Fake news, alternative fact and epistemology


Kian was a drug-courier.  Kian was a drug runner.  Kian was a drug dealer.  And witnesses have sworn to the “truth” of these allegations — angering even more the many who are already indignant over Kian’s death.  Was it not enough, they ask I utter dismay, to murder him, that now, even his memory should be besmirched?  But these “testimonies” (perjuries, some think) will become part of police, perhaps even court records and will be seriously considered for the status of “established truth” in accordance with Philippines rules on evidence.  No, epistemology is no longer the concern of philosophy students who must contend with its abstruseness and abstractions to get the coveted degree in philosophy.  It is crucially current in a country awash in fake news, that complains about being mislead by “alternative facts”.  

There have been different ways of treating the subject of knowing and the known (the title of my doctoral dissertation in philosophy): the Platonic dialogues recounted the journeys of the soul from the empyrean heights where it beheld the Ideal Firms to its brusque incarceration in mortal  frame, in order to explain why it recognized imperfection (and could be mislead by it); Aristotle talked about the powers of the senses and the faculties of the soul—among which was the intellect.  And, in the European tradition, phenomenology has kept very keen interest on knowing and what was claimed to be known.  This has no less been of course of the analytic tradition that maintains this all-consuming passion with questions of knowledge, and the language that both mediates and expresses it.  But after Kian’s funeral, after Justice Tony Carpio’s dire waring that China was planning something naughty on in the West Philippine Sea, after Faeldon and Lacson charged each other and members of the families with corruption, in the wake of Andy Bautista’s claims that it was money his wife was after after she had earlier brandished against him such baffling items as an array of passbooks, certificates of deposit and even a lash, epistemology is a very current concern of the Philippine public.

Utterances invite consideration only if they are made by responsible speakers (no one pays much attention—except another fool—to the ranting of the insane!), and a responsible speaker is one who asserts the truth of what she declares and tacitly accepts the challenging of vindicating her claim to truth when it is challenged.  But that is where things get interesting.  First there is the question of whether all those who want their voices heard (their two-cents “worthless”—was how the inimitable Justice Isagani Cruz used to put it!) are responsible speakers.  That cannot be presumed, because “karapatan” is so frequently and irresponsibly invoked that many think it to include the right to unbridled, irresponsible speech. The more involved issue has to do with truth, about which libraries have been written.  What seems to be beyond cavil is that what is “true” is vindicated by what current social (including scientific) standards take to be competent proof of truth.  At a time that generals turned to augurs before marching off to war, what the entrails of sacrificed animals showed (or purported to show) was proof enough that spelled the difference tween the commencement of hostilities or a prudent, calculated truce.  When a physician says that you have a malignant growth in your colon, and shows you a row of scans and a packet of films that may make absolutely no sense to you, coupled with the approving nod of his fellow physicians, you take that as truth of the proposition: “You have cancer.”  But what about a practitioner of Chinese medicine who tells you that your frequent dizzy spells are caused by a deleterious imbalance of yin and yang and can be corrected by a decoction of carefully balanced leaves, seeds, scrapings from exotic plants and shrubbery?  The point I am driving at is that while we are quite confident about using the word “truth”, we are not as unanimous about how it is reached.  The correspondence theory is of course popular—“Manila is south of Tuguegarao” is true if and only if Manila is south of Tuguegarao, but the limitations of that theory immediately surface when you are faced with the truth of prescriptive propositions and aesthetic judgments.  To what does the judgment “A Mozart concerto is more coherent than one by Shostakovich”—doubtlessly controversial, but arguable nonetheless—correspond?

The standards and criteria of truth are products of social agreement and convention—science itself is a convention.  Following a discourse theory of truth, when a proposition is established in the manner that society demands that such propositions be established, and all relevant questions have been answered, then it is “certain”, and, from the perspective of social phenomenology, that is quite correct.  And so, if we are truly bothered about “fake news” and “alternative facts”, then, more fundamentally, we should be asking about what methods contemporary Filipino society accepts as adequate in the proof of various types of propositions, and even “if there is reason in the madness”!  And unless we are hell-bent on confining ourselves to an intellectual and cultural ghetto that goes by standards and criteria of truth that we alone accept, then our requirements be close to what the global communities of scientists, social theorists, artists and the thoughtful, in general, take to be true.

It seems these days that “repetition” makes for truth, as does the overwhelming number of those who pass it on.  It seems to be so that the prevailing epistemological criterion is “truth is what an overwhelming number of Filipinos insist is true.”  Then the criticism should be directed really not at those engaged in “idle talk,” the sheer passing on of what is heard—whether they are paid to repeat, or they do so out of a sense of loyalty to their champion—but to our society that seems willing to entertain what we might call “the principle of repetition and manyness” as an acceptable determinant of truth.  But, if we decide—as I hope we do—that it cannot and should not reasonably be such a heuristic criterion, then let us say say and make clear in ways that even the dim-witted though vociferous can understand that no matter the they cry themselves hoarse and repeat the line with unction and probably even with tears, it is not necessarily true.

We cope with a crisis of rationality never by conforming ourselves to its eclipse, but by challenging, contesting, and playing the very role Socrates did in the Athens of his time—even if, after his lectures, he was given a goblet of hemlock with which to quench his thirst!

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