If you know the facts do you have the truth? Many would say ‘yes’! A few would say ‘no’.
What is a fact. The dictionary defines a fact as “Something believed to be true or real.” Facts may be real but are they true?
At one time many considered it a fact that the world was flat! Any sensible person in that day could see that it was and only a fool would say otherwise. If you consider a fact something that is true because you and everybody else agree on it you are on shaky ground. Those kinds of facts often turn out to be untrue. There is no democratic way of voting on whether or not a particular statement served up as a ‘fact’ is true or false. The scientific method is the best way I know to determine what the facts are.
Yet, the scientific method gives only a partial picture of the facts. Newtonian mechanics describe all the facts needed to put a rocket ship in orbit around the earth but falls short in explaining why light bends around the sun. Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolution tells us that the fact are re-interpreted with every paradigmatic shift. In the paradigm shift from Newtonian mechanics to Einsteinian Space-time, not only are ‘old facts’ re-interpreted; new facts come into being such as space is curved and not ‘flat’! Facts are not absolute and are open to interpretation Facts can be found to be wrong. Facts come into being with new ways of thinking about reality – new theories.
Science will help us determine what the facts are but can never by itself tell us the ‘whole truth and nothing but the truth’. Many people don’t realize this and are all to eager to accept any ‘scientific opinion’ as truth. Ignorance makes for many mistaken beliefs about the world. Honest scientists would agree and tell you that they are not immune to the limitations of their discipline. A ‘scientific fact’ can be a slippery fish to handle.
Perhaps the purest of all ‘sciences’ – mathematics – can give us a better grasp on facts and let us determine once and for all which facts are true absolutely. In Euclidean geometry the sum of the interior angles of any triangle always adds up to 180 degrees. That’s a fact! Or is it? That depends on whether or not the space where the triangle is being drawn is curved or flat! In Lobachevsky’s geometry, the fact is the interior angles of a triangle always add up to something less than 180 degrees. And in Spherical geometry the sum of the interior angles of a triangle always add up to something greater than 180 degrees! Even the most rigorously determined ‘facts’ can contradict each other when taken out of context. Even mathematical facts are not absolute!
Mathematics in its purest form has nothing to do with what we call the ‘real world’. It is of the mind alone. Only in the mind where the material world cannot intrude does 2 and 2 always make 4. In the real world, context is everything; 2 fish and 2 birds do not make 4 of either kind. Mathematics may be applied to the material world but it is always bound up in the context of its application. Like science, mathematics is an activity and process that produces facts within a context that are not necessarily true outside the constraints of that context.
Finally, many would retreat from all of this and claim that what they can see in front of them or touch or hear or taste provide the only true facts available to sensible people. The only problem with this is that strictly speaking we are not all that ‘sensible’. Our vision has a ‘blind spot‘. Our hearing is limited. Our taste and touch can be confused. Like Snitter, in Richard Adams’ book The Plague Dogs, we can get trapped in the backyard shed of our own head’ by believing all there is – is what we can detect from the very small windows of our limited senses.
The truth is there are no facts that are absolutely true. Facts are made up, fabricated by our observations and inclinations. Facts are created and depend upon the context of their creation. Facts are fallible! Facts do provide a daily workable reality that helps us live in a predictable world as long as we don’t push them to hard!
If you’re looking to find the truth, it can’t be found in the facts alone. Once scientists believed that mice spontaneously ‘arose’ out of piles of cheese wrapped in rags left in a dark corner. These scientific’ facts were proven wrong. New facts about life were developed. Today, many believe that the truth will arise out of piles of dead facts. This is like looking for mice to arise out of piles of cheese wrapped in old rags. If you want the truth you have to go beyond the facts. Mathematics and science can only provide facts which are not absolute and are subject to change over time and context.
The truth is the facts don’t have much to do with what’s true. They can only give a partial picture the reality of our world at best.