We should take a look at three upsets in science from lore. First, when Galileo claimed the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the reverse, second when Darwinism upset the religious Right, and third when relativity was introduced and upended our notion of “objectivity.”
None of these theories were new; the ancients recorded their version of each, since with observation these things could relatively easily be seen, but in each case they subverted the notion of humans at the center of the universe in command via objective science and free will.
Each however changed how people saw the world on a wide scale, and this changed our conception of reality at a fundamental level:
These three events radically changed humanity; where this knowledge was previously esoteric, or available only for those with the ability and will to seek it out, now it fell into the community memory and reversed our previous view.
In that view, there were objective, absolute, and universal truths, values, and communications. These descended from either God or Reason, and were considered to be beyond criticism and equally perceivable by all people.
That façade melted away when it became clear that science had revealed that our previous views of science were not complete. In science, everything is “just a theory,” but that means that the theory mostly works until we find something better.
In religion, similarly, most of what is expressed is in metaphorical form. God may not literally be a weird old dude in the sky, but there is something like God, no matter what form it takes, so we use the metaphor instead so that it can be communicated.
These three events showed us that the metaphor could not be taken literally and that science, fact, and empirical measurements could not be taken as absolutes. There is no one perspective of truth that can be conveyed to all people and still be real.
Our problem is that related groups are more likely to see things as truths that they can share, even if these are heuristics like scientific theories. People of the same race, culture, religion, ethnicity, and social class are most likely to understand each other.
However, in our democratized world, we keep trying to come up with one truth for everyone. This results in a fragmentation as infighting over truth creates inevitable polarization:
Demographic characteristics are now major indicators of party preference, with noncollege white and more religious Americans increasingly identifying as Republicans, while Democrats now win most nonwhite voters and a majority of white people with a college degree.
“Instead of going into the voting booth and asking, ‘What do I want my elected representatives to do for me,’ they’re thinking, ‘If my party loses, it’s not just that my policy preferences aren’t going to get done,’” said Lilliana Mason, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist. “It’s who I think I am, my place in the world, my religion, my race, the many parts of my identity are all wrapped up in that one vote.”
Inconsistent demographics divided us. 0bama did not do it, BLM did not do it, and the Klan did not do it. Different people need different truths, values, and communication. To deny this is to live in a society that fights so much over “truth” that it never aims to do anything future-oriented.
At this point, no one cares about anything but asserting identity at the expense of the other. They want to validate their own lives and experiences and correctly see the truth-assertions of others as competing forces in the market for what the public accepts.
This means that we are in a post-truth era, since there will be nothing more than temporary agreement, which means that we have little chance of understanding reality. We are in the post-reality age, where asserting “truths” to advance your tribe are more important than what is actually real.
If we look at a recent study on conspiracy theories, we can see a psychology that applies to our truth assessments generally:
We test the impact of three independent motives on people’s willingness to share CTs on social media: bolstering their or their group’s beliefs (motivated sharing), generating collective action against their political outgroup because of losing (sounding the alarm), and mobilizing others against the political system (need for chaos). Using an original survey of US adults (N = 3336), we test these three motives together and find strong evidence for motivated sharing and need for chaos, but no evidence for sounding the alarm. Our findings suggest that motivated sharing—when measured directly as belief in the CTs—is the strongest predictor of willingness to share CTs on social media. Need for chaos has less of an effect on sharing than belief but a consistently stronger effect on sharing than partisanship and ideology.
“Motivated sharing” means spreading “truths” in order to advance your group. Conspiracy theorists do it, but so does the mainstream media. Stunningly so does the government, since it endorses theories that appease its different special interest groups.
In the post-reality age, the first thing we need to realize is that we are experiencing a seismic shift like that during the three events mentioned above. We no longer believe in one truth for everyone, just like we can no longer believe that all people understand the same reality.
Ironically, in this way, equality reverses itself, since equality is based on the ideal of equal minimal reasoning capabilities. Instead of leading to Enlightenment™ as promised, equality has created equal confusion and crippled any society stupid enough to adopt it.