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.