The reason we can’t agree on what’s factual is that “facts” don’t exist

Neither side is in possession of a single truth.
Neither side is in possession of a single truth.
Image: Reuters/ Mike Segar
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In the Trump-Clinton presidential debate, the differences between the two candidates were so stark, it seemed the two candidates didn’t simply present different opinions but actually lived in separate realities. Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton even said this at one point: “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.”

The surreal clash was a vivid demonstration of the unbridgeable divide between liberals and conservatives in the United States. To those living in a left-wing bubble, it seems painfully obvious that Clinton is the best candidate, that Trump is both stupid and a liar, and that his plans will destroy the United States. But for Trump supporters, the same is clearly true of Clinton. How can millions of people watch the same debate and come away declaring different winners? How can it be impossible to agree on even the most basic facts?

The malleable nature of facts is a particular preoccupation in one field of philosophy. “Social constructivism” argues that there are simply no objective facts. Instead, every “fact” we believe is a reflection of our socially constructed values, and how we choose to perceive the world. This is not a new theory, and develops many of its ideas from Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, who examined shifting human values from a historical perspective in the 19th century. But the current political debate offers a vivid demonstration of these ideas.

Jesse Prinz, a philosophy professor at City University of New York, explains that facts are always subjective. Even something as foundational as the periodic table.

“When you look closely, you realize that it could have been organized very differently. It could be ordered by atomic weight, rather than atomic number, it could include isotopes, it could exclude elements that don’t exist in nature, and so on,” he says. “The way we classify things is always a function of both mind and world.”

The lack of factual objectivity is even more obvious in political arguments. So the abortion debate gives the impression that it hinges on a scientific question of when life begins. But there’s no scientific discovery that could settle the issue.

Instead, says Prinz, the debate rests on values about women’s role in society, and if a policy that creates greater autonomy for women is a positive or negative. “Those who are concerned with preserving tradition see abortion as a major threat and rightfully so,” he says. “The desire to preserve tradition is a preference, a form of value.”

Similarly, Prinz says, bringing concerns about the economy and crime into the debate over immigration is a “smokescreen” that both sides use. Even if we could definitively prove that immigration damages the economy and raises crime, says, Prinz, those on the left would still choose to support higher rates of immigration. The real question at the heart of the debate is whether we want to be a society of patriotism, nationalism, and preferences for those already in the country, or if we want to be cosmopolitan citizens of the world with a responsibility to people outside our national borders.

That’s why, Prinz says, Trump can stridently deny he ever said global warming was a hoax created by the Chinese—while his own tweet from 2012 shows otherwise.

Ultimately, says Prinz, Trump’s beliefs about climate change are a value judgment, not a dispute over facts. He believes that we humans have the right to exploit the planet. “The arguments he gives are never meant to be anything more than rhetoric,” says Prinz. “They’re nothing more than adding a little flourish to his presentation of an idea… What he said about climate change, to him, is immaterial.”

To social constructivists, making decisions based on our desires and values, rather than facts, is actually a good thing.

“Facts leave us with no preference. A world of facts is motivationally inert,” says Prinz. “Most of the most important value decisions in our life, the things that make life worthwhile—who do you love? how do you spend your leisure time?—all of those things are questions of desire. It doesn’t diminish them to call them what they are.”

If each political side insists they’re in possession the one single truth, says Prinz, then there are only two explanations for someone disagreeing with you: Either they are stupid, or they are evil. But to a social constructivist, neither side is more true or false than the other.

“We’re dealing with two world views that are irreconcilable and have equal claim to truth,” says Prinz. “There’s a sense in which, despite being a rabid liar, Trump is the more honest candidate, in his willingness to push for these causes, come what may.”

In other words, Trump recognizes that any “facts” he proffers are inconsequential and malleable, and so says whatever he wants to advocate for this values. Objective truth, at the end of the day, has nothing to do with it.

“For him,” Prinz says, “it’s a source of strength.”