Against facts

Among the conceits of modern agnostic nominalist positivist scientism is the existence of facts. Mea culpa: for through inattention, I am often guilty of falling into this trap. “Facts and arguments,” or “facts and theories,” are phrases that convey a false opposition, yet are the tradestock alike of people who call themselves scientists, historians, journalists. They imagine there are “facts” on which everyone must agree (on pain of punishment), and that once they are “settled,” the fun starts. We can then explain them, or if we are technophiles, put them to work.

There is, I am persuaded by religious faith, such a thing as reality, and it is possible to distinguish what is external to ourselves. But I will not be reduced to a cogito-ergo-sum. I am also part of this reality, and in self-apprehension I become ever more aware that it is unified by the pre-existence of God, who made us, body and soul, out of nothing — as we may demonstrate from the evidence of a time before we were born.

To say that we “evolved” out of pre-existing matter is a grand evasion; an attempt to reinstate that material infallibility in which the Victorian agnostics put their trust. On misunderstood instructions from Kant, they constructed an imaginary universe from which only the Creator was excluded, because He was “unknowable.” Everything else could be known, at least potentially, through the dogmas of a sceptical empiricism.

From this they came to believe in the most extraordinary rot: the “settled science” of that age, long since blown away. Huxley, Stephen, Clifford, Spencer, Cockshut: the legion of High Victorian respectables. They were the fathers of a British Agnosticism which tried to omit the violent consequences of a more Continental Atheism, by creating something churchishly snug and bourgeois. They were seldom vicious. Their ambition was to save the world for “facts,” through disbelief in the monsters that revolutionary Frenchmen and other Europeans had summoned. Verily: their chief reason for denying Christ was that He preached the existence of demons. “Everyone knows better today.”

Not bad men — they were obsessed with the preservation of sound ethical behaviour, and all the good manners that could be lost through irreligion. Each was his own little sack of anxieties, but in the aggregate they were nothing at all. No one could want to read them today, yet we repeat their mistakes in a lazier fashion. For a belief in “facts” atomizes the consciousness. It makes us very boring. We need to be warned where it leads.

There is a marvellous book by Michael Polanyi, that does the “objective” fact-world in. Published in 1958, I think it among the great unacknowledged classics of twentieth-century thought. The title is, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. It is more than four hundred pages of continuous exposé, by a man who was himself among the greatest physical chemists, with a hold on all the other formal sciences that was remarkably broad and deep. He refuses to separate “scientific facts” from the arts by which they are known, or the purposes for which they are gathered, like flowers from the field to assemble our bouquets. He shows how the genuine scientific advances of our age refute the premisses from which they started.

We claim there is a “scientific method,” and teach some witless version to the young and naïve. Yet we know that, in practice, it is never followed. This is because it will never work. The world isn’t “facts.” It is not organized that way. No insight can be had by counting hairs or atoms.