We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wondering About the Facts

In our world, something is not real if it is not factual—not true if it doesn't accord with the facts.  This is so obvious that it is just plain common sense, beyond any the need to question.  We believe in facts.  They are our portal into reality.

Fair enough.  Fair enough, that is, until one starts to think about the meaning of the word, "fact."  The Free Dictionary definition of "fact" seems to be both representative of and somewhat more precise than other online definitions; and what it boils down to is that a fact is a fact because it states or describes something that is real.  It is a fact because it really happened.  It is factual because it really is the case.  It is a fact because it describes a piece of what is really real. By that same token, a scientific fact is "an observation that has been confirmed repeatedly and is accepted as true (although its truth is never final)" and, more simply, "facts learned by observing."

We normally consider facts to be transparent.  We can see through them to subsequent facts leading to the confirmation of hypotheses.  We are less often aware of factuality as a mindset, a set of values, and a prejudice.  How we define reality determines our conception of factuality, and there is no value-free, neutral, unprejudiced definition of reality, not even in the sciences.  Equally important is what we define as unreal.  In science, divine causation is considered to be not real scientifically, and the Holy Spirit  considered outside the realm of scientific reality.

Our definitions of reality by which we determine factuality are all human definitions based on what we think is real.  When theists absolutize their definitions, we are justly criticized for doing so.  Scientists often escapes criticism for absolutizing their definitions because they supposedly have a handle on what is really, really real.  The trouble is, of course, that they don't.  All human definitions of reality are limited ones, incomplete and open to criticism—all of them.  Facts are ultimately human creations.  Vast numbers of what people take to be "facts" do not in fact accord with actual realities.  Scientific "facts" turn out not to be factual.

The point is a simple one: we put too much trust in factuality.