The Elusive Idea of Objective Facts.

objective facts

My friend, Jeff Miller, recently inspired me to spend time reading posts on the blog Noahpinion. The blog is a thoughtful venue written by a thoughtful thinker.  I do not feel comfortable with the conclusions about the world that he tends to form, and neither of us has much chance of persuading the other. I find that claim of mine troubling, and I am sure the blog’s author, Noah Smith, would be similarly distressed if I am correct about the dismal prospects for our moving each other toward what we think is the light.

There are many glib ways to highlight our disagreement.

  • I agree with Goethe that facts are inescapably suffused with theory. I doubt that Mr. Smith agrees.
  • I do not have the level of confidence in expert claims that Mr. Smith appears to have.
  • I believe that on many regards, believing is seeing; Mr. Smith believes that trained observers see with what Hillary Putnam calls “God’s Eye.”
  • I agree with Martha Nussbaum that the dichotomy between emotions and facts is  spurious in important aspects; Mr. Smith, I believe, sees a world that bit by bit has escaped the snares of ignorance, often fueled by emotional commitments. And that liberation has been achieved by the growth in accumulated facts that are acknowledged by all careful thinking people. Mr. Smith and many very bright people like him, sees what I and anyone else sees as factual or non-factual. In other words, he is possessed of a set of facts that are right or wrong. That approach to the world permits Mr. Smith to say things with the ferocity legitimized by certitude. The facts he knows authorizes him to say, for example, in one of his recent blog posts, “The amazing improvement in the quality of life of the world’s poor people should be common knowledge by now.”  Mr. Smith sees a claim such as his as an objective fact, one so full of probity that we can say it is universally the case, i.e., objective reality. I see human perceptions, including his, as possessing degrees of plausibility from inside a particular way of looking at the world. For example, I would reword what he says about the world’s poor people in the following fashion:
  • a. If one chooses to see assessments of “quality of life” as a material phenomenon, then his statement is generally true.
  • b. If one decides to see “quality of life” as an absolute, rather than a relative concept, then Mr. Adams is saying something both correct and important.

Why are these differences between us important?

My way of seeing the world propels me to be intrigued by the definitional, contextual, and ontological assumptions, as well as policy implications Mr. Smith embraces. I want to understand his perspective and strive not to react to it via caricature.

I fear he would feel much less tolerant of my thinking because objective facts empower, and even compel, those who possess them to speak out against the illiteracy of those who see the world with ocular clumsiness.

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