- Correspondence and coherence theories of truth dispute the nature of fact.
- Empirical science now provides our clearest understanding of facticity.
- Mathematical identities are not facts, nor are analytic, a priori truth claims.
- Postmodernism views facts as the products of consciousness.
- Scientific facts and the “facts of experience” are incompatible; the scientific method attempts to minimize the distortions of undistilled experience.
- Science is composed of more than facticity.
- Scientism is a belief system that discounts any declaration not founded upon empiricism; it regards moral claims as white noise.
- Because it is composed in part of private desire, no belief can be a correspondence fact, but every belief can be a coherence fact to the believer.
- Though all sides appeal to facticity as evidence of indubitability, no consensus on the nature of fact exists.
- I propose defining fact as “a datum of experience” which is a broadly inclusive definition that privileges the simplest perceptual experience.
- I propose that this inclusive definition of fact be matched to a more exclusive meaning of judgment as a publicly defensible declaration.
- No belief can be a judgment because belief is not a public warrant.
- Empiricism, expertise, and competence are built upon replicable judgments.
In ancient Greece, Democritus imagined a little pebble that might resolve the riddle of constancy and change in material reality. He named it the atom. He could hardly have guessed that two thousand years later, John Dalton would propose atoms as more than figurative, rather as the actual building blocks of the elements. And Dalton could never have imagined that Gareth Thomas would confirm their real existence by actual observation in 1983. So, I ask you, when did the “atom” become a fact of nature? In a more general sense, we may ask when does any truth claim achieve that exalted status of facticity? The atom was first a metaphor, then a theory, and then a percept. At what point did it achieve that exalted status of “fact”? In this case, we know theories about the building blocks of material reality have more often been wrong than right. The word “atom” means “cannot be divided,” and as we all know, that is incorrect. All atoms are divisible into protons, electrons, and neutrons, and these can be further subdivided into the exotic pixels of quantum states: quarks, muons, gluons, Higgs particles. As physics digs deeper into what we still think of as the fundamental unit, it continues to discover just how complex and very odd the atom is. The same can be said for everyone’s favorite truth nugget: a fact. We want it to be the indivisible unit of ideational reality. But we are clearly living in the age that will disabuse us of the simplistic notion that facts are stubborn things, or even that they are things at all. We want our opinions, theories, and beliefs to be built on the hard foundation of factual evidence. We bristle with indignation when marketers or political partisans dare to challenge the cliché that you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. We condemn even the possibility of “alternate facts.” because we desire a bedrock thing we can use to prove ourselves right and perhaps even more to prove others wrong. But if a fact is not the indivisible unit of truth, if it can be parsed into something more basic and more essential to its truth, what could that thing be? Science has split atoms. What discipline can split facts?
It can’t be political science or journalism. The babble of partisanship has fragmented politics and the media. Disputants think their opponents deficient in intelligence or that vaporous thing, empathy, but no matter the issue, the same diagnoses fail to resolve the same illness (see “Empathy: A Moral Hazard”). It now seems almost quaint for defenders of journalistic standards or arbiters of social media to insist that we seek consensus in matters of fact, for when they mine for that bedrock of truth, they seem to be still drilling into the marshy ground of belief and opinion. It seems there’s no there there. And when some staunch investigative journalist or Facebook warrior finally rises triumphantly from the muck of dispute gripping that nugget of indisputable truth she has dredged up from the mud, it changes nothing. The media still think the hardness of fact equates to truth itself, but societal shifts have cracked their facts like a bag of walnuts. They have no language to describe either what has broken it or what it has broken into.
Only epistemology does, for the study of knowledge has long cleaved truth claims by a critical analysis of their constituents. And though it could never claim to be a science, epistemology can crack the nut of facticity and examine what we all see there. That begins with finding a consensual definition.
I’ll save you the futility of looking it up. The Oxford Dictionary defines “fact” as “a thing that is known or proved as true.” Even for this elemental meaning, the term is entangled with knowing or proving. We can look these terms up as well, but perhaps a second definition will save us the trouble. Nope. “Information used as evidence” only spurs us to define information and evidence. When we research the meaning of all of these terms, we enter the spacious playing fields of epistemological doubt. “To know” means everything from “be acquainted with” to “be absolutely certain of.” “To prove” means “to demonstrate” or “to establish.” But to whose satisfaction and by what standard? We see these same expansive possibilities when we return to the meaning of “fact,” for a secondary application refers gauzily to “a situation under discussion” as when we say, “the fact of the matter is…” Lest we too much enjoy these gaping openings for the injection of our opinions, the very next application returns us to sobriety: “the truth about events as opposed to interpretation.” To paraphrase Pontius Pilate, now just what do you mean by the truth? Isn’t that supposed to be what we find after we have found the facts, not the means by which to locate them?
We come by our confusions about fact honestly, it seems, for they are inherent to the term. I am convinced epistemology can untangle this mess. But that effort begins by acknowledging that the history of theories of knowledge has paralleled the study of the atom, with entire systems of thought built upon facticity, only to be challenged by others seeking their bedrock at other depths. Nevertheless, epistemologists have learned much about what are and are not facts, though we are by no means finished with the analysis. Allow me to explain where I think we are in the quest and to propose a consensual definition of fact that all sides can use to find them. Three candidates are currently on offer.
First, there is indeed a branch of human endeavor that defines facticity just as we would all like it to be: as a truth almost certain. Unsurprisingly, its practitioners have worked tirelessly to establish the conditions under which facts may be found. Equally unsurprisingly, that area is empirical science. In its disciplines, “fact,” means proved or established. That might return us to our starting point, but it actually moves us forward because science’s meaning of these terms is well understood. Proving and establishing lies at the heart of its method of controlled experience, close observation, and precise reportage. But as impressive as its proofs have been, its methodology cannot address all of our experiences (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). Even so, empiricism’s rigor gives us a very good sense of how a fact may be determined, not as the dictionary would require it, “with certainty,” but by a somewhat lower standard: “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Even this lowering of the bar for facticity must preclude most of what we experience. Read any article in any scientific journal to see how rarified these sorts of facts must be. Yet despite all of its effort to be rigorous and clear, empirical fact still offers a chink through which it can be challenged, for who decides what is “reasonable doubt”? See a vaccine or climate science doubter for an unconventional and very unscientific answer. Any passable definition of fact must explain why sincere conviction must be excluded. Before you say because data always trumps belief, remember that an exclusive defense of data must simply turn a blind eye to many ordinary facts and beliefs that science can neither verify nor refute. We hear even well-educated persons say that the theory of evolution is a fact or the law of gravity is. Are we to infer that “theory” and “law” are other words scientists use for “fact,” or do scientists use them to distinguish laws and theories from fact? In contemporary life, we want to think science will give us the answers we seek, but instead it simply multiplies our questions. We have to look further for a meaning suitable for normal discourse.
And here is the fascinating and complicating irony, for we don’t need specialized techniques to find two far more accessible candidates that can indeed provide us with total certainty, a confidence far beyond what even the most careful experimentalist could claim.
If I challenge you to name a fact that is absolutely certain, you will probably say, “two plus two equals four.” If you are a divergent thinker, you might say, “a bachelor is an unmarried man.” These sentences are of the same type. They are indeed certain and indisputable, but they differ from scientific facts in two ways. First, they are abstractions, fixed and frozen. They are unlike the facts that science discovers in the flux of experienced reality. Their certainty is a function of their meanings as definitions. These are properly called identities by logicians or a tautological statements by epistemologists. Both sentences merely redefine themselves. They say a thing is a thing, which may be true but hardly seems enlightening. To say “a equals a” for all its certainty must be of doubtful utility in understanding the world. Secondly — and this will prove important— their abstractedness makes them concepts only, derived by reasoning without any appeal to perception. So while these analytic statements gain real-world value as we use them in reference to real objects or persons, they also lose their sense of certainty once we trot them out where we can apply them. Is that two airplanes I see in the west and two more in the east? Wasn’t that guy married before? If you offered an identity statement as your example of a certain fact, you would be correct. It meets the dictionary definition, but in “proving” itself right, it proves the definition inadequate. For as tidy as it is, by itself it can offer very little to our understanding, and when applied in experience, it becomes as uncertain as the rest of our truth claims. Therefore, identities must be removed from further considerations of facticity. Two plus two surely equals four, but it does not equal a fact.
There is another candidate for factual certainty that is different from the reductionism of science and the very opposite of the analytic logic of identity statements. Consider any sentence referring to one’s interior life. A great public shift in the twentieth century resulted in some respectability for these kinds of private nuggets of truth, these “personal facts” (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). Look again at the dictionary definitions and tell me which of them disqualifies all the inner workings of emotion and interpretations concerning your own involvements with the external world. You might have answered my challenge to name a certain fact this way: “I am certain that I am me.” How could I possibly cast doubt upon such a private assertion? Surely, this category must address experience even more directly and persistently than science and also prove more certain than even the most reliable mathematical equation. In the same sense that I can say I know I am me, I can also say I believe it, but that identity is one we have to be very suspicious of (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). It is hard to doubt though, for we all feel certain it is true, and so this view argues that the most certain fact is also the simplest to confirm. We don’t need a lab full of equipment or carefully-structured experiments to investigate our inner selves. We don’t need to study algebra or increase our vocabulary. All we need to appeal to is our own consciousness. And we can make that appeal to so many other felt certainties. When the devout Christian confesses his absolute confidence in his own salvation, can we call his faith something other than factual? And even if we disagree with such a fact because we are atheists or think him destined for hell, how can we deny that he believes it, that he sanctions it so completely that he could only call his knowledge of his own heavenly reward a fact, and not merely a fact, but his own fact?
Hold on. We clearly have reached a definitional impasse here. If conviction alone constitutes proof and evidence, then we ought to revise our view of Hitler and Charles Manson. It seems pretty clear that we can’t endow our religious beliefs with the same definitional frame we use for the operations of science just as we can’t sanction mathematical equations or definitions with the same term with which to proclaim our own sanity (see “Theology’s Cloud of Unknowing”). These are different domains. Contemporary cultures have now reached the point when we have two different kinds of statements that meet the dictionary definition of fact: scientific proof and the testimony of our own consciousness. And here is the real problem: although these two domains we call “fact” are rationally incompatible, they are both necessary to build a comprehensive understanding of experience. We can only use facticity as evidence once we have either determined which of these two we all agree to call a fact — and what we agree to call the other to distinguish it from fact — or once we arrive at another definition superior to either.
And lest we think this task easy, let us face squarely that we are forced by the very logic of accurate classification to insist on two levels of consistency in any further effort. First, the definition must be internally consistent so that whatever we call facts does not contradict differing claims without remedy. Internal consistency means our definition of facticity must allow us to discriminate among rival claims and resolve conflicts among them just as empiricism does. And secondly, since we want our definition to do what facts ought to do — serve as evidence, proof, and support for the larger positions we build upon them — our definition must be capable of grounding our reasoning about experience.
To simplify what follows, we’ll call science’s products data and internal expressions consciousness. While I hope it is clear that both cannot pass the the same tests of consistency and grounding, I now wish to argue that neither can, that they will each fail one or both tests to certify facticity.
Data certainly passes the first test of internal consistency. The disciplinary practices of science ensure that its facts are thoroughly vetted. Experimental and observational anomalies are red-flagged for review, and when the factual bases of one discipline conflict with another, an army of researchers swarm over the conflict to iron it out in conference presentations and academic journals. Take the case of Piltdown Man. When fossilized remains of a hominid were advanced in 1912, they purported to prove the missing link of human evolution, a hypothesis unchallenged until a re-examination in 1953 revealed them to be the mandible of an orangutan attached to a skull of a modern man. Such a hoax hardly could be sustained against the methodology of empirical science. Here we see the idealized operation of facticity, the very opposite of the endless battering of Internet trolls and television talking heads.
Unfortunately, science’s product fails the second test of consistency, for though data splendidly supports the hypotheses, theories, laws, and paradigms of scientific disciplines, the conditions for empirical investigation are so severely limited that data must prove useless for most questions of truth and all questions of value beyond immediate utility. Science works because it structures reality much more strictly than the blur of experience ordinarily allows. That hasn’t stopped the social and pseudo-sciences from trying the impossible though, and the twentieth century proved a circus of failed attempts to broaden the reliability of data, either by slopping up science’s methodology (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”) or by making ordinary existence somehow “more scientific” (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”). While we certainly may use data’s products as evidence, we will never live lives based upon them, for we can never see experience purely through a microscope or measure it with a micrometer, and even if we could discipline our lives to attempt such precise observations, data alone is thoroughly insufficient to guide our preferences for the good (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?“). These limitations ought to discourage what is an all-too popular current approach to facticity: resorting to a false scientism to navigate the world. Postmodernism’s reliance on psychology, sociology, heuristics, and semiotics over the course of the twentieth century has taught us the dangers of endorsing the view that “human science” is much more than an oxymoron.
The other candidate also fails the double test of consistency.
Let us first acknowledge that any attempt to draw a distinction between consciousness and data must prove only partial. No scientist procures data without using her senses, so the experimental method must first pass through someone’s private consciousness before it can be refined. To isolate consciousness as a source of facts, we must distinguish it clearly from the extraordinary lengths thinkers must go to as they convert brute perceptual reality into the purity of empirical fact and as they refine reflection into the clarity of identities (see “The Tyranny of Rationality”). In considering consciousness a separate candidate for facticity, we are led to associate consciousness with undistilled experience, meaning the blur of conclusions we only half process a thousand times a day. And we must mix with this coarsest kind of experiential knowledge the operations of belief, which is undistilled knowledge tinged with desire (see “What Counts as Justification?”). Most of our reflection on experience is a sloppy composite of impression, reflection, bias, and commitment to goods we but poorly understand. This thought gumbo serves most moments as a casual effort at fact-finding. Is it any wonder that what it cooks up disagrees with the recipes of other thinkers? Or that it fails even to produce a singular flavor to our own claims to factual truth? Whereas data and identity fail only one of the dual tests for consistency, we may confidently assert that consciousness defined as undistilled experience must fail both tests. First, it is hardly consistent in itself, so the “facts” of our own reflections must frequently dispute others we have previously advanced. But it is obvious that even should one’s consciousness produce consistency over time in its selection of facticity, it will not only fail to reconcile claims made by the same process operating in other thinkers, but it must also provide no means to prefer one set of conscious commitments to another as bases for facticity. It is in the nature of beliefs that multiple interpretations can be permissible, and so it is with the broader commitments of consciousness. The inability of such discordant “facts” to ground larger structures of truth is obvious on its face, and if it isn’t, is made obvious by even a glance at the current social environment. This incoherence has proved the defining quality of the postmodern virtual circle that privileges all the products of consciousness so long as they manage to cohere in the mind of the thinker (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”). Treating the products of undistilled experience as “private fact” is guaranteed to open a Pandora’s Box of discord as it entitles every consciousness to its own standards with no means of arbitration. And to make the issue even more intractable, the inclusion of beliefs as tantamount to fact must launch us into a chaos of irreconcilable “facts” about what can never be known, as the sordid history of religious warfare has demonstrated (see “Premodern Authority”). These difficulties ought to prove sufficient to drive our commitment to a better definition of facticity.
The conflicting definitions now in general use have failed not only in concert but also as separate options to define and defend the meaning of “fact.” If we can’t restrict facticity only to empirical proofs or expand it to everyone’s personal preference, how can we salvage some consensual meaning for the word and some hope that facts might yet save us from our present acrimony?
We can begin by considering the common qualities of the divergent definitions now in vogue. It is clear that “proving,” “establishing,” “determining,” and “finding” all refer to acting rather than to stating. “Facting” ought to be a verb, for it requires mental effort. We can infer from all of its denotations that facticity does not refer to statements about reality but rather to some process of interpreting it. Furthermore, the etymology of “fact” steers us to the same conclusion, for “facere” means “to make” or “to construct.” It seems clear that facting refers to an attentive rather than a receptive process. But that seems to endorse the conflicting constructions of the virtual circle, the private realities of belief, and the personalized construction of postmodernism. We end such speculations in conflict, without axioms or denotations with which to arbitrate our disputes.
Allow me to return to my opening analogy comparing facts to atoms. So long as physicists work upward from the atom, moving toward more complexity in its operation in molecules, elements, and compounds, they may find facts that build reliable disciplinary explanations. The periodic table in chemistry, for instance, would not exist without the atomic model. At atomic scales and greater, classical physics works seamlessly to find a factual basis for material structures in what we consider “normal” states. But at quantum scales finer than what can be observed, disorder reigns, facts clash, and theories proliferate. This is an odd inversion of the normal pyramidal order of knowledge, which usually has the pointy end of theory sitting atop a veritable mountain of fact. But though quantum conditions constitute the true basis of all atoms that then combine to form all matter (and it is thought wavelengths of energy as well), subatomic facts are in dispute in part because of difficulties in observation and measurement that make empiricism so reliable in other fields.. But in quantum physics, many claims to fact are defended in terms of favored theory. Even when quantum mechanics powers real discovery, as in today’s work on quantum computers, the facticity of their operation remains mysterious due to the pure oddities of entanglement and indeterminacy. As Richard Feynman said, “I think I can safely say nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Yet despite this fundamental uncertainty, classical physics continues serenely along its path of discovery, explanation, and application and quantum weirdness still powers practical invention. When data conflict, appeals to competing paradigms of string theory or quantum loops leap into focus as explanations, but because a disruption in the scientific method forces paradigms to extend far beyond the data that might verify them, practitioners have agreed to avoid the embarrassment of trying to force the data into boxes built of pure theory. Instead, they discover “facts” their community can confirm and uses for them that they can exploit, and so avoid the endless contentions of theory predicating facts. They may find some aspect of theory useful, but only when the facts can be solidly linked by hypothesis and confirmation such as was accomplished by the many verifications of the Copenhagen interpretation in the last century. In this process, facticity steers very modest explanatory structures that are both confirmations of data and additions to the knowledge bank of the discipline, or as in quantum computing, it avoids broad expanses of theoretical supposition in favor of a reliance on data-driven utility. It is this return to the pebble-sized bits of verifiable information that allows reliable knowledge to be built despite the complex mysteries of the finer bits. The soundness of facts in physics is all but guaranteed by the procedural rules of science, but even so, their real test comes less in the individual datum and more in the repeated examination of the rational defensibility of the conceptual framework built upon a mountain of data that has been tested, and nearly all of these facts concern Newtonian rather than quantum physics. This solidity is clearly not possible on the frontiers of the discipline, in quantum mechanics and theoretical cosmology, but when theory does guide investigation, all practitioners recognize they are on the ragged edge and so all are reluctant to advance any mathematical or theory-driven “fact” into contention in the physics community. This walling off of what cannot be verified is not to deny the importance of pure theory to steer further research, but it does serve as a corrective to facile speculations that have few data points to anchor them.
The counter-intuitive theories of quantum mechanics have produced continuing confusions in twentieth century theoretical physics, and the effort to find the fundamental nature of facticity over that same period has bred similar contentions in the general public. These confusions are causally connected: the remoteness and esoteric qualities of empirical science have been imitated by the pseudo-scientific and experiential complexity, confusion, and countering contentions of human science’s examinations of consciousness and its products. It is fair, I think, to view “the hard problem” of human consciousness as every bit the equal in difficulty as the true nature of quantum realities. The obvious difference is that we can thoroughly ignore one but must constantly confront the other.
The rigors of empirical facticity cannot be applied to undistilled experience, but the means by which pure theory has been quarantined in classical physics can be. Over the troubled course of the twentieth century, applied physics has proceeded along the same inexorable and stately avenue of discovery, invention, and connection to other empirical disciplines that began with Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum in 1620. Facts have been disputed constantly during that journey, yet nothing about their essential nature in classical physics looks like the controversies that affect quantum mechanics and the problems of consciousness. Physics has managed to function as a single explanatory discipline split into disjunctive halves. The operations of classical physics take almost no notice of the conundrums of quantum theory, so those controversies seem not to affect ordinary practice of the discipline. How has facticity in physics freed itself from interminable disputes about its fundamental structures, and can popular concepts of fact do something similar?
I have tried to compare the search for the fundamental nature of the atom to a similar search for the elemental structure of facticity. I now propose the success of classical physics to be more than a contrast to contemporary confusions about facticity. I propose it as a kind of template to resolve these confusions. I propose a quarantine around the theoretical problems of facticity as it relates to consciousness like the one conventional physics has erected around quantum mechanics. Using this template begins with acknowledging that, like quantum theory, investigations into consciousness have no bottom. They remain ungrounded for the same reason: because too few basic facts about either can be warranted by empiricism or any other method of discovery, at least at this moment. How has ordinary physics managed to isolate its ignorance about its most elemental forms and continue to progress in mastery of fact? We can find three lessons that have some relevance to our broader problems of facticity and consciousness.
First, it is because every practitioner in the discipline accepts the same meaning of facticity and therefore can quite easily separate data from theory. The theoretical discord of the human sciences has so confused persons’ understanding of facticity that many persons begin with “facts” that are entirely speculative, phenomenal, and theory-laden. For instance, many people would consider the unconscious (or the subconscious) to be an actual location in the human mind rather than an entirely theoretical and contentious notion entirely lacking facticity. The preconscious, subconscious, and unconscious frameworks that have dominated twentieth century thought are not based on fact at all. Yet these entirely theoretical creations dominate popular thought about bias in constructing and defending fact. Their speculative nature can never be pinned to facticity because, as Karl Popper explains, they are fundamentally unfalsifiable. They shape-shift with kaleidoscopic rapidity as paradigms multiply and practitioners argue. Like religious beliefs, they can proliferate endlessly because they are cut off from a knowable reality. Every physicist recognizes when quantum theories intrude on the facticity of ordinary physics. Because of the diffusion of the human sciences into twentieth century cultures, no psychologist can say when theories of consciousness distort the facts of human consciousness for the simple reason that no person now living can explain what consciousness is.
Second, it is because every member of the physics community recognizes the same process of verifying facticity. This concerns “facting” in science, an active process of investigation. As has been shown, though verification seems central to facticity, no consensual process exists to achieve it outside of the hard sciences, which is entirely explicable by the two incompatible methods persons ascribe to reach facticity, the coherence and the correspondence understandings of its nature. If ordinary experience cannot agree to a facting process, it will not agree to a single definition of the term. But since the scientific method is unavailable to ordinary experience as a means of facting, no other method has sufficed to substitute for it, though public declarations are sorely in need of one.
But the most important distinction that allows classical physics to continue to progress is that physicists add a layer of verifiability between data and theory, a cognitive structure that forces facts to be vetted and reviewed well before being assembled into the large-scale explanations of theory. That level is hypothesis. By the time theorists begin developing their comprehensive explanations, they have confirmed the accuracy of their data, manipulated it in observations or experiments as they form conjectures on essential relationships, and tested those connections thoroughly as further confirmation of their truth.
These three practices allow physicists to engage in productive work despite their ignorance of grounding facts in their discipline. Again, no consensual parallel operates in undistilled experience. The benefits of hypothesis to confirmations of fact in physics is inverted in ordinary experience, for the casual relation that theory holds to facts in terms of definition and practice is loosened further by the absence of experiential differentiations of “fact” and theory.
We cannot simply transfer physics’ three practices of quarantining and facting to undistilled experience because of the limitations of experiential verifications, but we can adapt them to general use.
First, we need a definition of fact that passes the tests of consistency and of grounding larger conclusions, one that recognizes the vagaries of individual context and phenomenal consciousness while honoring the far more refined requirements of scientific discourse. We would surely fail if we claimed that ordinary facticity somehow discovered facts that might conflict with science’s discoveries. What do the physicist and the artist share in seeking the facts of their experiences? The only answer is that every candidate for facticity must be filtered through the lens of private perception and reflection, so any useful denotation of facticity must honor that process. We’re trying to avoid “alternative facts,” not enshrine them in our lexicon.
I propose we define fact as “a datum of experience.” This definition is indeed an anodyne one suited to the widest possible consensus, so wide that it must at first glance be thought useless at first glance. Yet here is a definition that both coherentists and correspondentists can honor, one that empirical science must consent too while still allowing the vagaries of experience to exert their force. This definition can force all sides to agree that all raw experience is inevitably subjective and private, and certainly affected by consciousness. This definition implies that filter to be inevitable. A fact is simply the smallest and simplest possible piece of our awareness, and as such, is entirely perspectival. But this seemingly bland characterization holds a hidden bite. It is only a single such datum. A fact cannot in any way be complicated by synthetic reasoning for a very good reason: its simplicity limits as well as results from its perceptual purity. Stripping away as much reasoning as we can from a fact — all relations to other facts and all connections that make up conclusions — leaves only the imprint of the senses in its most elementary form. This makes our facts easier for others to verify or dispute since their nakedness allows no complicated twists of reason to complicate percepts while it also grants us the dignity of sanctioning our own immediate impression of the world as fact. If what we proclaim is contentious, the dispute will focus on the smallest possible piece of experiential awareness: the purest evidence of the senses. Such an open definition recognizes both the scientific and the subjective qualities of facticity. It suits the meaning of scientific fact, but it also allows persons to claim all the private sensations they wish to pronounce to the world. The absolute simplicity of facticity in such a definition will make verification of a single percept impossible if facts qua facts are the subjects of criticism. Persons can easily claim their facts to be “true for me” even if false for you. They are simply our most fundamental form of awareness. This is quite a letdown for those who looked to facticity to resolve our contentions, for this definition hardly allows contentions to arise, and when they do, it specifies the means to rectify them by closer observation. Facts are thus reduced to the raw clay of experience without form or substance. Only this most inclusive definition will allow a definition that the most rigorous experimentalist and the proudest defender of the virtual circle will accept. It will also accomplish what physics models for us: it strips away any relation to theory, stressing instead a nugget of perception we can easily understand and communicate, a veritable atom of undistilled experience. We may therefore find facticity not by limiting variables in the lab but by limiting reasoning on everyday experience.
Refining the concept of “fact” in this way also applies the second lesson we learn from classical physics: it mandates a methodology. But while the laboratory’s practices are all actively positive, the activity required of this definition of “facting” consist almost entirely of an effort at negation. Notice this definition calls for persons to isolate perceptions while entirely eliminating any sense of proving, verifying, or connecting. Thus it requires actively separating perceiving from reflecting upon it. Simply put, it limits analysis rather than engaging it. Using this definition, facts hardly engage reasoning at all.
What I have not said here, and what I wish I could avoid saying, is that this limiting factor not only precludes any rational construct or abstraction as weighting facts with further complications; it also disqualifies any and all beliefs for the same reason. We use belief in two related senses: to indicate unexamined truth claims and to profess desired convictions. Both are tainted by too much complexity to be considered facts. When we use “belief” to indicate uncertainty (“I believe I locked the car”), we are advancing a tentative declaration in which reasoning on sense data is fully engaged. This level of connectedness is far more complex than a single datum of experience. It cannot be a fact. And when we use “belief” in any kind of creedal sense (“I believe in God, the Father almighty…”), we are adding a calculated desire to a fully abstracted conception, which must be anything but a simple datum (see “Religion and Truth”). If facticity is simple, beliefs must not be thought facts.
This kind of eliminative process prompts a question, though. Why go to all the trouble of attempting to disengage our inclination to learn from experience? Here is where the template of classical physics will guide undistilled experience most directly as it provides a third lesson concerning the quarantining of the uncertainties of quantum mechanics. For psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology will speculate endlessly on the preconscious, unconscious, and subconscious influences on the way we construct our world. Semiotics will spin elaborate theories of symbology and language’s shaping of our perceptions, and postmodern aesthetics will speculate endlessly on the formative powers of culture, race, and class on our values. Let them. Like quantum theories, these elaborate constructions can never be proved because they can never have access to what they theorize on, and like Popper’s unfalsifiable theories and Lyotard’s grand narratives, they can never be disproved either. These kinds of theories do not result from facts so much as produce them, or rather their counterfeits. This stalemate has prompted a resistance from both extremes, science and consciousness, for like quantum mechanics, private experience eliminates “privileged positions” from which to verify facticity. Ordinary experience can take a cue from classical physics here and simply quarantine all such broadband theorizing with a simple acceptance of their entirely created reality, much as one might placidly accept the definition of a griffon, secure in the knowledge that nothing further will be asked of it. If the products of consciousness are strings of heredity or loops of childhood trauma, if they are packets of cultural or linguistic influence, particles of neurons, or waves of class consciousness, none of it matters because it begins and ends as theory. It is, none of it, fact. Regardless of the lens through which percepts must be viewed, let us grant to any simple datum of experience the honorific title of “fact,” so long as we all make the good-faith effort to strip away any subsequent reasoning on the datum we have isolated to claim it.
That allows us to take on the third and most important step in emulating classical physics’ success: to find some means to bind facts short of theory. When you begin that effort with the data of experience, you make explicit all efforts to manipulate them; you make them all subject to critical and conscious reasoning. All declarations of facticity ought to be respected, taken at face value. But every statement more complex than fact must be subject to a universalist rational critique. This will imitate what happens in the lab but without the ponderous process that the lab requires. The experimentalist hardly proceeds from data to theory. Her observations produce hypotheses that are then tested and confirmed or revised or rejected. Undistilled experience can do something similar, if less rigorous, by forming and testing its judgments against a universal rational standard. The cultural winds of contemporary life seek to blow such a thought right out of mind, for who is to say what that standard ought to be? To that I answer that it is the same recipe that denotes the meanings of words and the logic of geometry: one part consensus to two parts critical reasoning, all subject to doubt and provable as judgment only by a preponderance of evidence subject to better reasoning or evidence. While persons may claim any number of things to be facts based upon their own perceptions, the judgments they derive from facts must pass tests of reasoning that are publicly replicable. Sloppy facting will thus open itself to a critique, not at the figurative subatomic level of consciousness but at the conceptual level of rational relations of fact-to-fact and fact-to-judgment. Theories will inevitably follow successful judgments, but just as hypotheses rely on the solidity of the facts they are built upon, so too must our theories rely on defensible judgments open to critical appraisal. By protecting the privacy of our commitments, we have coddled them as inviolable when we might better dismiss them from any consideration at all. The quarantining of quantum from classical physics gives us a template for ignoring the theoretical bases of consciousness.
We can find a different template for larger structures built from facts into publicly defensible declarations, but we will have to forsake physics to find it. When we bind our perceived facts together to begin advancing these more complex structures of reason into judgments of truth, we find that our template for competency in judgments of ordinary experience will be found not in the lab but in the courtroom (see “Justice is Almost Everything”). This is the venue wherein experience is most closely examined, excepting only the laboratory. A verdict is a judgment on experience, determined once facts are examined and opposing arguments considered, all in pursuit of a truth as known by a preponderance of evidence or even beyond a reasonable doubt. At least in its ideal applications, courtrooms are models for using judgment to find truth. But it is worthwhile to remember that an even larger necessity lies beyond that lofty goal, for even in the coarsest of experiences, we seek to use the truth of an experience to choose some goodness it offers (see ‘Truth and Goodness Do a Dance“). And nothing about that largest of all hypothetical structures is even remotely factual (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“)..