Thursday, December 22, 2011

Is there such a thing as truth, or just facts?

Has anyone noticed a pattern lately?

For the past several months, on and off in the marginally philosophical circles I occasionally run tangent to, I've seen a slight increase in the incidence of people distinguishing truth from facts, and it rubs me the wrong way.

I'm not saying I think there's a perfect correspondence between the two ideas.  There just seems, to me, to be a concerted effort to divorce truth and facts, a little undercurrent in human discourse that changes the direction of thought and discussion ever so subtly.

I'm not sure I can give an adequate definition of "truth" in this context; usually what I see is assertions or bald existential conclusions (perhaps justified by observation or reasoning somewhere, and not just presumed, but it's left as an exercise to the reader) that truth is unknowable or nonexistent and all we're left with are facts.

But when I learned what a fact was, I was taught that it was an objectively true idea or statement.  You can debate whether it's warm or cool, cold or hot--that would be a matter of opinion--but you can't argue that it's not winter on December 27 in the northern hemisphere.

There's some wiggle room, I get it--if there's a premature thaw and New Year's passes with highs in the 50s, then it's not really wintry weather--but we don't have to go there.  I could also say it's a fact that 2+2=4, that it's absolutely true, if we bar silly games with rounding and deviant numeral systems.  I'm not dealing with that right now; we can describe those situations with other facts.

There's truth and then there are facts?  Last I knew, if it wasn't true, it wasn't a fact.  Is the window open? It's true the window's open.  It's a fact that the window is open.  If the window were not open, it would not be true that it's open, and it wouldn't be a fact that the window was open.  You could say "It's open" anyway, but then you would simply be wrong.

It would be a fact that you said it's open, but that's not the same thing, and maybe therein lies the difference.  Still, it's a matter of the fact, the truth, being "You claimed, or believe, that the window is open," which if you're wrong could have nothing to do with the configuration of a window.  But then the fact is "someone asserted X," not "X" itself.  Sure, it's true someone asserted X, but I don't care about that any more than I care about how to label mild weather the week after Christmas; I care about X being true and what's going to happen to the snow.  Some things we can only have empirical evidence for, true (ha!), but some things are not empirical and nobody argues about it (see 2+2=4, above).

So, is the window open?  You say it's closed.  You're right, or you're wrong, or you define "closed" by some idiosyncratic criteria, or it's partway closed and you want to split hairs, but if you're not psychotic we can sort these things out.

You can claim any of these things.  Are they thereby facts?  No, the only facts are (1) whether the window is open or closed and (2) that you think something about it.  These things are true.  At first I gave the second as "what you think about it," but that's an opinion, not a fact.

The line between opinion and fact is getting blurred; all we're left with is what people think is going on around them, either poorly documented or uncamouflaged and called opinion or empirically documented and called a fact (even though the fact is not "well-documented X" but "we have observed X to be predominant condition," which is still contingent on statistics).

Anyone else noticing this?  Is it a recent development in philosophy that we can have "facts" with no truth value, or just some relativistic claptrap that has trickled down to the hoi polloi who consider themselves bright because they call themselves Bright?

I was annoyed enough when I first heard people making unequivocal assertions like "there is no objective truth," but this seems like an attack on the idea itself.  If we can no longer rise above the confusion to even conceive what "truth" would be, how could anyone claim there was such a thing, or that they had it?

Good question.  But I'm not playing.

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