Do You Agree “There Are No Such Things As Facts?”

A week ago, on the NPR Diane Rehms Show, I heard a beautiful example of a self-refuting statement spoken live on the radio. I didn’t realize what I was hearing right away, although the quote certainly caught my attention. The show was a panel discussion answering the question, “How are journalists rethinking their role under a Trump presidency?” The guests included 5 professional news editors, columnists, and reporters including James Fallows (The Atlantic), and Scottie Nell Hughes (RightAlerts.com & former D. Trump surrogate).

 

During the program, James Fallows said a lie was when you knew the truth, yet repeated a falsehood for a personal motive. He said there was clear evidence the apparent President-elect lied on several occasions. Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump “booster,” was asked for her response to this. Her reply was “There are no such things as facts.” She used Mr. Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally in the last election to explain her viewpoint. She says, [I edited the text to make it more comprehensible] “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet [about illegal voters, was taken] … [by] a certain crowd, a large part of the population, …[as the] truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, …his supporters, … believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say [his statements] are lies, and there’s no facts to back …up his claims.”

 

Think about this statement. And ask everyone you know, your students and friends, to think about this statement. Discuss it in your classroom or place of work. What could she possibly mean by this? It is of immense importance. Is she saying that because a large part of the population believes what Mr. Trump says and supports him, therefore his statements are true? And, therefore, there are no lies for him to be called to account for?

 

I think it is true those who believe in Mr. Trump take his words as truth. But is a truth or a fact decided by a popularity contest or vote count? Certainly popularity will influence whether or how well a truth will be perceived, and there is a social dimension to any truth. But how does her way of speaking of ‘facts’ make any sense—and how would a fact differ from an opinion? Or is everything somehow an opinion?

 

Mr. Fallows’ point that a truth is opposite a lie provides one way to answer these questions. If Scottie Hughes thinks there are no facts, she must think there are no truths and no lies. How do you know what’s a lie if there is no truth? A fact is by definition something known to be true, something based on evidence that you could demonstrate repeatedly. Likewise, ‘truth’ is from a root meaning ‘faithfulness’ (treowth), as in faithful to reality. It is real. If there are no truths, there are also no accurate or faithful definitions of words. You would never know if the sound you heard in your mind or uttered by another person is a word, nor what it meant. Nor would you know what you wanted to say. Therefore, you could never speak. When you opened your mouth, just noise would emerge.

 

To say “there are no facts” is equivalent to saying, “it is a fact that there are no facts.” By speaking these words you nullify the “fact” that you spoke. Therefore, can anything you say be other than meaningless gibberish? Or is Scottie Nell Hughes really saying that only what is in opposition to her statements is meaningless gibberish?

 

*P. S. Scottie Hughes’ viewpoint did not arise out of a vacuum and is not entirely new, only new in the blatant way it has been applied to the electoral process. It is part of a battle over the nature of the human mind, or what it means to be human, that has been waged for over a hundred years and maybe forever. A few years ago, students in one of my classes argued, “there is no such thing as truth.” When asked what they meant by truth, they responded with: “A truth is permanent, unchanging, absolute, like ‘God’s truth.’“ And: “Since I can know truth only through my own experience, and we all have different experiences, how can there be one truth?” This and other discussions on the topic showed me how important it is to discuss with students the meanings of words like truth, fact, and opinion, not just to voice diverse viewpoints but to analyze and question them.

 

It is easy for people to think that truth should exist in isolation from the minds of all those who perceive and understand it, like they might think the objects of the world exist in isolation from other objects. But isn’t a truth, like a fact, like a word, interdependent with the situation, context and mind—with the universe in which the perceiver of truth appears? To borrow an example from the philosopher Ken Wilber, the word ‘bark’ depends on the the context of the sentence and the ability of the speaker and listener to speak the language. (“The dog barks every morning,” versus “the bark of the tree.”) Physicist and author Jeremy Hayward calls perception itself a “creative dance.” “[A]s we move through the world, we… experience a mutual creation between what is there and the ideas and emotions that seem fitting at the time.” He thinks the world you see is inextricably tied to who you are. You and your world are not two, and never separate. If he is correct, meaning his reasoning is logical, comprehensive, and based on demonstrably accurate information, then each mind influences the way a world is perceived, yet there are still truthful and not truthful statements, and facts.

 

**Terry Gross recorded a Fresh Air episode relevant to this topic on 12/7, interviewing Dean Baquet, executive editor of the NY Times. You might find it interesting.

Have You Had Your Holon Today? Facts, Contexts, and Holons.

When you think of facts, like the date Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo or when the number zero was first discovered (or invented?), it is easy to think of those facts as if they were independently existing things. You look at a building or a wasp flying around your head and you see them as independent things, certainly independent of you—and maybe you’re glad of that independence. The tree over there or that man by the tree gnashing his teeth and scowling at you as if angry, seem to exist as you see them but independent of you seeing them. Does any fact or theory exist on its own, independent of people who discover or read about or perceive them? And how do you teach about a historical fact or a scientific theory, for example, or even a “thing,” like this table I am writing on or this computer keyboard?

 

The concept of a holon provides a helpful way to teach and think about facts and things. In 1967 Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian author and philosopher, coined the term ‘holon’ and defined it as a “whole-part.” ‘Hol’ (’holos’) means whole, self-contained, a surface with a boundary. ‘On’ means a basic unit in something larger than itself, as in ‘electron;’ open, interconnected or interdependent. Everything exists, he says, as both a distinguishable unit and, at the same time, a part in a larger whole. Each part influences and is influenced by the whole. Neither exists without the other. There is no living leaf without the tree, no living tree without the leaf.

 

We imagine things can exist on their own only if we don’t notice or we actively ignore an implied context. You might think of the sound of a letter as inherent in the letter, not you, not dependent on the language you are speaking, and your time and place in history and your vocal cords. But what turns a squiggly line into a letter? I write a letter ‘B’ on a white board with a black marker. How am I able to even see the ‘B’? I need a contrast in order to perceive. The black ‘B’ exists as a distinguishable marking only due to the contrast with the white background. If the white board was black, the markings would disappear. There is a “figure-ground’ relationship; the letter stands out as my brain focuses on it as a distinguishable figure. “Figure-ground” is like “part-whole.”  A word seemingly has meaning by itself, until you put it in a variety of contexts. And to think clearly, we need to mentally place supposed facts in a variety of contexts. For example, add the letter ‘B’ to ‘ark’ and you get ‘Bark.’ Is ‘Bark’ a sound, or the outermost layer of a tree? Without context, no meaning.

 

I hold a coin, a quarter in my hand. It exists on its own. It lies there in my palm. But it becomes a quarter, not a piece of some metal, due to the context of our culture, a monetary system, a language. It has value only based on what I as a person, the culture I live in, the situation I am in (for example, needing a quarter for a parking meter) assign to it.

 

I might think of myself as independently existing. I can feel isolated from others and my world. But I couldn’t last for even a second if “I” or whatever “I” stood for was isolated from the world. I don’t exist without air, nutrients, sunlight, gravity, language and culture, other people, etc. Even the thoughts in my head usually imply a speaker, a listener and a storyline uniting them both in a context of meaning. As physicist Jeremy Hayward points out, I, like a holon, have an “inside,” experiential, subjective, “what it feels like to be” aspect, and an “outside,” surface, objective aspect. Your skin can be considered a boundary line, a potential point of conflict or isolation, but also a point of contact. It’s difficult to touch another person without skin.

 

I know teachers who creatively use the concept of holons to teach subjects like ecology. An environment is a system of interacting holons, or processes. Just like the leaf and the tree, the process of photosynthesis and the carbon cycle, depend on sun, air, the earth, other living beings, etc.

 

I think ‘holon’ should become a commonly taught concept in schools and homes. From an early age, teachers already try to help students learn by embedding material in contexts. You figure out what a word means by looking at the context in a sentence, for example. In elementary schools, teachers could find age-appropriate ways to ask students: “What are you part of?” What places or groups or  relationships are you connected to? Students might say their family, their class, and with questioning, their friends, their pets, their city or town, their teams, the human race, the flowers they planted in the garden, the food they ate for lunch, etc. “What makes a good friendship?” In order to get the other side of the holon, you could ask students what they could contribute to any relationship. To go further: “What does it feel like when you’re calm? When you’re angry? What can you do to help others be calm? What do you do that upsets others?” Students could create charts, write vignettes of friendships, of listening to others. There’s so much you could do with this.

 

In secondary schools, the questioning could get more sophisticated. “In what ways does your idea of yourself change depending on who you are with?” “Give examples of how the context of a situation changes how you view the actions of a person.” “What can the concept of a holon reveal about what is needed for a good friendship?” You could jokingly ask: “How does your nose become a nose? Does a nose exist without a face? Does a face exist without a body? A body without an environment? Where does the nose begin and the cheeks end?”  “How does ‘no’ depend on ‘yes’ and vice versa?” You could mindfully listen to your thoughts and ask, “Who is speaking?”

 

There are no decontextualized facts, but it is easy to lose sight of that. There are no decontextualized people, people separate from their environment and other beings, yet it is easy to lose sight of that as well. It is our job as educators to refresh our understanding and our student’s understanding of this most basic reality, even in the face of officials and administrators trying to undermine our jobs by judging us, our schools, and students with decontextualized numbers like standardized test scores. Even in the face of politicians who push policies that divide us and create institutionalized inequities. We are all whole, in ourselves, and yet inseparably a part of all others, whether we know them personally, or not.

 

**If you’re a high school teacher, I recommend you use in class or consult two books that greatly influenced this blog. One is Ken Wilber’s No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth, especially the chapter called the “Half Of It.” The other is Jeremy Hayward’s, Letters To Vanessa: On Love, Science, and Awareness in an Enchanted World.

The Magical Construction of No. And Yes.

No. Just say it. It sounds so powerful. No. Some people have trouble saying no, whether it be to a desire or to pressure from others or even to something that might hurt them. Others say it almost all the time. Think of children in their terrible twos saying it like a mantra. No is necessary for you to exist and taken too far it can kill you. It can feel good or horrible. And it can disappear like a passing cloud. So, every once and awhile, analyze the sense of no so you don’t hold on to it too tightly. Here is one analysis.

 

For the two year old, no is a necessary element of the maturation of a sense of independence, a sense that you can influence the awesome power of your caregivers. It does this by distinguishing “me-here” from “you-there.” The philosopher Ken Wilber said that any identity is a circle drawn so that what is inside is me and outside is all others, or not-me. No makes a me who stands up in the world and demands recognition. “You must listen, to me.” It creates the impression that the power to act independently is dependent on a sense of a distinct, acknowledged self.

 

The power of no is enhanced by how, and how much, you are cared for and can receive the care. Love can confer power, value, on an identity. If parents/caregivers tie love to acting or being a certain way, a further boundary can develop and the child’s sense of self gets smaller. The parts not accepted by the parents are not accepted by the child and pushed outside the circle to hide them away. Carl Jung called what was hidden the shadow.

 

When parental love isn’t clear, the child can be confused. He can go around putting a no in places just to demand a love to arise. Or she can fear no as if it were the magic or curse that drives love away. So, who you are and how powerful you feel is sculpted by love.

 

And then there’s yes. Every boundary line is both no and yes. No is the shadow of yes. The self is a me you say yes to bounded by a no. Do you say yes to your eyes? Hands? But who says yes to their nose hairs? Between no and yes there is and must be some pushing and shoving going on. In yes you give back and enjoy. In no, you push away and deny. The two are dynamically one.

 

Could you touch others if you didn’t have a boundary? Without your skin, there wouldn’t be any touching. If the bottom of your feet didn’t push against the earth, how could you walk? Ken Wilber also pointed out that a border is a place of contact. So, to think of the skin as only a boundary is to mistake its very nature. To think of the self as only “me, in here” is to mistake its nature. How you think of your boundaries has a lot to do with how you relate to the rest of the world.

 

These yeses and nos are not just ideas. You can mistake them for reality. You can feel them strongly. As a student you might say yes to listening to music and no to studying math or social studies. You can forget that what you think of as your self, your likes and dislikes, is a response to a particular situation. It changes. When you bring yes and no to awareness, you have the possibility of letting them go. Practice the following with yourself, and then, if you’re a teacher, with your students.

 

Close your eyes for a second and let your attention go to your inner world. Just take a breath in, and out. Notice if there is any tension as you breathe in or out. Where is it? Go there. What is the quality or feeling of the tension? Is it painful, stiff, scrunched up—a ‘no’ of some sort? Or a ‘yes’? Or neither? Notice how tension arises– or how it is just there. Then notice any gaps or lessening of tension. Notice how it changes and dissipates. The no dissolves into something else.

 

With clear attention, the gaps in any sensation are noticed and extended. Letting go is easier. It is helpful, especially when you are relatively new to mindfulness, to move attention around to different areas of the body.

 

With your next inhalation, go to somewhere else in your body. Notice the pressure as you inhale. As you exhale, notice how you let go.

 

As I meditate, I notice a tension, a pain across my chest. It pulls strongly on my body. When I attend to it, the pain at first seems clear, sharp. The no—and yes—can feel like absolutes. As I breathe in, I feel the history of where yes becomes no, of how I was first loved and cared for. The shape of my boundary, my sense of myself, is the shape that my felt capacity for yes, for love, creates. Yet, I rewrite this with each breath. The pain dissipates. How big can you allow your yes to be? Can you say yes even to no?

 

As I stay with the pain, accept it by attending to it without saying no, or saying anything, it softens. It feels almost aerated, bubbly, and then it’s gone. There is no sense of boundaries, of me and you. Only awareness.

 

 

Of course, its not just love that shapes us, nor is simply wanting enough to reshape us. Insight and self-awareness practice is needed. A person needs not just love—or genetics. Just think how your neighborhood, economic class, gender, or wars, a tornado, polluted water, a falling comet, the sound of birds affect you. It takes a universe to raise a person.