Fact and Truth – Regarding the Difference between Them

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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Thought experiments (Gedankenexperimenten) are facts in the sense they have a “real life” correlate in the form of electrochemical activity in the brain.  But it is quite obvious that they do not relate to facts.  They are not a true statement.

A question can be posed: do they lack truth because they do not relate to a fact or are the two facts disjointed?  How are Truth and Fact interrelated?

One answer is that Truth value is a shorthand to describe the possibility that an event will occur.  If true – it must occur and if false – it cannot occur.  This is a binary world of extreme conditions of being.  Should all possible events occur?  Of course not.  If they do not occur would they still be true?  Must a statement demonstrate a real life correlate to be true?

Instinctively, yes.  We cannot conceive of a thought without brainwaves.  A statement which remains a potential seems to exist in the nether land between truth and falsity.  It could become true by materializing, by occurring, by matching up with real life.  If we had the ability to show that it will never do so (ad infinitum), we would have felt comfortable to classify it as false.  This is the outgrowth of millennia of concrete, Aristotelian logic.  Logical statements talk about the world and, therefore, if a statement cannot be shown to relate directly to the world, it is not true.

This approach, however, is constructed upon some underlying assumptions:

First, that the world is finite and not only finite – but also close to its end.  To say that if something did not happen than it is not true is to say that it will never happen (meaning that time and space – the world, in one word – are finite and are about to end momentarily).

A second assumption is that truth and falsity are mutually exclusive.  Quantum logic has disproved this one.  There are real world situations that are in both realms, the true and the “not-true”.  A particle can “be” in two places at the same time.  This fuzzy logic is incompatible with our daily experiences but if there is anything that we have learnt from physics in the last seven decades is that the world is incompatible with our daily experiences.

Thirdly, that the psychic realm is but a subset of the material one.  We are membranes with a very particular hole-size.  We filter through only well defined types of experiences, are equipped with limited (and evolutionarily biased) senses, programmed in a way which tends to perpetuate us until we die.  We are not neutral, objective observers.  Actually, the very concept of observer is disputable – as modern physics, on the one hand and Eastern philosophy, on the other hand, have shown.

This last counter-argument can be illustrated.

Imagine that a mad scientist has succeeded to infuse all the water system of the world with a strong hallucinogen.  At a given moment, all the people in the world saw a huge flying saucer.  What can we say about this saucer?  Is it true?  Is it “for real”?  Are the two questions two sides of the same coin?

There is little doubt that the saucer never existed. But who is left to utter this statement?  If a statement is left unsaid – does it mean that it has no existence and, therefore, is untrue?  Evidently, in this case, it is the statement that remains unsaid (that has no real life correlate) that is true – and the statement that is uttered by millions is patently false.  So truth is not to be found in statistics because statistics are a human endeavour and we cannot trust our brains and our mad scientists.

Still, the argument can be made that the flying saucer did exist – though only in the minds of those who drank the contaminated water.  What is this existence?  In which sense does a hallucination constitute an existence?  The psychophysical problem is well known no cause and effect can be established between a thought and its real life correlate, the brainwaves that accompany it.  Moreover, this leads to infinite regression : because if the brainwaves created the thought – who created them, who made them happen?  in other words : who is it (perhaps what is it) that thinks?

The subject is so convoluted that we can safely say that this second mode of existence (the psychic) cannot be a subset of the material mode of existence (at least, that it cannot be proven that it is such).

It is, therefore, advisable to separate the ontological from the epistemological.  But which is which?  Facts are determined epistemologically and statistically by conscious and intelligent observers.  Their “existence” rest on a sound epistemological footing.  Yet we assume that in the absence of observers facts will not cease to be facts, will not lose their “factuality”, their real life quality which is observer-independent and invariant.  How about truth?  Surely, it rests on solid ontological foundations.  Something is or is not true in reality and that is it.  But then we saw that truth is determined psychically and, therefore, is vulnerable, for instance, to hallucinations.  Moreover, the blurring of the lines in Quantum, non-Aristotelian logics implies one of two either the world lacks true and false values (in which case, they are only “in our heads”, read epistemological) – or something is wrong with our interpretation of the world, with our mechanism (brain).  In the latter case, the world is assumed to contain mutually exclusive true and false values – but the component which identifies these entities went evolutionary awry.  The paradox is that the second approach also assumes that at least the perception of true and false values is dependent on the existence of an epistemological detection device.

Can something be true and reality and false in our minds?  Of course it can (remember “Rashomon”).  Could the reverse be true?  This is what we call optical or sensory illusions.  Even solidity is an illusions – there is no such things as solid objects (remember the physicist’s desk which is 99.99999% vacuum with minute granules of matter floating about).

To reconcile these two concepts, we must let go of an old belief (probably vital to sanity) and that is that we can know the world.  We probably cannot and this is the source of the confusion.  The world may be inhabited by “true” things and “false” things.  It may be that truth can be identified with existence and falsity with non-existence.  But we will never know because we are incapable of knowing anything about the world as it is.

We are, however, fully equipped to know about what is happening inside our heads, psychically.  It is there that the representations of the real world form.  We are acquainted with these representations (concepts, images, symbols, language in general) – and mistake them for the world itself.  Since we have no way of directly knowing the world (without the intervention of our interpretation mechanisms) we are unable to tell when a certain representation corresponds to an event which is observer-independent and invariant and when it corresponds to nothing of the kind.  When we see an image – it could be the result of an interaction with light coming from outside us or the result of a dream, a drug induced illusion, fatigue and any other number of not-correlated-with-the-real-world brain applications.  These are observer-dependent phenomena and, subject to an agreement between a sufficient number of observers, they are declared to be true or “to have happened”.  Such, for instance, are religious miracles.

To ask if something is true or not is a meaningful question unless it relates to our internal world and to our capacity as observers.  When we say “true” we mean “exists” or “existed” or “most definitely will exist” (the sun will rise tomorrow).  But existence can only be ascertained in our minds.  Truth, therefore, is nothing but a state of mind.  Existence is determined as the result of observation and the comparison between the two yields a picture of the world which may be closely correlated to reality – and, yet again, may not.