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Theory creates facts

Recently, I have come across two interviews where Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek confront their views on the importance of “facts” versus “theory”, empiricism versus “posturing”. In this short essay, I will defend the view that facts can only exist in light of a theory.

While Chomsky does agree that “spewing out” facts is not helpful, possibly because they do require some form of analysis and judgment, I would argue that facts in themselves can only be observed thanks to a thick explicit or implicit theoretical or ideological background at work in our human minds.

I should point out that in this article, the word “fact” takes on two major meanings: a scientific fact (that is, an objective and verifiable observation) and a sociological or historical fact (a behaviour or an action that a human or humans carried out in the past).

Lets start with a very popular theory, proven to be true empirically through fact: gravity. Indeed, while Galileo and Newton together, through scientific experimentation, “discovered” gravity, the phenomenon had to first be framed within a theory which would explain the phenomenon of falling objects on earth or more generally, the attraction of two objects to one another. However, the “facts” of gravity have existed since the dawn of time. They didn’t wait for Newton to discover gravity to manifest themselves. Thus the theory that Newton expressed, allowed for labelling empirical facts as such, by explaining the behaviour of a number of observable phenomenon in a systematic way. Before then, gravity existed, but was perceived as a mere intuition but not generalizable in any way. This is due, of course, only to humans and our way of making scientific discoveries. The phenomenon of gravity existed long before the theory, but its manifestations could not be called “empirical facts” before the theory was formulated and verified. So while the facts themselves were not created, the linguistic label “gravity” to identify the phenomenon of attraction of two objects to one another, was indeed created and allowed humans to perceive manifestations of gravity as “facts”.

The same can be said about music. Research in “perfect pitch” has shown that between 25 and 33% of humans are genetically predisposed to acquire it, yet only a limited number do. One explanation is that without presenting infants with an orderly “theory” of music, that is, universal labels for certain pitches and association of pitches, a child will not be able to develop perfect pitch. And so the language “label”, like the name of a note, or the name of a musical chord, enables a child to “recall” such a sound and recognize it when it is played. Again, theory which enables the “creation” or rather, understanding and recognition in this case, of “facts”. In essence, a subject A without perfect pitch would hear the exact same pitches as a subject B with perfect pitch, yet for subject A, the pitches would only present some general form of resemblance to one another and a certain form of order but not discernible in any meaningful way and not consistently explainable, much like the observation of gravity before the theory was invented. People would observe that objects tend to fall, but they could not elaborate any kind of rule or explanation on the basis of their common, daily experience of gravity.

In science, theories, whether true or false, have an impact on human behaviour which creates historical or social facts: how the belief in such theories influences human actions (which become facts of their own) or how such theories influence our own cognitive development (as in the case of music theory). For instance, the discovery of air and its properties had a huge impact on society. Of course, humans didn’t wait to discover air to breathe or strangle one another to death, but the scientific discovery of air had an impact on medicine (airborne pathogens, standards of hygiene…), technical discoveries (sub-marines) and so forth.

In science, theory therefore enables the “discovery” of facts that have always been there, but were simply left “unlabeled”. But in language and social sciences, certain facts are arguably created rather than “labeled” or discovered. So simply put, there are two different worlds: the physical/real world as could be observed by an omniscient being which does not change, and the representation of the world we humans have in our minds, the theories of how we think the world works, the words, terms and concepts that we use to describe it, and which causes us to act in one way or another. For instance, representing the world as being flat lead to the fact that we were afraid to explore the seas for fear of falling off it’s edge.

It is intriguing that Chomsky dismisses theory as less useful than empiricism, especially given his background in linguistics. The human language itself, arguably, is the first form of theory. For instance, words which label human emotions like fear, anger, love, hate, disgust or sadness are theories. They are terms which are used for systematically labeling a certain type of external human behaviour (for instance, facial expressions which express certain emotions) assorted with internal feelings, allowing a generalization of what is, at first, a very personal experience. Indeed, when a child is born, he does not know whether anyone else but himself experiences sadness or fear, and if anyone does experience them, if they do so in the same way as he does. It is only through language and labeling certain behaviours that individual experiences take on a universal dimension, and indeed, become theories. The “theory” of being sad for instance, cannot be explained through a definition. Most definitions of human emotions divert the reader to synonyms or antonyms like “feeling of sorrow” or “being unhappy”. Thus a theory of sadness is born by calling a certain type of behaviour by the same name through observation, which then allows individuals to “create mental models” for a perceived reality: that of being sad. Interestingly, facial expressions assorted to these emotions are universally understood by all human beings, thus being somehow coded in our DNA. But these facial expressions were similar to what we were discussing before: unlabeled phenomenons with no possibility for humans to discuss them or reflect upon them. Humans, for millions of years, used facial expressions to communicate in the present about a danger or a feeling, but had no way of using those facial expressions to discuss those feelings/emotions.

When moving to more complex areas of sciences such as social sciences or political sciences (although many would not consider these to be sciences), the role of empiricism and theory becomes more complex and especially, their usefulness and the role they play in helping to “understand” human behaviour.

My understanding in this regard, is that ideology and language are at the heart of Chomsky’s and Zizek’s dispute. Chomsky often reminds us of the marvel of human imagination and creativity which allows children to form original sentences with the words they know, even if they have never heard them associated in such ways. This creativity is at the heart of ideology. This means that as soon as certain concepts or terms are “invented” or coined by humans in a given language, human creativity will inevitably rearrange them in a new order which will create original though. For instance, giving a proper “name” or “label” to the act of killing someone enables humans to generate more complex thoughts about killing a group of people or whether killing is good/bad, right/wrong etc. For instance, the concept of ownership does not exist among the Bushmen societies, and thus no debate can ensue about property rights, inequality and many of the debates surrounding our own societies.

Ideology is therefore a form of human experimentation which generates facts. Imagine that an individual manages to convince another individual to kill someone. This is not yet an ideology, only a (bad) idea or wish that has been expressed by an individual and carried out by another. It can become an ideology if the act of killing is in some way systematized, translated into a more general idea that is universally applicable in certain situations, contexts… Human beings can create an ideology simply due to their faculty to rearrange words and concepts, share such an ideology with other humans and by doing so, potentially change their behaviour through their adherence to these sets of ideas/beliefs. At a large enough scale, an ideology becomes a single word which in itself carries the commonly accepted definition and message that such an ideology conveys in a certain context/period in time. Examples include “liberalism” or “communism” and both of these ideologies have evolved greatly throughout history due to the writings about them and their various applications in practice. Notice that “practical” application of these ideologies throughout history (depicted in a more or less neutral way) have supplanted their theoretical meanings in common understanding which is the manifestation of the zeitgeist of our time: facts and empiricism are more important than ideas.

According to such premises, an ideology thus enables the systematic application of a certain pattern of behaviour between humans. In a documentary about chimpanzees filmed by the world renowned Jane Goodall, two female chimpanzees displayed a very peculiar behaviour. They were known for kidnapping baby chimps from defenseless mothers and eat them. Such behaviour came to a halt with the death of the “leading” female and was not reproduced by other chimpanzees. The extinction of deviant behaviour is possible because it has no memory in language, either in spoken or written form. Humans, on the other hand, can transmit certain ideas and ideologies via language which directly affects behaviour and with each generation, creates new meanings and applications of those ideologies due to human creativity.

Religion is an interesting case in point. There is no way to prove, empirically, the existence or non existence of a God. If we postulate, however, that there is only one true God, then only one of the monotheist religions can be “true”, the other ones being false. However, even if we somehow factually knew which religion was the “true” one, it would not matter much since the effects of the “lie” at the origin of the untrue religions already made their effects and could continue to do so since they are not grounded in fact but in a form of ideology which is, to a certain extent, disconnected from the existence or not of God. For instance, let us imagine that Christianity was wrong and that the one and only God is Allah. This doesn’t change the “fact” that millions of Cathedrals are built in the name of a Christian God all around the planet, it changes nothing to the number of Popes that succeeded each other and their doings, it changes nothing to the crusades or simply the very real effects that believing in a Christian God has had on people. It is similar to a placebo effect or a self-fulfilling prophecy only spread across a very long time. Interestingly, the longer an ideology survives, the easier it is to see human creativity at work. Christianity has existed for a long time, and has been understood and acted upon in millions of different ways, although the “founding text” has changed very little, at least since the compilation of the New Testament around 1500 years ago.

A lie can have a real tangible and true effect and thus we can say that some truths can originate in a lie, or at least a non empirical idea. Such a phenomenon is outside of the scope of empiricism which only assumes that people will act on facts and rationality. Most of history, however, has been built upon lies, often in the form of an ideology and facts have never helped at the onset, only once an ideology was dead or dying. To illustrate this, we can mention the work of political theorist Hannah Arendt who examined the propaganda of the German Nazi party about Jews during the 1930s. The tracts and discourse of the Nazi party blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I. Many German intellectuals set out to “debunk” and “fact check” these messages by showing that no such causal link could be made, to no avail. They failed to understand that these messages were not facts but ideas which were part of a larger ideology. And just like religion, the initial commonly shared belief in ideas that were presented as being “true” such as losing World War I because of Jews, created real and observable effects and facts (the deportation and extermination of millions of Jews) regardless of the fact that the initial idea was a lie. Understanding this point could have helped identify the not-even subtly veiled intentions behind these ideas and prepare accordingly (take up arms, flee…)

There are many examples of confusion between science, facts, empiricism and ideology. The idea of a “free market” in economics for instance. The fantasies about what a “free market” would look like are akin to ideology in that they project an ideal situation onto an imperfect and complex reality composed of creative humans who will imagine other ideologies incompatible with that of a “free market” and act contrary to its principles (for instance, by creating monopolies, using alternative forms of currency…) An ideology always presupposes a near religious adherence of all humans to it’s ideas in order to work.

In that sense, ideology creates facts since it shapes human behaviour. Empiricism, which would derive truth from the observation of facts (which can only be called facts once certain methodological conditions are met) and allegedly allow an individual to better understand and explain the world only helps in unwinding the past but certainly not enable us to project the future. Only an understanding of ideology can help in that regard, for the reason that ideology at a certain point in time is not merely a “blind” repeating of history, but an original rearrangement, and possibly, even the invention of new sets of beliefs and ideas, translated into words, derived from the creativity of human beings through the use of language. It is the purest form of declared intentions for future human action which may, in practice, take many forms. For instance, communism was not applied “as intended” by Marx, but was “blended” with a flavor of authoritarianism and other ideas.

So when Chomsky labels Lacan’s words or concepts as “posturing”, he is empirically right in the sense that such words and concepts may not yet have been translated into observable facts and actions, but their mere existence and their outreach and spreading to other humans will create new patterns of behaviour, either because they have managed to label certain patterns of behaviour which until then have not been identified (like labeling musical notes or gravity) or because they will set in motion new patterns of thinking which will be observable and measurable as humans start to act upon them (and again, this is regardless of whether the original ideas of Lacan are “true” or not since it only requires humans to believe in such ideas to create “real” and true effects). Studying ideology thus enables us, even if modestly and not very scientifically, to gaze into the future and imagine how humans could behave if such ideologies were widely adopted and shared by enough individuals, whereas empiricism through the observation of facts only allows to explain à posteriori the effects that an ideology has had.

Finally, the danger of empiricism is to lock humanity in a most extreme form of conservatism. If only “empirically validated and tested” ideas are allowed to be shared and applied, we are indeed in a “end of history” scenario as Fukuyama had predicted. Ironically, empiricism feeds off the “evidence” created by humans believing in ideas in a non-empirical way. Thus when Chomsky defends Anarcho-syndicalism by mentioning examples where such ideas were “tested” and succeeded, these tests were carried out on the basis of ideas for which no empirical evidence yet existed.

But even if empiricism could try to “lock” human societies, as Chomsky has rightly observed, it is not possible to “unteach” a child the natural creativity of combining words in new ways and thus imagine new ideas on the basis of existing ones. It is only possible, via massive propaganda and mental alienation to stifle such creativity, but never fully silence it. The danger, however, is that as a society, we may be helpless and vulnerable to an ideology born out of such a crippling world, since the cognitive and analytical tools necessary to recognize, interpret and deal with ideology will be missing. This is especially true in this era of so called “Populism”, “alternative facts”, “fake news”, and “fact checking”, all of which are linked to the obsession with facts and a disregard for ideas and ideology.

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