On Truth and Facts

While sitting in my dorm reading about Memetics I was struck by an idea that snowballed into a vague philosophical discussion with myself regarding the difference between “Truth” and “facts.” Before I begin I will put a big, fat disclaimer here in that I am not a philosopher, or at least not a very traditional (read: efficient) one. This is less an argument than an idea, or lens. View it creatively, if at all.

That being said I will begin by pointing out that when I say Truth I mean capital-T Truth. This is Truth as a Universal principal. I am not referring to things that are true, because that begins to fall into the realm of facts. Truth is guided by philosophical inquiry, and logical methodology; facts, on the other hand, are information derived from Empirical evidence. We can use research to develop facts that tell us what makes people happy from a neurological perspective, but that doesn’t mean we have a fact of what the best method of governance is, or what the role of governance is. What we have are forms of Truth: yes, forms in the plural. Truth, as I am referring to it, is a variety of conclusions based upon certain logical determinations.

What complicates matters even more is that Truth has a tendency to spread itself even when it contradicts Facts. Memetically, Truth can be read as a unit of culture closely tied to belief. Truth is rarely defeated with facts when it is supported by forms of belief because Truth is not necessarily determined by facts but by logical systems (even if the logic can be disputed). Communism is a philosophical and political ideology built upon a logical argument, and it is very difficult to prove that argument actually false because it is a practical Truth that is intended to be applied to the way we live. What can effectively endanger a Truth like communism is experience. If I use the facts of the brutality and shortcomings of the Soviet system, there are other facts to oppose them (it wasn’t entirely ineffective depending on region, needs, and time period), and some might say that bad execution does not change the Truth itself. But, if someone who follows Communist Truth has a negative experience in Soviet Russia, (or Soviet Czechoslovakia, or Maoist China etc.) they are much more likely to abandon or adjust the Truth which they live by. (This is, of course, not a phenomenon limited to Communism, but Communism encounters this argument quite a lot).

Truth is rarely composed of pure fact or pure fiction. Instead, Truth may be composed of facts, narratives, lies, principles, associations, and assumptions all at once. When facts oppose a Truth, they may be discarded on the principle of Truth itself: “it just doesn’t feel right,” “but how does that affect me?”, “tradition says otherwise,” “maybe in theory, but not in practice.” This can clearly seen with Pollution Thinking: when we see something “unclean” we often assume we should not touch it under any circumstances. If a cockroach gets into a glass of water it is not uncommon for people to avoid drinking the water, even if it proved to be clean. We naturally have certain systems and beliefs about what is clean and what is not because our biology is trying to be safe. Sometimes this leaks into cultural beliefs: see the Untouchables of the caste system for example, or the way certain races are portrayed as “unclean” and not to be interacted with. We build assumptions that are, in a sense, built out of biological necessities: I know substance A makes me sick, person B is associated with that substance, person B is assumed to make me sick even without encountering substance A. These ways of thinking are very difficult to break without actual experience that proves the contrary, much like irrational fears being weaned through exposure therapy. This is not easy, however, when a polluted thought is not just an isolated instance but a large group or cultural tradition – a polluted Truth.

All this leads me to a point about the alternative facts phenomenon that has been all the rage in the media as of late. Most forms of media – regardless of what they might say – produce Truth centered material, not just facts. Reliable sources tend to use more facts, but they don’t simply produce a large packet of facts that people can read. When a figure of power who espouses a particular Truth is attacked with empirical facts, it doesn’t need to effect them much if they aren’t encountering experiences to change their opinions, but if that person in power relies on followers it produces a potential problem because the facts being leveled against them also incite behaviors from other people that can form experiences. By branding Truths as “alternative facts” the ideology is separated from Empirical responsibilities, and therefore the proponents of said Truth are also separated from said responsibilities.

This is not to say that these models of Truth are inherently bad and that fact is the only way to consider anything. There are many political, religious, and artistic ideologies that utilize rational logic (and even irrationality), narrative, and assumption positively with little interaction with empirical facts. It might even be said, if my assumption that experience is the best way to introduce fact into Truth, that widespread and deeply rooted harmful Truths are best fought with other Truths to produce experiences.

My point here is to notice certain patterns of rhetoric, and the way that this rhetoric complicates matters of discussion and understanding of Truths and facts. We must be careful lest we convince ourselves that they are the same, or that they are completely separate, for either path will bear poisonous fruit.

-PHH

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