Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Facts are stubborn things

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Can we alter facts according to our wishes or inclinations? If by facts the speaker means

such phenomena as political, economic, social, or legal status quo, then I concede that we can

alter facts. The reason for this is that such systems are abstract constructs of our inclinations,

wishes, and passions to begin with. Otherwise, I strongly agree with the speaker that we

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cannot alter facts. When it comes to certain aspect of our personal lives, and to historical

events and scientific truths, no measure of desire or even passion can change external reality.

On an individual level, we all engage in futile attempts to alter facts--by pretending that

certain things are not the way they are because they are inconsistent with our wishes or

personal interests. Psychologists refer to this psychological defensive mechanism, which

seems to be part of human nature, as denial. Consider curious pastimes such as

mind-reading, psychic healing, rituals that purportedly impart immortality, and other such

endeavors, which seems to transcend all cultures and periods of human history.

Understandably, we would all like to have the ability to alter the physical world, including

ourselves, as we see fit, or even to live forever by means of the sheer force of our will. Yet, not

one iota of scientific evidence lends support to the claim that any human being has ever had

any such ability.

Nor can we alter facts by virtue of our inclinations or passions when it comes to history.

Admittedly, no person can truly know any particular past that the person did not experience

firsthand. In this sense history is a construct, created for us by reporters, archivists, and

historians. Historical facts are therefore susceptible to interpretation, characterization, and of

course errors in commission and omission. This is not to say, however, that historical facts can

be altered by our inventing versions that suit our inclinations or wishes. In short, an historical

event is not rendered any less factual by either our ignorance or characterization of it.

Similarly, when it comes to science our wishes and desires ultimately yield to the

stubbornness of facts--by which I mean empirical scientific evidence and the laws and

principles of the physical world. Admittedly, in many cases it is difficult to distinguish between

scientific fact and mere theory. History is replete with examples of what were considered at

one time to be facts, but later disproved as incorrect theories. Yet it is telling that many such

obsolete theories were based on the subjective inclinations, desires, and wishes of theorists

and of the societies in which the theorists lived. For example, the notions of an Earth-centered

tmiverse and of linear time and space were both influenced by religious notions--that is, by


human wishes and passions. As our factual knowledge increased such theories ultimately give


In sum, I agree that facts are indeed stubborn things. Understandably, all humans are

guilty of ignoring, overlooking, and misunderstanding facts--at least to some extent. After all,

human passion, desire, and individual bias and perspective are powerful influences when it

comes to what we believe to be true and factual. Moreover, the statement carries deep

epistemological implications regarding the nature of knowledge and truth, which I cannot begin

to adequately address here. Nevertheless, on a less abstract level the speaker is correct that

neither inclination, desire, nor passion, no matter how fervent, can alter that which is past or

beyond our physical control.

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