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Constructed truths : truth and knowledge in a post-truth world
Zoglauer T., Springer International Publishing, Cham, Switzerland, 2023. 162 pp. Type: Book (3658399414)
Date Reviewed: Mar 11 2024

Families gather during the holiday season, and heated discussions often erupt over politics and cultural values. This situation has become so frequent that it is standard fare in comedy sketches, jokes, and cartoons. It seems as though the opposing viewpoints come from different planets, without a common language. Obvious truths and unassailable facts to one group seem incomprehensible to the other and crash against willful ignorance and obduracy. Thomas Zoglauer begins by observing the growing challenges to the recognition of facts and truths over the past eight years through the mendacity of the Trump administration, COVID-19 misinformation, QAnon, anti-vaccine advocacy, conspiracy theories, and climate change denial.

Pontius Pilate’s age-old question--“What is truth?”--remains relevant. It can be subjected to philosophical analysis. Zoglauer’s short book is a masterful summary of the current state of epistemology, suitable for the inquisitive reader who is not a philosopher. In addition to the introduction in which he describes the motivation and background for the book, it is divided into four chapters and a long set of references.

The first chapter is a thorough breakdown of the phenomenon of post-factualism as it is made manifest in different types of applications and problem areas. The existence of the Internet and social media has provided a fertile soil in which there are too few gatekeepers to check the proliferation of websites, conspiracy theories, fake news sources, pseudoscience theorists, and echo chambers in which “alternative truths” can flourish. The implications for the preservation of democratic societies are serious. How does a society solve its problems if there is no agreement on the facts, what is true, and what is really known?

The second chapter analyzes post-truth epistemology. The central figure in this review is Friedrich Nietzsche, the original author and advocate of the subjectivism of post-factualism and post-truth. Fact and truth are social constructs rather than being governed by an external reality that serves as the reference. The author catalogs and succinctly reviews contemporary manifestations of Nietzsche’s subjectivism in social, cultural, literary, journalism, and scientific writings. He shows how post-factual and post-truth theories lead to intellectual anarchy. The salient social dynamic of Nietzsche’s communities of belief is the seizing and exercise of power.

The third chapter contains an exploration of alternatives to post-factual and post-truth theorizing that acknowledges the constraints of observation, interpretation, and explanation of facts as limited by human limitations of language and existing conceptual frameworks. A Zeno’s paradox exists here. As an intelligent and self-aware species, we have a commonsense type of realism used in everyday life whether that may be in normal household activities or in a scientific laboratory. These perceptions are filtered through what we think we know and what our vocabulary for describing and interpreting phenomena may allow. We gradually approach the underlying “REALITY” (author’s capitalization) through our statements describing “reality” (again, author’s lowercase).

Chapter 4 returns to the issues raised in the first chapter from a different perspective, that of finding our way through the fog of post-factualism and post-truth. He analyzes the different forms knowledge takes, separating information and disinformation from the genuine article, and the degrees of knowing anything. The viewpoint is that of an ordinary person rather than that of a scientist extracting information from raw data--how should anyone think critically and practically about what he or she is learning. His final comment is a prescriptive recommendation for improving society’s capability to avoid succumbing to results of being untethered to fact and truth--embracing the values of the Enlightenment.

Why should anyone other than philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists read this book? It is because post-factualism and post-truth as operative modes of thought have emerged from the philosophy journals and gone into the wild--like a virus escaping from a laboratory. Computing technology has made this possible through social media and the algorithms developed to identify, capture, and engage users in communities of similar interests. The interests can be anything from a passion for growing tomatoes to absorbing the latest fable about how COVID-19 vaccines can cause a person to receive FM broadcasts via their dental work. The defining characteristics of the communities are irrelevant, but they are identified for targeted marketing of products developed by paying sponsors. The objective is cash flow, period. If this is the only philosophy book you read this decade, it will be worth it.

Reviewer:  Anthony J. Duben Review #: CR147724
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