I am a Factualist

What kind of “ist” are you? Scientist Clifford Leznoff argues that the term “factualist” better describes the identity of many of those who call themselves “humanists.”

What kind of “ist” are you? Scientist Clifford Leznoff argues that the term “factualist” better describes the identity of many of those who call themselves “humanists.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines factualism as an adherence or dedication to facts. Under this definition, I consider myself a factualist. You might ask: why invent a new label when I can choose from: atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist, scientist, rationalist and Bright? Secularists and rationalists can still believe in God, while humanists can still believe in falsehoods. I certainly wouldn’t want to be called an atheist or agnostic as I consider myself foremost as a scientist. One does not want to be defined by what one is not. This problem has been addressed before by Richard Dawkins and others. One solution that they have come up with is calling atheists Brights. There is even a website devoted to this topic. Surveys of distinguished scientists achieving membership in the American National Academy of Sciences show that about 85% of them do not believe in a Supreme Being. Does that mean that 15% of them are Dim? I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a Bright. 

Polls evaluating belief across different countries of the world are variable depending on the category of the question. Eurobarometer evaluates belief across European countries but includes atheist, agnostic, irreligious, don’t know and belief. United Kingdom and the Czech Republic show the highest non-believer results, as high as 35%, while Kosovo exhibits the lowest score at 2%. Although China does not ban religion, except Falun Gong, it has the highest non-believer score in the world. Admittedly, belief might be higher if the government was truly free.

A factualist believes in reproducible, measurable, but provisional facts. The boiling point of water is 100 ºC at STP. In an amusing episode in “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” the  humanized robot, Data, is puzzled by the aphorism “A watched pot never boils” and says, “In some cases I have ignored the kettle; in others, I have watched it intently. In every instance, the water reaches its boiling point in precisely 51.7 seconds.” Facts are reproducible. Newton’s laws of motion, promulgated in Principia in 1687, were thought to be the culmination of physics until Einstein added to the laws with his description of general relativity. Thus, all facts are also provisional in the face of new facts and can be updated as further reproducible evidence accumulates. Recently, at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, scientists finally were able to detect the Higgs boson after 50 years of experimentation. Why do we believe these experts? Their experiments are reproducible and measurable. An ancient factualist would have knowm that Ptolemy counted 1022 stars in the heavens. Johann Bayer in 1603 counted 1503 stars. Once telescopes were invented, the numbers mushroomed. Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille counted at least 10,000 stars using just a half inch refractive telescope in 1754, while in 1884 Benjamin Gould counted 73,160 stars. A modern factualist would know that there are more than 200 billion stars in our galaxy alone. Data from the recently deployed James Webb Telescope have discovered new galaxies, now numbering in the trillions with 200 billion stars in many of these galaxies. Facts can change with new confirming evidence. It doesn’t mean the old facts are necessarily wrong, but means they are perhaps incomplete, subject to new methods of measurement. A factualist not only accepts known facts but is free to pursue research towards discovering new facts.

Are probable outcomes facts? The flip of a coin can result in heads or tails 50% of the time even though one cannot predict the result on a single throw. A casino is so sure of the odds on the roll of a pair of dice that they can calculate what percentage to give on payouts so that the casino will usually win. The Heisenberg Uncertainty principle says that we cannot know the position and velocity of a particle at the same time. If a motorcycle crashes into a wall, we know the position of the wall. The velocity is known only to the limits of the speedometer but will always be slightly off when measured to many decimal places. For atomic particles, the discrepancy can be quite large. This uncertainty can actually be measured. Thus, probabilities are also facts. Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, is famous for his quote “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know (That is, facts). There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know (examples would be dark matter and dark energy). But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” I can’t give an example of the latter because then it would be a known unknown. The possibility of quantum entanglement, whereby two particles at a distance are connected in some way, was suggested by Einstein and others as early as 1935. Before that time, this phenomenon would have been an unknown unknown. The Nobel Prize in Physics 2022 was awarded to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger “for experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science”. Their results will contribute to new technology involving quantum information. Even though I am a scientist (but not a physicist), I cannot say that I understand much of this. So, why do I accept this miracle-like phenomenon? It is because the experiments are reproducible and testable.

Many people believe in miracles. By definition, miracles cannot be reproduced or tested. Of course, some “miracles” are simply unexplained events which may be true or not but are not easily measured with past or today’s instrumentation. So what do we call people who believe in unfounded conspiracy theories, fake news, witches, abductions by aliens in UFO’s, life after death, resurrections, reincarnations and Supreme Beings? By definition, they must be afactualists.

Can a God or Gods exist? Of course, it is impossible to prove a negative. Equally, it is impossible to design experiments that are reproducible and testable to show that God exists. If one tries, the answer, usually  given, is that God works in mysterious ways. Indeed, as Richard Dawkins states, believers in miracles accept these on faith, not testable experiments. Still, — despite the fact that millions of people have been killed in the name of religion — great art, architecture, music and literature have been created by believers. Even Richard Dawkins says he enjoys some of the Anglican hymns.

Can a factualist appreciate music, art, or literature? Yes, but the problem here is that these areas involve human feelings and emotions. Potentially, these may be able to be analyzed in a single person, but the number of variables affecting feelings are so large that a factual analysis is unlikely. This is compounded by the fact that there is also great variability in the 7.7 billion people on this planet. For example, one person might find the Salvador Dali painting of the melting watch interesting, while another may recoil in horror. Still, understanding the frequencies of music at a fundamental level lets us appreciate Beethoven even more deeply.  Looking at a red flower, knowing that the colour comes from its anthocyanine content, allows its beauty to be heightened.

This all relates to the problem of consciousness which is still not satisfactorily understood, although modern experimental tools such as fMRI and optogenetics have made great strides in understanding brain structure and function. Scientists have come a long way since Ramón y Cajal outlined the pathways of neurons in the brain prior to 1900. Wilder Penfield, at the Montreal Neurological Institute, showed in a publication in 1951 that one can create maps of the sensory and motor cortices of the brain. During surgery, he could elicit memories or songs by touching different parts of the brain. When, or if, the  full problem of consciousness can be fully known is still unresolved, or maybe it will enter the realm of known unknowns.

In summary, I support the notion that an individual who does not believe in the existence of a Supreme Being, should be identified as a factualist. Other terms do not capture the essence of someone who believes in the overriding importance of facts. Aesthetic appreciations cannot be totally evaluated by experimental protocols. Finally, the driving force for the unequivocal establishment of facts about the natural world and the universe is science.