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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ikerd

Reflections on Science & Alternative Facts: Part 2 of 3

When two intelligent, informed people disagree about the “facts” of a particular situation it doesn’t necessarily mean that one is right and the other is wrong. People can experience the same “reality” differently. It’s been said that people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. If we define a fact as “a thing that in indisputably true,” there can be no differences of opinion. Controversies arise because people disagree about the “actual existence or occurrence of things”—because people do disagree about facts.

For example, two people may be looking at the same dog. One may see a vicious animal while the other sees a playful companion. They may even disagree about the size or color of the dog. A dog that is large to child may be small to an adult. Its color may be either brown or blond, depending on the intensity and reflection of light. Certainly, a dog can be described objectively in terms of its breed, weight, color wave length, and such. However, such “observations” are meaningless data or useless information until they are transformed into knowledge by a specific observer. Informed, intelligent, honest disagreements may persist regarding the “meaningful facts” of a situation or occurrence. People are entitled to their own facts.

“Reality as potentials” provides a logical means of rationalizing disagreements about facts. The reality of a dog is its potential to be seen or “realized” differently by different observers. The dog’s breed, size, or other objective characteristics become meaningful knowledge only when realized or experienced. Observers of potentials are not limited to human beings. Other dogs, cats, and wild animals obviously experience the reality of a dog differently from humans. The facts of their experience of reality are quite different—but no less real.

The potentials of any given reality may be few or many—but are never unlimited. If the potentials are few, fewer disagreement about facts are likely to occur. More disagreements are likely to arise when the potentials are many. However, the potentials of reality are always limited or finite. People are not entitled to create their own facts by adding imaginary potentials to reality. To claim that a dog is a cat, or a tree, or person is no not a fact but an illusion or fallacy. Lies are statements of “facts” that have no potential in reality. People are not entitled to their own lies.

The same reasoning applies to words, data, or abstract ideas, as well as concrete objects. Two thoughtful, intelligent people can hear the same speech or interview, read the same reports, or listen to the same debate and draw very different conclusions. The reality of each occurrence or event is its potential to be interpreted differently or transformed into different “facts” by different people. When two rational people disagree, they may well be expressing different potentials of the same reality. Neither is necessarily right or wrong. They just disagree about the facts of the situation. On the other hand, when a person intentionally misrepresents a situation, or makes up potentials that do not exist in reality, they are not expressing “alternative facts” they are simply lying.

People who claim to know the indisputable facts about controversial issues are not facing reality. If the facts were indisputable, there would be no controversy. The challenge is to separate fallacies and lies from different perceptions of reality. Scientists may logically argue that the preponderance of scientific evidence supports a particular perspective or potential of reality. This simply means that scientists who have studied a particular issue have observed or experienced similar potentials of its reality. By sharing their unique perspectives of a given reality they allow a fuller understanding of its potentials and thus a better understanding of its reality. Scientific consensus is important. However, if some potentials that have been ignored or dismissed without just cause, honest dissentions from any scientific consensus may persist. Again, the challenge is to separate honest dissent from fallacies and lies.

To solve today’s most critical problems, scientists need to rethink reality as potentials to be explored rather than specific facts to be determined. The basic idea of reality as potential is not new. Quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg developed “the uncertainty principle,” which states that scientists cannot measure the position and the momentum of a sub-atomic particle with absolute certainty. The more accurately they know one of these values, the less accurately they will know the other.  Scientific observation of either position or momentum will be inaccurate and, more important, the act of observation affects the reality of the particle observed. In other words, a scientist can observe only one of many potential of quantum reality and the observation will be unique to the specific observer. Quantum reality can only be expressed in terms of potentials with varying probabilities.

A couple of centuries earlier, Aristotle came to a similar conclusion in differentiating between “potential and actuality.”  He considered “potential” to be the “possibilities” that exist within a given thing or state of being. He considered actuality, in contrast to potentiality, to be the fulfillment of one of those possibility, when a potential is realized or becomes real in the fullest sense. Aristotle also distinguished between potentials that seemed more predetermined and  others that appeared to be more random. Those more predetermined had fewer potentials and those more random had more potentials. In other words, Aristotle’s potentials, as in quantum physics, had probabilities.

The philosophy of idealism, with origins predating Aristotle, states that “all things are created by the mind.” Eighteenth century Idealists conclude that “objective reality” did not exist because different people created “different realities” in their individual minds. Emanuel Kant criticized the idealist’s conclusions, arguing that objective reality exists, but different people may observe it or experience it a bit differently.  It seems to follow logically that objective reality exists as potentials which may be perceived or observed differently as they are experienced, actualized, or become real to different observers. Even objective observers may have very different experiences of the same reality.

Even more important than disagreements regarding the facts of a particular situation of occurrence are disagreements regarding the likely future consequences of decisions or actions. The potentials of a given reality include not only differences regarding “what is” but also differences concerning “what’s to come.” This will be the subject of the final part in this series. How can we make logical, rational decisions in a world of where current and future reality exists as potentials rather than indisputable facts?

John Ikerd

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