A Brief History of Facts

Kelly Anne Conway, Trump Administration press flack and master truth distorter, sent ripples through media circles last week when she said that lies and falsehoods about Trump’s presidential inauguration were “alternative facts.” 

We asked Jesse Butler, a philosopher at the University of Central Arkansas, to decode her double speak and what it means for truth-loving individuals everywhere and here’s what he told us.  

  1. Facts exist along with the universe, as objective states of affairs in reality, prior to and independent of human minds.
  2. Minds emerge on planet Earth, developing representations of facts. Some representations accurately map onto facts. These representations are true. Some representations attempt to map onto facts but fail to do so. These representations are false. False representations are misrepresentations.
  3. Human language develops second-order representations (representations of representations), enabling humans to represent and misrepresent their minds’ representations and misrepresentations in social contexts. Continuous debate and disagreement about facts ensues.
  4. Some humans develop techniques for discerning whether representations map onto facts. None of these techniques are immune to error, for the nature of representation entails the possibility of misrepresentation, but some of these techniques enable humans to more accurately and frequently represent facts and preserve true representations of facts. Such techniques include science and logic.
  5. Other humans develop techniques to obfuscate true representations of facts, undermining the human capacity to live in accord with facts. One form of obfuscation generates false representations that misrepresent themselves as true representations. This form of human misrepresentation is a lie. Another form of obfuscation undermines the value of true representations, such that the consideration of facts appears irrelevant and/or the representation of facts is deemed impossible. This form of obfuscation is bullshit.
  6. Some humans utilize lies and bullshit to achieve political ends. This is propaganda. The development of propaganda further inhibits the human ability to represent and live in accord with facts, on a broad collective level across diverse human populations.
  7. Facts continue to exist, whether humans manage to represent them or not. Humans that fail to live in accord with facts threaten human existence, along with all other representing minds on planet Earth. Facts themselves, however, are not thereby threatened, and will continue to exist long after there are no minds to represent or misrepresent them.

Jesse Butler is an associate professor in the Religion and Philosophy Department of the University of Central Arkansas.