I have known many men who wished to deceive, but none who wished to be deceived. –St. Augustine
“Fake news” has become big news in recent months. How could the proliferation of deliberately fabricated articles be a good thing?
It’s in the outcry against fake news, coming from both liberal and conservative corners. The clamoring is good the way a person’s recognizing the symptoms of a serious illness is good. Those symptoms alert him that things are not the way they ought to be. Similarly, the concern over fake news affirms that what gets reported as factual should indeed, uh, you know, conform to reality.
This assertion shouldn’t require a robust defense. And yet…
Ours is a world where various ideologies seek to distort—and the dictatorship of relativism strives to corrupt—the truth and its integrity. Contrary to St. Augustine’s observation above, some of our contemporaries do indeed “seem to want to be lied to.” And therefore, any defense of the existence of some objective truth—the truth that we all have the natural capacity, desire, and right to know—is a great thing. Remember, “post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2016. But even in this post-truth era, when veritas seems to have been taken off the menu, we do not stop hungering for it. “[T]he absence of truth,” Robert Cardinal Sarah asserts, “is man’s real poverty.” We would starve without it.
Another reason why fake news has proven so unsettling is because it draws attention to a simple but seldom-considered reality: we rely heavily on the testimony and authority of others to arrive at the truth.
We certainly prefer to find truth by means of personal verification: Let me see it with my own eyes. Or better yet, I’ll run some experiments. Then I’ll have certitude.
Nevertheless, there are limits to how much can be found out by personal verification. I cannot, for example, verify the precise month, day, and year I was born. I was there, of course, but I have to accept the testimony of others that it happened when and where it happened. I can’t be certain, strictly speaking. All I can do is rely on the strength of others’ testimony. I have to trust.
We accept many more truths on the basis of witnesses and testimony than we do on personal verification. “Nothing would remain stable in human society,” St. Augustine observes, “if we determined to believe only what can be held with absolute certainty.” Indeed, it would be impossible to live a functional human life without accepting anything on the basis of another’s word.
Another word for this assent to others’ testimony is faith.
We all live by faith.
Faith is often misconstrued as believing in something in the face of evidence to the contrary, or in something for which evidence cannot be provided. But essentially faith involves giving assent based on some intellectual process. When we defer to another with expertise or believe a person’s testimony, do we do so unthinkingly? On the contrary, we do so critically. Reason helps us weigh, evaluate, interpret, and explain what we believe and why. Faith and reason are not only compatible, but they work together all the time. By them we are properly conformed to reality. By them we form our convictions.
As Christians, our conviction is that the fullness of truth is a Person: Jesus Christ. Faith in Him is a gift (CCC §153), but at the same time God has supplied various signs and aids to faith: Scriptural testimony, Tradition, the Church’s apostolic foundations, her survival and spreading, the holiness of the saints, the witness of the martyrs, the intelligibility of doctrine, miracles, answered prayers, beautiful liturgy, the sacraments. All of these testify, in different ways, to the truth of the Faith. God has spoken the truth to us, and therefore we can have faith in supernatural realities.
The early Church saw her fair share of fake news. The chief priests, for example, put their own spin on the truth of the Resurrection. St. Matthew exposed this false narrative (the chief priests “can’t even lie plausibly!”, remarked St. John Chrysostom), subsuming it into his proclamation of the good news.
Increased sensitivity to falsehood is a good thing. If truth-seeking leads to Truth-seeking, as far as today’s fake news is concerned, it will have actually been great news indeed.
Image by Olu Eletu