The philosopher Wittgenstein asserted that “the world is everything that is the case. It is constituted by facts, by all the facts.” One of the difficulties in understanding the COP 26 process, is distinguishing between facts and interpretations of facts: global warming is a fact; while global warming due to human activities is as yet an interpretation of facts. It is by far the most convincing interpretation of the facts, and therefore a reasonable basis on which to make decisions, but in the face of ideologically motivated denials of global warming it is important to insist that the increase in global temperatures is factual and cannot be denied by anyone except an idiot, whereas the view that this increase is caused by human activity is only an overwhelmingly probable interpretation which could be sensibly denied by someone with a more probable interpretation.
The facts are of primary importance and we protect them by not confusing them with interpretations no matter how probable these may seem.
“Richer nations will give £xbillion to help poorer nations manage the effects of climate change.” This is not a fact but a persuasive interpretation of a decision taken by richer nations. In fact much of this transfer of funds will be in the form of loans.
“This conference is not about climate change: it is about business as usual and blah, blah, blah.” That also is not a fact, but an interpretation persuasive to some, of what COP 26 is doing. There is no reason why Greta Thunberg should limit herself to facts, except that in opposing the ideologies of powerful people, a scrupulous use of facts may be her most effective weapon. For example, it is a fact that younger people will bear more of the consequences of global warming than older people. Her repeated announcement of this fact has rightly gained her the support of many young people.
This may seem an odd way to think about COP26, but as with the Covid pandemic, facts as discovered by sciences, should be carefully distinguished from all responses to the facts, even if some of these responses are made by scientists. This purist understanding of facts is helpful not just in refuting the wild assertions of malevolent or crazed ideologues, but also in using the precious facts for the welfare of human survival on this planet. We have got into this mess by giving too much credence to powerfully communicated opinions, such as those of the petrochemical industry, and too little to the disturbing facts of climate change.
In a world of largely uncontrolled mass media, facts are ever more vital, as being the only evidence that we are dealing with reality, rather than our own or someone else’s fantasy. There are at least two issues about facts that ought to be acknowledged:
1. Wittgenstein spoke of ALL the facts. Some scientists have imagined that only their disciplines deal with facts, while others like, say, art or religion deal solely with meanings and interpretations. This arrogance should not be accepted. All rigorous forms of human study may discover and use facts. The facts of beauty or prayer are as relevant to human survival as those of physics.
2. Facts require interpretation, without which they remain isolated atoms of knowledge. If we are severe about what counts as fact, we should be indulgent about what counts as interpretation of them. A scientific prediction on the one hand and a dystopian novel on the other may be equally valuable interpretations of climate change fact.
In a culture that respects facts, there will be a continuing role for faith communities, but only IF they are honest about the facts of their own faith. All faith communities have asserted as fact things that are beliefs. Indeed, people have been expelled or even killed as heretics for challenging some of these. This has to stop. No holy book was ever dictated or even verbally inspired by God. To claim that it was, is to mistake belief for fact. I may say that the Bible is authoritative for all Christian believers because God speaks through it. But if I invent a story about God dictating the Pentateuch to Moses, I have turned my faith into a pseudo- fact. Christianity has become better at this, but Islam, for example, will not permit any historical investigation of its origins.
I have been assuming so far that we are able to tell what constitutes a fact in any discipline. This is not an easy matter. Even chemists, physicist and biologists will admit that their disciplines have made new discoveries which reveal that what was taken as fact was not. How can the facts change? My next blog will deal with this issue in some detail.