Truth and Fact

Once again, last evening, I found myself musing over the difference between “the truth that sets free” and “the facts of the matter”. I was trying to understand the tendency of some people to treat Big Science as a surrogate religion, which is actually a quite appalling form of idolatry.

But more than that, we find ourselves now having to navigate some very contradictory statements and conclusions issuing from contemporary science, particularly as regards issues of the human body and human health, diet and fitness, and so on, and which indicate perhaps a growing de-coherence of what we call “science”, especially when it comes to the analysis of living forms.

What we call “scientific method” or “the objective attitude” is only a perspective, albeit a vitally important one. But God help you if you come to this insight into the limitations of the scientific method (or logico-mathematical, mental-rational consciousness) for truth discovery too early in your education, as I did. You may end up fighting running battles all the way through your formal studies. The natural and physical sciences seem especially defensive about their “scientific method”, insisting that it is the only valid and reliable pathway to truth disclosure and discovery, the only bulwark against what Sigmund Freud, once objecting to Carl Jung, referred to as “the black tide of mud of the occult”.

Which is nonsense. Or, at least partial nonsense.

I found that the social and human sciences are much more flexible in that regard. They’re willing to treat science as a sociological or historical phenomenon and artefact as much as any other sociological or historical phenomenon and artefact, and are far more aware of the limitations of the objective attitude and methodology than the sciences of nature. Still, a lot of the conventional human and social sciences seem entirely jealous of the successes of the physical sciences and hope to replicate them for the study of human beings and society, simply by default because they lack a rigorous and robust methodology or modus of their own.

Those who believe that science is in direct competition with religion or art or philosophy to corner the market in truth are very badly deluded. The great scientists already understand that science alone cannot account for the whole truth and that there is no finality to the statements and conclusions of science. They are all provisional, contingent, conditional, probabalistic. Absolute certainty is simply unattainable by virtue of the methodology itself. A theory or conclusion must remain “falsifiable”, meaning it cannot be assumed to be known with absolute certainty. The best science can do is aspire to ever higher-degrees of probability, but it can never be assured that its conclusions are final or represent ultimate truth, only degrees of confidence. This is also the further implications of the Uncertainty Principle and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

This means “fact” and “truth” must be differentiated. And the fact that we treat them as synonymous is another failure of discerning reason in our time, another aspect of its decadence in which “all higher values devalue themselves”. Just as “whole” and “total” are confused, or “integrate” and “assimilate” are confused, so “truth” and “fact” are invariably confused also. A “fact” is only an image and representation of truth, not the truth itself. It’s implied even in the very meaning of the word “fact”, which comes from the Latin facere — to make, to do.  It is of course, related to the meaning of “factory”. Facts, in other words, are man-made matters, and we can only hope that in “getting our facts straight” that they correspond faithfully to the actual truth, but we can never be certain that they do.

The probabalistic character of scientific statements is revealed by the “if… then…” construction. “If” such-and-such is the case, “then” such-and-such follows as the necessary result. This “if” points to the conditional and provisional character of scientific conclusions.  This is the nature of hypothesis,  a formal type of statement which implies the “if“… In other words, certain matters completely unknown must be assumed as more or less hidden premises for a statement of fact to work.  And even Mr. Newton must have realised that statements of fact were incomplete in themselves, which is why he studied alchemy and the Bible in secret.

It’s because of the inevitable contingency of all scientific facts that really good scientists often look elsewhere for the promise of certainty, and who understand that the truths of science need to be supplmented by the truths of art or religion. The Buddha’s “Ultimate Truth” or Christ’s “the truth that sets free” stands as a great enticement to the real scientist who wants to know, or who understands that the Holy Grail of the Integral Theory cannot be achieved by scientific methods alone, and that there is necessarily a difference between this “Ultimate Truth” and “the facts of the matter”. But to mistake the fact for the truth… the image for the reality… that may be the ultimate idolatry, the ultimate narcissism.

For what is this almost complete confusion and collapse of the “higher” values with the “lower” values? Here, we are at the very root of the contemporary problem and predicament as a “spiritual” crisis. Breakdown and collapse is this very process, which might be said to be the confusion of “soul” and “ego” and is reflected in this contemporary “Tower of Babel” that is the contemporary discourse — the fact confused with the truth, the totality as mere aggregate confused with the whole, integrity confused with assimilation, the ego-nature confused with “soul”… the list of these devaluations is almost endless. And that is the meaning of the Kali Yuga. Or, what we call “Dark Age”.

Science must come clean about its limitations in order to clarify the situation because this kind of reductionism is wreaking havoc on our world and our civilisation, now. This devaluation is what has been roundly denounced as “techno-science”, which now, far from clarifying things, is confusing matters. There is a difference between “the truth that sets free” and the mere “facts of the matter”, and the end result of this confusion must necessarily be enslavement, even new forms of enslavement. Even Dr. Einstein was aware that something was going terribly wrong with science, and that it must overcome its own narcissism and egoism and confess its limitations, and most importantly, that is a perspective on the truth, not the whole truth itself, and must be supplemented by the insights of art and religion and philosophy also.

But let this be enough for now — to know that there is a subtle difference between “truth” and “fact” that reflects what I call “Khayyam’s Caution” — “only a hair separates the false from the true”. Yes, but what a hair!

And that “hair” is called also “veil of Maya” and “Cloud of Unknowing” and “delusion”, and many other names besides. It was the “gnat” as “guardian of the other world” in Castaneda, too. Same “hair”. Same mystery and riddle.



2 responses to “Truth and Fact”

  1. donsalmon says :

    Very interesting. My early insight into the limitations of quantitative science (from my late teens) kept me out of psychology for more than 20 years. I grew up playing music so I just fell into music school and the very easy world of music making in the 1970s and 1980s in New York City, when one spent more time turning down job offers than seeking work.

    In my current field of psychology, at least among academics (therapists are a whole different “ball of wax”) the whole worship of reductionist science is absolutely the worst. Physicists themselves, much of them anyway, have for quite some time realized their limitations. Most biologists get this, except for molecular biologists.

    But psychologists are impossible. I did work with pain patients for a few years before turning it into a dissertation. You don’t have to work with people in pain more than a few days to know that there’s no “pain scale” or “objective” questionnaire that is remotely useful for capturing their actual (phenomenological – to use the common jargon) experience.

    Interestingly, in my informal, clinical work, I estimated that about 2/3 of the patients used mindfulness (which is the main modality I was exploring) as a form of relaxation, and only about 1/3 really “got” what i.e. meant to have a “paradigm shift” in their relationship to pain, no longer treating it as an enemy to be vanquished but rather, in “accepting” (or “being with”) the sensations would see a radical transformation occur spontaneously.

    I got the same results in my ‘quantitative” measurements for my dissertation. So why did I bother going through all that statistical analysis when it was obvious after a few weeks of clinical practice what was going on? No reason I can see.

    Psychologists often defend themselves when people say (about almost any psychological “discovery”) “why, every 10 year old child knows that”, by retorting, “yes, but now we can measure it.”

    There you have it – pure physics envy.

    I suspect in a few decades, when the materialist/quantiative/reductionist craze starts really dying out – assuming the rest of us have not died out either – we will see a “psychology” and science in general which is so different from what we have now, that our current crop of scientists wouldn’t even recognize it as science.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    I think it was a fortunate coincidence that I inadvertently read one of your later essays entitled “Egregore” before this one. But that is exactly what has become of Science in our time: once more another set of values that we have become obsessed with and have given life to.

    It’s really about obsession.

    Mankind is an obsessive animal. I think it’s really what Haruki Murakami’s popular novel, “South of the Border, West of the Sun” is all about, too. The main character in the novel has everything a guy could possibly want, but even in his forties he is never happy because his mind is obsessed about this girl he knew when he was in his early teens.

    The hair that “separates the true from the false,” that fine line, is obsession. Focusing in one direction blurs the vision in other directions so to speak. But you had the gift and noticed this very early in your education. I can only imagine the hostility you must have encountered as you tried to voice this concern about Science, that it is only a very limited partial perspective, in an academic environment.

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