To paraphrase Michael Specter in a TED talk, "You are entitled to your own truths, but you aren't entitled to your own facts." This is a poignant message and one that deserves further exploration.

(Edit: the actual quote, as pointed out in comments on my blog was “...And listen, everyone’s entitled to their opinion – they’re even entitled their opinion about progress – but you know what you’re not entitled to? You’re not entitled to your own facts. Sorry, you’re not.” For the purposes of this article, I'm going to use the word "truth" instead of "opinion" for anything that a person holds to be true, i.e. "personal truth" or "individual truth" as opposed to "universal truth" which is what i would call "fact".)

Firstly, how can we determine what is a truth and what is a fact?

A personal truth will stem from what a person experiences as their life, their own personal experiences. The weight we give to different situations will depend upon what our own personal truths are less than upon the facts.

I'll use an example of the human condition to illustrate a point. If a person lives their entire life in a war-torn village where the daily activities include gathering water from a well five kilometers away, negotiating minefields and the occasional band of militia, then the truth for them is that life is difficult and dangerous. It is a truth that living day-to-day is a struggle against dehydration and death. Most people reading this will never have to experience a life like this.

Likewise, most in the first world will live with the occasional discomfort of job insecurities, familial problems, and illnesses, but for the most part our world consists of a daily routine of getting up, going to work, coming home, eating and sleeping. This is our truth.

Even more striking is the truths people experience in their own minds. I read an article from New Scientist (article preview) in which a study shows that the brains of people who believe in god see their conversations with him in the same way they would with a friend or family member. The brains of these people see no difference between their God and a real person who they know well, even though the experience of speaking to a corporeal entity is a physical phenomenon, not merely mental. But just cause a person believes something to be true, even if their brain thinks it is real, it does not necessarily make it fact. Oliver Sacks, in his book "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat" talks of cases where, either through Aquired Brain Injury or mental illness, people's brains make mistakes, and not just fleeting mistakes, but persistent mistakes of identification. The man who thought everyday that his wife was a hat lived his life in this reality as a truth, and nothing could change this except for maybe some therapy which allowed him to see hats in a new light. But the wife was not, in any sense of the word fact, a hat.

You and I have the ability to distinguish what the brain thinks of as "hat", and our truths reinforce this fact. Those who see the universe as existing without need or evidence for a god also make this distinction between the "human friend" some see God to be and the "flesh and blood" friends and family we interact with daily.

There is also the tendency for the brain to reinforce truths and realities it already recognises, rather than building whole new ideas every time information is presented to us. If this weren't the case we would spend all our time building new information and never learn. The downside of this is that this happens just as much with a delusional brain as with a healthy brain. In it's most closed form it presents as Confirmation Bias, where an already dubious idea is backed up by equally dubious supporting evidence, and thereby strengthening the resolve of a belief held by an individual. This is where a big problem presents itself, because when a person reinforces their truth with more of the same it becomes embedded, and thereby much harder to work around.

Based on individual truths, what facts can be garnered? Is it a fact that life for humanity is one of dodging mines and bullets, or one of relative stability? Is it a fact that a man's wife is now a hat? One could say that the answer to that lies in taking on-board all the available information about lifestyles, about economies and about political climates of all the world's populations and making a determination based on what humanity as a whole is experiencing. But if this were the case, then from whence comes God, and if so many people believe in it does this make it a fact?

Well, no, because fact is independent from individual truths, individual beliefs and individual realities. A fact is a fact no matter where, how or to whom it is presented. A fact lives at the end of all questioning, and is reproducible and testable, and in theory falsifiable. There is no room for individual interpretations within fact, and yet people do interpret facts in different ways, depending upon their own truths and desired outcomes.

So where does this leave us?

Is it enough to simply say that "Truth is subjective, fact is objective"? Well, not really, because the counter argument asks "How do we determine fact without personal truths getting in the way?"

I would be interested in your ideas on this topic. Please leave your comments and thoughts below.

Views: 5

Tags: Atheism, Atheist, Bias, Christianity, Culture, God, Michael, Multicultural, New, Oliver, More…Perspective, Philosophy, Prejudice, Sacks, Science, Scientist, Secular, Specter, bias, bible, confirmation, education, facts, history, natural, nature, opinion, reality, truth

Comment by Apple on June 21, 2011 at 1:40pm
I think that the way you are using the word "truth" is a bit misleading.  It might serve you well to say "subjective experience" rather than "personal truth."  Objective reality is not not altered by anyone's experience of it.  The phrase "personal truth" sounds like a religious catch phrase about accepting Jesus.

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