My Facts, Your Facts

Some facts are brute facts; they “just are”



Here’s a snappy reality check: “You’re entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts.”

But reality isn’t always easy to check. For a start, if my opinion is ill-formed, I’m not really entitled to it. There’s a duty to think carefully about our opinions.

Of course, today’s political slugfest leads some pugilists to contrast “my facts” with “your facts.” Say what?

If we appeal to the principle of charity, such talk might not be complete nonsense. Maybe Jones bases his facts on one set of data, while Smith bases her facts on another set. Plus, the competing sets of data might be no more than the duly quantified experiences of two different groups. Even so, Jones and Smith are voicing opinions rather than stating facts, so they need to consider more than one set of data.

Sergeant Joe Friday, of Dragnet, had his own reality check: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Again, reality might not be easy to check. Friday always begins an interview with specific questions. He’s interested in the facts about, say, a suspect’s whereabouts and not about what’s on the stove.

Well, what about Sherlock Holmes? How often he tells Dr. Watson that evidence must come before speculation. But what evidence? That is, what facts? Yes, check the carpet for cigar ash. But count its threads.

So let’s take a look, if only a brief one, at facts. They come in relation to other facts. Some facts come in the context of institutions. “I owe you ten bucks for this bag of potatoes” is a fact in the context of grocery stores and currency. Some facts are critical for understanding other facts. We  understand the fact that “diamonds sparkle” in relation to atomic structure and optics.

Some facts, just maybe, are brute facts. They “just are.”

The principle of sufficient reason, the thesis that there is a reason for everything that is, indeed, a reason that explains why it is, seems incompatible with brute facts.

But the principle of intelligibility, the thesis that reality is, at least in part, intelligible, is more generous. If reality is not intelligible, then there’s no place for reality checks! Nor is there any place for scientific inquiry. Nor is there any place for interpersonal dialogue.

Yet there is a place for reality checks, and we need more of them. There is a place for scientific inquiry, and our lives are better for its success. There is a place for interpersonal dialogue, and we need to pursue it lovingly.

And whence comes this reality? Think of the first words of the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word…” Through this Word “All things came into being…” And “What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.” In Greek, “Word” is Logos, that which creates intelligibility.

Compare and contrast, if you will. When we say that we “can’t read” someone, we mean that so far we haven’t understood what makes him who he is. We don’t speak the same language. There’s nothing to say to each other.

Yet God, as Augustine says, is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He speaks his Word to us, and He does so in a way that we can understand, even if we understand Him only in part. It’s a brute and beautiful fact.

That’s a reality check, isn’t it?


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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