If you can answer the question in the title, you need read no further. I have spent a teaching lifetime working on an answer, and have come to the conclusion that this question is more important than any other, yet also more difficult to answer correctly. Part of the problem traces to the antecedent of “it.” The kinds of truth claims we make seem to require different kinds of justifications. If “it” references a scientific hypothesis–say a claim about a new drug’s effectiveness in treating acne– then “what makes it true” becomes both more weighty and more precise than if “it” refers to a claim about the quality of the newest summer movie blockbuster. You might think that this difference traces to the relative importance of the two kinds of claims. Matters of taste are simply less important than matters of health. But that doesn’t hold water. My taste in life partner certainly trumps nearly any medical issue I can think of. So perhaps precision is the reason: a drug’s effectiveness can be more precisely plotted on a graph than a film’s quality, yet if quality is judged by box office receipts, then nothing could be more carefully evaluated than the first weekend’s grosses.
Perhaps you caught my sleight of hand in the preceding sentence. Who is to say that quality is to be defined by box office profits? Now we come to the crux of it. Our problem in deciding “what is true” is neither an issue of prominence nor of precision. It is more basic. Our problem is one of definition (see “Tangled Terms”). We thirst for much greater clarity in how we approach our most basic questions if only because their answers gird and buttress all other answers we seek to provide (see “What Counts as Justification?”). Without clearly defined and consensually accepted warrants for our declarations and the terms to offer them, we literally don’t know what we are talking about, an unfortunate state made worse by historical conditions too comprehensive to be the subject of academic specialization.
So what kinds of terms are we talking about? The kinds that are so basic, so central to all others, that we just assume everyone knows their meanings. But I challenge you to define even a few of them in ways that satisfy your own objections, never mind anyone else’s. Try to conceptualize the meanings of words like truth, goodness, justice, liberty, equality, freedom, beauty. Consider some of the subdivisions we must use to make sense of these meta-terms: fact, opinion, belief, faith, trust, authority, expertise, experience, quality, morality, fairness, ethics, aesthetics, art. Think for a moment of the controversies that the use of such terms engender. Perhaps conflicts are less framed by their instantiation than by our divergent understandings of the categories the controversies exemplify. In such disagreement, whose definition of terms should prevail? To be only slightly more conclusive, on what grounds could any version prevail? In an age obsessed with fakery, how do I discriminate what is true from what is false ? (see “What Counts as Justification?“) Or even more basic: how can I claim any declaration to be a fact (see “Facts Are Fluxy Things“)?How confidently can I assert my own beliefs and how should I approach other persons’ beliefs (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”)? How do I decide what is qualitatively or morally good (see “The Lure of the Will to Believe“)? Can I trust (or resist) culture (see “Cultural Consensus“)? What makes a creation a true work of art (see “Three Portraits”)? Even a moment’s thought on the terms listed should open the floodgates to a hundred such questions, each deeply significant to a fully human life.
But how can the answers be clear if the terms used to frame the questions are not? These confusions have their own history, and they cannot be untangled without recourse to the epochs that first knotted them (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems“).
We must first seek a thread to pull on. The most powerful historical justification for truth claims has been for most of human history authority founded upon religious claims to truth and goodness. Its inability to retain the trust of its adherents in the face of challenge from other authority was laid bare in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). The shock to both private and public warrants for truth claims rocked Western civilization to its core. Imagine every truth, goodness, and beauty claim suddenly cast into dispute: all institutions doubted, all facts floating in air, all judgments of quality disputed, and all morality contended (see “Premodern Authority“). Of course, the Reformation was not primarily concerned with secular concerns but with far more important questions of eternal life, but what shattered consensus in religion reverberated through every truth and goodness claim in what had been called Christendom because religious authority had ultimately underwritten all of them and settled their disputes. Even today, slicing and dicing institutional authority is as easy as creating new hierarchies of power, so long as persons continue to trust the institution.The power of authority is its ease of justification. You have it when I accept it. It had always been the simplest of warrants constructed only upon that extension of trust (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). That ease of commitment led to an equally easy withdrawal of trust as soon as adherents accepted the possibility of challenge by competing authority. For even considering it must restore rational authority to the thinker so that she can arbitrate the competition between authorities. And how could the challenged authority respond? For fifteen generations, the tortured victims of vicious religious war sought the answer, sought it in the midst of a rabid contention. They tried to reinforce the tensioned trust, but how may that be accomplished once persons consider challenge? The effort in itself cannot succeed, but this appeal to trust coexisted with the power to compel acquiescence, the same connection that has given authoritarianism its unsavory connotations today. Unfortunately, this recourse must demolish the trust that authority had initially sought and so bring authority itself into disrepute. That prompted a desperate search for justifications to revise its practices.
In the midst of this crisis of confidence that occupied the entire seventeenth century, thinkers cobbled together their replacement from scratch, combining remnants of pre-Christian thought with those aspects of religious authority they could agree to. But as they began timidly suggesting new modes of justification, always groping for as much familiar authority as they could justify, they discovered themselves stuck upon the horns of a dilemma they could not reconcile. Authority requires a surrender of agency. That is, after all, the meaning of trust. I surrender my own judgment to you, trusting you to decide for me. For matters of truth, I forfeit my rational agency, and for goodness issues, I surrender my moral agency (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?“). This is why the crisis of authority was so devastating, for persons could not decide for themselves whom to trust, having surrendered the agency to decide. Only a reappropriation of rational and moral responsibility could resolve the claims of competing authority, but that would entail a rejection of authority in favor of claiming individual agency. Authority contested is authority destroyed. Should I renew my trust in either the original or the challenging authority, I must again surrender control. Should trust again face challenge, the painful process must begin again. The cycle of granting trust and reclaiming agency must inevitably end in the half-surrender so typical of today’s grant of trust to authority that has persons half in and half out of a surrender to trust.
Somewhere in the midst of competing doctrinal claims to certain truth and goodness, between the holy father and the defender of the faith, between competing dogmas and revelations, between revolting peasants and fanatical lords, authority itself came under suspicion and rational and moral agency was proclaimed as the right of the individual. Authority was out, and universal reason and private experience were in. This is modernism. Its axioms were founded upon personal autonomy and the power of the mind to direct experience to concord and happiness.
History since the seventeenth century has not exactly celebrated that operation, but once launched, the modernist experiment could hardly be steered or limited. Despite authority’s best efforts, it also could not be reversed. Modernism created our world, forging political institutions, science, and liberal society. For all the progress Western societies have enjoyed since the eighteenth century, two shadows stalked the modernist enterprise. The first involved the methods of modernism itself. Subjecting experience to reason and applying reason to experience are difficult tasks. The more logically one looks, the less certainty appears. From its beginnings, the modernist theorists played a long game of mutual dispute as later generations challenged the findings of earlier ones and individuals and cultures raised reasoned challenges to earlier conclusions. Nothing was ever settled, nothing indisputably true. What began as a critical endeavor ended as a cynical one as theorists challenged first the commonality of experience and then the reasoning on it. This modernist cannibalism is both inspiring and dispiriting, for it allows later thinkers to stand on the shoulders of earlier ones to built cumulatively verifiable conclusions based on the capabilities for analysis of universal reasoning on experience. How unlike the contentious pronouncements of dogmatists or the private revelations of heretics! But it was also dispiriting for knowledge was now justified merely by a preponderance of the available evidence, rendered tentative by an ever-rising wave of ever-closer examinations of experience. The paragon of this effort evolved over time into modern science, whose strictly controlled experiences and insistence on analysis produced very reliable knowledge indeed, at least for those very limited kinds of experiences that proved subject to its methodology. Paradoxically, over the course of the nineteenth century, empiricism’s tightening practice and extraordinary discoveries and inventions had cast its long shadow over ordinary reasoning by non-specialists, the kind of thinking known as common sense. By the beginning of the twentieth century, empirical science seemed the most convincing source of truth, the only contender left standing after the long disgrace of institutional authority. But even at its best, science faced a crippling limitation. Its descriptive power notwithstanding, it seemed entirely impotent to offer prescriptions, to address any issues of quality or morality (see “The Limits of Empirical Science“). This limitation was crippling to science’s prestige but also critical to social consensus, for no society can survive in a moral vacuum that fails to prescribe resolutions of disputes. This failure that only became apparent over the course of the twentieth century produced a second threat to modernism: the perpetual promise of authority’s resurrection. After all, issues of qualitative and moral goodness were its metier, and as a bonus authority offered a certainty that modernism’s tentativeness could never replace. It would take an extremely long historical view to see its failures, and life is short and memory shorter. It continues to offer an alternative to modernist axioms, despite its difficulties in any but a univocal cultural climate (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”). Its revival must always abrade against modernism’s elevation of individual agency. I hope it is clear that no compromise is possible. We have no Solomon to divide our autonomy. It will not be surrendered now.
The history of the last three centuries is comparable to a crazy car contested by two implacable drivers (see “The Victorian Rift”). The twentieth century added a third. Each thoughtful challenge to some political, economic, or epistemological theory might also be taken as an implicit questioning of the tenets of modernism itself. Granted, the lion’s share of criticism accurately charged that modernism was failing to live up to its own demands for rational and moral consistency, and so hypocrisy became the great sin of the epoch. Particularly during the nineteenth century’s pathological struggle with remnant authority, the great inconsistencies of modernist pretensions were laid bare. Were the crimes of Western culture to be its testimonial to universal reasoning and closely examined experience: its imperialism, colonialism, racism, sexism, and environmental destruction? Modernism had been born in the crisis of authority. It faced its own crisis at the beginning of the twentieth century (see “Modernism and Its Discontents“).
After World War I’s lunacy, a sustained effort began to do more than critique modernism’s axioms. Though it was not consistently formulated until the 1970’s, postmodernism finally offered its replacement axioms. It privileged environment as the maker of reasoning and identity and therefore challenged the two foundations of modernism. It detected hypocrisy everywhere: in the continued thrust of authority, in an irrationality that could in part be explained by the human sciences of psychology and Marxist economics. But then reality itself seemed irrational as Einstein demonstrated in 1916’s theory of general relativity. The new axiom was the plasticity of reason as formed by experience, paying due deference to the constructive powers of the unconscious, gender, race, nationality, or class. By the mid-twentieth century the signal became distinct from the noise: without common experience or reasoning capacity, how could persons resolve their disputes and form common consent? The answer sought to strip the pretty from experience: only power determines conflict resolution. And so our culture is obsessed with relationships of power divorced from morality. And that is hardly comforting (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“). It also gets us no closer to equitable settlement of discord (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements“). Given its failures, it is little wonder that persons wish to forfeit their agency to authority despite its struggles in a diverse climate resistant to its axioms.
To add to the fun of having three mutually exclusive axioms for all of our claims for truth, goodness, and beauty, we also operate in such an environment of thoughtless haste and disconnection that we allow ourselves to slip from one source of warrant to another through the course of our days, here elevating empirical science and there private experience and beyond that religious beliefs with little attention to their congruence or integration (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”). This is handy for finding speedy answers and self-esteem in the melee of experience, but less so for developing knowledge of and respect for the truth, and not at all for finding public moral consensus.