• Joe

Where should I look for the truth?

You and a friend are in a dispute about the origins and causes of the Great War. While your friend believes that the war is a direct result of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie Chotek, in Sarajevo at the hands of Gavrilo Princip, you believe that the answer is not as simple as that. Sure, the assassination of the archduke may be the most immediate cause of the war, but the fuse was lit many years earlier. The difference in opinion is underwritten by a difference in one's conception of truth, rather than a proper understanding of the origins of the war.

You explain to your friend that the causes of the Great War were many, not few. Germany, and other axis powers, had long been in an international political dispute with the allies. Besides the political acrimony that had accumulated during the opening decade of the twentieth century, fervent nationalism and militarism had become more widespread. There was Germany's development of the Dreadnought warship to challenge Britain's long dominance on the high seas. Also,, there was the imperialism in which European countries colonised parts of the African continent and disputed over so-called sovereign rights to that territory, each claiming African countries for their own. Disagreement over who had sovereign rights over African territories had contributed to growing resentment in Belgium, Germany, France, and Britain to name but a few.

For a dispute like this between you and your friend to be resolved it is not sufficient that we rely upon basic trivial knowledge, i.e., knowing of some events that played a contributory role in the occurrence of some event. Likewise, it is probably not enough for us to Google-know about an event. We Google-know when we pause and look up information using internet search engine. There's more to knowing the truth about historical events than what returns there are on Google. Here's Michael Lynch on "Google-knowing":

Much of what we know now we know via what we might call “Google-knowing” – by which I mean getting information not just via search engine but all manner of digital interfaces, such as the apps on our smartphones. There was a time when some snarled at the thought that “Google-knowing” was real knowing at all. (Remember when Wikipedia was controversial?) But that battle is thankfully over – nor was it necessary in the first place. According to one pretty standard definition of knowledge that goes back to Plato, Google-knowing obviously fits the bill. To know in this minimal sense is to have accurate and warranted information from a reliable source. If we are looking for a restaurant, and the directions we get online turn out to be accurate and from a reliable source, then we “know.”

Google-knowing is a matter of knowing about bits of information, but those bits of information haven't been organised in a matter that reflects adequate understanding of the events and how those events fit into other events. In fact, if you and your friend were engaged in a serious enough dispute that involves understanding all of the various nuances concerning all of the events leading up to the war, then we can imagine that you and your friend will spend a lifetime of study of all of the events leading up to the start of the Great War. This would, of course, make you and your friend experts on the origins of the Great War and historians or scholars of the war itself.

When you study history, you realise that the explanation of the occurrence of some events are not simple. There is not just one source of the event's occurrence; instead, there are many factors that played a part in the event's coming about. That the Great War's cause cannot be decided solely by the assassination should come as no surprise. There was a confluence of factors that played a part in the acrimony between the allies and the axis. Of course, there were the political disputes concerning control over the territories that have long been disputed across Europe. But there also was the religious, cultural, and social disputes had between different peoples across Europe. And how we study history matters too for determining the causes that played a part in the war's origin.

You may begin looking for the causes of an event by asking whether the event took place, i.e., whether there is evidence that shows the event took place. When it comes to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Chotak, you scour the historical record for evidence that the event took place. Maybe you begin by checking newspapers, personal journals, and history textbooks for the occurrence of the event. That seems like a straightforward way of testing whether the claim "Franz Ferdinand was assassinated" is true, if we consider that the proposition is true in virtue of corresponding to facts. But once you've resolved whether that particular event occurred, you have to ask whether it was that event alone that precipitated the events that compose the Great War or other causes may have played a contributory role in the war's eventuality.

Maybe you find that there was an arms race between the axis and allied powers beginning much earlier than the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The arms race had between Germany and Britain over the development of the largest and most fierce armada to have sailed the ocean may have taken a great amount of time beginning in the middle to late part of the nineteenth century. That arms race, however, may not have led to an immediate declaration of war between the countries, but there seems good reason to think that such an arms race between these superpowers contributed to hatred between the countries. Whoever had the best and fiercest armada would dominate a sea-borne war. The arms race cannot be ruled out as playing a partial causal role, but you don't go looking for truths about the arms race in the way you look for the truth of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Instead of scouring the newspapers and written text in history books, you look for internal documents for each country that admits of growing tension between them and the other countries. It is these tensions that lead the country to develop these weapons, building the greatest navy the world had ever seen. So, an arms race causally contributed to the origin of the Great War too.

But what matters most here is how one conceives of truth and the truth of statements about the war. When you return to the original statement: "The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Chotek, caused the Great War," you realise that, while correspondently true, it is not sufficient for appreciating the other causes of the war. Amongst other items we may include: "The naval arms race between Germany and Britain caused the Great War" or "African colonisation caused the Great War" would also fit into a coherent set of beliefs about the causes and origins of the Great War. Because we have opposing conceptions of truth, we have alternative explanations for the start of the Great War. Only when we come to appreciate our difference in opinion over our preconceptions of truth will we begin to resolve disagreements between us.

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