A government official said commandingly in a public address the other day that his decisions would be based only on proven facts. I was happy to know that and I appreciated his resolve, but the phrase proven facts caught my attention. Why does a fact need to be proven? And for that matter, what exactly is a fact?
Now might be a good time to ask such questions because we seem to be losing faith in our ability jointly and severally to agree on what is self-evidently true and real. A fact, by definition, is something made or done; the English word is derived from a Latin participle that means exactly that, and we can see the same word in our noun artifact, something made artfully, that is to say, made with skill. Importantly, then, what we call a fact has to do with what is actual, what is really the case, what is true. In determining whether something is a fact, we bring our senses to bear and trust their natural evidence to affirm or deny that something has indeed happened or existed.
What is actual, however, does not need to be proven; not facts, but explanations, theories, hypotheses need to be proven. The world we know and have life in is first the world our senses bring to us, and we can rely in public matters on the integrity of that sense evidence because our individual perceptions can be confirmed consensually by the sense perceptions of others. I see this tree and you see this tree, and so we can confidently assert the factuality of this tree. Though other worlds may exist, our senses reveal the accepted world we sensorially share, the objective world we represent in language. Expository prose holds us, and rightly so, to this everyday world we each take as real and act in together.
We seem to feel the need, though, to speak of proven facts because we doubt the actuality of our shared world. Culturally, we have spent a good portion of quite a few centuries now nursing our psychologies and interposing our personal opinions between a simple, direct awareness and the objective world. We have learned to question how reliable language can be; we wonder whether it can really represent an objective world, and these doubts have left us more and more susceptible to the personal opinions vigorously stated which anyone may wish themselves to assert. And when finally language no longer refers to things held in common, we become a deeply suggestible people.
We can understand with some sympathy, then, why one would speak of proven facts. The phrase may not be logically exact, but the sentiment is right enough: the need is felt to qualify the given because it seems nothing can any longer be taken as obviously given and true. This superfluous grammatical move is part of a much larger and urgent philosophical topic that is intricate in its details but particularly important for what it says about the study of language. We need to remind ourselves that language is intrinsic to human nature, and that when we use language intelligently, the world opens to us; we become someone in it, and may even find world upon world within it. But when we lose confidence in language and disparage its care—when, ironically, we think it naïve to speak of self-evident truths, we blunt our critical abilities and step back into a factitious world of our own making. There, on an isolated and shifting ground, facts no longer need to stand as facts; what is actual and true is simply individually asserted—leaving the rest of us to search unnecessarily for proven facts, by which we really mean truths self-evident, shared, and objective.