a truth about truth and fact

January 29th, 2019 | written by:
in: Philosophy

The debate between truth and fact is not a new one. 

The contention between these two ideas is whether truth can be fact and whether fact can be truth. The reason there is contention at all is that truth is subjective while fact is objective. There is room for overlap between the subjective and objective, but this overlap is very small. Facts are objective because they can be observed and experienced by anyone at any time and the same conclusions can and will be reached (think gravity). Truth, however, is singular to the individual experiencing it, this experience being obscured by our previous experience and understanding, our education, our knowledge, and our culture. 

Further complicating matters in the difference between truth and fact is the concept of true and false. This concept is a binary opposition, a dichotomy—there is no grey area between the two, either something is or is not. The main issue here is that “true” and “truth” are very closely related words, which undoubtedly leads to the misunderstanding that if something is the truth, it is true

Looking at the difference between these two concepts, why is there any debate? 

In popular culture, like many other ideas, truth and fact are used interchangeably to mean the same, or at least similar, ideas. The concept of “telling the truth” is one example wherein—oftentimes a child—is required to explain events in a true and factual way. The issue here is that when we, as people, recount events, we add in our thoughts and feelings that we experienced during those events. Our experiences are truth to us because we experienced them through our own cultural, educational, and epistemological point of view. The truth we experienced, though, does not always equate to fact, no matter how real the experience was to us. This does not mean that there is anything wrong with truth. Truth is our experience, which—while specific to each of us individually—is real. It just is not fact.

Truth, Religion, and Philosophy

Truth, as outlined, is ripe for discussion and debate as it is linked with culture, ideology, and personal experience rather than any objective observation. The concept itself is then broken into multiple truths that can be compared, contrasted, debated, and discussed since no one truth is shared among all people. Two disciplines that have tried to understand and explain this truth are religion and philosophy.  

Having existed for millennia, both religion and philosophy are well suited in exploring the concept of truth as they both find themselves entwined within the cultures and points of view that they are born out of, giving them the ability to enter into discourse about a greater, shared truth—one that’s separate from an individual’s truth. This shared truth, given that it is truth rather than fact, is by definition subjective. This gives rise to the ongoing debate of the universal truth between religion and philosophy, and between philosophies—attempting to determine the purpose of humanity—a debate that is not likely to be resolved.

Where Facts Fit In

While the truth is subjective and unique to each individual, facts are more universal and objective. They go through a process of independent evaluation and corroboration. Facts often come out of the rigors of the scientific method—the process of observing the natural world, developing a hypothesis, performing repeatable experiments, developing a theory, and so on1. They have been reviewed in the process of falsification2. This makes facts more universal than truth, since they apply to us—and the world around us—regardless of our personal experiences. 

This doesn’t mean that facts necessarily out-weigh our truth, rather they give us a basis by which to understand the world around us. Facts are a constant in the world. Our experiences aren’t diminished by them, the truths that come out of our experiences enhance our understanding of the world and the facts that make up the rules that govern it. Our truths are just our personal lens through which we interpret the world around us.

Where facts are based on repeated, and repeatable, observations of the world around us, truth is based on our personal experiences, which are unique to each one of us. Truth is anecdotal and there is nothing wrong with that—and everyone is entitled to their own truth. Truth is real to each individual. It just isn’t a fact in-and-of-itself. Being able to identify between facts and truth can help you navigate the world and know when to ask more questions3


Footnotes:

  1. This isn’t a comprehensive description of the scientific method, that’s not the purpose here. For a more in-depth description, take a look a the wikipedia article here.
  2. Falsification is the process of disproving a hypothesis or theory. If something cannot be falsified, it continues to be considered theory or factual. Science doesn’t attempt to provebut to disprove. When this fails, we keep that information. If disproving succeeds, a theory or fact no longer holds that status and a new hypothesis can be developed and tested. Read more about that here.
  3. There’s never a bad time to ask questions, you should always be asking questions. Sometimes it’s more important to ask questions to get at whether something is a fact or a truth.

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