Facts and Lies

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“Just the facts, ma’am.” This line is widely believed to have been made famous by the character Joe Friday, detective sergeant in the famous Dragnet television series. Actually, Friday never spoke the line. It was popularized by Stan Freberg in his parodies of the show.

Nevertheless, the line summarizes modernity’s fascination with facts. For the modern, if you possess the facts, then you possess the truth. Facts equal truth, and whatever is factual is necessarily truthful.

Of course, the truth may be complicated if it involves a large number of facts. Even so, an objective observer need only examine and correlate a sufficient number of the facts. If someone gathers enough of the facts and stares at them long enough, the truth is sure to emerge.

Postmoderns have critiqued the equation of facts with truth as horribly naïve. They have also critiqued the notion of a truly objective knower. Both of these critiques ought to resonate with conservatives. In particular, a genuine conservatism rejects the fact-truth equation.

The most important Christian critique of facts as the guarantor of truth comes from Cornelius Van Til. He and his followers have been eager to point out that there is no such thing as a brute fact. Facts do not exist in isolation, but in relation to other facts. The relationship among facts must be grasped in order for any fact to be rightly construed. The only mind that really grasps the network of relationships among facts is the mind of God, and humans have access to that network only through revelation. The upshot is that only Christians are in a position to have true knowledge of the world—i.e., to know facts as they ought to be known.

Van Til, however, was not the only conservative thinker to critique the fact-truth equation. Of equal note was Van Til’s contemporary, historian John Lukacs. In his work Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past, Lukacs offered a sustained critique of the attempt to equate facts with truth.

Lukacs began by noting that a fact by itself is entirely without value. He realized that people are inundated with large numbers (billions? more?) of events and objects that they never notice. These events or objects are only registered in the mind (they are constituted as facts) when they are somehow associated with other facts. Says Lukacs, “Facts are meaningless by themselves: they mean something only in relation to other facts” (104).

In other words, a fact has to be construed before it counts as a fact. As Van Til would be quick to point out, such a construal is always an act of interpretation. Consequently, all of the facts that we know are always already interpreted. They are never neutral. They are already value-laden before we become aware of them.

For this reason, telling the truth is not simply a matter of repeating the facts. To tell the truth, we must relate the facts in a way that reflects their actual arrangement as it exists in reality (i.e., as it is known by the mind of God). If we have all the facts, but we construe them wrongly, then our perceptions and articulations will be false. If we misconstrue the facts maliciously, we may commit slander without ever uttering an unfactual word. For Christians, such malicious utterances must be taken seriously, for Jesus taught us that character assassination is the same sin as murder (Matt. 5:21-22).

In order to tell the truth, we must not omit any relevant fact. Imagine a high school principal who announces, “In basketball last weekend, our team finished in second place, while our rival team across town only managed to come in second-from-last.” This announcement creates the impression that the principal’s team did pretty well. What he neglects to add, however, is that the only game played was between his team and the rival team across town, which beat his team badly. The principal has spoken only the facts, but he has used them to disguise the truth.

Facts cannot be truthfully separated from their associations. Nor can these associations be separated from their expressions. Imagine a man who works in an office with several men and several women. Some of the latter are quite attractive. One day, he goes to work even though his wife has come down with a cold. We could, if we wished, say factually that he had left his sick wife alone and spent the day with a beautiful woman. If that is what we said, however, we would become guilty, not only of deceit, but of slander.

To be sure, the charge of slander would likely be dismissed in a court of law. Our legal defense would be that the statement was entirely factual. We might even preempt a charge of slander by offering in advance to correct any factual errors. The slander, however, does not involve the facts, but their construal. When we appear before the Judge of all flesh, we will surely stand as liars and murderers.

Those who value truth will not separate facts from their associations. They will not separate associations from expressions. Furthermore, they will not separate expressions from purposes. In other words, lovers of truth must constantly evaluate truth claims by judging motives.

Evangelical Christianity experiences a kind of hypocritical paranoia about judging motives. Supposedly, we cannot perceive the motives of someone’s heart, and therefore we must not judge. True enough, part of the time—but obviously false in many instances. We can and do judge motives constantly.

Suppose you are crossing a crowded room. Someone treads on your foot, then apologizes. Though you experience real pain, you accept the apology and dismiss the incident. You have judged the person’s motive and decided that the event was unintentional.

Continuing across the room, you spot a former co-worker who was recently fired because you reported him for unethical practices. His eyes narrow, his fist doubles up, and he takes a swing at your nose, missing by a fraction of an inch. Instead of dismissing the incident, you prepare to defend yourself. Again you have judged that person’s motive.

Judging motives is unavoidable. Christians are not forbidden to judge motives, but are forbidden to impute ill motives without adequate justification. Especially among our brothers and sisters, we ought to construe motives as charitably as we reasonably can. Nevertheless, we always judge a person’s utterances in terms of what that person is trying to accomplish.

A woman reports her income to the IRS for tax purposes. The same woman reports her income to a mortgage company in order to secure a home loan. The two figures will almost certainly be different. Shall we judge that the woman has lied?

Not necessarily. Her purpose is to report to the IRS what the IRS considers to be income, and to the mortgage company what the lender considers to be income. Both of her statements may be entirely factual and entirely truthful, but they are responding to different questions. The woman is not necessarily engaging in some version of Orwellian doublespeak. She is simply relating the facts in ways that are appropriate to their context. A charitable understanding would require us to assume as much until we have reason to suspect otherwise.

Facts do not equal truth. Truth consists in a right arrangement or construal of the facts. When we evaluate truth claims—especially accusations—we have to do more than to ask whether the claims are factual. If we intend to know the truth, then we shall have to examine both the accuser and the accused in terms of how they arrange the facts, how they express those arrangements, and how the expressions are motivated. Simply because an accuser’s facts cannot be challenged does not mean that he is telling the truth. As far as God is concerned, the accuser may be both a liar and a murderer.

Blessed Jesus at Thy Word
Tobias Clausnitzer (1619-1684), tr. by Catherine Winkworth

Blessed Jesus, at thy word
We are gathered all to hear thee;
Let our hearts and souls be stirred
Now to seek and love and fear thee,
By thy teachings, sweet and holy,
Drawn from earth to love thee solely.

All our knowledge, sense, and sight
Lie in deepest darkness shrouded
Till thy Spirit breaks our night
With the beams of truth unclouded.
Thou alone to God canst win us;
Thou must work all good within us.

Glorious Lord, thyself impart,
Light of Light, from God proceeding;
Open thou our ears and heart,
Help us by thy Spirit’s pleading;
Hear the cry thy people raises,
Hear and bless our prayers and praises.

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Praise to thee and adoration!
Grant that we thy Word may trust
And obtain true consolation
While we here below must wander,
Till we sing thy praises yonder.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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Aaron Blumer's picture

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I'm having a hard time seeing why these ideas matter.

Ideas have consequences, but that doesn't mean all ideas have different consequences from all other ideas. In this case, imagine these two guys:
Jack says: "I believe there are no brute facts. The subject-object distinction has been naively exaggerated. And by the way people judge motives all the time. Christian duty means that we don't judge them negatively without justification."

John says: "I believe brute facts exist; we just can't see their significance, import or implications without putting them in some kind of context. And by the way, what people really do with motives is assume them. We cannot really see men's hearts. Christian charity means assuming the best motives the--ah, facts, allow (Golden Rule)."

Jack comes back and says "When you say there are brute facts but they lack significance without a context, you're blurring the distinction between 'facts' and 'reality.'"

John: "So?"

Jack: "Fact and reality are distinct and often at odds with one another."

John: "You're confusing fact-claims with facts. Only some fact-claims conflict with reality and in those cases they are false fact-claims. The difference between true fact and 'reality' only matters to philosophers."

Are Jack and John really saying different things or just saying the same thing differently? (I'm with the way John is saying it as you can, do doubt, tell).

The truth is, both Jack and John--and even people who embraced full-orbed post-modern new hermeneutics--look at facts and reality exactly the same way everyone else does 98.7% of the time (the precision is a joke... but I'm think I'm not far off).
They all look both ways before they cross the street, assuming that whether a car is approaching or not is a matter of fact, that their senses are telling them what the fact is and that their job is to discern the fact as well as possible and act accordingly.

So, two factors lead me to attach little value to the whole question:
a) Scripture does not encourage us to distinguish "fact," "reality" and "truth"
b) I don't see any practical use for the distinction either

For a while, it was really trendy to exaggerate the subject-object distinction and the ability of humans to look at facts objectively. Now it's in vogue to exaggerate the difficulty of separating subject and object and the difficulty of "objectivity." In time, philosophers and epistemologists will be back to appreciating objectivity (or at least meaningful distanciation) again. I think at the gut level we "just know" that human beings are capable (in varying degrees) of exercising imagination to distance themselves from fact-claims and, by doing that, approximate objectivity, and that this is usually a worthy goal.

Caleb S's picture

I really do appreciate the distinction here that is brought up. It is quite common for me, in discussions with atheists, agnostics, and skeptics to see the other person equate facts with truth. It is a consistent blind spot with those people that their "facts" are guided, determined, and given meaning by their worldview. It is exceedingly difficult to even try to get them to see that their "facts" are very very interpreted.

Here is an example. The Christian may bring up the resurrection in apologetic dialogue. The "facts" of the empty tomb, the proficiency of Roman executions at achieving death, the radical nature of the disciples as dying for their belief in the resurrection, etc. However, this means absolutely nothing to the atheist, for (not admitted by him) those facts are governed by his beliefs about the whole of reality, which is often metaphysical naturalism. One of his guiding principles determining the value of the facts is the principle of total uniformity of nature and the primacy of human experience in all matters of truth claims. The primacy of human experience is assumed when he points out that scientists only see regularly repeating natural laws, and then he assumes the total uniformity of nature from this. This just means that the natural always behaves according to these laws. Therefore, it is much more probably that the writer's of Scripture fabricated rather than that scientific laws were violated. Therefore, according to metaphysical naturalistic principles, the facts of the resurrection have just been voided. Ancient people were just creatively fabricating the story; this is much more probable.

Now, if you buy into brute fact, like the atheist, then you will be utterly blind as to how the "facts" were interpreted. The atheist was just making a common sense assessment. Yet, his "common sense" was common only within the realm of his metaphysical principles. He interpreted; he made connections and assessed the value on the basis of these principles. It may be common sense for the Christian because he is used to operating in the Christian realm, and it is just natural to think according to Christian principles. What Van Til does is to go into the worldviews and utilize internal critiques. The metaphysical principles of the Christian are perfectly consistent within his worldview and on the basis of His God. The metaphysical principles of the atheist/metaphysical naturalist are a self-contradiction, having metaphysical principles that negate their validity. And having metaphysical principles that finite man cannot justify from his finiteness.

It is for this reason and many others that I see the distinctions that Dr. Bauder is making to be EXTREMELY valuable. If one is a pastor, and certain members of the congregation are prone to read a lot, then Dawkins' book "The God Delusion" will be brought up. If brute fact is allowed, then the book will hit like an a-bomb; if brute fact is disallowed, then the best his book can do is express Dawkins' personal opinion about the "facts". The damage control is much better dealt with when that distinction is made.

Caleb S's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

So, two factors lead me to attach little value to the whole question:
a) Scripture does not encourage us to distinguish "fact," "reality" and "truth"
b) I don't see any practical use for the distinction either

For a while, it was really trendy to exaggerate the subject-object distinction and the ability of humans to look at facts objectively. Now it's in vogue to exaggerate the difficulty of separating subject and object and the difficulty of "objectivity." In time, philosophers and epistemologists will be back to appreciating objectivity (or at least meaningful distanciation) again. I think at the gut level we "just know" that human beings are capable (in varying degrees) of exercising imagination to distance themselves from fact-claims and, by doing that, approximate objectivity, and that this is usually a worthy goal.


I would beg to differ from point "a" above. Scripture does encourage us to distinguish between them, and numerous examples are given where this takes place. We are told not to be conformed to this world's system, but we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. There is a definite take of life and reality that we are not to adhere to, but our minds are supposed to be conformed to the Biblical realities. We are also told to cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and we are to bring into subjection every thought to the obedience of Christ. This means that there are thoughts, imaginations, and things that seek to exalt themselves against the knowledge of God. We are supposed to be seeking to conform our mind in a submissive way to Christ. Further, Jesus' opposition is a continual representation of how "facts" are interpreted. Jesus' opposition, in John 8, sees the "facts" and interpret them in light of Jesus being born in sin and having a demon. Jesus' correct interpretation of the "facts" is that they are opposing the truth, precisely because Jesus is telling them the truth, and they are resisting the truth because of their nature (liars like their father the Devil). They think that they are free when in reality they are utterly in bondage. In John 9, the healing of the man (fact) is taken by Jesus' opposition as a sign that Jesus is a sinner (interpretation). Yet, Jesus was only a sinner by their interpretation of the facts via their improper standards. By claiming that they could see, they invalidated their ability to see at all. The list could go on and on. Jesus' opposition is constantly confronted with "Truth" himself, yet they could not see Him because they were viewing Him through the wrong lens. Again, the message of the cross is to them that perish foolishness in both 1 Cor 1 & 2 Cor 4. God has made this world's wisdom foolish. Further, in Genesis 3 we are introduced to the fall and how the normal human propensity of interpretation is through human autonomy. Man presumes to take to himself the independent right to determine what is best for himself; this remarkably conflicts with man's prior dependent submissive assessment. The assessment of Eve in Genesis 3 stands quite starkly in contrast with the assessment made by God in ch2. Consequently, the history of man in sin is that conflict between man playing God and God's determination that man believe and depend upon Him for life.

The practical impact of this is enormously obvious from a Christian worldview.

It is interesting to note the "subjectivity" vs "objectivity" debate as worded above. However, it is better to note that both modernistic approaches and postmodern approaches assume the autonomy of man. A Biblical epistemology cuts the knot to human autonomy as it describes it as a key element, if not, the key element of the fall. Thus, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The "gut level of knowing" is just an appeal much like saying "I feel that . . ." This is an exceedingly subjective appeal that borders on pragmatism for its value. If you mean that because we are created in the "image of God" that therefore, because of God's impartation of a mind and an adequate grid, then we can generally make sense of "facts", this is true. However, this is already assuming the subject/object distinction but within the correct biblical worldview.

Mike Harding's picture

Dr. Bauder,

During my M.Div. program at DBTS I took a course on presuppositional apologetics from Dr. Rolland McCune. He explained truth as you have done so elogquently in your series of articles on "Facts" and their proper interpretation. The relevancy is obvious. We can only interpret facts correctly when presupposing that the one true and living God has self-attestingly revealed himself in the 66 inscripturated books of the Protestant Bible.

Pastor Mike Harding

M. Osborne's picture

Kevin T. Bauder wrote:
Facts do not exist in isolation, but in relation to other facts. The relationship among facts must be grasped in order for any fact to be rightly construed. The only mind that really grasps the network of relationships among facts is the mind of God, and humans have access to that network only through revelation. The upshot is that only Christians are in a position to have true knowledge of the world—i.e., to know facts as they ought to be known.

That's about as succinct a summary as I've ever read.

I was surprised at the direction the article took when applying the ideas. Food for thought.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Quote:
Here is an example. The Christian may bring up the resurrection in apologetic dialogue. The "facts" of the empty tomb, the proficiency of Roman executions at achieving death, the radical nature of the disciples as dying for their belief in the resurrection, etc. However, this means absolutely nothing to the atheist, for (not admitted by him) those facts are governed by his beliefs about the whole of reality, which is often metaphysical naturalism.

It's not all that complicated: the atheist does not accept our fact-claims as facts.
But whether someone--or even everyone--rejects or accepts particular fact-claims really proves nothing about the nature of facts themselves.

I'm not saying that what people believe to be true is unimportant. I'm saying these subtle philosophical distinctions are not very useful. People use "fact" to mean "what I believe is true" most of the time. Sometimes, when it matters, they'll use the term to mean "what can be verified as true vs. what is being disputed in the present conversation" or "what is not mere opinion." But people pretty much never designate something they think isn't true, or might not be true, as "fact."

The difference between fact and truth and reality is fine and dandy for philosophers... I don't begrudge them that, and sometimes it can be interesting to wrestle with. It's just not going to resonate much with the non-philosopher part of the population (which is just about everybody).

Does anyone really believe that only a Christian can "rightly construe" whether it's raining or not?
I don't doubt that some facts cannot be understood without a Christian context. Certainly all the biggest ones. But so, so many facts do not require much of a big picture in order to be understood.
And the question of whether a fact exists independently of the subjects who are interpreting it is another one entirely.

Caleb S's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Quote:
Here is an example. The Christian may bring up the resurrection in apologetic dialogue. The "facts" of the empty tomb, the proficiency of Roman executions at achieving death, the radical nature of the disciples as dying for their belief in the resurrection, etc. However, this means absolutely nothing to the atheist, for (not admitted by him) those facts are governed by his beliefs about the whole of reality, which is often metaphysical naturalism.

It's not all that complicated: the atheist does not accept our fact-claims as facts.
But whether someone--or even everyone--rejects or accepts particular fact-claims really proves nothing about the nature of facts themselves.

I'm not saying that what people believe to be true is unimportant. I'm saying these subtle philosophical distinctions are not very useful. People use "fact" to mean "what I believe is true" most of the time. Sometimes, when it matters, they'll use the term to mean "what can be verified as true vs. what is being disputed in the present conversation" or "what is not mere opinion." But people pretty much never designate something they think isn't true, or might not be true, as "fact."

The difference between fact and truth and reality is fine and dandy for philosophers... I don't begrudge them that, and sometimes it can be interesting to wrestle with. It's just not going to resonate much with the non-philosopher part of the population (which is just about everybody).

Does anyone really believe that only a Christian can "rightly construe" whether it's raining or not?
I don't doubt that some facts cannot be understood without a Christian context. Certainly all the biggest ones. But so, so many facts do not require much of a big picture in order to be understood.
And the question of whether a fact exists independently of the subjects who are interpreting it is another one entirely.


It's not all that complicated: No, its not. To the atheist, it is quite intuitive; for the theist, the atheist's reasoning looks really complex. I'll put it this way; the atheist will continually have a different "context" than you or I when interpreting the data or facts. And it is because of this different context that he will see the "facts" differently.

the atheist does not accept our fact-claims as facts.Because he has a different philosophy of "fact"; he has a different context, which give the "facts" meaning. Therefore, he can be read saying that the Christian has absolutely no basis at all and no facts at all that support his belief in God (which begs the question of atheism).

But whether someone--or even everyone--rejects or accepts particular fact-claims really proves nothing about the nature of facts themselves.This is a very revealing statement here. Are facts of themselves? Can you speak of a "fact" apart from a context or worldview? This statement appears to be merely assuming brute fact, so I'm asking these questions. Personally, your comment has no meaning, for there never is a fact of itself, except the ultimate meaning Giver, who is God.

I'm not saying that what people believe to be true is unimportant. I'm saying these subtle philosophical distinctions are not very useful.They are exceedingly useful as they critique man's finitude and false views of reality.

The difference between fact and truth and reality is fine and dandy for philosophers... I don't begrudge them that, and sometimes it can be interesting to wrestle with. It's just not going to resonate much with the non-philosopher part of the population (which is just about everybody).Which is why I am now couching the terms in a way that a pastor can readily perceive the relevance. I'm using "context" as it is a very important part of hermeneutics. Please tell me the meaning of the word "data" without any kind of context. This would include the English language itself, and you cannot make any assumptions about language. Also, you cannot just assume your mind is connected to your perceptive faculties either. After all, you need to get back to the nature of the fact itself. So, now, what does "data" mean?

As concerning whether it is raining or not: Are you rightly construing your senses and the rain if you do not see God back of them?

Caleb S's picture

"In particular, a genuine conservatism rejects the fact-truth equation."

So I noticed this comment of Dr. Bauder's, and I did not say anything about it. However, I just came across two different journal articles (links following) that strongly support Dr. Bauder's point here. I just thought that it would be good to just mention this, and then provide the links for further information.

http://www.dbts.edu/journals/2001/McCune.pdf
http://www.dbts.edu/journals/2003/Snoeberger.pdf

The first article in particular in the main one; however, both of their historical surveys of the apologetic methodologies between Clark and Van Til and the individuals who followed Clark's "rationalistic presuppositionalism" tend to support (historically speaking) the opening quoted point.

Aaron, what do you think of page 100 (journal pg#) on the first link (also pg 26 on the pdf count). I completely see that McCune states, "Truth and fact are here considered as synonymous." However, how does he define things differently than Dr. Bauder? And/or how does he define things similarly to Dr. Bauder?

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