Your Truths, Our Facts

Posted by on June 21, 2011 in Thoughts | 9 comments

To paraphrase Michael Specter in a TED talk, “You are entitled to your own truths, but you aren’t entitled to your own facts.” This is a poignant message and one that deserves further exploration.

(Edit: the actual quote, as pointed out in comments below was “…And listen, everyone’s entitled to their opinion – they’re even entitled their opinion about progress – but you know what you’re not entitled to?
You’re not entitled to your own facts. Sorry, you’re not.” For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the word “truth” instead of “opinion” for anything that a person holds to be true, i.e. “personal truth” or “individual truth” as opposed to “universal truth” which is what i would call “fact”.)

Firstly, how can we determine what is a truth and what is a fact?

A personal truth will stem from what a person experiences as their life, their own personal experiences. The weight we give to different situations will depend upon what our own personal truths are less than upon the facts.

I’ll use an example of the human condition to illustrate a point. If a person lives their entire life in a war-torn village where the daily activities include gathering water from a well five kilometers away, negotiating minefields and the occasional band of militia, then the truth for them is that life is difficult and dangerous. It is a truth that living day-to-day is a struggle against dehydration and death. Most people reading this will never have to experience a life like this.

Likewise, most in the first world will live with the occasional discomfort of job insecurities, familial problems, and illnesses, but for the most part our world consists of a daily routine of getting up, going to work, coming home, eating and sleeping. This is our truth.

Even more striking is the truths people experience in their own minds. I read an article from New Scientist (article preview) in which a study shows that the brains of people who believe in god see their conversations with him in the same way they would with a friend or family member. The brains of these people see no difference between their God and a real person who they know well, even though the experience of speaking to a corporeal entity is a physical phenomenon, not merely mental. But just cause a person believes something to be true, even if their brain thinks it is real, it does not necessarily make it fact. Oliver Sacks, in his book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” talks of cases where, either through Aquired Brain Injury or mental illness, people’s brains make mistakes, and not just fleeting mistakes, but persistent mistakes of identification. The man who thought everyday that his wife was a hat lived his life in this reality as a truth, and nothing could change this except for maybe some therapy which allowed him to see hats in a new light. But the wife was not, in any sense of the word fact, a hat.

You and I have the ability to distinguish what the brain thinks of as “hat”, and our truths reinforce this fact. Those who see the universe as existing without need or evidence for a god also make this distinction between the “human friend” some see God to be and the “flesh and blood” friends and family we interact with daily.

There is also the tendency for the brain to reinforce truths and realities it already recognises, rather than building whole new ideas every time information is presented to us. If this weren’t the case we would spend all our time building new information and never learn. The downside of this is that this happens just as much with a delusional brain as with a healthy brain. In it’s most closed form it presents as Confirmation Bias, where an already dubious idea is backed up by equally dubious supporting evidence, and thereby strengthening the resolve of a belief held by an individual. This is where a big problem presents itself, because when a person reinforces their truth with more of the same it becomes embedded, and thereby much harder to work around.

Based on individual truths, what facts can be garnered? Is it a fact that life for humanity is one of dodging mines and bullets, or one of relative stability? Is it a fact that a man’s wife is now a hat? One could say that the answer to that lies in taking on-board all the available information about lifestyles, about economies and about political climates of all the world’s populations and making a determination based on what humanity as a whole is experiencing. But if this were the case, then from whence comes God, and if so many people believe in it does this make it a fact?

Well, no, because fact is independent from individual truths, individual beliefs and individual realities. A fact is a fact no matter where, how or to whom it is presented. A fact lives at the end of all questioning, and is reproducible and testable, and in theory falsifiable. There is no room for individual interpretations within fact, and yet people do interpret facts in different ways, depending upon their own truths and desired outcomes.

So where does this leave us?

Is it enough to simply say that “Truth is subjective, fact is objective”? Well, not really, because the counter argument asks “How do we determine fact without personal truths getting in the way?”

I would be interested in your ideas on this topic. Please leave your comments and thoughts below.

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9 Comments

  1. The best way that we know how to distinguish truth without personal subjectivity getting in the way is to use the scientific method. This involves measuring things, repeating tests, attempting to disprove what appears to be the truth and getting everything reviewed and critically examined by others with a similar or higher level of expertise in the area we are examining.

    Anther method is to use the legal court trial system. This, however, is more open to abuse, manipulation and bias.

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  2. In J. Anderson Thomson Jr.’s new book, “Why We Believe in God(s),” he describes how human evolved the ability to separate mind from body, thereby enabling us to have imaginary friends like Jesus. This made me want to ask a Christian how they could tell the difference between an imaginary Jesus who died for our sins and a real one.

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  3. It sounds like believers support their faith by giving too much importance to their personal truths as opposed to the external facts. Would it be easier to convince them, to reverse this bias, instead of pointing out the errors of religion in general? They may see it as less of a direct assault on their beliefs and so be less defensive.

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  4. Ah, I love that Specter talk. However, I’m sad to say that you got the quotation wrong. “You are entitled to your own truths” is not at all what Specter said. Facts are facts because they are true. Personal ‘truths’ that contradict fact are, in fact, the very thing he rails against in the talk.

    The quotation is: “And listen, everyone’s entitled to their opinion – they’re even entitled their opinion about progress – but you know what you’re not entitled to?
    You’re not entitled to your own facts. Sorry, you’re not.”

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    • Oh damn, quite right Cary, I have updated the post to reflect this “fact” :)

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  5. …However, we have to remember that, although a fact is a fact is a fact, every single one of us unconsciously applies our own experiences (facts), to how we “know” facts. Surely, we can be shown by science that our feelings/interpretations of the fact are not reality-based. But,all the same, my fact imay be completely different from yours. If I believe it is a fact that, in addition to being a satellite of earth, the moon is the source of all good and benevolent acts performed by humans, sent down upon us as we sleep bathed in her light. I am certain this is completely disprovable by science, suppose an entire village of people in the US or Australia knew this to be a fact? Remember when the entire scientific community the world over “knew” that Pluto was the 9th planet in our solar system?

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  6. I would like to point out, that Confirmation Bias is not “where an already dubious idea is backed up by equally dubious supporting evidence” instead it is “a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

    Everybody has some sort of Confirmation Bias.

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  7. As always, great post, Marty.

    Funny, today I got a reply on Twitter, to my “I am not angry at any god, I can’t be angry at any construct of your imagination.” tweet? It’s somewhat related, let me quote it here:

    “Do you have any favorite constructs of your imagination? Perhaps the delusion that ‘God is not’ is a construct of your own making.”

    (By the way, the person’s bio says: Th.D. Advanced Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics. Th.M., B.Th. Focus in biblical languages and apologetics. Reformed baptist.)

    Funny thing is, believers don’t understand that precisely we do not have any constructs of the sort. So, according to his “logic”, I am hallucinating about other people’s hallucination? My brain hurts.

    The scientific method would be the closest to an infallible way to discern facts from personal truths. General consensus, not so much.

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  8. I think any time we throw words like “truth” around, it has the potential to get messy. Truths are not necessarily different from facts, because you can have things like mathematical truths (such as 2 + 2 = 4) that would also be considered facts. But Marty is correct in going further to classifying what he’s referencing here as “individual truths.” Maybe the better terminology would be something like “ideals” or “long-term opinions,” because it does speak to our desire to make what we think is correct seem correct to others.

    However, I would disagree with the first and most recent comments that the scientific method is the best way to discern truth, for the simple reason in that it is limited in its scope. The scientific method can’t speak to things that we accept as truths based on evidence (i.e. the evidentiary method). This refers mostly to singular events in time, such as the American Revolution or our own births. Science can help us discern truth or fact on things that fall into the constructs of the scientific method, but we must use other methods when they don’t meet the strict criteria of the scientific method.

    Science is only one piece of the puzzle, not the whole shebang.

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