Facts and Truth

Many will not understand this blog post by Frank Schaeffer or this essay by Ross Lawhead.  I can just hear it now.  But both definitely touch upon many of the same things I was trying to get across in my last posts about what is “true.”
“The least interesting question about religion is to ask “Did this really happen?
The result of the gospel is the point, not what happened or didn’t. The scientific spirit, like the spirit of enterprise is a byproduct of the profound action of the gospel. The modern Western world has forgotten the revelation of the gospel in favor of its mere byproducts, reason and science. As Girard writes in Hidden Things, “I hold the truth is not an empty word, or a mere ‘effect’ as people say nowadays. I hold that everything capable of diverting us from madness and death, from now on, is inextricably linked with this truth.”-Schaeffer
Now, the fundamentalist, both of the religious and secular type, will respond: “But if it really didn’t happen, it’s not true.”
When a six-year-old is told by her mother that when Daddy first kissed her in high school fireworks went off and the stars seemed to smile, she imagines real fireworks and the stars actually changing and would probably argue with us if we suggested that perhaps the fireworks weren’t real and the stars didn’t really change.
What is “real” of course is what Mommy felt that day when Daddy first kissed her.  How she felt and the way she describes it tries to capture that truth.  Even though it is a subjectively felt truth—it captures a universal reality and truth, because others can identify and have experienced the same thing.  It is not hers alone.  She is not just reporting; she is sharing something she knows others have felt and that it was important to them too.  And she wants her daughter to understand. 
Imagine an adult nearby who happened to overhear how Mommy is describing her first kiss to her six-year-old.  Imagine him commenting, “Was it the 4thof July or something?” And, “Oh, by the way, stars can’t smile.”  Really—no kidding?  Thanks for that, genius…
But this is exactly what the secular and religious fundamentalist do.  Like the anal retentive carpenter, they completely miss the point and focus on the periphery and the completely extraneous.  They are the sort of people who upon hearing someone say something like, “At Auschwitz, in Germany, not only did millions of Jews die, but in a way, we all died too,”  and then when asked their thoughts or reflections upon the statement, can only reply, “Auschwitz was in Poland.”
Are they factually correct?  Yes.  Did they completely miss the point?  Yes.  Such is the sensibility of all fundamentalism.  What they hear are “facts” and, it would appear, nothing else.
There are “facts” and there are “truths.”  There are arrangements of “facts” and there are stories that tell the truth.  An arrangement of facts can be, ultimately, utterly false.  A story may tell of something that never happened or happened in a way, had we been present, we may never have understood, but still captures the “truth”. 
The core of my two posts regarding what is “true” is touched upon here by Lawhead:
“We need to keep being told fairy tales because we need to keep being reminded that fairy tales are always true – more true than mere fact because were this story merely factual, it would apply to one person at one time. But because it is fiction it applies to all of us, all throughout history, before and beyond.”
The merely factual can never capture or exhaust the “truth.”  There is always remainder.  Again, the gap or distance between the two types of truth (Auschwitz is in Poland and “we all died”) is infinite.  Imagine someone responding incredulously, “But we all didn’t die.  I didn’t die—I’m still here, living and breathing.”  Oh, you are living and breathing my friend, but clearly not much else is going on.
Do I believe the core of the Judeo-Christian narrative is a fairy tale—in the traditional sense?  No.  Do I believe there was a real historical person named Jesus and that the written accounts we call the Gospels tell us what we need to know about that person and his life?  Yes.  Do I believe the essence or importance of the life of Christ and the Judeo-Christian narrative can be captured by the merely factual?  Nope.
The factual must always bow before the contextual and the meaningful.  Interestingly enough, we all know this.  We all live our lives this way and conduct our relationships this way.  Why is that?  Because we understand the gap—the distance between facts and meaning.  We know that context and meaning can reveal to us what’s true, while the factual can only give us information.  Information doesn’t always equal “truth.”
Such is noted here in Andrew Aghapour’s review of Patricia Churchland’s book “Touching a Nerve.”
“This narrative informs Churchland’s response to her critics, who in Touching a Nerve are personified as a colleague who screams, “I hate the brain!” at a conference and later accuses Churchland of reductionism. Here is Churchland’s response:
Reductionism is often equated with go-away-ism—with claiming that some high-level phenomenon does not really exist. But wait. When we learn that fire really is rapid oxidation—that is the real underlying nature of fire—we do not conclude that fire does not exist. Rather, we understand a macrolevel thing in terms of microlevel parts and their organization.
In other words, for Churchland it’s a mistake to confuse an explanation of a phenomenon with a denial of its existence. This is an apt point, but it makes an easy straw man out of a potentially incisive critique. Let’s start with fire, which has a vast and complicated existence. At a chemical level fire is, of course, rapid oxidation. But fire is also a revolutionary technology for early humans; an ecological agent and economic force on the American West coast; a symbol of passion; an arbiter of s’mores; a weapon; a preferred stove-top technology in bourgeois kitchens; and a widely-imagined symbol of eternal damnation. Atop molded wax, fires can denote age and engender vigils. Fire was a powerful agent in the expansion of the American nation-state, the dawn of the Neolithic Revolution, and the saturation of your couch with weird chemicals.
There’s no doubt that rapid oxidation is a very important aspect of fire’s reality, since it is an empirical description of its most basic existence. However, if we follow Churchland in claiming that rapid oxidation is “the real underlying nature of fire,” and privilege chemistry above all other approaches, we run the risk of forfeiting other dimensions of this phenomenon. If a rich and textured account of fire is desirable, then reductionism should serve as one of many methods for describing and understanding it.
A more nuanced critique of reductionism, like the warning that it often begets tunnel vision, would have served Churchland well in Touching a Nerve. In today’s frenzy of neuro-facts, it’s easy to forget that there are forces and phenomena that fundamentally inform human identity, but which exist beyond the human brain.”
I would suggest that any narrative that can capture this difference and hold them both (the factual and the meaningful) in the proper tension is a much wiser and healthier narrative than those narratives (naturalism/scientism) that oppose these two aspects, reduce one, or create distinctions/dichotomies like the fact/value distinction. 

My next post will re-visit an earlier post.  After that, I plan two more posts dealing with the question: “If we can’t found or prove narratives empirically, how can we know which is true?”  One will revolve around the idea of beauty and the final one will revolve around the issue of self-reflection and humility.  
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1 Response to Facts and Truth

  1. Burk Braun says:

    So, evidently, you agree with me that you might as well be believing in Santa Claus or Mary Poppins- they are, with Jesus, equally fairy tales and equally socially freighted narratives. Great to know we are all on the same page. Now, could you please tell all this to your nice Islamic friends, who continue to take “truth” so seriously, among many, many, many others?

    Another thought comes to mind, which is that science ends up being the only pursuit that really takes truth seriously, by this model. In the social sphere, you hardly care what happened or didn't happen, just as long as your chosen story- Moses, or Transformers, or whatever, moves people to be morally improved. It is a very utilitarian approach, I must say, and prone to abuse, because stories take many forms.. the Nazis had their story as well, of course. So the criterion in the end isn't truth, nor is it narrative power, nor is it attractiveness. It is simply moral improvement. Which is a fine criterion, but then you should really be a Buddhist.


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