Yesterday at a neighbourhood bar, I eavesdropped on a group of three strangers debating about fact versus belief. A gal in the group argued: a claim is only a belief, and yours only, until you have set your eyes on it. Then it becomes your fact. The example she used was whether the Earth is a sphere. “Scientific truth” claims the Earth is indeed a sphere. Analytical evidence gathered by experts show the Earth is a sphere. And you believe the Earth is a sphere, because you find the evidence compelling and you have seen photos astronauts took from outer space. However, it is just a belief. It can only become your fact, when you have gone out into space and seen the Earth is a sphere yourself.
Since I could not muster up the courage to join their debate, I am writing this blog post to present my counterarguments, but even more so to organize my own thoughts.
Is seeing believing? Or, I should ask: Is ‘seeing’ a necessary condition to accept facts?
This is the easiest line of thinking to discredit. That you have to see a claim to accept it as a fact is simply unrealistic. This can be best shown by examples. 2 + 2 = 4. Everyone can agree on that. But numbers are abstractions we created to represent the world around us. When I write 2+2=4, I don’t physically take two apples then set two more next to them to realize they add up to four. I know 2+2=4 is a fact, even though it is an abstraction.
Another example: I’m calling into question whether my parents are actually my parents. I don’t remember seeing my mother give birth to me; or my mother and father conceive me (uhmm… that’s a thought I actually did not want to have). Do I only accept as fact that my parents are indeed my parents, once we have completed a genetic test? Even then, do I have to witness the testing process, from our blood samples being taken, the cultures getting sent to the lab, the lab technicians carrying out their lab magic, and the results typed out, to accept as a fact that my parents are my parents?
What about blind people? Because they cannot see at all, do they know no facts?
Your fact versus my fact
The gal at the bar also implied everyone has different facts, due to difference in experiences. But a fact is a claim that is undoubtedly true, regardless of the claimant’s or audience’s experience. 2+2=4, regardless of whether you can see or not, whether you are rich or poor, whether you are Asian or Western…
I know I am pulling an easy example. 2+2=4 is undoubtedly a fact. There are facts that have been pulled into question and are still questioned today. It took a long a time for people to accept the Earth is a sphere. There are probably people who still think the Earth is the center of the universe.
This is where it gets complicated.
A conservative mother may not accept as fact her son is gay. A conservative Christian may not accept as fact our universe is more than 12 billion years old. Perhaps this is why people distinguish scientific facts from other facts. That the universe is more than 12 billion years old can be scientifically proven. But can a gay person scientifically prove they are gay?
The point I’d like to make is there is at least a set of facts that are and should be accepted by everyone as facts, undoubtedly true. This set continues to grow as our scientific understanding grows. Perhaps one day there will be a full scientific understanding of human physiology and psychology, explaining difference in sexual orientations.
The questions I am left with now are: Why are everyone’s sets of facts different? Will we ever get to a time when we agree on the same set of facts? Is there universal truth? To be explored…