I read an interesting post on Raptitude the other day. It included a list of quotes by Friedrich Nietzsche. I haven’t actually read any of Nietzsche’s works myself, but the quotes looked interesting. One particular quote that stirred up quite a bit of conversation was this:
“There are no facts, only interpretations.”
It’s a little funny in a way, as there were 40 quotes listed in this blog post, and many were very meaningful, and very worthy of comment. I suppose this was one of the few quotes on the page could challenge our beliefs, and possibly even challenge our open mindedness. After all, we learned throughout our schooling that a fact is a something proven to be true. For the most part, we were to assume that what we were being taught in school was fact. Our whole basis for a majority of our classes in school was to learn facts. Thus, when challenged with the idea that “There are no facts,” the initial response is to scoff at the idea.
It’s understandable; the thought that 12 years of schooling may be wasted on items that aren’t even factual is tough to swallow. Of course, even if not factual, it certainly wasn’t wasted time, and we still learned much about our world and the way we perceive our world to be. So rest assured, even if there are no facts, that doesn’t negatively impact what we know about the world today.
Just the facts ma’am
I want to continue the discussion, not because I found it to be the most important quote, but because I found it interesting that it was the most hotly debated quote. I need a good reference point to begin with, so let’s start with Merriam Webster’s definition of Fact. As with any definition, there were a few, so I’m going to pick the one that makes the most sense to me.
A piece of information presented as having objective reality.
What the heck is Objective Reality?
Yeah… not real clear yet. The term “objective reality” threw me, and I had to look that one up too. So, I punched “objective reality” into good ole’ Merriam Webster and was happily told the term/phrase is not in the dictionary. I supposed I could look up the words individually and then piece them together, but I decided instead to let Google do the work and find some answers for me.
Many sites danced around the topic. I found one site that gave a pretty good explanation. The following is an excerpt from http://www.ahalmaas.com/Glossary/o/objective_reality.htm.
We are using the term objective reality in contrast to subjective reality, which is reality seen through our inner mental filters that are shaped by our past conditioning. Objective reality is how things really are. Although it is possible to perceive objectively, we cannot take in the totality of reality and say anything about it; we can only point to some of its characteristics. So whenever we explore reality in any specific manner, we have to leave out something. For example, when you describe an orange, you cannot say anything about its totality. You have to talk about its color or its taste or its shape. If you want your description to encompass the whole thing — its color, shape, and taste all together — you can only say, “orange.” It is the same with objective reality. If you want to say anything about it, you have to focus on its specific characteristics. (Facets of Unity, pg 206)
I find that description to be very interesting. How could we describe an orange as it really is, and not as we perceive it to be? The color is based on our eyes interpretation of how the light reflects from its surface. The shape is as our eyes see it or as our hands feel it as we grasp it. The taste is as our brain interprets it to be from the input from our taste buds. Sure most humans will agree on how to describe an orange, but it’s impossible to describe it without interpretation. If one couldn’t see, taste, or feel, how would an orange be described?
The fact that the object is a piece of fruit called an orange becomes rather subjective based on our interpretations. Thus a subjective reality rather than an objective reality or fact. It reminds me of the Matrix where Neo says, “There is no spoon.” Maybe there is no orange.
Does our lacking ability to describe an object mean it doesn’t exist? Well, in the confines of our physical world, I’d say no, it still exists. Our physical world is rather limiting though. Unfortunately, we know very little about the world outside the physical. What if our physical world were just some big elaborate video game? What if we aren’t real at all, but just an elaborately created figment of programming controlled by some beings sitting on their big comfy couches? Would you say an orange in a video game exists? Most would say no, it’s just an electronic representation of an orange. Maybe it’s the same with our orange from a perspective beyond our physical universe.
Explore Beyond our Physical Universe
My understanding of the Nietzsche quote is that it was made as he was exploring thoughts of the metaphysical. It’s important to understand the context of a quote so that we may better understand the meaning. With this being the case, it’s easier to see how he could say there is no fact. I think if we are looking at facts from the totality of all worlds, physical, non-physical, and worlds we may not even know of, then objective reality is something we humans are unable to perceive. We have only our perception, and we cannot escape it.
On the other hand, if we limit the boundary of facts to include only our known physical world, then we have many, many facts. If you look at that statement within the bounds of the physical world being the only existence, then our interpretations of things in this world are the only interpretations. Thus they must be fact, as objective and subjective realities merge in a sense. With that boundary set, colors become fact, texture and shape become fact. The objective nature becomes one based on things we humans have defined to be true based on consensus. We all agree an orange is indeed colored orange, and so we agree this to be fact. We agree that nobody can call it purple and therefore it is not subjective, but rather objective.
The more I try to describe a fact, the more I’m pulled in the opposite direction. Colors are defined because we all agree on them. Dates and times are defined because we all agree on them. Numbers have meaning because we all agree on them. Words have meaning because we all agree on them. Agreement, however, doesn’t make fact. Agreement is simply a collection of acceptable opinions. I’m trying to think of something that could be considered fact, but keep coming around to the idea that all things are limited to our perception of them.
One item I’m having trouble disproving as fact is that of events. Team A played against Team B. I went to work today. Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean. Even if I try to see this from outside the limits of our physical world, it seem like these events still occurred. Unless reality to us is actually a dream, like in the Matrix. In that case, if it happens in a dream, did it really happen?
It’s a funny thing really. A fact is simply a word; a word that we have agreed to give meaning. Yet, even though we’ve agreed on the meaning, we now can’t agree on the interpretation of that meaning. And so I’ve come to this decision: A fact is a fact, unless it’s not; and that’s a fact, or maybe it isn’t.
Add Your Thoughts
What do you think? Does it make your head hurt? Is this all just a bunch of poppycock? Do facts exist or do we just have a collection of agreements?