On The Relativity of Facts
Science is real. Magic is imaginary. The world exists. Cause and effect are related. Lies are dishonest and truth counts. This is all common knowledge, we know all this to be true. No amount of “alternative logics,” magical thinking or “fake news” will change the fact that we all share the same objective reality. At the same time we are creatures of perception and perception is fallible. Our knowledge of the world is limited by our perspective and is obscured by our biases and prejudices.
We like to believe that the world we all live in is absolute, universal, and true. We understand that it is objectively real. Yet we can only understand our world through our own perception, and we can only communicate our reality with others through our languages. The limitations of our perceptions make the world uncertain. The limitations of our languages and systems make the world ambiguous. The ignorance we suffer due to our biases and prejudices make the world subjective. How do we reconcile an objective world with our subjective comprehension?
A binary approach is not adequate. It’s easy to think of things in terms of right/wrong, true/false, or yes/no. But such thinking is also simplistic and heavily generalized. Sometimes we need simple and that’s okay. We generalize all the time to get by on a day by day basis and that’s okay. But we live in a complex conceptual world and it helps to employ a complex approach to better understand it and our roles in it. We need to adopt an understanding of relative facticity and implement logic models that account for uncertainty and ambiguity.
These models don’t have to be overly complicated and there are a number of different ways you can approach them. The model that I prefer categorizes four different types of relativity, each addressing a different attribute of uncertainty: probable, conditional, arbitrary, and subjective. One reason I like this model because it adds an extra dimension to “truth” but keeps it relatively simple. More importantly it maintains its stability because even though it embraces relativity most of the model operates in the objective rather than the subjective. I consider subjectivity and objectivity to be sub-sets of relativity rather than opposites.
The most apparent manifestation of uncertainty is probability. We assign degrees of probability to things that may happen in the future because our perception does not extend that far. We also apply probability to things that have already happened if we didn’t experience it for ourselves. We can assign very high degrees of probability to most things, like whether or not the sun came up while I was asleep this morning. (Spoiler alert: it did.) Other things we are less certain of, like whether a meteor killed the dinosaurs, where Jimmy Hoffa was buried, or whether Franco Harris caught the ball before it touched the ground during the Immaculate Reception.
Whether past of future, the fundamental approach to probability is the same. We use as much information as we can and apply our best understanding of that information in order to determine as accurate a probability of an occurrence as possible. Anytime we measure something in terms of probability we are speaking about facticity, or truth, in degrees. This is a form of relativity.
A second aspect of uncertainty is conditionality. This applies any time we state a fact or a truth that depends on traits or attributes. Traits and attributes derive their meaning from comparisons in relation to other things. This allows for context, which is important for meaning and communication, but it also creates conditionality. Something that is true on one condition may be less true or not true at all on another condition or when put in another context. “I am the tallest person in the room” may be a true statement at one moment. But as soon as a person taller than me walks into the room the same statement becomes false. Adjusting the conditions of the context alters the facticity of the statement. Truth can be dictated by its surroundings with no internal or essential change. This is conditionality which is also a form of relativity.
A third way a fact or a truth can be relative is that it can be arbitrary. Anything that is true by virtue of designation can be considered arbitrary. St. Paul is the capital of Minnesota. Why? Because at some point a bunch of Minnesotans got together and decided that would be the case. If everybody in Minnesota woke up tomorrow and decided that Duluth was the capital of Minnesota, then Duluth would be the capital of Minnesota. (After the paperwork went through, of course.) It’s true because people say it’s true.
There are limits. Communities and populations have purview of their own constructs. If everyone in Minnesota decided that Toronto was going to be the new capital of Minnesota the subsequent efforts would require a lot more than just paperwork. But any fact that is designated as true by a conceptual construct is arbitrary. This applies to definitions, mathematical and scientific systems (particularly processes and terminology, not natural law itself), language and grammar, and geography etc. Any “truth by design” is arbitrary.
One important caveat: A system or construct may dictate arbitrary truths, but whether or not the system works is another thing. For example, I could build an engine that uses water as its main fuel. This would make the statement “my engine uses water for fuel” true, but the engine won’t work. Similarly, I can create my own language with my own definitions from scratch, but if I can’t communicate with other people it has no value as a language.
The curious thing about things being probable, conditional or arbitrary is that these forms are still completely objective. If you pick a playing card at random you have a 25% chance of drawing a diamond. An event that starts at 7pm eastern time will indisputably start at 6pm central time. The word “father” may mean different things in different contexts, but if you look it up the Merriam Webster dictionary online, you will find seven different definitions (as a noun, plus three more as a verb) as objective points of reference. Relativity is still very much objective in that all of those things remain relatively true outside of our own minds and regardless of our biases and perceptions.
For this reason, I relegate subjectivity to a fourth category of relativity. And to keep a fairly objective understanding of subjectivity I would like to use the aforementioned Merriam Webster online dictionary as a point of reference when describing subjectivity in order to keep it… well, objective. Definition 3a defines it as “characteristic of or belonging to reality as perceived rather than as independent of the mind.”
Subjectivity applies to the truth of something in the sense of how it relates to an individual and biased reality rather than a shared or universal reality. This can be demonstrated best in a technical sense by the phenomena of the white and gold / black and blue dress. Of a population of people looking at the exact same image of a dress, about half saw it as black and blue and the rest saw the exact same image as white and gold. “The dress is black and blue” is then subjectively true in that “I perceive the dress to be black and blue” is a true statement and the “I perceive” aspect of the statement is implied when one states it.
The curious case of the dress turned out to be a physiological phenomenon. I refer to this as “technical subjectivity” since it’s still strictly scientific and objective. But the idea of subjectivity mostly relates to general subjectivity. When I say things like “The Beatles are better than the Stones” or “In Rainbows is Radiohead’s best album”, they sound like opinions. But the “I think” or “I feel” that precedes them is necessarily implied. Statements can be considered opinion in one sense but become statements of fact when accounting for implied bias are subjectively true. [This idea is a precursor to my theory that there are no arguments, but that’s a topic for another essay. Give that some thought and if the theory piques your interest you are invited to ask me about it.]
The idea of “relative facticity” may sound like something overly complex and esoteric. But it’s a fancy way of saying that truth is relative, which we all already understand on some level and utilize on a daily basis, such as when we think in terms of probability or context. I hope that splitting relativity into four basic categories helps to dispel some of the aversions and anxieties we have in considering “relativity” as an essential aspect of truth.
Now more than ever our society needs to embrace and practice nuance and context. The world we live in is real, but it is shaped by our concepts. Our values and principles are concepts. Our societies and culture are built on concepts. Governments and organizations are conceptual constructs. In a very real and practical sense we live in a conceptual world. Understanding relative facticity is requisite for establishing nuance and context in public discourse, and perhaps for restoring objectivity to truth itself.
To this end I commit my skills as a thinker and a writer to help us create new logics and form deeper understandings of this relativity. Together we can build the tools and systems we need to defend in fortify our values and principles, our societies and our cultures.