There are Facts and There are Meta-Facts
From: L. Michael Hall
2021 Neurons #73
November 15, 2021
If you have been following these articles on facts you know that not all facts are the same. There are facts at different levels of abstraction and there are meta-facts—facts about facts. While I have mentioned them in passing, let’s now identify and describe this phenomenon of meta-facts. For example, we have already noted these things about facts:
Facts are statements that assert something about reality.
Facts are dependent and fallible in sensing and in thinking (reasoning).
Facts are dependent on context.
Primary facts are empirical and public and can be tested.
Secondary facts are conclusions draw from first level facts.
As we now step back and think about facts, here are some meta-facts:
1) Category/ Classification: The term “fact” itself refers to a mental/verbal concept or map about something at some level— a conceptual statement that asserts something. It is not just data.
2) Incomplete: As an abstract term, “facts” are always incomplete and limited because they inevitably leave distinctions out. So we have to ask, “What else? What other facts are there about this?”
3) Tentative: Given that facts are announced by individuals, they reflect that person’s peceiving in an ever-changing reality. We therefore have to embrace facts tentatively, look for additional facts, and not treat them as absolute.
4) Personal: “Facts” inevitably arise from a personal observation and so co-created between observer and observed at a particular time and place. That’s why we have to index facts to person, place, and time.
5) Contextual: The use of “facts” depend on the context to which we refer: in what context, where, when? In what environment, field, culture, etc.? Facts are always in a context— a context that needs to be made explicit.
6) Multi-ordinal: The term “fact” can refer to itself, and so is a multi-ordinal term. Because we can have facts about facts, hence, meta-level of facts, we have to ask, “At what level are you using this term?” “Is this a first level fact or a conclusion from other facts?”
7) Theory driven and dependent: Every “fact” depends upon a governing theory or understanding about the subject. What are the premises or assumptions?
All of that is a lot! It explains why getting to the facts is not always an easy task. Given that facts come in levels, what most people consider a “fact” is actually a macro-level datum as an event or thing. You can see, hear, feel, smell, and/or maybe taste it. From that data you can then state something as a fact.
“There are three cows in the field.” “The red bicycle is turned upside-down.” “I paid a thousand dollars for that picture."
Below the macro-level is the micro-level. What seems solid and real at the macro-level of our eyes and ears, at the microscopic level is typically anything but solid. Cut your skin and when you look at a drop of blood, it looks red and thick. Yet at the microscopic level, a dot of blood looks like a world of many smaller parts. Below that level we have yet more levels. If we went to the sub-atomic level, one fact at that level would be that what exists is mostly empty space!
Above the macro-level are the inferred facts that we derive from the first level of facts. Here we use reasoning to infer what we think is implied in the nature of things. The field of statistics and therefore “statistical facts” are an obvious example of this. So also are the ideas and conclusions that are drawn in every field that are considered “the laws” of that field, so “the law of physics.” When a field has over decades or even centuries repeatedly come to the same conclusion, those understandings take on the standing of a “fact.”
Now for a surprise—facts can be false. While we often use the word “facts” for data, it is more appropriate to say that data exist and statements about them can be true or false. So a false fact is an unsubstantiated opinion, evaluation, or conclusion. Now, of course, we seek facts in order to determine what is real and what is not, what to map as “the territory” we are seeking to navigate, and how to navigate it well. Sometimes it takes a lot of fierce searching to determine the facts.
The Facts of the Case
What any and every court trial attempts to do is to determine the facts of the case. That is, what happened? Who did what? What are the factors involved? etc. We have seen this play out of television this past week as the Rittenhouse Trail has been constantly in the news. In a riot situation on August 25, 2020, a 17-year old boy, Kyle Rittenhouse went with his father to protect some people and a business. The media did not believe him and members of the media “jump to the conclusion” and accused him of being a white racist and vigilante. Against all of that there was no fact checking among the media.
But now the facts of the case have been coming out which is what a trial and the due process of the law is designed to do. With the video we have a macro-level record of events. We can now see that Rittenhouse did not shot until after a gun was pointed at his head as he was running away and rioters were chasing him. Even the man who pointed the gun and who got shot, who was brought in as a “key witness” for the prosecution admitted that he was shot after he pointed a gun at the boy’s head. Watching the video and hearing these facts, it certainly indicates a meta-level fact, “a case of self-defense.” But the closing arguments are today, Nov. 15 and then the jury will decide.
- Tags: Facts