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The Curious Ineffectiveness of Facts

Very interesting.

The Curious Ineffectiveness of Facts

I have a scientific worldview and certainly think that facts are very important. Without facts we would have no information about reality. But we must gather facts so we can know what's happening but the facts themselves don't tell us what's happening. We need to fit the facts into a theory or story somehow. It's the story that tells us what's happening - not the facts alone. This emerges from the way the neocortex processes information. It's arranged as a neural net that extracts meaning from raw data.

This happens in a cascade.
I come to see that there is a cat on a mat. Necessarily that has to start with raw visual data about color in my visual field. That becomes areas of color. Which becomes cat and mat. It we interpret the fact that the cat obscures part of the mat to mean "the cat is on the mat" There are a cluster of words related to stories. Theories, Narratives. Explanations. Hypotheses.

An important distinction needs to be kept clear here; that is the reality/world distinction. Reality presents us with sensory data. The world is what we understand that data to mean. That is, we each experience a world that is different even though we all live in the same reality.

That we each live in a different world creates a situation where we can disagree about the meaning of something. This can be a problem. The problem is that each of us sees a different meaning from the same information. I call this the problem of communicating across belief boundaries. For me it's a key philosophic problem. It is a tough nut.

I've seen that facts are of surprisingly little use at cracking that nut. Facts need to be verified which can be tricky. Most of the facts we handle are verified by others in long chains of authority. There are many authorities and they don't always agree. Sometimes a lot of learning is required to even comprehend a fact. It's really easy to just make up a fact. So what happens is that using facts to try to crack the nut mentioned earlier is that the discussion wanders far afield and never returns to the nut.

We can deal with this. We do it by dealing with ideas rather than facts. If I make a bald statement like "It is bad to torment unlucky people" that needs to be agreed on before we look into the facts about torment or unlucky or bad. That lets us frame the discussion in terms of "If we find a situation where unlucky people are being tormented then that is bad". It brings the idea of unlucky out of abstraction and into a place where we can look at facts and consider "is this a lucky situation or an unlucky one?"

Another aspect of this is that when there is disagreement the disagreement need not be resolved. It is possible for people to live in their own world that is not really in accord with reality. In one way this is like the idea of scientific paradigms - old paradigms don't admit error - they just are unproductive and get ignored and the practitioners fade away. But also - reality can be corrosive to worlds that don't pay attention to it.

A fact isn't a hard thing like a pebble on a beach. It's something we understand that fits into a structure of understanding. Facts are mental things like stories.

What do you think

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.