There are no singular facts (Questions II)

There is more to explore here, and more thoughts to test. Let’s talk more about knowledge, and take two really simples examples. We believe we know the following.

(i) The earth is round.
(ii) Gravity is 9.8 G

Our model here is one of knowledge as a set of propositions that can be justified and defended as knowledge – they can be deemed true or false, and the sum total of that body of propositions is all we know. We can add to it by adding new propositions and we can change our mind by throwing old propositions out and replacing them with new ones.

This model is incredibly strong, in the sense that it is often confused with reality (at least this is one way in which we can speak of the strength of a model – the probability p that it is mistaken for reality and not seen as a model at all), but it is just a model. A different model would say that everything you know is based on a question and the answer you provide for it — just as Plato has Socrates suggesting. We can then reconstruct the example above in an interesting way.

(i) What is the best approximate geometrical form for representing the Earth in a simple model? The Earth is round.
(ii) What is gravity on the average on planet Earth? 9.8G.

Once you explicate the question that the proposition is an answer to you suddenly also realize the limits of the answer. If we are looking for the gravity on a specific place on earth, as the top of Mount Everest, the answer may be different. If we are looking for a more exact representation of the earth with all the topological geological data exact, the round model will not suffice. Articulating the question that the proposition you say you know is an answer to opens up the proposition and your knowledge and helps you see something potentially fundamental, if it holds for closer scrutiny.

There are no isolated facts.

Facts, in this new model, are always answers to questions, and if you do not know the question you do not really understand the limits and value of a fact. This is one alternative way of addressing the notion of “a half-life of facts” as laid out by Sam Arbesman in his brilliant book on how facts cease being facts over time. The reality is that they do not cease being facts, but the questions are asking change subtly over time with new knowledge.

Note that this model is in no way a defense for relativism. It is the opposite: questions and answers provide a strong bedrock on which we can build our world, and we can definitely say that not every answers suffices to answer a question. There are good and bad answers to questions (although more rarely bad questions).

So, then, when Obama says that we need to be operating our political discussion and debates from a common baseline of facts, or when senator Moynihan argued that you are entitled to your opinions but not your own facts, we can read them under the new model as saying something different.

Obama’s statement turns into a statement about agreeing on questions and what the answers to those questions are – and frankly that may be the real challenge we face with populism: a mismatch between the questions we ask and those the populists ask.

Senator Moynihan’s point is that if we agree on the questions you don’t get to invent answers – but your opinions matter in choosing what questions we ask.

So, what does the new model suggest? It suggests the following: you don’t have knowledge. There are no facts. You have and share with society a set of questions and answers and that is where we need to begin all political dialogue. These provide a solid foundation – an even more solid foundation – for our common polis than propositions do, and a return to them may be the long term cure for things like fact resistance, fake news, propaganda, polarization and populism. But it is no quick fix.

Strong claims, but interesting ones – and ones worthy of more exploration as we start digging deeper.