Defending the Lion; The Vulnerability of Truth

“The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.”

The above quote, attributed to St Augustine, has been doing the rounds as an inspirational meme for some time. Occasionally it will pop up on one of my social media streams, posted by somebody who I assume has faith that fact will prevail in the face of falsehood. And of course, I certainly hope that it will – but I disagree strongly with St Augustine’s sentiment. Based on my observations, I believe that the lion of this metaphor is vulnerable and that we do need to fight to defend it.

Ethical truths, which are highly subjective (and as such, it is highly debatable whether they are indeed truths at all), do not defend themselves – if they did, surely I would not be repulsed by honour killings, as those who commit them are behaving in a manner according to the ethical truth with which I find indefensible, that bringing dishonour to one’s family is a greater crime than murdering them. We would not have an anti-abortion/pro-choice debate, nor a euthanasia debate, nor disagreements regarding the death penalty. If ethical truths could defend themselves, should they not convince us all of their merit?

Likewise, logical truths are not agreed upon by all – be it through a lack of exploration or exposure to concepts, alternate well-argued conclusions or cognitive dissonance.

The clearest of all truths though, factual truths backed by solid evidence, are still vulnerable to falsehoods – some of which when taken as truth present real risks to our society.

The truth that vaccination is the safest and most effective means by which we can protect ourselves from vaccine preventable diseases (and that these diseases are a real threat to human health and life) is continually under attack from anti-vaccination advocates – and to some in our community, the anti-vaxxers can be persuasive, resulting in both danger to individuals’ health and lowered herd immunity in our communities. As such, I find it imperative that vaccination advocates defend the truth; and I am honoured to know many people who spend a lot of their time and energy doing just that.

Likewise, fluoridation of our water supply is a safe way to ensure that our population’s dental health is maintained, but anti-fluoridation activists believe differently. Not only are these activists able to convince individuals with their rhetoric, they can also influence policy to the extent that entire regions remove fluoride from their water supply as a result of their campaigning. In this case, to maintain evidence-based public health policy, we must defend the truth.

The truths that fringe conspiracy theorists deny – that the moon landing occurred, that chemtrails are merely contrails, that the reptilians or Illuminati are unlikely to be controlling the world behind the scenes – arguably cause far less harm to communities and relatively little to the individuals who believe them (this moon landing hoaxer aside), but they do serve as examples of situations in which the truth is not defending itself. I’m inclined to spend less time defending these truths, though I do tend to take issue with the conspiracy theorists’ undermining of rational evidence-based thinking.

lion of truth

It is probable that St Augustine was referring to the biblical truth in which he believed – that the truth of his god would prevail without his defense. Clearly at this point in human history it has not, given the wide array of beliefs and lack thereof held by the people of this planet. His biblical truth is not defending itself.

We humans are capable of manipulating our world, both with concepts and with actions. Both metaphorically and in reality, we have rendered the lion vulnerable; and it relies our protection if it is to prevail. The benefits of defending the lion and whether we have a moral imperative to do so are truths to be explored.

Ethically, logically and factually, St Augustine’s truth, that truth can defend itself, does not hold true for me.

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3 comments

  1. It probably does help to define “truth” in such a discussion, even a casual one among armchair philosophers like ourselves. I wouldn’t use “truth” to refer to any ethical or moral issue; as you point out, there’s far too much legwork in defending them for things to be self-evident. For something to be “true” in an ethical sense, I would take to mean something (very roughly) like, “An internally consistent idea whose premises and assumptions lead to no obvious contradictions or fallacies in its conclusions.” This seems like a confusing and quite bounded way of describing truth, and I find it unhelpful, because people might think you’re referring to an “ultimate” truth.

    The use of “truth” in a scientific sense is generally taken as shorthand for something like, “Accepted provisionally as the current best explanation or model for a phenomenon, falsifiable in principle and open to revision and improvement.” I’m happy calling something “true” in this sense, if only because it’s less of a mouthful, and I’m usually speaking with people who share my use and understanding of terms.

    Logical and mathematical truths are, for me, the easiest to support. I think we should distinguish between:

    1. The limits of a logical system, as shown by party-poopers like Godel and Russell
    2. Misapplication/ignorance of the accepted rules, e.g. getting your calculations wrong along the way or falling for a common fallacy
    3. Denying the relevance of logic to a particular domain of inquiry

    Most of the arguments you see in the wild are all centred around (2). Sometimes they’re tough to tease out, sometimes they’re shining examplars of a particular fallacy, e.g. antivaxxers who affirm the consequent with the Galileo Gambit:

    – If I am right and the majority is wrong, I will be attacked for it.
    – I am being attacked.
    – Therefore, I am right and the majority is wrong (no, you’re being attacked because you’re a dangerous fool.)

    If I find someone using (3) in a variation of what Stephen Law calls “Going Nuclear” (http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com.au/2011/09/going-nuclear.html) I usually just mumble an excuse and defenestrate myself quickly from their presence.

    Re your tweets earlier today on moral relativism: It seems that some people think that accepting the concept of moral relativism (there are no “objective” moral truths; a relatively straightforward position for us heathens) means we’re consequently obliged to accept all moral or cultural systems as equal, and to refrain from judgement. But that seems like a non sequitir to me … they’re separate ideas. I can certainly understand why we’d be hesitant to pass rash judgements, thanks to the delights of our colonial past, but that doesn’t leave us in an all-or-nothing position. The world is a place full of practical requirements, and we can’t improve things by having all the thoughtful people sitting on the sidelines for too long while Type 1 dullards full of Dunning-Kruger juice f*ck it up on the field.

    BTW as far as Augustine goes, I’d much rather see a meme based on “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” That can be your homework. 🙂

  2. Have no fear. It is very likely Augustine did not say that. So the quote defending the truth may be a falsehood. Go figure

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