BEAUTY — god's language of love…
"FACT" is a word that comes to us from a a Latin word that had the sense of something that is “done”, more than something that “is”. Popularly, it's become associated with “truth”.
When I think about my experience of “facts”, a “fact” has almost always come to me as the answer to some sort of question, or as an assertion that’s come from a question someone else asked. In each case, the question came first. The question arose in the mind of the person who asked it — not from nature, which simply exists. The question need not even have been explicit. It can be embedded in the way we have come to “see”, and to understand.
A “fact” is invariably the outcome of a question… it is discrete, separated from its source… extracted, like a museum exhibit, from some greater reality. It is static, despite the busy dynamism and apparent purposefulness of reality. It is a fragment of information chosen intentionally from the flows of change and indivisible interaction in which we’re immersed.
A “fact” — pretty much by definition — is “true”. But there’s a lot wrong with that notion.
The way any “fact” is observed or discerned and the reasons for its being chosen have a lot to do with our culture and the way we exercise our attention. A “fact” has almost everything to do with our values, interests and attitudes. Certainly a “fact” is a “western” concept. It fragments reality in ways that expose events to particular sorts of intervention and manipulation. All cultures have their own “knowledge” and wisdom systems as ways of extracting meaning from experience and the flows of being. But different tools, of course, produce different outcomes.
Science tries very hard to exclude all sorts of irrelevant variable from its research procedures but can forget that silly, limited or incompetent questions will generate as much data as wise and accomplished questions, and that statistical predictions may or may not have a lot to do with the personal experience of particular events. Science does what it attempts fairly well but it remains a limited activity facing infinite challenges. One of its limitations is the capacity of the human mind.
As a journalist, I became very aware that a news story — written in fluent "fact-ese" — was a selectively chosen and carefully circumscribed representation of something that seemed to have taken place, looked at in a particular way.
Whatever had happened took place for reasons that were far to complicated to explain in the few words journalistic conventions allowed, and everyone — from the players themselves (and their agents) to the clock watching news editor steaming full speed ahead to a deadline — would see your story according to their own lights and priorities and, by the time anyone read, heard or saw your “story”, reality would have already moved on and the “players” would be doing other things. Nevertheless, people will tend to believe what they want to believe and, by and large, have enormous appetites for self-affirmation.
Understanding this makes journalists cynical and public relations companies profitable. It makes advertising and marketing the most lucrative business activities of all (their raw materials are vanity and credulity… which both come cheaply).
Facts never coincide, except in the bluntest of ways, from one culture to another, and not necessarily between one person and the next. Misunderstandings are rife. A person’s “facts” can place and identify that person in his/her culture, society, class, occupation, interests… the more stratified or specialised a society becomes, the less well to people understand each other, their society, or themselves.
When we try to share “facts” by way of language, we are ensnared. A language is like a pipe, a conduit. It channels “facts” (better understood as “perceptions”) into the constraints of the particular language. And different languages achieve this in different ways.
Some languages emphasise substantiality, others emphasise dynamics and activitity. Some emphasis relationality and contextuality. Some emphasise people, some emphasise roles or wider forces. And, always, it’s a matter of degree. But every language rounds off a statement into the regularities of “meaning” that are inherent to it. Language organizes experience into sets of familiarities. So what is said (written or represented) is not the whole of what is “meant” — and what is “meant” has an only approximate bearing on raw experience. And that is the extent of our communication: whatever can be said within the conventions of overlapping premises and references.
Even raw experience is very much shaped by the interests and questions we apply to reality. When we approach reality with an agenda, we are almost certain to end up mistaken. But, rid ourselves of agendas? That is very, very difficult.
Art can free us from language, but risks being either so subjective and idiosyncratic that it’s unintelligible, or so bound by conventions of its own that it means little. Our behavior can communicate a lot, but most of us show the world something other than our “true” self… not that we are very good at seeing or understanding our “true” self anyway.
Which is why “wisdom” is such a rarely attained state, why "meaning" is elusive and why we spend so much time feeling confused, and bickering with each other.
“Facts” are especially dangerous when we believe them. My mother used to tell me that you didn’t get “it” until you saw the truth in its opposite. Still, facts do have their functional value… as, indeed, do hammers, explosives and heavy earth-moving equipment.
IT is a popular-level “fact” that, let is say, water is “wet”, unless it’s vapor or ice. Vapor is the gaseous phase of water, “wet” only when it condenses; ice is a crystalline or polycrystalline solid (wet only when it melts), like iron or limestone. Some scientists consider ice a "mineral".
"Wet" is a "fact" but that doesn't make it "true"… and any memories of truer times we may have may are almost certainly coloured by experiences of consensus.
There was a time when monocultures existed more or less seamlessly. They were able to instill and maintain values and ideologies in ways that established powerful cultural solidarities. There have always been dissenters and rebels but there have been times — and still are — when they have been relatively easily dealt with. Nevertheless, it was rebels and dissenters who, for example, ended the rule of the great European monarchies… less by force than by the propagation of new views of what being human was all about. They cleared the path for good stuff and bad stuff… but mostly for new stuff.
The good stuff — to some of us — includes the rule of justice rather than the rule of law. This is what Parliaments and the like were supposed to have been about. But most parliaments have attracted representatives of “the people” who still think in “rule of law” terms — it’s simpler, after all — and are swayed, understandably, by personal ambition. Democracy is an idealist’s dream: it assumes that the surrender of personal interest to the widest benefit for all is a sufficiently common impulse to ensure the common good.
The admissibility of evidence in courts of law has long been — and continues to be — a contentious issue: one that is under constant review in those states that care about justice. As its resources have allowed, the Innocence Project in the United States has applied DNA testing to cases where convictions may have seemed clear enough at the time but denial of guilt has been obstinately maintained… and won a quite a few exonerations. Sometimes the necessary evidence for comparison has been lost or destroyed, and the Innocence Project has also has won exonerations in several of these cases too, though its focus has been on DNA testing. It has a waiting list of thousands of cases. You can check them out at http://www.innocenceproject.org.
The “opening of minds” that many claim as a feature of the new era is an interesting notion. The reality is, of course, that we are all and each ultimately trapped in our own consciousness. There is no way for us to avoid that place. Even nirvana does not reach that far; it is merely the extinction of greed, delusion and hatred… it frees the consciousness to open more fully and wholly to experience, but is does not allow it to explore the consciousness of others.
Social and media diversities almost certainly make us more aware of our existential loneliness but they don't help us deal with it. Rather, they "atomise" our world: they open us to extremes of relativism and, simultaneously, to intensified self-centredness. We see it expressed in fits of “joining” activity (chasing around after like-minded or congenial groups of people who make us feed good for a time but often disappoint us in the end), in feelings of insecurity, futility and pointlessness; it engenders ambient fears, suspicion of the “unknown” and deepened needs for reassurance. It can drive people to extremes, to fickleness, to madness and to straw-grasping desperation.It seems to exacerbate depression, suicide and addiction.
The “truth” forever lies in pieces in a million hearts.
Meaning is necessarily contextual. And “meaning” is the vessel of “truth”. Contexts don’t contain “truth” but some contexts have bigger windows and thinner walls.
Finding “truth” has to be about finding contexts in which “meaning” can be experienced. This is why I open as keenly as I can to “beauty”, and see beauty and god’s language of love. That’s NOT a “religious teaching” in any religion I’m aware of (and I do look around a bit) and it seems to be very eccentric, but it is a personal source of “truth” to me. It is important because it leads me to a kind of nirvana. It is accessible to me because I can find it at my fingertips. But all I can attribute it to is my whole-of-life experience: the workings of my own consciousness.
It’s that personal consciousness that we neglect or abuse at our peril. Which is why I pretty much live the way I do and pretty much why a deep, sustaining joy is always immediately available to me. If we are going to survive as a species, I do believe that we each need to nurture and value our personal consciousness more hopefully and more discerningly but also more more freely, more boldly, more deeply…
Historically, “facts” — by virtue of their ephemerality, and the sorts of questions that have produced them — have been a distraction from that.
The “facts” are found among the chaff of any winnowing.