Lesson 16: Truth and Virtual Reality

Virtual RealityLooking back over this series, I realize how much I was compelled to continue, because the news every last morning provided a new set of lies spewed out by public officials to whom we had given our trust. That compulsion also was fired by the large number of people who repeatedly told me this disregard for truth caused them to worry deeply about the future of humanity. It is no wonder that the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary picked post-truth as the 2016 word of the year. They defined it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

If objective fact is no longer an ultimate standard, a post-truth world is a virtual reality. Using virtual reality in this fashion includes but goes beyond the images created by a computer. It also includes but goes beyond the artificial environment constructed by modern technology. Such a world is one of our own creation, a fantasy with all sorts of cultural and religious ramifications.

Culturally, a post-truth world is associated with the deterioration of language that we see all around us. Conversation is the basis of the interaction between people in a society and therefore is essential in its search for truth. Fundamental in this search is the trust that others are using words honestly in the same way that we are. People have always become angry and frustrated when they felt their trust was betrayed. In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle sang, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!” when the words spoken around her did not correspond to the actions of those speaking them. So, too, we have always trusted that words established a common sense and shared understanding. If that trust breaks down, chaos and anxiety descend upon us. When Polonius asked Hamlet what he was reading, he responded with the same, “Words, words, words,” complaining that the written word that used to provide meaning in his world was now useless. All appeared madness after his discovery that his uncle had murdered his father and married his mother.

In our present post-truth world, we are led and surrounded by egomaniacs who Tweet rather than converse. Few can even put together a coherent sentence in their outpourings of words to express what they believe and want. Families report their best conversations are in cars in which they do not have to look into each other’s eyes rather than around a dinner table where intimate sharing takes place. Conversation has been reduced to self-assertion.

Religiously, a virtual reality is a denial of the order that defines God’s creation. Religion also depends on words, language, and conversation. It is no accident that the scriptures from beginning to end picture our relationship with God as a conversation in which we engage with God’s Word. And again, it is no accident that the primary sacrament takes place around a table. Martin Luther defined sin as being turned in on self. It is to live completely in a world of your own creation, not interacting in a significant way with other people or with God. In many ways, sin can be described as living in a virtual reality.

Often the post-truth world is characterized by gridlock, which prevents anything creative from being accomplished. We commonly lament that this points to our inability to compromise and define that as recognizing you have to give up something in order to achieve at least part of what you want. Sadly, that focuses on a secondary and negative feature of the word. The primary and positive definition of compromise has to do with sharing in order to attain a common good. It has far more to do with that which is mutually beneficial than with that which I have to give up.

Gridlock is a stalemate commonly associated with traffic jams in which cars beep loudly to voice displeasure but contribute nothing to the solution of the problem. The solution in the real world depends on those at the front of the line conversing in one way or another, making promises with one another, such as “You go first, I’ll wait” and “Okay, I trust that you will not hit me. Thanks.” Of course, that is too simple, but it certainly characterizes the need for trust and conversation in this post-truth world. And it helps understand that the primary Christian virtue is love that inherently includes forgiveness and self-denial.

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  1. Derek says:

    As a computer engineer, at first I was bugged by the hijacking of the term “virtual reality,” but I came to appreciate the rich irony of it happening in a post including dictionary definitions and the assertion ” Fundamental in this search is the trust that others are using words honestly in the same way that we are.”

    But more than that I think this post hits on an aspect of modern rhetoric that perhaps is new to our time; the fight over what words themselves mean or reclaiming or creating new ones to frame and issue. For example “evangelical,” reclaiming slut or, more successfully, reclaiming queer, new terms like “cis,” and new uses for words like “woke” or “cuck.”

    I suppose, really, none of that is so new. Perhaps neither is this “post-truth” business. The ancient Greeks understood that ethos and pathos were as important if not more important than logos.

    Perhaps what is new is the speed it can happen, the reach someone can have, and the ability to organize to deliberately act to change the language.

    However if we are going to fight over the meaning of words, I’d back the fight to twist the meaning of compromise to the more positive vision of it presented above. That might go some distance to making our world more effective and pleasant, not just at the national level, but among acquaintances in our lives.

  2. John Myers says:

    Truth. What is it? Why does it matter? What does it mean to me….or, you? I agree that we are living in a post-truth world. Obvious lies by those we’ve trusted with (and for discourse of) truth, have no consequences. If we do not expect the truth from our leaders any longer, and we expect lies – how can we expect them to lead us? If they create a false world, entirely of their own making, in which we are expected to digest these lies…….then, if we do….we become part of the lie. Stop the carnival ride, I want off.

    In looking at our world today, I can’t help but see the similarities to the movie “Idiocracy” where truth has no meaning. Take a look at this movie to check the window for what that vision of society looks like, and to see if you recognize our path.

    I need truth in my life. We are told truth is whatever you want it to be. Jesus Christ is my mooring rock of truth in this crashing sea of turmoil around us. Without it we are adrift, life and truth have no meaning. I am human. I need boundaries and I need light in my life – hope, and to know there is something more than all this darkness.

  3. Kerry says:

    This has really been an incredible series. Thanks so much for your insights in it!

  4. Fr. Jude says:

    “Compromise,” like “conversation,” can only have any kind of positive affect IF there is common ground, or as the lesson notes, an understanding of the “common good.”

    I assume that would be our first “project:” to determine what it is we can all agree on is the “common” good for our society.

    But who among the Christians is going to be the first to compromise to get to that determination? There’s no room for compromise in “The Risen Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Living God, is Lord of all.”

    This is not just a mere pious platitude, but finds expression in the real world, as, for example, in the abortion debates: the “right-to-life” crowd has now taken to calling the other side “baby killers.” I’ve heard this any number of times right here in my little monastic community. The exact statement of it was, “If you are not absolutely 100% against abortion, you are colluding with baby killers.” (These are the same men, by the way, who also say things like, “It makes as much sense to ordain a woman as it does to ordain a cow” and “I don’t believe in global warming, but I act like I do.” I struggle continually to find a way to compromise with all that!)
    There could be some solace in the mechanism our secular democracy provides for resolving opposite sides to some sort of compromise – that is, the ballot box. After all, Hillary Clinton got 66 million voters and the #So-Called.President got 63 million votes, so right there is one hell of a compromise. Yet, somehow, the winners in that one don’t seem to be either taking or giving any solace from that compromise.

    Before Reagan got busy in the White House, the nominal marginal tax rate for the 1% class was something like 90% (at least that’s what the Republicans always whined about). It currently stands at something below 40%. Now there’s one HELL of a compromise. The super-rich got their nominal tax rate cut more than in half. What’s more, they are still not satisfied and the current tax reform bill the Republicans have cued up wants even more compromise for those who already have just about all the money.

    The Affordable Care Act: the President compromised away with the private healthcare insurers; the leadership of the Senate Finance Committee compromised at every turn with the Republicans during the crafting of that legislation. The result: no (as in zero – another hard-to-compromise-with position) Republicans voted for the bill in either the House or the Senate. And the private healthcare insurers have reinvigorated that all-time favorite “no compromise” position: “but, but, but…we’re losing money on this.”

    Is it any wonder, then, that my question is: Why is it that the hostages are always being asked to compromise with the kidnappers?

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