Believing facts, seeing facts, or wanting facts?

Perhaps you have heard it said, as I have, that, in order for an argument to be logical, the arguer needs facts and proof, not just beliefs. And perhaps this seemingly obvious claim struck you as funny, as somehow off, as it strikes me. The claim is itself an attempt at a logical argument about logic, with a form, I think, like this:

Major premise: Logical arguments require demonstrable facts.

Minor premise: Beliefs are not demonstrable facts.

Conclusion: Logical arguments cannot be based on beliefs.

What primarily bothers me about this line of reasoning is that it seems to lack any factual content itself. Speaking more historically, this sort of “obvious” claim seems subject to the same flaws of old-school positivism. To wit, is it an empirical fact that “you need facts to make logical conclusions”? How can I empirically observe that statement? Or is the stricture itself just a belief about logic? Are facts, in fact, properly objects of logical construction?

The first knot to untangle is what the claimant means by “being logical”. As any student of logic knows, there can be perfectly valid arguments built upon unreal (i.e., nonfactual) premises, which makes those arguments unsound. For example,

“All quagborts are pleth.

Merlin is a quagbort.

Therefore, Merlin is pleth.”

Nothing in this (modus ponens) syllogism is based in fact––Merlin and quagborts are fictional, and pleth is an unreal attribute––yet its logical form is entirely valid. Valid, but unsound.

So, what the fact-based claimant should be willing to grant is that a theist could construct a valid logical argument about God, and he could only find fault with its soundness based on a squabble about the premises (or, facts) employed in the argument. This is why almost certainly an unstated premise of the claimant’s syllogism is that ‘facts’ refers to empirical, everyday, ordinary, uncontested, “boring” facts, such as the fact that Kareem Abdul Jabar is taller than Spud Webb. By insinuating this premise into the argument, however, the claimant tacitly canvasses all “rational” people to his side, since only “crazy” religious believe in things no one can “prove”. Real facts are just obvious to anyone with open eyes, right? The premise, in other word, is that atheological facts are somehow just more factual than theological facts.

Unfortunately, however, as soon as you lower the argument to one about “whose facts” and “which facts”, you’ve entered a field of discourse much more diaphanous and vast than the tidy, hermetic formalism of logic per se, the latter being exactly where the original claim was supposed to anchor fact-based rationality. Is there a purely logical way to parse facts, so that we know whether they are actually “factual premises” in an argument?

What also worries me about the fact-based position on logic, is the minor premise, namely, that beliefs are not facts. It seems impossible to see that premise as anything more that just that––a premise, a belief, about the nature of belief. The minor premise, then, is a belief, built into the fabric of the claimant’s logical argument, about the uselessness of belief in logical arguments! The fundamental problem is that this “afactual” belief about the factuality of logic is integral to the logic critical of the illogicality of beliefs.

The larger problem I have with the fact-driven claimant’s confusing bifurcation between facts and beliefs, is that it ignores the more fundamental role of beliefs, as the girders of a total interpretive matrix, in establishing, or even recognizing, alleged data as facts that should be integrated into one’s logical claims. Behind any ordinary application of facts there lies an immense field of prior beliefs (viz., about causal order, object permanence, the clarity of cognitive representation, temporal succession, etc.). I have to wonder how a hardcore “factualist” could ever get to the facts he needs without first having some important beliefs that transcend and rationally (pre-)order the specific proto-facts themselves. Not all facts are as relevant as others, and our beliefs are the tools with which we detect, grab, and order facts as logically relevant facts.

Hence, despite its intimidating obviousness, I smell a self-destructive Humean quagmire in the claimant’s hasty aspersions on belief versus facts. After all, it was Hume that unwittingly consigned his own writings to the flames, precisely by concluding his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding with these words:

Does it [i.e., any book of metaphysics, theology, etc.] contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Consign it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

But does not Hume’s own Enquiry begin to burn with these words? His own narrowness about the bounds of metaphysical reasoning backfires and condemns his own reasoning about the narrowness of metaphysics as but one elaborate metaphysical construction. This objection is by no means original on my part me. Fr. Stanley Jaki, for example, has raised this objection in several of his writings, and the short article by Scott Lanser, “Commit it to the Flames”, makes the same point thus:

…[S]ince his statement is philosophical and not scientific, it deserves to be treated like all the other religious beliefs, writings and statements he condemns: his philosophy too should be cast to the flames!

In any case, I think the meta-problem is that the factualist is guilty of confusing being-rational with being-logical. The latter task strikes me as much easier to pull off than the former, even though, paradoxically, its scope is much larger than that of the former. Paradoxically, because it is so abstract, logic can refer to anything (i.e.,∃x), everything (i.e., ∀x) and nothing (i.e., nothing actual), whereas rationality contains certain performative restrictions by its very nature. Logic, in a word, is a tool of rationality, not vice versa. Anyone can spin out logical puzzles in his free time; but it takes a lot of work to be rational, a skill that requires logic yet is not confined to it. Rationality, to borrow a concept from Michael Polanyi, has “marginal control” over logic: at the margins of logical extension, rationality is sovereign to “make calls” that do not properly fall within the scope of logic. (Analogously, consider how chemical phenomena can and do function in “emergent” ways that atomic phenomena simpliciter cannot and do not achieve, yet without the former “violating” the laws of the latter. Chemical phenomena thus exercise marginal control over atomic reality.)

This being so, I define rationality, at this juncture, at least, as the exclusively human ability to arrange intentions and means toward certain objects and ends, respectively, based on a relatively informed knowledge of the contingencies involved in achieving a certain end.

An important caveat about “relative knowledgeability” for being rational, is that our beliefs––qua the various intentional referents of numerous desires rooted in our nature as social animals––are the only things that can illuminate and, in certain ways, determine what we can rationally accept as facts in the first place. Even my belief that I am here as one conscious person is subject to attacks by a radical phenomenalist, like the kind Bertrand Russell channeled from time to time. That kind of skepticism is simply not amenable to factual correction. But it can be worn down by rational assuagement in line with our basic human desires ordered towards the good.

Thus, facts are really only as handy and indubitable as you believe them to be. For a skeptical factualist, moreover, facts seem to depend on just how skeptical you are willing to be. For, while everyone likes to think they’ve found their halcyon, inviolable “40 acres and a mule” of factual reality, the more fundamental question concerns which worldview, which matrix of beliefs, provides the best grounding for taking data at factual, face-value and then, of course, working them into a hierarchy of logical operations. Despite how comfortable a factualist may find his plot of “obvious” facts, and how bizarre he may find the zoo of theological facts in Christendom one plot over, unfortunately just as there is always a bigger fish, so there is always a bigger skeptic. One man’s obvious facts are another man’s trifling beliefs. Mini-skeptics, which I think most factualists would pride themselves on being, simply have no entirely factual or purely logical way to overcome truly radical skepticism just around the corner. A factualist’s attachment to facts as the foundation of rational truth is simply not a factually achieved love, much less a physically compelled “mindset”. Whether he sees it or not, his love for facts––the love for truth as such!––is a supra-logical, supra-factual demand of rationality etched into his own nature as a human created in the imago Dei.

Factualist skeptics may not see this, but they should at least be willing to see that this rational etching is either really only visible under a total illumination––a total worldview––that integrates facts, reason, sensation, and logic into one quasi-mystical whole, or really just an illegible fiction under a flickering chiaroscuro that disintegrates facts, reason, sensation, and logic as mystifying “givens” of “experience” so called. It should go without saying that I consider the Christian faith to be the only really coherent and historically crediblematrix for recognizing, submitting to, and employing factual reality. How, by contrast, can one logically construct the empirical world out of mere empirical sensibilia (or, empiricalia)? One cannot, since both the concept of “the world” and the world itself are non- and supra-empirical realities, respectively. Christ the Logos is the ground for any logic; the fact of His self-giving in the Eucharist is the ground for taking any others facts seriously.


5 Responses

  1. elliottbee:

    Thanks so much for all your recent posts here.

    They’ve both been tremendously edifying as well as even practical.

    I hope you expand further into a series of similar posts still.

    God bless.

  2. elliotbee:

    I am having some difficulty pursuing what seems a key element of your thoughts here to this extent —

    That is, just like your statement in the above entry wherein “Kareem Abdul Jabber is taller than Spud Web” is something (i.e., a fact) that can be subjected to empricial verifiability, it seems to me that such are logically better, more reliable objects to base one’s own conclusions on than, say, beliefs which cannot likewise be proved (e.g., the existence of the Holy Spirit) with similar confidence and, ultimately, greater or even near-absolute certainty.

    I would greatly appreciate your guidance in the matter.


  3. Hey, I understood this one ! You must be slipping 🙂

  4. Well, I’m glad some readers have found my latest efforts edifying. As for their being comprehensible, I see now I need to up my obscure neologzing and relative-clause density. As long as people can’t really understand me, I can’t be refuted! 😉

  5. Although I can’t approve pending comments, I do feel obliged to allow comments on posts of mine to see the light day, so I will post them on the commenters’ behalf.

    1. “I am having some difficulty pursuing what seems a key element of your thoughts here to this extent

    “That is, just like your statement in the above entry wherein Kareem Abdul Jabber is taller than Spud Web is something (i.e., a fact) that can be subjected to empricial verifiability, it seems to me that such are logically better, more reliable objects to base ones own conclusions on than, say, beliefs which cannot likewise be proved (e.g., the existence of the Holy Spirit) with similar confidence and, ultimately, greater or even near-absolute certainty.

    “I would greatly appreciate your guidance in the matter. Thanks.”

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