A friend and I recently had a conversation on the difference between fact and truth, and whether it even existed. At first, I was tempted to answer that the two couldn’t necessarily be separated. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that although the two are often conflated as the same thing, there is a distinction to be made.

The two are often conflated as the same thing, but there is a distinction to be made.

A fact is something indisputable, based on research, evidence, quantifiable measures, etc. There is usually a process that goes into presenting or accepting something as a fact and there is little credible basis for denying it. Or it is a recorded occurrence with sound basis for the claim, such as a historical event witnessed by multiple persons with matching versions of what happened.

Facts go beyond theories.

While truth may be based on fact, it is subjective because it includes the element of belief. It may not be indisputable; but it is grounded in acceptance (or lack of it). A fact does not have to be believed for it to exist; it exists independent of whether or not we choose to accept it. However, for us it does not become the truth until we accept it. An example to explain this: to say ‘God exists’ is a statement of fact (referring strictly to the language/grammatical structure). To say ‘I believe God exists’ is to acknowledge you believe the first statement to be true.

Taking this further, the active practitioner of any monotheistic religion would tell you the first statement is a fact. He/she considers it to be so based on his/her convictions.

The atheist or the agnostic would say the first statement is a matter of opinion and not a fact. He/she doesn’t categorize it as a fact because it cannot be proven empirically. You cannot see, touch, feel or hear God, they will tell you.

This last statement can also be put another way. The truth of the atheist/agnostic is based on their belief that the statement ‘God does not exist’ is a fact.

Another example: you can be in love with someone; it can be quantified as a fact based on how you feel, how you respond to that person, how you talk about them to others, how you think about them, etc. It may well be possible to prove it beyond doubt, based on your behavior. But for you it will not be the truth until and unless you accept your feelings and acknowledge your behavior, your responses to them, etc.

Consider the following:

  • Facts do not change. Truth can. I can pretend the sun does not exist. I can destroy all the literature in the world that claims the sun exists. I may even be able to black out the sky so the sun’s light and warmth do not reach earth. None of this, however, would prevent the sun from existing. The only way the sun would stop existing is for it to be destroyed. At which time, the fact itself will change to ‘the sun does not exist,’ but it cannot be ‘the sun never existed to begin with.’ I can tell someone ‘the sun does not exist’ and they may choose to accept it as truth based on their assumption that I am honest, that I know what I am talking about or on their lack of initiative in verifying what I am saying.

  • Facts are what can be observed, truths can be assumed. If I observe a father hit his child, that is a fact. But I cannot factually state the reason why the father hit his child. I can guess, draw a conclusion based on past behavior, etc., and what I decide is most likely is what may become the truth for me. I can say, ‘the truth is he hit his child because he was angry.’ But it may turn out that the father ‘hit’ his child to swat a bee that landed on the child’s shirt!

  • Truths can be manipulated, facts cannot. The only way to manipulate a fact is to present a less-than-true version of them to fit the truth you want to present. Propaganda is a good example of this. Fake news is generated, presented and disseminated as facts. The vulnerable audience will eat it up and even argue it is the absolute truth if they do not know any better or they do not make the effort to prove it is true or untrue.

Why, however, does the distinction matter? Because it is the difference between blind belief and an understanding based on rationale. It constitutes the difference between intolerance for differing viewpoints and the acceptance of more than one truth. In a world where the space for independent thought and difference of opinion seems to be shrinking increasingly and rapidly, distinguishing truth from fact is important.