“Almost immediately reality gave ground on more than one point,” Borges wrote. “The truth is that it hankered to give ground. Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was enough to fascinate people. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet?”[3]

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