Facts about Facts
Facts, and in particular “alternative facts”, have been in the news a lot this week, and for good reason (I toyed with calling this post “Facts: talking metaphysics to power”). I’ll have something to say about “alternative facts” later in the post, but first I’m going to talk about facts more generally, as well as another worrying trend I’ve noticed, stemming from the “alternative fact” debacle.
If you know me in a professional capacity, you’re probably aware that I have a longstanding problem with facts. To be clear, I’m not some sort of relativist about truth, nor am I a hard-line skeptic. My problem with facts is ontological – I just can’t figure out what they are. Here is how the SEP article on facts begins:
Facts, philosophers like to say, are opposed to theories and to values, they are the objects of certain mental states and acts, they make truth-bearers true and correspond to truths, they are part of the furniture of the world.
Soon after, in that article, Correia and Mulligan bring up a few options for how to think about facts. They then say this:
In order to understand these claims [about the nature of facts] and the relations between them it is necessary to appeal to some accounts of truth, truth-bearers, states of affairs, obtaining, objects, properties, relations and exemplification.
A thorny metaphysical issue indeed.
I’m not going to take a stand on the metaphysics of facts in this post, other than to assume two points that I take to be (almost) entirely uncontroversial – feel free to disagree in the comments. First, “fact” isn’t just an artifact of language, fact talk is not a ‘useful fiction’, etc, which is to say that facts are real in some, possibly extremely thin sense. I am, however, willing to allow the possibility that “fact” is just a convenient name for something like “proposition true at the actual world”.
The second fact I’ll be assuming about facts is that they have a necessary connection to what’s actually true (using my modal language in a strong sense that I’ll leave unarticulated). Depending on your preferred accounts of truth and truth-bearers, this is something along the lines of facts are true things or facthood is a property of true things. What’s important is that truth is necessary for facthood (factiness implies truthiness?).
It’s this second fact about facts that’s gotten me worried recently. There seems to be a lot of talk in the media (social and otherwise) about “my facts and your facts”, “his facts and her facts”, and most worryingly “correct facts”, “true facts” and of course “alternative facts”. All of these sorts things seem to me to imply that that necessary connection between truth and fact is being ignored or or even intentionally questioned in public discourse. There are at least two immediate problems if this usage of “fact” becomes commonplace.
First, if the meaning of “fact” continues to be diluted, fact will just mean “proposition”, “sentence”, “possible state of affairs”, which is to say “fact” will just be a shorter word for “truthbearer”. While saying “truthbearer” all the time gets really annoying, substituting “fact” isn’t the answer. Plus we’ll then need another word for “fact” (unless we’re really in a post-truth era, which I seriously doubt).
The larger, and more immediate problem is that if we’re going break the connection between facts and truth, willfully or otherwise, there’s going to be a transition period where it will be difficult to tell what anyone means when they’re talking about facts. The most serious consequence of this could easily be smart people with insidious intentions trying to convince the unsuspecting public that certain things are true, that aren’t.
It looks to me like this last problem is exactly what’s going on with the introduction of alternative facts, although more blunt and poorly considered rather than smart and insidious. Here’s my best attempt at a charitable reading of alternative fact talk:
Alternative facts are essentially possibilities or states of affairs that differ from those that were previously (though maybe temporality isn’t at issue) presented as true. Alternative facts are connected to truth in nearby possible worlds, rather than truth at the actual world. So when the “alt-right” asserts “alt-facts” remember that they’re not talking about the real world anymore.