Nietzsche and Nachura on truth

A fascinating Socratic dialogue took place in the closing hours of the recent congressional canvass.  The young articulate party-list representative from Sanlakas, JV Bautista, asked Western Samar representative Eduardo Nachura: “What is truth? Is it not the opposite of doubt?” Nachura, a dean of law, took a long professorial breath and answered: “Doubt is not the opposite of truth; a lie is.”  I was waiting for someone to define truth, but no one did.

“Truth is a mobile army of metaphors,” wrote Nietzsche, the philosopher who had the most radical things to say about truth.  In a passage that could have been written for Dean Nachura, Nietzsche expressed the same thought when he said that to tell the truth is “to lie in accord with a fixed convention.”

I do not think Nietzsche meant to deny the existence of truth. But he was opposed to the prevalent idea that truth is what corresponds to the essence of things.  He wanted to remind us that our notions of truth are conventional, that is, representations of things that, “after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and obligatory.”

Particularly among lawyers and politicians, truth is perhaps not a very useful concept, except for rhetorical purposes.  Thus, for example, the opposition speaks of the truth of the precinct-level election returns (ERs) while the majority refers to the truth of the provincial and city certificates of canvass (COCs). There is, of course, the more basic truth of the ballot, Nachura pointed out.  If we go to the ERs because we are not satisfied with the COCs, what will prevent us from inquiring into the truth locked in every ballot?  Where do we stop, he asked without expecting an answer.

Truth to tell, the ballot too may not speak for itself.  The ballots that voters cast in an election are supposed to represent the will of the people.  But how does one prove the correspondence between ballots and the popular will, except by resorting to yet another set of representations? Like elections, surveys, exit polls, independent counts are nothing but representations of the public will.  They are subject to the same conditions that may constrain the will of voters. In a dictatorship, we may feel justified in saying that elections do not represent the popular will. But even where overt coercion does not exist, we know that other conditions prevent people from manifesting their “true” will.  I refer not only to the weaknesses of an electoral system that permits blatant acts like vote-padding and vote-shaving, but to the multiple vulnerabilities that voters bring into the polling booth as a result of poverty, ignorance, and powerlessness.

No, the truth of the popular will was not the issue in the last elections. For as long as majority of our people live in absolute poverty, it is senseless to speak of the popular will.  As in past elections, the sovereign will of our people was compromised at every turn by the urgency of their survival needs.

What was at issue rather was the relative validity of election results conducted by a deficient Commission on Elections. The rules confined the congressional canvass to the COCs, except in those instances when erasures and alterations found in the COCs tended to cast doubt on the authenticity of the documents.  Doubt however is far from being a shared experience.  When put to a vote, it was resolved in favor of keeping the election returns closed.  Canvassing – the act of determining the due execution and authenticity of election documents – became, in the hands of Congress, a highly partisan procedure.

Outnumbered and outvoted, members of the opposition found themselves trapped in an exercise they could not hope to win.  They questioned the authenticity of the COCs from several provinces and demanded to check the totals against the results locked in precinct election returns.  Calling their demand unwarranted, the majority insisted that “authenticity” meant nothing more than sameness of all existing duplicates or copies of the COC.  They told the opposition, “you have the same COCs, you should have checked their accuracy against their source documents and protested at the time these were prepared and given to you.”  Underlying this position was the view that the congressional canvass was not intended to be a final check on the veracity of results from the lower stages of the count but rather the end point of a presumptively honest count.

I do not believe that the minority thought at any point that they could persuade the majority to give in and allow the public to take a peek at even one electoral return.  But it was important for the public to see the reasonableness of their demand.  In this limited sense, I think they succeeded.  The message that the administration was hiding something behind those COCs was a very powerful one, and I think it has tainted President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s claim to the presidency.

But if the point was to present Fernando Poe Jr. as the winner, the opposition could have strengthened their case and made it compelling if they had offered their own “true” count per province based on their own tabulation of the election returns. It was not enough to show proof of fraud in various precincts; it was important to show concretely how many votes were fraudulently given to GMA and how many were taken away from FPJ.  The opposition managed to show that GMA cheated but it was unable to prove that FPJ actually won.

The truth will set you free, says the Bible.  Not all truths are worth knowing, says Nietzsche.  I hope he was right.