–In our present day the term ‘fact’ has become so engrained in Western Culture that it would almost seem there never existed a time in human history when ‘facts’ did not exist, after all, whether it is a legal matter where the judge and prosecutor demand the ‘facts and nothing but the facts’, or politics where each political party accuses the other of ‘false facts’, or simple day-to-day conversation between co-workers where the ‘facts of the situation’ are determined; it seems as though ‘facts’ have always existed.
Surprisingly, not only have ‘facts’ not always existed, men and women in the per-Enlightenment world would have considered what we call ‘facts’ to be rather foolish because it was understood that what we now call ‘facts’ were less certain than truth; facts can be manipulated, changed, and be completely wrong because facts are dependent on how a human interprets evidence. Since humans are imperfect creatures, our hypotheses and assumptions can be fraught with error and lead us to interpreting the evidence incorrectly which can lead us to pronouncing ‘facts’ that are filled with error.
The word ‘fact’ finds its origin in the Latin word “factum” which meant ‘an act or deed’ and then somewhere in the 16th century slowly began to evolve into the modern sense which connotates a type of ‘truth or reality’. This is important to note, as the early use of the word ‘factum’ (fact) referred to someone doing something, or basically, the action of a person. Thus, in the old world if a scientific investigation found evidence that caffeine might contribute to cancer, the word ‘factum’ would simply refer to the action of the scientists performing a study; it would not mean that the study proved something that was true and beyond question. If the scientist who performed the study said, “I have proved beyond question that coffee contributes to cancer”, or “I have determined that my elixir proves beyond question to cure rheumatism” some ancient people might have believed him, and others might not, but the masses would unlikely have believed the issue had been settled beyond the shadow of a doubt, because such a finding was not a self-evident truth. In the old world, self-evident truths were what mattered most to thinkers.
A self-evident truth is an assumption that is absolutely essential to an argument or idea.
Self-evident truths exist within our very conception of the universe and all things. For instance, before we ever learn the name of the color ‘green’, (unless we happen to be born color blind), we know through self-evident truth that green things are green, and we distinguish them from things that are blue, black, red, etc. As we grow older we are taught names (symbols) for the various colors, yet before we ever learn the names, we distinguish the colors via self-evident truth. Another self-evident truth is that ‘bad’ exists. We do not need our parents to teach us how to be bad because it comes natural to us, but rather we need our parents to teach us how to be good. We do not need to be taught that bad exists, nor do we need to perform a scientific study to determine its existence, it is a self-evident truth that bad exists all around us.
A self-evident truth is the reality we recognize as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, nobody needs to prove such a truth through a scientific experiment or research study; such a truth is self-evident. Likewise, a self-evident truth is that rain water feels wet upon our naked skin. The sensation of wetness is self-evident to our experience. Just as we know that round things roll, glass is transparent, and feathers are light, self-evident truths are confirmed by the assumptions needed to form the self-evident truth in the first place.
Self-evident truths exist within our conception of the universe and do not need to be taught to us. For example, suppose two friends named Tom and Fred start a hamburger restaurant and share equal ownership of the restaurant. As time goes by, suppose Tom, without his business partner knowing about it, purchases the building next door and begins renovating it and one day opens up another hamburger restaurant in direct competition of their original. Fred will immediately go to his friend and say, “What have you done? Why have you betrayed our partnership and opened up a restaurant next door to compete with our original company?”
Of course, Tom knows very well he betrayed his friend by secretly opening up a competing restaurant; and while he can appeal to various arbitrary facts such as; ‘I’m legally allowed to open my own business’, or ‘I’m still a partner with you in our original hamburger restaurant, I just wanted one restaurant that was only mine’, or other such things; the bottom-line is that both men in their minds understand that betrayal took place. No matter the justifications that Tom may appeal to, he cannot get around the self-evident reality that he betrayed his friend. This type of betrayal does not need to be taught to Tom; he doesn’t need to be taught what is bad behavior, it comes natural to him, instead he needs to be taught to go against his natural inclination and choose the ‘right’ alternative.
Self-evident truths that are not related to the biological senses, exist in what we refer to as the metaphysical world. Two thousand years ago the Greek philosophers realized the vital importance of self-evident truths and the necessity of these truths to our very ability to think. Plato articulated in concise word-form what men had been thinking for thousands of years before him; self-evident truths must exist in a dimension that is un-seeable by the human eye or experience in order for us to think clearly. He called this dimension the metaphysical, other people groups had different words and symbols for this dimension, but the basic concept was that in this other dimension the truest forms of self-evident truths existed. Plato gave us many different examples of what he called the archetype of a truth and how it existed in the metaphysical world, and although we could not explicitly see the archetype, we were born with the knowledge, or born with the ability to assume the archetype existed. Take for example the stages of human life; we know that when we are born we are an infant, and at some unspecified moment our parents realize we are no longer an infant and they see that we are a young child, then as the years go by we become a young adult, then an adult, and eventually we become an old person. We know in our mind that these stages of life exist, but it is impossible to know at what point we move from one stage to the next. While various cultures create arbitrary rules of when a boy or girl becomes a man or woman, (Jewish culture chooses the age 13, many Latin cultures choose the age 16) none of these arbitrary rules are true beyond true. Plato suggested that because we know in our mind these stages exist, yet we cannot know when these stages occur, he articulated the realization that these truths surely must exist in a metaphysical dimension that we cannot see; we are born with these realizations before we are ever taught them by our parents.
Another example of this can be demonstrated via color theory. We know the color green exists, yet when we look out at nature we literally see hundreds, perhaps thousands of different types of greens. How do we determine what is ‘real green’ and not hunter green, emerald green, bright green, or the myriad of different greens? How much blue needs to be added to yellow to make ‘real green’? Even if you use equal parts yellow and blue, if you use different pigment types you can virtually end up making hundreds of different shades of greens. Thus, how do we know what ‘real green’ is, and not a shade of green? Here again Plato would explain that the reason we know what green is; is because ‘real green’ exists in the metaphysical dimension; the types of green we see in our reality are based on the real archetype that exists in the metaphysical world. We are born with the knowledge that something must be real green, even if we do not know what real green is, and this truth is self-evident to us before our parents ever teach us this idea.
For thousands of years, Western Culture recognized the importance of archetypes and self-evident truths. These concepts were the very bedrock on which humanity lived for eons, they provided the necessary stability for sound thinking in society and a framework to understand what was a self-evident truth, and what was not a self-evident truth. C.S. Lewis gave an example of an archetype of selfishness, he wrote;
“Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to–whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired”.
Lewis points out that whether we consider a highly developed Western country, or a remote indigenous tribe, humans are born with an already developed innate realization that selfishness is generally bad. Although groups of humans were cut off by vast oceans for thousands of years, each tribe of humans developed similar ways of thinking about certain phenomena. For instance, even among a tribe of cannibal’s cowardice was never celebrated; if a warrior shrunk away from battle due to cowardice, he did not return to the tribe to receive a warrior’s celebration, but rather he was looked down upon.
In the old world it was understood that the link connecting all the different races and tribes of humans were these archetypes that bound everyone together. While men could argue over the details, the truths that cowardice is a personality flaw, selfishness is bad, and green is green, were indisputably self-evident truths that everyone could see as plain as day.
One of the most famous statements about self-evident truth in the metaphysical world is by President Thomas Jefferson who wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. The founding fathers understood in their argument with King George that merely presenting a scientific fact-based study was not enough to declare their independence, especially since we’ve seen that such facts can always be disproved by yet another study or experiment, but rather, if they were going to risk their very lives, they understood the necessity of demonstrating that the articles of independence had to be based on self-evident truth; truth that was as true as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.
One of the major fissures that occurred between the old world and the new world is that ‘facts’ replaced self-evident truth. This was not something that took place overnight, but occurred through a slow series of cultural shifts and ways of thinking over a couple hundred years. Looking at Western Culture it is quite evident that fact-based thinking is the current modus operandi, particularly due to always changing facts that western countries teach; in the old-world self-evident truths lasted beyond the millenniums, in the new world facts change from one year to the next. Fact-based thinking is a perilous philosophy to embrace, and at its core is a full-scale rejection of what old-world thinkers always knew to be true; that self-evident truths exist as assumptions in our minds before any study or experiment takes place, and they cannot ever be disproven. Thus, since many of the new world thinkers didn’t like the ideas of the old world, the only way they could rid society of the old ways of thinking was to insert a new kind of truth to replace the old truth; ‘facts’ replaced self-evident truth.
A hundred years ago certain thinkers realized that fact-based thinking was leading to a certain type of cultural and moral relativism where right and wrong became blurred to the point of humans no longer agreeing on concepts such as freedom, liberty, equality, etc. What past thinkers did not fully grasp is that fact-based thinking did not merely effect how we viewed moral principles, but was also changing the way we viewed the biological sciences; by replacing self-evident truth with facts, every basic truth that humans had known about the universe was being stripped bare and left to rot.
Fortunately, the best is yet to come.