Are There Infallible Facts?

“I suppose you could say that, if a fact isn’t infallibly true, it was never a ‘fact’ in the first place! ”comment on previous entry.

Steven Vasta’s comment on my recent blog on Facts — where I argued that facts are claims to truth but that such claims are not necessarily true for all time (as has often been argued) — needs an answer. The idea that something is infallibly true, and that this defined the notion of “fact,” is highly contentious. I don’t know that anyone has actually made this claim. What they have said is that when someone says “This statement describes a fact and you need to accept this judgement because of the authority of the person making the claim,” they are not arguing for the truth of what has been claimed , but for the authority of the person who is making the claim. It is a person who is said to be infallible – not what the person says. In other words, the notion of an “infallible fact” has not been put forward.

Of course I did not use the qualifier fallible or infallible when describing facts, but have written in my blog – and elsewhere – that the claim concerns whether a fact has everlasting life, as has often been supposed. Its duration – its survival – may indeed be influenced by its supporters – but in the long run the life of a fact is limited.

Here are two cases of “factual” claims:

(a) The camel sails across the desert
(b) Muhammad was a camel driver

(a) is surely not literally true: boats sail – not camels. Camels may look like sail-boats from the distance, to an imaginative observer! If one changes the verb from “sails” to “walks”, no one will object, since most people will describe camels as walking or trotting across the desert. Not infallible and not fallible.

(b) is a different description. It refer to a particular individual, identifies him only by one of his names and claims what his occupation was. It could be true, but it could also be false. Investigations will show whether the statement is true, partly true, adequate, or insufficient – there are several options open to us.

Note: It is not the statement that is fallible or infallible, but the person who makes the statement. I personally do not know of anyone who is a specialist in infallible statements – although I know many who ACT AS IF they were. It is a self-description, an affectation at worst. Some people, in moments of hero-worship, may claim that Mr. X or Miss Y is always correct in what they say or claim. But this only passes the buck. The person making such a claim is obliged to demonstrate that the claim itself is always true – that indeed it is they that are infallible in their judgements. It has nothing to do with any particular fact and its truth-value.

Many religious and political groups claim that their leader has a special handle on Truth. These claims cannot be supported to everyone’s satisfaction – which makes the claims open-ended and not final. It is therefore perfectly possible within the bounds of reason that something which has been widely accepted as truthful in the past, for many years and even for centuries, as giving an adequate account of something that has happened, or may yet happen, may turn out to fall woefully short, of missing the mark and of being false. Prophets fall into this class of people.

It is people that are fallible. Their reports and statements about the world as they experience it are as likely to be incorrect, incompatible with other things we know and which we firmly believe to be true. But moments pass — the fact — no matter how fervently it is proclaimed, is then defrocked; facts pass into history.

5 thoughts on “Are There Infallible Facts?

  1. Professor, I get your point, but that wasn’t mine!

    If something’s a “fact,” it’s true, by the definition of the word. (The earth revolves around the sun once a year.) If we were to find, say, that the earth doesn’t in fact revolve around the sun over that time period, or at all, then the “fact” was never such in the first place!

    Philosophically, it’s possible that _nothing_ we think we know is actually factual — again by definition. Perhaps everything we think we know will be proven wrong. But that’s a matter for the philosophers!


  2. Please let me apologize for my arriving late to this excellent discussion, and possibly for my re-visiting ground that you’ve already covered. Okay, stipulate, as Harry correctly points out, that “facts” are neither “fallible” nor “infallible.” Focus instead on Harry’s “facts are claims to truth.”

    A Hungarian philosophy professor (whose English was excellent but accented) once insisted to a Medieval Philosophy seminar (of native speakers of English) that “healthy foods” is perfectly good English, and therefore carries metaphysical implications. Well, not so fast. Words carry clusters of meanings (Wittgenstein’s “family resemblances”); and “healthy” in this context is close enough that all of us understand what is meant, and we do not pause to split grammatical hairs. But if “healthy” is subjected to more weight than it can bear, we revert to precision. It is organisms (or, metaphorically, institutions, etc.) that are “healthy”; and food is “healthful” (not “healthy”) to the extend that food conduces to “healthy” organisms.

    Harry exposes the fact that the noun “claims” is here subjected to more weight than it can bear. We understand, legally and financially, “claims” that are owed (liabilities) or owned (assets). And where there is a “claim,” there is a claimant. So Harry instantly, and accurately, drops this overly-weighted “claim” down through the trap-door to the straw-man argument that (ho-hum) just because someone authoritatively “claims” that something is true does not make it so. In this regard, Harry performs the public service of a reductio ad absurdum.

    But the other two nouns, “facts” and “truth,” are equally over-stressed. There exists a large family of adverb-adjective pairs that can be reified; e.g.:

    truly true truth (item)
    truth (over-arching)
    factually factual fact (item)
    factuality (over-arching)
    really real reality
    necessarily necessary necessity
    logically logical logic
    infallibly infallible infallibility

    So why say, “facts [items] are claims to truth [over-arching]”? Why not instead say, “truths [items] are claims to factuality [over-arching]”?

    How is the “facts/factuality” cluster to be distinguished from the “truths/truth” cluster? Which of these two clusters (if either) is logically/definitionally dependent on the other? In what does this dependence consist? Do these two clusters constitute a distinction without a difference?

    And don’t let’s even get started on “for all time.” Eternal? sempiternal? before the singularity? after the Big Rip?

    I have arrived late. But I don’t know how these matters are to be discussed sensibly without at least the rudiments of elementary logic (propositional and predicate calculi), and at least an acknowledgement of Goedel’s 1931 split between truth and provability.

    Harry, thanks for your brilliantly Socratic encouragement.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Brian Kennedy

  3. I think there is something to be said for purpose.

    If there are indeed any cosmic rules about the most precise anatomy of truth and fact, aside from intellectual purism we need something minimally useful – in the plainest, most vulgar, most common sense fashion.

    Facts are used to build. To create cognitive space for any number of purposes. Whether consciously or otherwise, a fact is generally taken as “the best available version of the truth.” Source factors into this. Regardless, for the facts we do hold, they are what we can carry until we can carry something better.

    Truth is an imaginary, absolute, concept. It’s the idea that there exists a permanence independent of perspective. As mind, machinery, and happy accidents progress, we believe we step closer to “truth.” Our facts subsequently move along from version 1.0 to 2.0 to 3.0, and so on.

    I don’t think it makes sense to say “truths are claims to factuality.” Facts are like water carried in a jar. They can always be replaced by the next iteration: newer fresher, cleaner. Truths cannot, because truths are absolute. Truth then over-arches fact. Fact is the best, current operationalization of the imaginary conceptual truth.

    The challenge we must live with is that as our understanding of truth improves and gives rise to new iterations of fact, we may never fully reach a complete and total understanding of truth because, as part of its absolute nature, it may be beyond our complete understanding.

    Take physics for example, quantum mechanics is simply our next iteration of fact in the search of truth. The next leap will be the same, but we are no surer of being one leap closer. Our facts will be richer, but our distance from truth as immeasurable as before.

    What makes things muddy, as Brian speaks about (I think), is the (for better or worse) shared usage of similar but not same words – truly true truth. Something may be true but not a truth, etc.

    I guess my point is, the distinction between these things (fact, truth, etc.) should be as simple as possible but not simpler. Simplicity might be found in utility.

    Then again, perhaps this is just a tangent.

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