Open Thread: Distinguishing Fact and Truth

Max wondered about the distinction I attempted to make between fact and truth. His suggested context is religion. But I think the distinction exists in other aspects of human life. I’ll offer commentary on astronomy, a subject dear to me, on my marriage, and on the Bible. Then Max or others can take it from there.

It strikes me as a modern western development to be concerned about a strong degree of the absolute in religion.  This occurs especially in the sciences. The modern scientific method delves deep into what can be measured, observed, described in the universe around us. By reading dark lines in the spectrum (rainbow) of far away stars, we can determine the presence of all the elements–iron, sodium, oxygen, helium, hydrogen, etc.. We know more about the interior of stars trillions and quadrillions of miles away than the interior of our own home planet. There are facts about the stars: what they are made of, how old they are, if they have planets. And if they have planets, whether any of those globes might possess conditions ripe for life.

the_ring_nebulaI can walk to a mountaintop, and on a clear night behold a few thousand stars. My eyes cannot detect the presence of iron or hydrogen. Nor can I see planets circling these stars. I see the spread of the universe. As the stars move, I “feel” the turning of the Earth and perhaps I feel a sense of wonder. There is no fact in the sense of wonder. But there is a truth in it. I am a small person standing on a small planet, and I take a deep breath and perhaps I am glad I’m not in charge of it all. If I am a religious person, I ponder God’s agency. But if I am more like my friend Max, I take it all in and think about the vast expanse above me. I’m not reading an astronomy text book for facts, but I am experiencing truth.

The easy commentary on marriage is that in some courthouse in Iowa, there is a piece of paper that reports the fact that my wife and I were married in some church before two witnesses and a priest, on some date in 1996. These are facts, and they do happen to be true.

anita-todd-feb95.jpgWhat is also true is that I love my wife, and in our moments of intimacy, we share thoughts and feelings and make our love more real. More truthful if you will. Such moments are not recognized by the state. They are not recorded in anyone’s book or file. But they are a truth. They are factual for nobody else. She or I may forget the particulars, but that does not obscure the truth of human love.

Turning to the Bible, unlike our friend Dick, I do not read the Scriptures of my faith for facts. It is less important for me that Jesus said this specific thing to these particular people. That Jesus told a story about unscrupulous or timid people doesn’t give me license to cheat on invoice slips or to maltreat people who bury money in the ground. Parables are true stories, but they are not factual accounts.

woman at the wellI think it was Max who brought into some recent discussion a theologian who suggested that the events of John 4 didn’t really happen. That is irrelevant to me. Because whether or not Jesus had an encounter with a woman at a Samaritan well (image credit) is unimportant. This is because the account is true.

It is true because it demonstrates the Lord as a listener. Jesus listens, probes, but does not condemn. He calls the sinner to discipleship. And more, because the woman is moved to serve in the role of an apostle: she speaks to others about Jesus and they are convinced. This is how faith works and is passed on. Samaritans are not converted to traditional Temple worship. They are converted to Christ. They are not converted by returning to Jewish source material on how God should be worshipped. They hear the personal testimony about a personal encounter with someone who looks, observes, and knows.

It can be difficult to step away from the culture of the West. It can be difficult to see things with different eyes. Apart from religion, there are truths in things such as love or in wonder that cannot be quantified as fact.

It is a fact when I drive up a mountain and the odometer on my car clicks off. My marriage license is a fact in some office in Black Hawk County, Iowa. But there are deeper truths involved with these facts.

Faith works no differently. As a man of faith, I would say that faith operates even more strongly in the realm of truth.

Other comments? The thread is open.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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29 Responses to Open Thread: Distinguishing Fact and Truth

  1. Philip says:

    I go along with the distinction between fact and truth. I applied this to professional decision-making in health and social care practice. Deciding what medication to prescribe and at what dose is largely based on factual knowledge arising from clinical trials etc. But what guides decisions involving, say, risk assessments concerning the discharge from hospital of someone with a long term mental illness or the appropriateness of adoption where the adoptive parents are of a different ethnic background to the adopted child or otherwise? (The case of Madonna visiting Malawi to adopt poor children springs to mind). The ‘correctness’ of such decisions cannot be based on fact (or at least solely on facts), but there are some truths that can be drawn upon to support such decisions. Notice I wrote ‘truths’. Individuals have different perspectives that might be considered equally true; they are not positive facts: growing up within ones own culture Vs material and educational benefits; wonderment at gazing at the stars Vs wasting time unproductively. This raises the contentious issue of relativism which for some in the RC Church is anathema. Pope Benedict used quite vilifying language against philosophers of relativism. But the issue remains of whether St Paul’s teachings, for example, can be regarded as factual directives (such as his instructions in relation to women), to be taken literally, or indeed past dogmatic pronouncements of the RC Church. Society changes and truth changes. Traditionalists are horrified at these ideas but I can’t get away from them. What I think remains universally constant are the values underlying many biblical teachings rather than the factual details, which I think you were also saying.

    • Todd says:

      I’m a skeptic on how B16’s vilification of relativism is misused, misdiagnosed. Different perspectives are often a matter of context and the application of prudence. Not really relativism.

      Paul’s instructions for women, for example: these have a cultural context. Covering one’s head, not speaking in public: these are not spiritual values in and of themselves. But in a culture that values them as the status quo, they might represent a deeper religious orientation.

      • Atheist Max says:

        You said,
        “It is true because it demonstrates the Lord as a listener.”

        It only demonstrates is you are no different from the imaginings of countless human forebears going back 300,000 years. So I don’t agree that your example demonstrates anything else.

        Anyone can speculate that maybe a God exists. Even me.
        But let’s not pretend we are talking about truth and fact. What is this insistence that “God is”?

        Which lord? Where is your evidence ‘he listens’ or that it isn’t more than one god or two gods or ten thousand gods (as Hindus say)?

        I am not objecting to speculation. But the repeated, absolutist claim is that you *know* a God exists, you *know* which one it is (Not Thor. Not Aphrodite. Not Zoroaster.) and that it isn’t more than one! You are certain it must only be YJHS (Yahweh/Jesus/HolySpirit/Satan).

        TRUTH: You are on a mountaintop looking at stars.
        FACTS: You can observe the Cosmos which formed you from its elements which themselves have been shown to have been formed by exploding stars. Thousands of stars are dying and being formed every second. Cool!
        SPECULATION (not truth, not fact): “A god did it.”

        Not only is your speculation incomplete (what formed the god?) it is useless to help us pursue further questions. It simply silences further inquiry.

        Gods are only one possibility of why we exist. We know that a god was not necessary to form all of the elements, as you have demonstrated, all known elements were formed in stars. Just as a God is not needed to pull water through a bathtub drain (gravity appears to work without a god) I see no reason why a god is needed to instruct electrons on their journey around a nucleus and no reason why a god would be needed to figure out how Carbon atoms can take on unique properties.

        The only truthful and factual answer about how any of this started is, “I don’t know.”

        “Science is how we make sure we are not fooling ourselves. And we are the easiest ones too fool!” – Richard Feynman

        I have no interest at all in fooling myself. Do you?

  2. Atheist Max says:

    “I’m not reading an astronomy text book for facts, but I am experiencing truth.”

    Too bad.
    The facts are the fascinating part of it.

    We know even the earliest stars were formed of Helium – the most basic, most common element in the universe. Stars are giant Helium balls which, thanks to the enormous gravity and heat create elements within their hot centers. When stars die and explode the forces produce yet more elements.

    The Periodic Table (you might remember from high school chemistry) is a list of ALL the known elements. THERE ARE ONLY 118.
    Every material thing known to man IS COMPRISED OF THESE ELEMENTS – AND NO OTHERS.

    All of these elements were formed by exploding stars.
    The Earth is a cooling planet formed by condensing gases and dust as part of a solar system made of the same stuff.
    A mix of Hydrogen and Oxygen (mere elements created by stars) creates water.
    The life on earth is Carbon-based (Carbon is just another element formed by stars).

    There is no sign of a God in any of these activities.
    Wherever a god was supposed to exist, science has shown us there was no hand of a god involved so God had to move to some other area where gaps in our knowledge continue to exist.

    Today, at best, we have gods of the gaps.
    Facts and Truth do not lead to a reasonable expectation that such a shrinking role for gods will suddenly be turned around.

    Meanwhile, evolutionary biologists have fully tackled why we believe in gods. If you bothered to read about it you would see quite clearly that evolution prefers the imaginative among us for many practical reasons. The desire for a belief to be true is fully explained scientifically.

    Our infant brains are HARD-WIRED to search for a mother and father. This is necessary for human survival, and most other animals share this trait. As we grow, we lose our baby hair, baby teeth and baby skin – and many of us would also lose the ‘searching trait’ as well – but religion picks up that ball, reconfigures it and keeps it going. This is precisely why ‘God’ is such a vague, impossible to define DRIVE of the psyche across human history.

    “God” is nothing but a word humanity has placed on this primitive infant drive. It explains why people cannot explain God. The drive does not prove god exists – only that we have a drive to find our parents the moment we are born and we are not allowed to outgrow this drive in a natural way because religion insists it knows better.

    Yet no religion seems to know anything about these truths or these facts!

  3. Todd says:

    Hello Max,

    It seems you spent about an hour typing a lot of words. I’m just going to pop in for a few minutes and say that you seem to have misunderstood me completely, that you have gotten some science wrong, and Dick seems to be your closest kin here in the comboxes in terms of your shared fundamentalism.

    I think my understanding about the facts of star formation are a little more complete than yours. But I don’t have to reference them to enjoy the scene. I’m an artist at heart and can just take in the spectacle without facts. Neither my way nor yours is wrong. Or even incomplete in the context we find ourselves in. I can read a book or attend a lecture, sans stars, if I choose.

    If you want to stick to a single paragraph at a time, I’ll be happier to engage you more fully. Enjoy the day!

    • Atheist Max says:

      I notice you require brevity.

      Fact: “He is risen”
      Truth: “He is truly risen.”
      It is a nice shortcut. We won’t gum it up with questions.

      It may comfort you to call me the fundamentalist. Easy to dismiss me that way.
      But that is yet another shortcut you are taking.

      • Todd says:

        So … you are professing belief? Why are you trying to put words into a Christian’s mouth? I don’t require brevity, but I do admire it as a virtue. Since you’ve avoided my point on context, I’ll accept you have nothing more to say and you concede my point that one doesn’t have to be all things at all times. In other words, sometimes facts will do. Other times, truth is more important.

      • Atheist Max says:

        No, I’m not professing belief. I’m pointing out how silly it looks when one accepts an assertion at face value – this is exactly what you accuse fundamentalists of doing. You suggest you would prefer fundamentalists to broaden their minds but religion requires acceptance of simple assertions: “God exists”, “He is risen”, “God is love” and such.

        You said,
        “It is true because it demonstrates the Lord as a listener.” An astonishing claim. How did you establish it as fact and not a guess?
        What can you tell me about your evidence?

        “Truth” and “fact” are meaningless words if there is no evidence or demonstration for the claim in question. Where is your evidence that “the Lord is a listener?”

      • Todd says:

        I detect a bait and switch here. That the Lord listens is a truth. I note you still haven’t responded to my premise that facts and truths are not completely congruent.

      • Atheist Max says:

        “That the Lord listens is a truth.”
        You must prove this with some evidence. Otherwise it is an empty assertion and must be dismissed. I’m happy to hear your evidence.

        “I note you still haven’t responded to my premise that facts and truths are not completely congruent.”

        But that is exactly what I was responding to. Facts and Truth are congruent.
        Your demonstration of a walk to the top of a hill and witnessing the Cosmos is not evidence of anything listening to anything else.

        “The Lord Listens” is an empty claim. But I suspect you are trying to claim it is ‘poetically’ true (?), in which case you have made the major concession as it is neither “truth” nor “Fact.” Poetry is an artful expression of a human yearning. To yearn for something is not to confirm it exists. I can yearn for a ‘million dollars’ or ‘feel’ like a millionaire. That doesn’t make it truth or fact.

        In your example, “The Lord listens” is not fact nor is it truth – but is the expression of a yearning the object of which remains unaccounted for.

      • Todd says:

        “Facts and Truth are congruent.”

        Can you prove this?

      • Atheist Max says:

        Yes. I can prove Facts and Truth are congruent.

        Please find a “truth” which isn’t reliant on facts.
        Or name a fact which is not true.

      • Todd says:

        I asked if *you* can cite it. I’m not doing your work for you. I’ve already given three examples where facts and truth do not coincide exactly. Like the fundamentalists who have visited here, you need a primer in reading comprehension.

      • Atheist Max says:


        “I’m not going to do the work for you.”

        Work? The dictionary is clear:
        Fact = “a thing that is indisputably the case.”
        Truth = “a fact or belief that is accepted as true.”

        It is as easy as proving a “toe” is a “digit” of the foot.
        Why do you claim a difference exists when there is none? And why do you play dishonest word games instead of dealing with your own claim?

        If you can’t show me a Truth which can survive without facts that adds to my argument.
        There is no Truth without Facts and I have proven it.

      • Atheist Max says:

        “My marriage license is a fact in some office in Black Hawk County, Iowa. But there are deeper truths involved with these facts.”

        Deeper truths? No there aren’t. You haven’t listed any. You have made an empty claim.

      • Todd says:

        Two things. What dictionary have you cited?

        As for truths connected with the fact of my marriage, I listed a few. Go back and read, please.

      • Atheist Max says:


        You said:
        “They are not recorded in anyone’s book or file. But they are a truth. They are factual for nobody else.”

        Why do you say this about your marriage? Not every shooting star is recorded in a book either – but this does not remove them from being factual.

        I have been married for 29 years. Like yours, my marriage is a fact.
        And like all other facts it is true because it is supported by evidence; witnesses at the ceremony and physical manifestations of loyalty and commitments since.

        What “truth” is worth the name which comes without evidence?
        For example, your 100% dismissal of Allah as a real god demonstrates you agree with me.
        No evidence of Allah means Todd will be very comfortable rejecting the claim that Allah is important. Simple as that.

        If someone claims Allah to be ‘fact’ or ‘a truth’ you will quickly challenge that.
        “Take neither Christians nor Jews for friends” – ALLAH (Quran)

        You have already demonstrated you agree with me on matters of truth and fact
        by rejecting the claims of other religions. If there is no evidence something is true, Todd always rejects it.

      • Todd says:

        “Why do you say this about your marriage?”
        Because you asked me to distinguish between fact and truth. There is a difference–these two are not exact synonyms.

        “What “truth” is worth the name which comes without evidence?”
        Because some truths are greater and deeper in human experience than some facts which come with evidence.

        “… your 100% dismissal of Allah as a real god demonstrates you agree with me.”
        Wrong. Allah is the same as the one God of Judaism and Christianity.

        “If there is no evidence something is true, Todd always rejects it.”
        Wrong again. You are better served trying to present what you think and believe rather than bungle what other people think and believe, especially Christians.

        You are no longer a Christian. If you are truly an atheist and not an anti-religionist, you wouldn’t keep on this tack.

      • Atheist Max says:

        Please be fair, Todd.
        I’m just looking at your claims and asking why you make them because I am genuinely interested in your answers.

        How can Allah be the same god, Yahweh?:
        “..Infidels are those who declare: “God is the Christ, the son of Mary.” (Sura 5:17)
        “Believers, take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends.” – (Sura 5:51)

        Seriously. Why would your Yahweh utter such commands?

        What do you mean by ‘greater and deeper’ truth? I love my wife. This is not a deep truth. It is a simple fact.
        Our love may be deep but isn’t that just poetry? All love is deep – it is inherent in the meaning of the word – why imagine a mystery where there is none?

      • Todd says:

        Max, you seem hardly interested in what I write, except as a platform for what you write. I point out you can’t even prove who you are, let alone that you love a wife.

      • Atheist Max says:

        Questions are not a ‘platform.’ They are an opportunity for you to elaborate on your points, your claims and your ideas.

        You claimed Allah is Yahweh.
        Is this a fact? A deep truth?
        What makes it true at all?

      • Todd says:

        “Questions are not a ‘platform.’”

        You don’t always ask questions, Max. Sometimes you just give us statements like: God is very bad.

        That Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship the same God is a fact, given the rootedness of all faiths in the patriarch Abraham. This is basic religion, Max. Only the fringes discount it.

      • Atheist Max says:

        “That Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship the same God is a fact, given the rootedness of all faiths in the patriarch Abraham.”

        I’m familiar with this claim. I grew up with it:
        1. First came Jews who Yahweh granted a special covenant.
        2. Then, hundreds of years later, Jesus broadened the religion to include gentiles but to renounce Jews as non-believers.
        3. Then around 600 C.E. ‘final’ prophecy of Allah to Mohammed renounced Jesus and demoted him to minor prophet – renouncing both Christians and Jews as infidels.

        I see three tribes claiming superiority over each other. And no god of any kind – let alone a common one.

        But that wasn’t my question. You said Yahweh and Allah are the same god.
        I asked,
        What makes it true?

      • Atheist Max says:

        Todd, you said,

        “That Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship the same God is a fact, given the rootedness of all faiths in the patriarch Abraham.”

        Why are you so certain this is true? why are you being so forceful about it?
        If it were true, why wouldn’t these three religions have identical rituals and theologies?
        Why is the God of Abraham insisting on rivalry between them?
        Why did God create these three religions to look designed by tribes of men – instead of by Him?

  4. charlesincenca says:

    Sometimes this exasperation causes me to remember Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” I wonder if Max knows the song.

    • Atheist Max says:


      Yes, I’m certainly familiar with that song.
      I sang “Being Alive” when I played Robert in “Company” some years ago.

      I’m very familiar with Sondheim for many reasons. He was an Atheist, for one.

      Sondheim did not see this life as a mere doormat to a next world ( a life-cheapening theory if ever there was one) but as a breathtakingly beautiful moment to seize – a one shot deal.

      “Being Alive” is an argument for living this life fully.

  5. charlesincenca says:

    That’s great, Max. Yes, it could also be considered a prayer of petition, albeit not to a deity. Nice to know you perform.

    • Atheist Max says:

      “prayer of petition, albeit not to a deity.”

      “Being Alive” is a prayer to oneself, artfully expressed with deep compassion for oneself
      and others, and it is very powerful. When our longings are crystalized so clearly we are invigorated and ready to address them head on.
      No deity appears to show up. What role would he play? The human yearns, then revs his own engines and seeks love – and that is the beauty of human life. We are astonishing survivors.

  6. charlesincenca says:

    Also, Sondheim is still alive and kicking, so he still does “see this life….”

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