Fact versus Truth

Wading through the mire of the ‘post-factual’ landscape now set before us – with Trump’s triumphal trail blazed across international cooperation on human-caused climate change, long-drawn out peace negotiations and everything in between; with the dangerously divisive politics, deaf to reasoned argument, that defined the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union and degraded irreparably the political discourse in this country – I have reflected much on the nature of ‘fact’, corroborated by cold, hard numbers, and its relationship to my own conception of ‘truth’, which I find to be markedly distinct.


Too often, in a world of ever-decreasing attention spans and ever-increasing demands on our commodified lives, people do not have time to digest the fleshy truth that surrounds the bare bones of fact. 140 characters are enough to set out the Leader of the Free World’s policy on North Korea’s nuclear threat, or his bizarre claim that Meryl Streep is overrated. The US President has a tendency to exploit this very deficiency to his utmost advantage, never giving so much substance to his outlandish statements that he can ever actually be held to account, but also exploiting his position by spearheading hatred directed at his detractors – the snowball that starts small, ever gathering size and momentum. Back in this country, fabricated numbers on either side gave legitimacy to campaigns, in which mistrust of the ‘other’ was preyed on and scorn was heaped upon the very word ‘expert’ for the offence of arriving at inconvenient conclusions.

Having said that, many who adhere to ‘expert’ opinion fail to scrutinise. More and more society rejects that which cannot be expressed succinctly by the limitations of our expression in language. Instead it craves the rubber-stamp approval that can turn theory into fact. ‘Scientists say…’, ‘political theorists claim…’, think tank [funded by xxx] supports…’. In the clamber to arrive at a position on every given issue of the day, how can anyone claim in all cases to have looked beyond the factual veneer into the substantial truth?

What I am trying to express here is that there exists a truth that lies beyond that which can be expressed in absolute terms. If one considers rational and irrational numbers as an analogy: between two integers there is an infinitude of values that can be expressed by one integer divided by another; there is no limit to the values we can express using basic arithmetic. And yet, you take two of these rational numbers, and between them – no matter how close together they are in value – there is a further infinitude that cannot so be expressed; these irrational numbers stand for the truth beyond. The proportional relationship between a circle’s diameter and its circumference, the number to which a logarithmic curve tends; these particular irrational numbers we call pi and e, but the names are merely place markers for a number beyond expression in terms of rational, countable numbers. We know these numbers are there, but we must revert to the unconventional to express that which escapes absolute definition.

I find that this distinction between fact and truth serves as an eloquent expression of what constitutes art. Art, whether painting, sculpture, music, poetry or dance, enables us to access this truth that hides between the cracks of the surer ground of fact. What makes a series of words poetry? It is those words’ capacity, paradoxically, to reveal to us that which words are incapable of telling. Why else did Hans Christian Anderson write: “Where words fail, music speaks”? I hadn’t heard of him before, but apparently Julian Beck (American actor) said: “The power of art is the power of truth.” a sentiment that recognises the very relationship between truth and art which I attempt to elucidate here. Something that expresses fact alone cannot constitute art, but revelation of the truth outside this fact does.

Because this truth lacks the solid ground of direct expression in language, it is fleeting. Like a cloud, it cannot be caught and pinned down; it is changeable, brittle and lacks distinct edges. I can think of no better explanation for the common conflation of aesthetic beauty and artistic merit than the ephemeral nature of the truth expressed in art. Ephemerality is inherently beautiful. We as humans are entranced by the unobtainable.

The analogous dichotomy between grounded fact and fleeting truth can be stretched further. Fact maintains contact with the ground. A gravity keeps us rooted to fact, and effort is required in order to occupy that realm of truth which is suspended from terra firma. One cannot move freely in the realm of truth and requires a factual structure from which to leap. One cannot occupy a fixed location in truth, but can only remain still when in contact with fact.

My hope for 2018 is that as many as possible stay mindful of this: while fact may be wholly true, it is not the whole truth.