A fact is a fact is a fact. Isn’t it? Well … not so fast.
Let’s think of a simple fact … like the number of rooms in a building. That seems factual, doesn’t it? It’s observable, verifiable, reliable, and objective. Multiple, independent observers should come to the same conclusion. If John says it’s X, Mary can verify his work by counting again. Further, it doesn’t change over time. Today’s answer should be the same as tomorrow’s. Additionally, it’s not subjective; it doesn’t depend on your mood. It’s objective – it exists in the real world, not just inside your head.
That’s what you may think but it’s actually a bit more complicated. I often run an experiment in my classes and workshops that shows how difficult it can be to pin down a fact.
I start by asking for three volunteers. My instructions are simple: “I want you to answer the question: how many rooms are on this floor of this building?” If they ask questions, I say, in a slightly superior voice, “This is a simple exercise. There’s no need to ask questions. Don’t make it more complicated than it is. Just go and do it.” (Did you ever have a boss that did this to you?)
Then I send the volunteers out one at a time to count the rooms. Each one is instructed to count the number of rooms, write the number on a piece of paper, give the paper to me, and tell no one else the number.
I collect the three answers and compare them for the class. The three answers are never the same. In fact, they often vary by a factor of two. One person may count 24 rooms; another counts 48. Occasionally, I’ll find that two answers are the same but, if so, the third is usually quite a bit different.
How do we account for this? Two thoughts come to mind. First, the exercise contains three different concepts that need to be defined: room, floor, and building. What is a room? Does a janitor’s closet count? A bathroom? What’s a floor in this sense? What if you’re in split-level building? And what’s a building? What if two buildings are joined together, as is the building where I teach at the University of Denver?
Second, this helps to illustrate how reality is an internal concept. Each volunteer has a model of reality in her head. But the models are different. In some sense, there is no external, verifiable reality. We just build models and your model is different from mine. The result? Endless confusion and controversy. Moral: be careful with your facts.
The last 20 pages of The Goldfinch intertwined nicely with these ideas about reality.
Hi Ann — that’s very interesting. I’ll borrow Suellen’s copy and check it out.