By Chet Yarbrough
The Constitution of Knowledge (A Defense of Truth)
By Jonathan Rauch
Narrated by: Traber Burns
Jonathan Rauch (American author, journalist, freelance writer for The Economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.)
The structure of knowledge is the subject of Jonathan Rauch’s “…Constitution of Knowledge”. What may come as a surprise to some is Rauch’s argument that knowledge is a social construct, not an inviolable fact or truth. Knowledge grows from tests of society.
As Karl Popper, a highly respected philosopher of science noted, knowledge can only be found through pursuit of its falsification.
The fear that accompanies Rauch’s argument about knowledge, and Popper’s belief about science’s truth means a lie can be as influential as truth. The two greatest twenty first century examples are Trump and Vladimir Putin.
All human beings lie. The problem is those with preeminent power use the lie to lead others to believe what society’s tests show to be false. The problem is distinguishing a lie from societal truth. A lie is never as evident as it is with Pinocchio’s nose.
Truths should not be based on a singular view of reality. Lies of leadership in recent history have led to tragic interventions by America, France and most recently, Russia in sovereign countries like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and today’s Ukraine.
The great fear accompanying this view of knowledge is that truth only reveals itself as past events. It is exhibited in the death of innocent bystanders that follow leader’s lies. World wars prove how the truth is never known in real time, only in history. Society’s tests of Trump and Putin show how destructive a leader’s lies can be in both democratic and autocratic nations.
Rauch both personalizes damage that lies have on individuals and society with his experience as a gay person and combatant against cancel culture, violence, sexism, and racism. Though Rauch’s explanation notes many examples of what is wrong with society, he ends with a degree of optimism about how one can deal with leadership’ lies.
Words matter but if they don’t lead to violence, they can be logically addressed by society and rejected for their distortion of perceived truth. Rauch is careful to explain truth is a perception, not a fact or necessarily a truth. As is shown by science, the human brain does not record facts but recreates events that fit a human’s perception of reality.
What is true is tested in Popper’s theory of facts that are tested by search for falsifiability.
If a tree falls in the forest and a tape recorder records the sound, one is tempted to believe a fact has been found. If that experiment is repeated many times by different people, the falling tree makes noise, whether a human is there or not, is likely to be true. However, it is a sound that remains a perception. The difference is it has been tested many times by society with the same result.
Cancel culture is when there is a public boycott of people or organizations because of an interest group’s belief. If a group’s belief is challenged by perceptions and experience of a broader society, cancel culture can be, at least, ameliorated.
Rauch shows himself to be a free speech believer. One presumes he endorses all free speech if it does not induce or insight violence. This is not to suggest words spoken or written are not harmful, but they are not physically injuring another.
Attacking a person physically for words spoken is reprehensible but attacking an idea is societies’ way of revealing the truth and acquiring knowledge.
After listening to Rauch’s explanation of what knowledge is and how it is acquired, one wishes a signal could be sent when one is knowingly lying, e.g., something like Pinocchio’s nose.