A few days ago someone, somewhere on social media, in objection to something I wrote, used the arresting expression “biased facts.” I learned from the Dutch Reformed philosophical theologian Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987) that there are no such things as uninterpreted facts or “brute facts,” that God has interpreted all reality and that humans must submit to that interpretation or face the consequences. Nevertheless, of themselves, facts are not biased or unbiased. By definition, a fact is what is. Claims about what is or is not may be biased but facts either are or they are not. A “biased fact” is a confusion of categories but in an age of “fake news,” which, by definition is an oxymoron, I suppose we should not be surprised .
In an opinion column published yesterday George Will writes, “In today’s therapeutic culture, which seems designed to validate every opinion and feeling, there will rarely be disagreement without anger between thin-skinned people who cannot distinguish the phrase ‘you’re wrong’ from ‘you’re stupid.'” He interacts with a 2005 book by Lynne Truss, Talk to the Hand, her response to the phenomenon of self-entitled rudeness. He also interacts Tom Nichols’ new book, The Death of Expertise. They are each touching on a complex of problems that I have been observing for some time.
The good news is that these are not entirely new problems and there is an answer. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Western theologians criticized the reigning philosophical approach, which had influenced theology considerably, known as realism. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74) is an outstanding representative of this approach. The realists (whom the critics sometimes referred to as the via antiqua, the old way) argued, in effect, that we call things what we call them because things are the way they are. They were deeply convinced of an identity between words (names) and reality (things). The nominalist critics (via moderna) responded by arguing that the relationship between words and things is less about the nature of things and more a convention or even arbitrary. The realists had argued that the world and our perception of it is the result of the divine nature and intellect. The world is at it is because God is what he is. Things could not be other than they are. Some of the critics wanted to assert the freedom of the divine will, they wanted to say that God could have done things other than he did and remain good and just.
The West has been having a similar sort of argument since the 1980s at least. As the Deconstructionist movement has filtered through the University English departments to mass culture and public schools, people have increasingly turned to a sort of skepticism about the relationship between words and things. Even prior to that movement there were powerful influences pushing the West toward a radical sort of subjectivism according to which “I,” the subject, determine reality. That was a basic impulse of Modernity, whether via empiricism (sense experience determines truth) or via rationalism (the intellect determines truth). Modernity removed God, revelation, and the church from authority and put the subject firmly in charge of truth. Capital T truth was replaced with lower case t truth. In the 19th century already there were signs that neither the rationalists nor the empiricists would be able to prevent the slide into radical subjectivism. Religious subjectivism (e.g., Pietism) had been cooking in the other room even before Modernity. Among secularism, by the 1970s “therapy” became the new religion. People began speaking about “my truth.” One of my university professors routinely quoted John Lennon’s line, “Whatever gets you through the night.” Combine the incipient subjectivism of Modernity, the religious subjectivism of the American revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries with literary subjectivism of Deconstructionism and “reader-response” theory, and, to quote Paul Simon, “it’s a wonder I can think at all.”
My university professors in the 1970s and early 80s all pretended to believe in objective truth. It was only a pretense but even that is gone now. Radical subjectivism reigns openly on university campuses. It is not only students who demand to be protected from views with which they disagree, it is faculty members who, only 30 years ago, once described the university as a marketplace of ideas, who defended the principle of toleration. Profs and pupils now insist that the university be a closed “feedback loop” whereby students only hear what is affirming, whereby, as Will notes, all criticism is regarded as morally equivalent to personal attack.
As it turns out, the via moderna had a point. They were wrong about a lot of things and their solution, that the relationship between words and things is arbitrary, is wrong but nevertheless, they had a point when they criticized the realists for utterly identifying words with things. They did so on the basis of a series of assumptions about the nature of things that were just that: assumptions. The Reformation saved us from this morass by doing what the realists did not do: distinguishing between the Creator and the creature, by asserting that the relationship between the Creator and the creature is aanalogical, that we are not on a continuum with God (whereby he is said to have the most being and we less being). They rightly burned the ladder to God and reasserted Anselm’s categorical distinction (with which even he was not entirely consistent). In the so-called ontological argument, Anselm had said God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. What he meant by that was that only God necessarily is. Everything else might not be (i.e., is contingent). Thomas had also formally asserted the Creator/creature distinction but vitiated it with his dependence upon Dionysius, whereby he smuggled Plato into Christian theology.
The critics of realism (e.g., Ockham) took the axe to the root of all these assumptions by asserting (via Ockham’s razor) that the argument with the least number of assumptions about what “must be” were more likely to be correct. In effect, they drove us back to Scripture where the Reformation found that indeed things are the way they are because God willed them so but that the relationship between words and things is not arbitrary because God freely wills according to his own nature. God is not arbitrary. Words are not mere conventions. They are fit to convey genuine, analogical truth. We do not know things as God knows them but we do know them truly. There is an objective reality that has been revealed both in nature and in Scripture that can be known and that must be obeyed. The Reformation asserted the general reliability of our sense experience without making it autonomous (empiricism) and without falling into subjectivism. According to the Reformation the world was made to be known and we made to know it. Against the medieval church, they asserted the essentially perspicuity (clarity) of Holy Scripture on what Christians must know for the Christian faith and the Christian life).
At the same time, the Protestants were not naive about the problems attendant to human knowing. They were Augustinians all of them. They understood and confessed the effects of sin and depravity upon every human endeavor. They also argued that God has so ordered the world and sufficiently restrained the consequences of the fall that humans can arrive at genuine truth. Our sense perceptions are not an illusion. The world is not an arbitrary set of conventions. That claim, that the world is arbitrary, is ultimately a diabolical lie that suggests that God himself is a liar. God the Son incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth, however, denounced the Evil One as The Liar (John 8:44, 55; 17:17; Matt 4:4; 16:23). Jesus was no skeptic. He proclaimed himself The Truth (John 14:6). He proclaimed that the truth shall be known and it shall set us free (John 8:32). He died for the truth of God’s promise, that the Seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. The truth was vindicated in his resurrection: destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up (John 2:19).
The resurrection is a fact. The women and the disciples had empirical sense experience both of the empty tomb and of the risen Christ. The gospels record their experience of objective reality. Thomas doubted and Jesus allowed him to touch Jesus’ body, to feel the holes where the Romans had pierced him. Jesus body was not an illusion. It was really there. He was really alive. Sane, sensible people proclaimed the objective reality of the empty tomb and the risen Christ.
Conspiracy theories are evidence of intellectual sloth. They are a poor replacement for facts and for genuine history but sin is real and people do sometimes conspire to suppress objective truth. Matthew (a Jewish Christian and one of Jesus’ followers) records one such incident:
While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day (Matt 28:11–15; ESV).
There was no doubt among the authorities and the soldiers as to the facts, as to what had happened. Jesus was raised from the dead, just as he had promised. The authorities had to lie about what had happened because it had happened. Had Jesus’ corpse been stolen it would have turned up. It is not that difficult for cops to find a missing body. Somebody always makes a mistake but Jesus’ body was not stolen. He was seen by 500 people (1 Cor 15:4). They ate fish with him (John 21:8–13) They saw him ascend (Acts 1:9). The resurrection is a fact. The ascension is a fact. Jesus and the disciples (later Apostles) knew nothing about “my truth” and “your truth.” They were making claims about what is objectively true for everyone, in all times, in all places.
Because God has ordered the world congruent with his nature, words mean things. The word resurrection is not a mere convention nor is it merely a way of representing our subjective experience of renewal. It signifies something that objectively happened in history, for which every human being from Mumbai to San Diego shall have to give an account. Facts must be interpreted but interpretation does not create facts. There are no such things as “biased facts.” Objective reality can be hidden, distorted, and suppressed for a time but not for ever. The truth will out. It already did.