The belief that the words “truth” and “fact” are synonymous is as widespread as it is wrong. Let’s correct that mistaken impression.
By definition, a fact is true. But there’s more to truth than just facts. There’s also a second type of truth, which we can call “existential truth,” or simply “meaning.” An existential truth is true in a different way than a factual truth is true, but it’s nevertheless just as true. I make the full case for this in my book The Language of Meaning: Why Science Cannot Replace Religion. In this article, however, I’ll make this case at just enough length to convey the basic point.
Before anyone can say what’s true and what’s false, he or she has to have a solid, usable definition of what “truth” means in the first place. So let’s go ahead and define truth: truth is that which is unavoidably present. It’s just there in your experience of the world, no matter how much you might try to convince yourself that it’s not there, or that something else is there instead.
That’s why facts are true. They’re unavoidably present. If you have a fever of 104 degrees, then you have a fever of 104 degrees, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that. The fever’s existence is a fact.
We only become aware of facts through an experience of them. Sometimes we experience them firsthand, such as when we perform a scientific experiment or when we simply observe the facts in front of us there and then. At other times, we experience them secondhand through memories of past facts we’ve encountered, or through reading or hearing about them. One way or another, though, all of our knowledge of facts comes to us in experiences, not apart from them.
Clearly, not everything that we experience is factual. For something to be a fact, it has to be objectively true – that is, you have to be able to rationally demonstrate that it’s true for everyone, regardless of the subjective perspectives that any given person might bring to his or her encounter with it. In other words, you have to be able to demonstrate that the thing you’re calling a “fact” doesn’t only exist within your experience of the world, but that anyone and everyone else who encounters the same phenomenon experiences the same factual properties in it that you do. If you claim that it’s a fact that you have two legs, then anyone else who looks at you should be able to perceive that you have two legs. Or if you claim that it’s a fact that Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas in 1492, then anyone else who honestly examines the historical record (and is intelligent enough to know what to do with those records) must be compelled by the evidence to conclude the same.
There are lots of things that we experience that are not facts, because others don’t necessarily share our experience of them – intuitions, feelings, and so forth. Indeed, these non-factual aspects of our experience comprise just as high a proportion of any given experience as do the factual aspects. Whenever you perceive something, you not only perceive its factual qualities, but its existential qualities as well – what it means to you.
When you’re outside and you see a tree, you not only see its factual properties – its size, shape, color, species, etc. You also see certain existential properties in it – how it makes you feel, what it reminds you of, what symbolic meanings you attach to it, and such. Perhaps it makes you nostalgic for a similar tree in the yard of a house where you lived when you were younger. Perhaps you think it would make a good Christmas tree. Perhaps you just like or dislike how it looks. And perhaps the tree grows in a grove that your religion holds to be sacred and inhabited by a deity, and you see the tree as a potential vessel for the divine.
Some of these impressions may be small, mundane, and taken-for-granted. Some of them may be unconscious. Others may stand out as strongly and as starkly as if they had hit you in the face. But one way or another, you do experience such existential qualities in everything that you perceive. Music is perhaps an even clearer example; we all hear the same notes, rhythms, and textures, but no two people experience the same song in quite the same way.
How should we classify these existential aspects of our experience in relation to truth? They’re not lies or illusions, because each of us knows that we do experience them just as surely as we experience facts. And like facts, ceasing to believe in them intellectually doesn’t make them go away. They remain unavoidably present just the same.
But they’re not facts either, because the closest we can come to proving their existence to others is to demonstrate that we experience the existential qualities that we experience, usually through the proxy of our observable behavior. But we can’t conclusively demonstrate to anyone else that the existential qualities we perceive have an existence independent of our perception of them. There’s nothing along the lines of a chemical equation we could impart that would yield the same results whenever any given person performed the prescribed set of actions.
Experience has two modalities: the objective, factual one and the subjective, existential one. But we today tend to only recognize one modality of truth: the objective, factual one. If truth is that which is unavoidably present; and if the subjective, existential aspects of phenomena as you experience them are just as real in practice for you as are the objective, factual aspects of the phenomena you experience; then we should recognize a second category of truth – existential truth, or “meaning” for short.
This second type of truth is true in a very different way than a fact is true. It is true subjectively rather than objectively. But for you, it is every bit as true as the facts you encounter in life.
These two types of truth are at bottom autonomous. Facts are what they are regardless of meaning, and meaning is what it is regardless of any facts.
The Existential Method
Some statements about facts are false. They attempt to describe objective reality, but fail to do so accurately. We need a method to differentiate between true and false statements about facts. Happily, we have a great one: the scientific method.
Likewise, some statements about meaning are false. They attempt to describe subjective reality, but fail to do so accurately. Here, too, we need a method to differentiate between true and false statements about meaning – one that runs parallel to the scientific method, but which pertains to this different domain of reality. But what would such a method even look like?
The answer is actually very simple. In order to be existentially true, a statement must be more meaningful to you than any known alternative statements about the same phenomenon or phenomena.
Rational demonstration is the means by which truth can be separated from falsehood. That holds for the existential domain just as it holds for the factual domain. But there are two decisive differences between factual and existential demonstration. First, a factual truth has to be demonstrable for anyone and everyone, whereas an existential truth can only be fully demonstrable for you and you alone. And second, the phenomena that constitute “data” in the existential domain are not facts, but “internal” experiences such as intuitions, emotions, and the presence or absence of the divine. These are the phenomena that indicate the degree to which meaning is present, so the conclusion has to be rationally drawn from them.
As I argue in my book The Language of Meaning, religious descriptions of reality that are intended to evoke the presence of the numinous are the highest and purest form of existential truth. Purely secular descriptions of reality, which don’t have anything to do with the numinous, are inherently inferior in this regard. Just as science is the human endeavor with the greatest mastery of fact, religion is the human endeavor with the greatest mastery of meaning. The proof of this assertion is having a strong experience of the numinous; apart from such an experience, this claim will surely make little sense. But when you have such an experience, this point will follow ineluctably from it.