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Abandoning Truth for Facts

March 15, 2012

Poetic TruthYesterday, my latest Wheat & Tares post, How Can a Painting be True?, went up. Quite simply, I’m getting kinda disillusioned (not that I was ever illusioned, I guess) by this common mantra that things can be true in a “non-literal” way…like, I don’t even know what it means anymore. I don’t even know.

Aaron, a commenter to that post, had something interesting to say about that:

This highlights a problem with the word ‘truth’ I’ve had for some time. It’s often very vague. I can look it up in the dictionary, but I often am unsure what people mean when they use it.

For this reason, I’ve pretty much rejected using the term. I prefer to speak of facts, as it’s fairly clear what I mean.

If someone says something is true, but not necessarily factual, then what do they mean by true? Mormons usually take ‘true’ to imply ‘factual’. When they say the Book of Mormon is true, they generally mean there was literally a group of Israelites that flourished in America, Jesus was a literal resurrected being that literally visited these Israelites, and so forth.

And that got me to thinking: what would happen if I abandoned the word “true” for a while and stuck with “factual”? How would that change how I view things?

Would I find that I would be unable to express certain things, or that I would have to change the way I express those things to a much more stilted way in order for the statements to still ring factual?  Would I find that other concepts and words became off-limits? (For example, is “honesty” something that can be re-tooled with facts, rather than “truth,” in mind?)

Ultimately, as with many of the things that I try to do, I’d probably forget within three seconds that I was doing it and then fall back into old habits. *Le Sigh*.

EDIT: OK, I have to update this post. Every time you post a new post on blogs now, there is a little sidebar that pops up that allows the author to see which post it was. (Every five posts, it gives you a slight congratulatory statement.) In addition, a really nifty thing that it does is suggest other tags for the post…sometimes, the tags it suggest are wildly inaccurate with respect to the post’s content…but for every other post, I usually add at least one suggested tag.

However, the final thing that it does…as an extra…is WordPress will provide a random quotation…what was the quotation that came up for this post?

If the writing is honest it cannot be separated from the man who wrote it.

~Tennessee Williams


  1. Sorry if this comment is a little tangential . . . I also think the words “truth” or “true” are problematic. Maybe you mentioned this in your original post on Wheat and Tares, but I find the word “know” is also used in a weird and similar way in the Church. I now just stick with belief and believe. It’s taken some time to re-program myself to not use believe and know interchangeably.

  2. “I’d like to bear my testimony that I know the Book of Mormon is factual” doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

    It reminds me of that old website that replaced a key word in a bunch Star Wars quotes with the word “pants” and makes everything sound ridiculous. Even here, switching out the word “true” for a synonym can exaggerate the error in something we’ve grown used to. We’ve heard it so many times that we stopped thinking about what it meant.

  3. Ugh, I just lost a comment due to WordPress’s new “feature” where if you try to comment with an email address that’s in use by a WordPress user when you are not signed in, then WordPress will give you an error saying you have to sign in first…and then it throws away your comment.



    I have actually found myself using more subjective/personal language. E.g., “It seems to me” and “It appears…” That way, even if I’m mistaken about something, I can point out, “Well, I *thought* x was the case at the time…”

    Interestingly enough, I occasionally talk to someone on twitter who seems to believe (although he would never phrase it that way, for reasons that will become obvious in the rest of this comment) that the idea of “belief” itself is harmful. Whereas in the church, people use “know” in a loose way to hold on to ideas rigidly (even though they may not have sufficient evidence), this person’s contention is that for most people, “belief” is used that way. So, even though I find “believe” and “think” or “feel” to be basically synonymous, he would say that “belief” has much more dangerous, rigid connotations than the other two.

    That being said, whenever I prod him about this (I mean, it seems to me that is a *belief* of his…) the conversation goes south relatively quickly.


    Maybe not the same ring, but I don’t think that statement sounds ridiculous. It really makes things a lot more clear and precise about what it is that people are actually claiming. As you say, because it sounds different, people have to think about what it actually means…and if there are any reservations with making that statement, those reservations really come out.

  4. The notion that facts are the only kind of real truth is a very modern notion (“modern” in the sense of “Modernism”) and in no way self-evident.

    The problem is not merely in asserting that something is True without being Factual; the problem is in making that assertion and then turning around and wanting to treat the thing as Factual because it is True. In other words, saying that Truth and Fact are different, but then wanting to actually treat them as the same.

  5. Kullervo,

    I keep hearing people say this, but I guess I am just thoroughly modernist. I haven’t been able to convince myself of other possibilities…

    Maybe one day I’ll “get it”.

  6. I don’t think that ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ are synonymous. I’m just unclear what people mean by ‘truth’ many times. Kullervo, your post highlights the problem I have. When you say “The notion that facts are the only kind of truth…”, I literally don’t know what you mean by truth.

    You seem to be saying that facts are a class of truth. What, to you, would be a non-factual truth? And can truth be subjective?

    In most cases, when people discuss truth, there are some underlying or closely related concepts that can be discussed in terms of factuality. Take, for example, the expression “God is love”. I suspect many would term this a truth, but it’s very nearly nonsensical to discuss whether the statement is factual. As such, I don’t actually know what is being asserted.

    In an effort to understand, I would likely choose to talk about the existence of God, and whether the Christian God can be said to be loving. And whether that love can be said to be His dominant trait.

    These are concepts that, I think, can be framed in terms of factuality. Either the Christian God exists, or He doesn’t. We don’t actually have to know for sure which is actually the case, but we are discussing a definable fact, one way or the other. The same with the character and traits of God.

  7. Also, for clarity, mossface = Aaron.

  8. mossface/Aaron,

    I feel similarly. I get the sense that “truth” and “facts” aren’t synonymous, the but area of “truth” that is NOT “facts” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at all.

    So, I don’t really know what a non-factual truth would be like…however, subjective truths I have no problem with understanding…those are facts, about how individuals perceive things.

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