A Short Piece
What we are is “post-probable” and “pro-possible.”
If we live in a post-truth world, that can’t be true, but what is possible is that everyone who disagrees with us lives in a post-truth world. Our world, though, must be the world, because otherwise we couldn’t judge “truth” from “post-truth.” See why the term “post-truth” is problematic? If we tell people they’re “post-truth,” they’ll likely hear, “You better start thinking like me.”
Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch is invaluable: if you’re interested in the difference between “knowledge” and “belief,” “truth” and “fact,” etc. — major concerns of epistemology, and hence all of us — give it a read. To pick out a main idea indebted to Karl Popper, basically nothing can be verified, only falsified, and what passes a bunch of tests of falsification is “what we have reason to believe” is knowledge (even if ultimately it’s false). Beliefs are premises that haven’t been scientifically tested that might still be true, but without tests we don’t “have reason to believe” they are knowledge. Importantly, what we “have reason to believe” is knowledge might nevertheless be false, as what we “don’t have reason to believe” is knowledge might nevertheless be true.
Science is generally what we have reason to believe constitutes knowledge even if it is ultimately false, while other beliefs that don’t pass as knowledge may still be true. (Please note that different types of beliefs come with different probabilities of being correct: certain beliefs about history might be more likely to be true than certain sociological or religious beliefs, for example.)
Since verification is mostly impossible, there’s always the possibility that any given fact, statistic, or the like is wrong, and this doesn’t even start to get into Nietzsche’s points on interpretation as an act of power or Derrida’s points on interpretation being inescapable (which would suggest power is inescapable). Critically, we shouldn’t conflate “interpretation” with “opinion”: what is actually true, even if indeterminable as such, is still interpreted as such rightly.
Truth is often if not always a “Schrödinger’s Truth:” it’s in a black box we can’t open without possibly changing what’s inside. If we don’t change what’s inside, we can’t know we didn’t, and that very possibility makes certainty mostly impossible. And where certainty is lacking, even if truth is present, we can’t know truth is present (however, we can be “confident,” as discussed in “On Certainty” by O.G. Rose). Considering this, we can never say for sure that we possessed truth to begin with, let alone possess enough certainty to say we are “post-truth.” The term is practically useless and mostly just feeds partisanship. What we are is “post-probable” and “pro-possible” (this connects with the fideism which horrifies Quentin Meillassoux, I think).
If x is possible and we want to believe it, we do, and if a reasonable critique is brought against x, since x still might be true, we disregard the critique as “not proving anything” (which nothing can for certain, of course). We search out what is possible and conflate “possible” with “reasonable” and thus ascribe reasonability to our beliefs because it is possible we are right (even if it is highly unlikely, given the evidence). We believe that if something is possibly true, it is reasonable to believe, and ascribe to the most improbable of possibilities while participating in democratic debate, believing we are being good participants in democracy. And so democratic systems end up unproductive and distracted.
Dictators love the conflation of “possible” with “reasonable” and use that to their advantage. They avoid telling outright lies and instead suggest “possibilities” that cannot be verified (or even falsified). Since these things are “possibility true” — an epistemic category that cannot be effaced because of the un-closable gaps between “beliefs,” “knowledge,” and “truth” — dictators can voice them without it being fair for the dictators to be accused of telling “outright lies,” for indeed, the dictators don’t: the dictators tell “possible truths” (which nearly everything can be).
In my view, the distinction between “possible” and “probable” is the wall protecting us from being epistemologically exploited. Today, that wall is gone, and we now conflate “possible,” “probable,” “reasonable”…
…Except when someone we disagree with is talking, which gives us “reason to believe” we maintain the categorical distinctions in ourselves between “reasonable,” “improbable,” etc., when practically we don’t, though mentally we always believe we do, boosting our self-image. Our practice is always “just about” to catch up with our beliefs, so even if we become aware that our practice falls short, we forgive ourselves. No one’s perfect, right?
Dictators are usually more sophisticated than just telling lies: they tell lies mixed with truths, exploit the spaces left open by epistemological dilemmas, and selectively choose to highlight their ignorance in areas that benefits their ideology and agenda. Of course, we don’t need to meet a dictator to know this — we do it ourselves. Each of us is “a god of our gaps.” (Read everything by Harry G. Frankfurt, by the way.)
“Pro-possible” might end up being “post-us.”
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