On the difference between the truth and facts

Jaqueline asked:

What is the difference between the truth and facts? Is the difference shown more clearly in human science than natural science?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This looks like an essay question. The professor who set the question already has an idea of the kind of answer he/she is looking for. I will deal with this first, and then show why the question is actually of momentous importance.

The facts are the facts, whatever they may be. This is something we say. The facts are the facts, independently of language, or our interests in pursuing them. However, it is well known that in the human sciences there are multiple angles, interpretations, ways of approaching the facts. In historical explanation, or psychology, for example, there are multiple lines one can take, multiple interests in pursuing ‘the truth’. There’s no no single answer to what is the ‘real’ truth of the matter. But the facts are the facts.

In natural science, the distinction is less clear, if it exists at all. However, it remains the case that we never get to the actual facts. Natural science gives theories, and the theory we accept is merely the theory that works best at the present time. The theory of evolution, for example, as far fetched as it may seem to some, is at present the ‘best’ theory we have. To infer from this that it is the truth, or the one and only true representation of the facts, is to go too far. It’s on the table. We look for evidence from the fossil record, test the explanations for consistency, use the theory to classify species. It ‘works’. But it could still be supplanted by a better theory, should one come along.

However, this answer, for me, misses the real question. In 1950 there was a famous debate between the Oxford philosophers J.L. Austin and P.F. Strawson (who, incidentally, much later in 1977 was my tutor for my Trinity Term as a graduate student). The debate took place at the Aristotelian Society. Austin was the chief representative of the ‘old guard’, the Oxford philosophers who believed that the key to solving philosophical problems was the careful analysis of ‘ordinary language’. On the question of the truth and facts, Austin pushed the line that according to ‘what we say’, it is the facts that make true statements true. It was a correspondence theory of truth, albeit nuanced. Strawson rebutted Austin’s account, arguing that there is no real difference between true statements and facts. A ‘fact’ is simply what a true statement states, nothing more.

Still with me? Strawson won the debate. At least, that is the accepted view. His victory marked the end, or the beginning of the end, of Oxford linguistic philosophy. Any talk of ‘correspondence’ is saying more that can meaningfully be said. Decades earlier, the German mathematician Gottlob Frege had argued against any notion of correspondence between statements and ‘facts’. Correspondence would merely be some relation between statements and some entity in the world, but any talk of relation raises the question whether or not it is true that the relation holds. Which immediately leads to a vicious regress. (There is an illuminating account of this in Michael Dummett’s seminal book on Frege, Frege Philosophy of Language, 1973.)

In my second year as an undergraduate at Birkbeck College London, I grappled with this topic in an essay I wrote for David Murray (who died in 2016). I felt that Austin had been hard done by, and that there must be a sense in which the facts make true statements true, even if we can’t speak of correspondence. I remember Murray’s pencilled comment, ‘Facts, if they exist, must exist as a matter of necessity. But I would rather defend the necessary existence of God than the necessary existence of facts!’ The point being that even if nothing exists, it is a fact that nothing exists. The universe could be destroyed, leaving nothing behind but it would still be a fact that the universe was no more.

As I would now prefer to state this, there is, there must be, something Real. Whatever we believe, whatever investigations we undertake. We may never know what is Real, with a capital ‘R’, or ultimately Real, but the Real is the Real. — When, in philosophy, one is prompted to assert a tautology as if it expressed a deep and meaningful truth, that is cause for suspicion, a point Wittgenstein repeatedly made in his later philosophy. But I am not moved. For me, nothing is more important than recognition of the existence of the Real, the facts, or the real facts, regardless of it being the case that we may never, or perhaps cannot ever, know what the facts are. We make ‘statements’ we put forward ‘theories’ but these statements or theories, even when accepted as ‘true’, are not the facts.

There is something Real. To really think about this, and at the same time realize the impossibility of conveying any meaningful knowledge, or useful ‘information’ by that statement, is the first step towards metaphysics, a discipline that Austin and his disciples rejected with contempt, and about which Strawson was happy to offer his relatively tame, diluted account in Individuals: an essay in descriptive metaphysics, 1959. We clashed over this in our tutorial meetings, but as one student had warned me in advance, ‘If Strawson says you are wrong, then you are wrong. Don’t attempt to argue the point!’

In answer to your question, emphatically yes, there is a difference between the truth and facts. But the issue goes way deeper than your teacher who set this question is likely to have considered.

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