Truth and Facts

Posted on August 17, 2019


Years ago, after an academic disaster in a chemistry class one summer that ended my ambitions to be a doctor, I stayed for the second semester and took a history course and a philosophy course to get the taste of failure out of my system. The history course was on the history of war, taught by a fellow named Ted Ropp who I later learned was a major guru in the field. I had a ball in the class. Ropp looked at war as a huge phenomenon, not just battlefields, warships, and, I suppose today, drones, computers, missiles, and germs, but as part of the human story.

My philosophy prof, whose name I forget, taught a course that I remember included “logical positivism.” I looked the phrase up in Wikipedia: “logical positivism, later called logical empiricism, and both of which together are also known as neopositivism, was a movement in Western philosophy whose central thesis was the verification principle (also known as the verifiability criterion of meaning). Also called verificationism, this would-be theory of knowledge asserted that only statements verifiable through direct observation or logical proof are meaningful.”

On a simpler level, what is the difference between facts and truth? I never really thought too much about it until recently when political activists, television talking heads, and everybody it seems with access to a public forum are accusing their opponents of mangling the truth or ignoring the obvious facts, or both. I kind of thought they were in the same category, but, of course, it’s not quite that simple.

My professor of logical positivism, now logical empiricism, could have straightened us out. A fact is “this is a chair I’m sitting in.” A truth would be more like “there is a God,” not provable by direct observation or logical proof. I knew I liked that course for some reason, not that I don’t believe in God, but precisely because I do.

Pilate asked Jesus “what is truth” while interrogating him the night before Jesus was executed. Pilate could find no “facts” to justify executing Jesus and Jesus did little to defend himself before the Roman governor. With the Jewish leaders—Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, etc.—all clamoring at Pilate to “crucify him!” Pilate caved.

Ok, go ahead, and he ceremoniously washed his hands to say, “I bear no guilt in this affair. It’s on you.”

So, Jesus was crucified. Now, back to facts and truth.

Did Jesus heal and perform miracles as described in the Gospels? Are the Gospels made up of truth or facts? Both if you are a believer. Neither if you are an agnostic or believer in another faith tradition that denies the rendition of Jesus’s life in the Gospels, and in other parts of the New Testament.

In fact, a fact may be employed to convey a truth which is false. Ready for this one? One Saturday a few weeks ago a columnist for the WSJ, Peggy Noonan, wrote on the immense gulf of civility and belief created in our modern society by the lack of tact. She finished a quality essay with a snippet of an interview that the new head of CBS News, Norah O’Donnell, did with a young Venezuelan mother with her 2-year-old at an immigrant detention center along the border.

Are they taking care of you?

The mother said or nodded, yes, they have even given us Pampers.

But you’re sleeping on the floor.

We have a mat.

Peggy commented on the young mother’s gratefulness for what she had and willingness, indeed desire, to be both honest and tactful. She was indeed conveying a truth with a fact.

She was very kindly supplied by Pampers for her child and it obviously showed a care for her by the ICE staff.

That she was sleeping on the floor was a fact. She was not being tormented, persecuted, deprived or treated like a Jew about to be gassed in a Nazi concentration camp as some politicians have described the detention centers. The people who portrayed the detention centers along the border with the killing concentration camps of the Nazis should be ashamed of their ignorance, stupidity and gross self-importance.

The facts of anything are important. You can’t hide or distort a fact. You can a truth.

When testifying in a court, witnesses place their hands on a Bible (maybe a Koran, or a copy of the Bill of Rights, or the dictionary these days) and they promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If they shot someone in anger in a road age incident, the shooting is a fact, verified by eyewitnesses and police reports for example, and the truth must follow the facts.

We had a graduate student in history a few years ago who was being examined before going to work on his Ph.D. dissertation. He denied the Holocaust, basically said the facts didn’t support the truth that the Holocaust happened. It was a “Jewish plot to make the Germans look bad.” Forrest McDonald and I were on the committee examining him.

We unanimously agreed to send this young man back to the documents, the books, the documentary movies. He had denied the truth of the Holocaust despite the monstrous evidence, the facts. He had embraced not the truth, but a lie.

When someone spouts, screams or hurls “facts,” or ‘truths” at you, or the public in general, put them to the test, lest you too deny or confirm a truth that may not be what it appears to be.

Line up the facts, as many as you can, then move to what they tell you, the truth. Don’t start out with your truth, and then look for the facts to sustain your version. You may need a good course on logical positivism.

Published as “Start with facts, not your ‘truth'” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday July 28, 2019

Posted in: History, Truth