Facts and alternative facts

Fred asked:

Are the facts always the facts? Or can there be alternative facts?

Answer by Eric DeJardin

I think that the expression ‘alternative facts’ is ambiguous. That is, there are (at least) two senses in which it might be understood.  Let’s (somewhat tendentiously!) call the first sense the ‘innocuous sense’ and the second the ‘destructive sense’. But before we discuss that distinction and then answer your question, we should first get (somewhat!) clearer about what a fact is.

I take it that a fact is not a linguistic expression, e.g. like a sentence. So, the fact that I’m now writing this post is distinct from the sentence, ‘Eric is now writing this post’. However, we can use linguistic expressions to express or represent facts, e.g. ‘It’s a fact that Eric is now writing this post.’ So although facts can be expressed or represented linguistically, they’re not themselves linguistic items. But then what are they?

One way of thinking about facts (albeit a controversial way – more on this below) identifies them with certain states of affairs. A state of affairs could be conceived as comprising objects (e.g. a computer and a desk) with certain properties (e.g. being gray and having four legs) standing in specific relations to one another (both in time and space, so e.g. being on top of the desk at such and such a time). But not every state of affairs is a fact. So, the state of affairs in which Obama is now serving his third term as president of the United States is not a fact, for that state of affairs doesn’t ‘obtain’; that is, Obama is not now serving his third term as president. Rather, the state of affairs in which Trump is now serving his first term as president of the United States, and in which Obama is now an ex-president, obtains. Hence, on the state-of-affairs conception of facts, to say that such-and-such a state of affairs obtains is roughly what saying ‘it’s a fact that such-and-such’ amounts to.

With that rough sketch of what a fact is out of the way, we can now look at what I’ve called innocuous alternative facts. Take the (epistemically) open question, ‘Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia during the 2016 election?’ Most of us couldn’t say for sure one way or the other. But we could point to certain facts to support a case for one conclusion or the other. However, when we make a case for a conclusion we sometimes ignore facts that harm, or minimally don’t support, our position. When we do so, those who defend the opposing view could say that they have alternative facts that support their position, and not ours.

This notion is innocuous because it doesn’t bring the ordinary idea of a fact into question. Rather, it merely supposes that people sometimes choose specific facts from a larger set of (relevant) facts to focus on depending on which conclusion they’re defending.

However, if one were to deny that there were any facts of the matter at all — or, more weakly, concede that there are facts, but deny that we can access them — and proceed to use that claim to support one’s conclusion, then one would be appealing to alternative facts in what I’ve called the destructive sense. According to the destructive sense, the modifier ‘alternative’ is a privative adjective, for it functions like the modifier ‘toy’ in the expression ‘toy gun’ – that is, just as a toy gun is no gun at all, an alternative fact is no fact at all.

But how can we make sense of the notion that there are no facts? I’m not sure if we can. (For example, if someone claims that there are no facts, is that claim a fact? Or, is it a fact that she made that claim? This stuff gets bizarre quickly!) What folks who appeal to destructive alternative facts seem to have in mind is something like this: the world as we conceive it isn’t the world as it is. Or, a bit more weakly, even if we conceive the world as it is, we’re not justified in concluding that we conceive it as it is. For we all conceive the world with cultural, linguistic, experiential and historically conditioned concepts. It’s as if we’re all wearing world-distorting glasses (etc.), and we can’t remove them. So, this view goes, you see the world as you do, and I see it as I do, and neither one of us is in a position to delegitimize the way the other sees it. You have ‘your truth’, and I have ‘my truth’ (as folks who endorse this sort of view commonly say).

What I’ve called ‘destructive’ views of alternative facts can get very complex and very sophisticated. Further, defenders of this view can point to problems with the more commonsensical view of facts that I sketched above. For instance, if facts are obtaining states of affairs, and states of affairs comprise objects and relations, then how do we account for modal facts (e.g. I might not have written this response), or moral facts (genocide is wrong), or negative facts (I’m not writing this on a Mac)? In addition, the appeal to facts seems to add a category to our ontology that is not obviously necessary, e.g. the world not only contains a computer, a desk, and an on-the-top-of relation, but also contains the fact that the computer is on top of the desk. So we must concede that even the commonsensical view is not unproblematic.

In light of all this, I’d now suggest that we can clarify your question in the following way: are there facts or not? For I take it you’re not concerned with innocuous alternative facts, and as we’ve seen, the notion of destructive alternative facts amounts to the claim that there are no facts (as they are commonly conceived, i.e. as obtaining states of affairs).

I’d argue that of course there are facts. First, even the defenders of destructive alternative facts appeal to facts in the commonsensical sense when it benefits them. So, when it was erroneously reported that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. was removed from the Oval Office, the White House wasted no time demonstrating that this claim was false – that is, that it was not a fact that the bust was removed. Second, defenders of destructive alternative facts must appeal to facts in the commonsensical sense. For instance, they explain the existence of destructive alternative facts by appealing to what they believe to be, well, facts about human cognition. (If the claim that we’re all wearing world-distorting glasses is yet another alternative fact in the destructive sense, then what are we to make of their conclusion that you have your truth and I have mine? Does it even follow anymore?). Third, it’s difficult to understand how we’d make sense of science or the law or mathematics or much else in human experience without an appeal to facts (or something very like them) in some substantive sense.

So, my answer to your question is that the facts are always the facts, for there plausibly cannot be destructive alternative facts (though there are innocuous alternative facts).

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