Re: [asa] (what's a fact?) Brilliant article by Dawkins

From: wjp <>
Date: Thu Aug 27 2009 - 09:31:36 EDT

The notion of fact is linked to some form of foundationalism or,
sociologically, consensus. In this sense alone, fact and value
are impossible to disentangle (cf. Putnam).

It is useful to examine how the concept of fact is used. We often use
it to denote or modally confer upon a proposition the notion
of certainty (or perhaps a high level of certainty), as in
proposition A is 'fact' is to mean A is a 'most certainly true.'

Still, I think it is often intended, esp. in science, to paradigmatically
refer to something like a 'bare fact.' The notion of a bare fact is that
it serves epistemologically as an atom of information, or as some form of
atomic proposition upon which our knowledge of the world can be built.
The bare fact is suppose to be in some sense interpretively or perspectively
neutral. We might say it is free of any subjectivity and hence purely
objective. Not only is this likely impossible, it is, it seems to me,
useless for human knowledge, i.e., if it were 'true,' we wouldn't
understand it or know what to do with it.

The notion of a pure bare fact is surely mythical, as is the notion of
atomic propositions. But that does not entail that it might not be
possible to aim for such entities, or that some propositions are more
atomic than others, esp. as they apply to some form of hierarchical
or foundational epistemological system. We clearly have the sense,
in science as elsewhere, of building up our knowledge on previously
accepted knowledge, whether this is a strictly logical connection
or not.

The notion of fact, additionally, and perhaps more importantly, is
used as a weapon (as you've indicated) in the war of accepted
ideas. It is employed to silence one's foe, or bludgeon them into
silence, if not submission. Hence, to associate with a proposition
the notion of fact is often employed as a rhetorical strategy or
flare, but effectively adds nothing to the proposition.

In more polite and civilized circles, we might associate the modal
additive 'fact' as a reminder or acknowledgment of agreement.
To say 'A is fact' would be taken then to indicate that we agree
that A is true, or we can take A to be true, or A is accepted.

The initial task of discourse is to discover common ground.
We must discover what it is we mutually agree upon. This is no
easy task, where terminology and their meanings may differ.
In the painful process of establishing 'the facts,' we will
likely discover, if we are honest, the role of interpretation
and differing epistemological aims and methods.

In some cases, such discovery will represent honest, but
unmovable road blocks, as, for example, in the endless
debates between realists and anti-realists of science.
In other cases the discussion may profit from broadening
the context of the discussion to what previously might have
been considered external. The force of external coherence
might be brought to bear upon certain positions that
bear the marks of being ad hoc: positions constructed
and defended in an isolated arena, but rejected in others, e.g.,
epistemological skepticism.

All of this, I think, can be applied to discussions associated
with the varying aspects of evolutionary biology, whether that
be with a YEC, OEC, IDer, or materialistic neo-Darwinian.

The real question is whether we actually care to engage in such
honest discussion. In many cases, we simply prefer to ignore
contrary positions, or, worse, gather in small groups to scoff.
When we do engage in such exploratory discourse, it ought to be
established, mutually or independently, what the aim of the
discourse is. Initially the aim, it seems, ought to be to
simply discover a common ground and the surfaces of disagreement
and deviation. Such discovery is non-threatening, and might even
be illuminating. In any case, it serves to manifest avenues of
fruitful discourse. This, of course, presumes that the intention
is not destructive. Where war is in the air, all bets are off.


On Thu, 27 Aug 2009 08:45:18 -0300, Chris Barden <> wrote:
> Delurking for a bit to comment on this interesting thread:
> The ontological status of facts is something that has been continually
> muddled in the creation-evolution debate. Barring a Cartesian demon,
> there is very good warrant to believe that what I perceive (i.e.
> observations about the world, in the manner of Terry's examples) is a
> fact. There is even more warrant when many people, from many walks of
> life, with the assistance of many modes of viewing including
> scientific instrumentation, etc. corroborate that my observation lines
> up with their observation.
> But in the context of "evolution is a fact" this is often not what is
> meant. Well, charitably I must grant that part of what is meant
> involves that, inter alia, we have fossils in the ground at different
> rock layers that suggest change over time. Even some YECs grant that
> evolution is a fact in that sense, though they don't like the
> phrasing. But usually, and especially in the fashion that has been
> popular ever since Gould's essay on the subject, "evolution is a fact"
> is used to great rhetorical effect -- I think, unfairly. Because
> evolution means many things to different people, and evangelists of
> evolution wish to use the strong epistemic foundation of geology and
> paleontology to imbue all further developments of evolutionary theory
> with the same warrant. That evolution simpliciter is a fact does not
> imply that Darwin's theory of natural selection is a fact (even Darwin
> would agree with me here), nor indeed that it ever could be if "facts
> and theories are different things" as Gould opined. We really ought
> to find a new way of speaking about evolution so that it is not so
> easy to confuse the two.
> I liken it to the notion of the sayings source Q, ostensibly a source
> for Matthew and Luke. To say "Q is a fact" might mean tautologically
> that there is material in Mt and Lk that is not in Mk which matches,
> thus Q exists. But to others, "Q is a fact" might be interpreted as
> "QMa is a fact" or "Q1, 2, ... is a fact", which might lead to the
> notion of rival factions in early Christianity being as strongly
> supported as the existence of Q. I have heard biblical scholars
> indicate that it is indeed safer not to talk about Q because of the
> difficulty of sorting out the distinctions -- and the reason it is
> difficult is because all have been espoused as being a necessary
> corollary or even the plain meaning of "Q is a fact".
> And don't get me started on the intimidation implied by the
> "overwhelming" evidence of evolution..
> Chris
> On Thu, Aug 27, 2009 at 12:43 AM, Terry M.
> Gray<> wrote:
>> Bernie,
>> Yes, that's close to where modern philosophy of science is today.
>> Perhaps we should say that a fact is an observation that is conditioned
> by
>> the observer and the theoretical constructs that the observational
> apparatus
>> exists in.
>> So...
>> Heliocentricity is not a fact, it's a theory. Geocentricity was never a
>> fact, it too was a theory. Both are based on the same observations.
>> Interestingly, I'm not sure that Ptolemaic geocentricism didn't fare as
> well
>> as Copernican heliocentricism with respect to predictions. I would guess
>> that a flight to the moon could be successfully carried out under
> Ptolemaic
>> geocentric predictions with respect to the celestial motions. I'm not
> sure
>> how Ptolemy would deal with the rocket.
>> The facts are things like the motions of certain lights in the sky (sun,
>> moon, planets, stars, etc.) as detected by the human eye, telescopes
>> (terrestrial and extra-terrestrial).
>> Those observations, especially when they are conditioned by the
> conditions
>> that gave rise to them, never change. All the rest are theories,
> inferences
>> from those observations.
>> Heliocentricism is more elegant, simple, integrates with other theories
>> (Newton, Kepler), etc. That's why we think it is correct.
>> If you haven't ever read a basic philosophy of science introductory
> text, I
>> would recommend Del Ratzsch's "Science and Its Limits" which I think is
> the
>> current and revised version of his original "Philosophy of Science"
>> TG
>> On Aug 26, 2009, at 9:40 AM, Dehler, Bernie wrote:
>>> Schwarzwald said:
>>> “A fact that can be disproven isn't a fact - if it's disproven, it
> wasn't
>>> a fact to begin with. “
>>> If a fact has to be ultimate truth in order to be a fact, then there
> are
>>> no facts.  The only facts we have today are the ones not yet
> disproven,
>>> which doesn’t mean they are true… just not disproven yet.
>>> I look at facts as the smallest building blocks upon which we construct
>>> higher complex opinions.  For example, how old is the universe? The
> answer
>>> is based upon the facts you know.  YEC’s and TE’s disagree because
> they are
>>> dealing with different facts.  Some of those facts are true, and some
> are
>>> false.  The facts can be based in science, history, and theology.
>>> …Bernie
>>> From: [] On
>>> Behalf Of Schwarzwald
>>> Sent: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 12:38 PM
>>> To:
>>> Subject: Re: [asa] (what's a fact?) Brilliant article by Dawkins
>>> A fact that can be disproven isn't a fact - if it's disproven, it
> wasn't a
>>> fact to begin with. By your reasoning, geocentricity was a fact until
> better
>>> observation came along. Then suddenly heliocentrism became a fact. And
> then
>>> heliocentrism was no longer a fact after we realized the sun isn't the
>>> center of the universe.
>>> On Tue, Aug 25, 2009 at 3:19 PM, Dehler, Bernie
> <>
>>> wrote:
>>> Terry said:
>>> "Are you sure heliocentricity is a fact?"
>>> It is a true fact until disproven, like all other facts.  What we
> know,
>>> for sure, is that geocentricity has been disproven.  It is a false
> fact.
>>> ...Bernie
>>> -----Original Message-----
>>> From: [] On
>>> Behalf Of Terry M. Gray
>>> Sent: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 12:00 PM
>>> To: ASA
>>> Subject: Re: [asa] (what's a fact?) Brilliant article by Dawkins
>>> Bernie,
>>> Are you sure heliocentricity is a fact? Dawkins, in his recent piece,
>>> calls heliocentricity a theory, rightly, I think. There are facts/
>>> observations that lead to a heliocentricity inference, right? It could
>>> then be asked, what is the theory-ladenness of those (or any)
>>> observations?
>>> I think these are the kinds of questions that modern philosophy of
>>> science push us to ask. One of the consequences is that the difference
>>> between fact and theory is lessened. Perhaps a main difference is that
>>> the word "theory" is used to tie together lots of theory-laden facts.
>>> We speak of some theories as "fact" when they appear to be highly
>>> confirmed via lots of disparate theory-laden facts and over time
>>> involving significant challenges to their success.
>>> TG
>>> On Aug 25, 2009, at 12:36 PM, Dehler, Bernie wrote:
>>> >
>>> >
>>> > Moorad said:
>>> > " Is there a difference between a scientific and a historical fact?
>>> > When are they the same and when different?"
>>> >
>>> > Facts are pieces of data to which you use to infer other facts or to
>>> > form opinions.   A 'scientific fact' is based on science, and
>>> > 'historical fact' is based on history.
>>> >
>>> > A scientific fact from ancient history, now known to be wrong:
>>> > Geocentricity
>>> >
>>> > It is replaced with the modern scientific fact called
> heliocentricity.
>>> >
>>> > ...Bernie
>>> > -----Original Message-----
>>> > From: []
>>> > On Behalf Of Alexanian, Moorad
>>> > Sent: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 8:22 AM
>>> > To: Jack;
>>> > Subject: RE: [asa] Brilliant article by Dawkins
>>> >
>>> > Is there a difference between a scientific and a historical fact?
>>> > When are they the same and when different?
>>> >
>>> > Moorad
>>> > ________________________________
>>> > From: [] On
>>> > Behalf Of Jack []
>>> > Sent: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 6:33 AM
>>> > To:
>>> > Subject: Re: [asa] Brilliant article by Dawkins
>>> >
>>> > I dont know about it being brilliant.  He spends a lot of time
>>> > talking about how evolution isnt a "theory" its a fact, when we all
>>> > know that the word theory has more meanings than the sense that he
>>> > is using it.
>>> >
>>> > I also bristle a bit at his suggestions on what preachers should
>>> > preach about.  This is disingenuous isnt it?  What he really wants
>>> > is for there to be no church, no preachers, and no religion.
>>> > Perhaps he wants the preachers to say that the existence of Adam and
>>> > Eve isnt factual just to create dissension, not to spread truth.
>>> > Since evolution does not necessarily negate the historicity of Adam
>>> > he is straying to far from his area of expertise here.
>>> > ----- Original Message -----
>>> > From: Michael Roberts<>
>>> > To:
>>> >
>>> > > ;<> ;
>>> > ><
>>> > >
>>> > Sent: Monday, August 24, 2009 3:04 PM
>>> > Subject: [asa] Brilliant article by Dawkins
>>> >
>>> > No, I am not joking. There was an absolutely brilliant article in
>>> > The Times today on the menace of creationism. Excellent stuff, not
>>> > one attack on Christianity. It does have a few necessary comments on
>>> > bishops and clergy put in an understatement.
>>> >
>>> > Ii is on
>>> >
>>> > Michael
>>> >
>>> >
>>> > To unsubscribe, send a message to with
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>>> >
>>> >
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>>> ________________
>>> Terry M. Gray, Ph.D.
>>> Computer Support Scientist
>>> Chemistry Department
>>> Colorado State University
>>> Fort Collins, CO 80523
>>> (o) 970-491-7003  (f) 970-491-1801
>>> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
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>> ________________
>> Terry M. Gray, Ph.D.
>> Computer Support Scientist
>> Chemistry Department
>> Colorado State University
>> Fort Collins, CO 80523
>> (o) 970-491-7003  (f) 970-491-1801
>> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
>> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
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Received on Thu Aug 27 09:32:31 2009

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