That's a Fact!!

I tend to go on sceptical high alert when somebody uses the phrase 'that's a fact'. I consider whether the proposition they refer to can be a fact even in theory. Facts are not so easy to establish as you might hope. Let's take an uncontentious example: I am a human being. This is true. But establishing it beyond doubt (which is a necessary condition of a fact) is not so straightforward. I'm not contesting it, I'm using it as an example of a proposition which, if you are asserting it to a young child, or to someone with a weak grasp of your language for whatever reason, or possibly someone with an extremely different cultural background, they might not accept it straight away. They may be correct to question it for perfectly sensible reasons. It may (or may not) make you fall at the first hurdle if I point out occurring as it does in a written text the statement 'I am a human being' is in question seeing as more than one person could have contributed to this discourse, in which case the statement would be imprecise. Of course you could argue it is cogent since the reference is still valid, if taken to mean any of the contributors at any one time. But it has to be noted you have altered the way the statement is comprehended in some sense. I must reiterate - it is not important at this point whether the statement is actually true - the question is: should it be accepted at face value?

Let's look at the assertion in the context of one person talking to another. A parent says to his young child 'I am a human being', by way of education in the matter. It's true. It's appropriate. But should the child, or indeed would the child necessarily just accept it? Let me throw a few more questions into the bargain. Should a child accept everything its parent tells it without question? What about the statement: 'lying is wrong'? Does the parent who says this believe it? Is it a fact? It may have elements of truth to it but its factual significance is debatable. Does the child understand what 'I am a human being' means? If not, this may be a justified reason to question the truth of it. The child might be familiar with the word 'person', and recognise what a person is, but would they not in this case be justified in asking the question 'are all people human beings?' to gain some data on the parameters of what it means to be a human being. The assertion still might not yet stick; what does it mean to be a human being to the child at this stage? Why does the name exist if 'person' serves equally well? The parent might explain: a human belongs to a certain species, with certain attributes, and a being is…well, the word 'being' is not so easy to define. The process of assuring the factual truth of a statement is very much concerned with establishing the meaning of it, as well as its validity.

From another point of view, the statement 'I am a human being' might not be beyond doubt to someone from a very different culture, since the name 'human being' might not exist in that person's language, and this might be because their religious or historical or anthropological heritage does not make useful sense of this term. To use a hypothetical example, the spiritual, or personal nature of that person's understanding of their own life could conceivably find no real accuracy or applicability in the description 'human being', since they do not identify themselves in a way which respects the classifications of evolutionary theory (from a lack of anthropological study in their society, you might say). It might be that none of this affects the real truth of the proposition to one culture's denizen, but it does affect the ability of the other's to accommodate it into their belief system. A fact is a truth. Until the 'fact''s truth has been established to the satisfaction of the audience they are not obliged, indeed not even justified in accepting it. "They are wrong", you might say, "I am a human being".  Their mistake may still be justified, in which case they are correct, at least in not accepting your statement as a fact.

There are such things as facts, at least in so far as there is such a thing as truth. To the extent that you have established the truth of a proposition, it is factual. Philosophy can always question it, since that is a prerogative of philosophical analysis, and always bear in mind our memory or language may fail us, although preferably philosophical inquiry does not undermine the possibility of truth (rather, the aim is to reinforce it). In the meantime, for practical purposes we make proper use of the concept of a 'fact' when we openly establish a proposition beyond doubt for our audience, and that with integrity. What is the good of an assertion if the validity of it relies too heavily on the, essentially tautological, emphasis that it is, indeed, a fact?



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