When the late Christopher Hitchens was asked if he were shown irrefutable proof of the existence of God would he believe, he replied, “Of course I would, what an absurd question.” I don’t know if Mr. Hitchens was being modest or ironic by calling the question absurd, but he must have known that most people don’t let go of their core tenets with quite the same facility. Yet in an ideal world they should.
Ask yourself a similar question. If you were shown incontrovertible evidence that contradicted a pet theory, a new age belief, a religious conviction or even a time-honoured scientific verity, would you change your position? The extent to which you would dodge or qualify the question may give an insight into the extent to which your particular belief is unfalsifiable.
This may seem, on its surface, a trivial point, but I think it’s actually fundamental. It gets to the heart of how open any of us are to the actual truth — on a case-by-case basis. Most of us will defend our positions on any issue with a heartfelt declaration that our stance is motivated by a sincere search for the truth and nothing more, but when it comes right down to it we are in fact resistant to anything that interrupts or contradicts our most sacrosanct narratives.
Being guided by truth alone is hard. We are wired for bias and bias has many comforts. Try though we may to make it otherwise we are all biased. It’s a price we pay for being human. But that doesn’t mean we can’t fight the impulse. And indeed we should. Because that is the source of compassion and tolerance. That is how we are best able to see things the way others do.
In the spirit of the foregoing I am duty-bound to concede that Donald Trump’s forthcoming book, one that he is touting as a “book of all books,” of course, may turn out to be a truthful confession — I just don’t see how. I refuse to be so open-minded that my brains fall out. First of all I’m not even sure he’s writing a book. The man lies the way most of us breathe. But whatever he writes, if he writes anything at all, I do know this, there are people who will believe in his “mother of all books” no matter how absurd it may be, no matter how easily refuted the lies contained in it may prove. That is the essence of unfalsifiability.
It would be easy for me to say that Trump’s book is a failure before he’s even written a word. But that would be too facile. That would be my bias speaking. There are in fact millions of people who will buy it and put it in a prominent place on their coffee tables. As with many of the Germans of the 1930s and “Mein Kampf,” they may never actually get around to reading it, but some will. And those that do will believe every single word of it.
There exists no photographic or DNA evidence, no movie, no polemic, no combination of words that can sway the true Trump idolator. He or she will never for a moment so much as entertain the possibility that he or she might be wrong about Trump. Trump has an audience of millions ready to believe anything he writes. Their devotion to every word is already foregone before a single word is written.
Politically and legally Trump is making a huge mistake. Books have even more permanence than tweets, and they can and will be used against him in a court of law. So I say write on, Mr. Trump. Write it all down. His followers who think his every word is gospel and contains nothing but truth could very well learn the bitter lesson that that kind of “truth” can send you directly to prison. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.