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Fiction is fact distilled into truth. --Edward Albee


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"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." --Daniel Patrick Moynihan

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A fact (derived from the Latin factum) is something that has really occurred or is actually the case. The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability, that is whether it can be shown to correspond to experience via proof . Standard reference works are often used to check facts. Scientific facts are verified by repeatable experiments, mathematical facts by logical proofs.

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Etymology and usage

The word fact derives from the Latin factum, and was first used in English with the same meaning: "a thing done or performed", a use that is now obsolete. The common usage of "something that has really occurred or is the case" dates from the middle of the sixteenth century.

Fact is sometimes used synonymously with truth, as distinct from opinions, falsehoods, or matters of taste. This use is found in such phrases as, It is a fact that the cup is blue or Matter of fact, and "... not history, nor fact, but imagination." Filmmaker Werner Herzog distinguishes clearly between the two, claiming that "fact creates norms, and truth illumination".

Fact also indicates a matter under discussion deemed to be true or correct, such as to emphasize a point or prove a disputed issue; (e.g., "... the fact of the matter is ...").

Alternatively, fact may also indicate an allegation or stipulation of something that may or may not be a "true fact", (e.g., "the author's facts are not trustworthy"). This alternate usage, although contested by some, has a long history in standard English.

Fact may also indicate findings derived through a process of evaluation, including review of testimony, direct observation, or otherwise; as distinguishable from matters of inference or speculation. This use is reflected in the terms "fact-find" and "fact-finder" (e.g., "set up a fact-finding commission").

Facts may be checked by reason, experiment, personal experience, or may be argued from authority. Roger Bacon wrote "If in other sciences we should arrive at certainty without doubt and truth without error, it behooves us to place the foundations of knowledge in mathematics."

Fact in philosophy

In philosophy, the concept fact is considered in epistemology and ontology. Questions of objectivity and truth are closely associated with questions of fact. A "fact" can be defined as something which is the case, that is, a state of affairs.

Facts may be understood as that which makes a true sentence true. Facts may also be understood as those things to which a true sentence refers. The statement "Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system" is about the fact Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system.

Correspondence and the slingshot argument

Engel's version of the correspondence theory of truth explains that what makes a sentence true is that it corresponds to a fact.

This theory presupposes the existence of an objective world.

The Slingshot argument claims to show that all true statements stand for the same thing - the truth value true. If this argument holds, and facts are taken to be what true statements stand for, then we reach the counter-intuitive conclusion that there is only one fact - "the truth".

Compound facts

Any non-trivial true statement about reality is necessarily an abstraction composed of a complex of objects and properties or relations. For example, the fact described by the true statement "Paris is the capital city of France" implies that there is such a place as Paris, there is such a place as France, there are such things as capital cities, as well as that France has a government, that the government of France has the power to define its capital city, and that the French government has chosen Paris to be the capital, that there is such a thing as a "place" or a "government", and so on. The verifiable accuracy of all of these assertions, if facts themselves, may coincide to create the fact that Paris is the capital of France.

Difficulties arise, however, in attempting to identify the constituent parts of negative, modal, disjunctive, or moral facts.

Fact–value distinction

Moral philosophers since David Hume have debated whether values are objective, and thus factual. In A Treatise of Human Nature Hume pointed out there is no obvious way for a series of statements about what ought to be the case to be derived from a series of statements of what is the case. Those who insist there is a logical gulf between facts and values, such that it is fallacious to attempt to derive values from facts, include G. E. Moore, who called attempting to do so the Naturalistic fallacy.

Factual–counterfactual distinction

Factuality — what has occurred — can also be contrasted with counterfactuality — what might have occurred, but did not. A counterfactual conditional or subjunctive conditional is a conditional (or "if-then") statement indicating what would be the case if events had been other than they actually are. For example, "If Alexander had lived, his empire would have been greater than Rome". This is to be contrasted with an indicative conditional, which indicates what is (in fact) the case if its antecedent is (in fact) true — for example, "if you drink this, it will make you well".

Such sentences are important to Modal logic, especially since the development of Possible world semantics.

Fact in science

In science, a "fact" is a careful observation or measurement, also called empirical evidence. Facts are central to building scientific theories. Various forms of observation and measurement lead to fundamental questions about the scientific method, and the scope and validity of scientific reasoning.

In the most basic sense, a scientific fact is an objective and verifiable observation, in contrast with a hypothesis or theory, which is intended to explain or interpret facts.

Various scholars have offered significant refinements to this basic formulation. Scientists are careful to distinguish between: 1) states of affairs in the external world and 2) assertions of fact that may be considered relevant in scientific analysis. The term is used in both senses in the philosophy of science.

Scholars and clinical researchers in both the social and natural sciences have written about numerous questions and theories that arise in the attempt to clarify the fundamental nature of scientific fact. Pertinent issues raised by this inquiry include:

  • the process by which "established fact" becomes recognized and accepted as such;
  • whether and to what extent "fact" and "theoretic explanation" can be considered truly independent and separable from one another;
  • to what extent "facts" are influenced by the mere act of observation;
  • to what extent factual conclusions are influenced by history and consensus, rather than a strictly systematic methodology.

Consistent with the theory of confirmation holism, some scholars assert "fact" to be necessarily "theory-laden" to some degree. Thomas Kuhn points out that knowing what facts to measure, and how to measure them, requires the use of other theories. For example, the age of fossils is based on radiometric dating which is justified by reasoning that radioactive decay follows a Poisson process rather than a Bernoulli process. Similarly, Percy Williams Bridgman is credited with the methodological position known as operationalism, which asserts that all observations are not only influenced, but necessarily defined by the means and assumptions used to measure them.

Fact and the scientific method

Apart from the fundamental inquiry into the nature of scientific fact, there remain the practical and social considerations of how fact is investigated, established, and substantiated through the proper application of the scientific method. Scientific facts are generally believed to be independent of the observer: no matter who performs a scientific experiment, all observers will agree on the outcome. In addition to these considerations, there are the social and institutional measures, such as peer review and accreditation, that are intended to promote factual accuracy (among other interests) in scientific study.

Fact in history

historiography

A common rhetorical cliché states, "History is written by the winners". This phrase suggests but does not examine the use of facts in the writing of history.

E. H. Carr in his 1961 volume, What is History?, argues that the inherent biases from the gathering of facts makes the objective truth of any historical perspective idealistic and impossible. Facts are, "like fish in the Ocean," of which we may only happen to catch a few, only an indication of what is below the surface. Even a dragnet cannot tell us for certain what it would be like to live below the Ocean's surface. Even if we do not discard any facts (or fish) presented, we will always miss the majority; the site of our fishing, the methods undertaken, the weather and even luck play a vital role in what we will catch. Additionally, the composition of history is inevitably made up by the compilation of many different bias of fact finding - all compounded over time. He concludes that for a historian to attempt a more objective method, one must accept that history can only aspire to a conversation of the present with the past - and that one's methods of fact gathering should be openly examined. As with science, historical truth and facts will therefore change over time and reflect only the present consensus (if that).

See also

Contrast




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Fact" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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