20 April 2009

Facts and Truth

I run into various arguments containing assertions of the form "natural selection is true" and it makes me want to scream.

There's an essential distinction being missed when someone makes an argument like that. Facts are things which can be agreed on independent of the contents of any particular person's mind; truth is a function of some specific mind.

Human brains construct minds with no ability to inherently distinguish these two cases; memory has no footnote or citation facility, to allow remembering why something is labelled a fact, to warn that the fact nature is old and the associated field of study rapid, or to warn that the fact is isolated from context properly understood by this possessing mind.

This doesn't mean language shouldn't make the distinction.

Facts are what we can agree on by material, quantified, repeatable means, independently of anyone in particular; natural selection, the speed of light, the mass of a litre of water, how much in rained yesterday in a location with an in-service rain gauge, thermal efficiency of a specific, tested device.

Truth is what somebody, some specific person, believes. That isn't constrained to be factual and will in no case entirely be factual. (That peer review step? It's a check for "is this really independent of your specific mind?" It can't be left out.)

Making this distinction lets the argument use words like 'contrafactual'; it lets the argument point out something that everyone knows from experience, that no amount of intensity of belief will alter facts. There's some chance of getting somewhere with an argument like that.

There's no chance of getting somewhere when you're trying to make an argument that something isn't true, when the person you're arguing with knows with complete certainty that it is true; they know their own mind and know what they believe.

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