Fact and Consensus in the Theory of Science

Nov 2016
1,280
Germany
In the everyday understanding of reality,facts are seen as something that exists independently of the cognition of subjects. This does not correspond to the factual understanding of today's theory of science.

First of all, a misunderstanding must be clarified: according to current theory of science, ´factual´ is not synonymous with ´true´ in the sense of absolute truth. ´Factual´ in the scientific sense only means (1) that there is a predominant consensus about the correctness of a statement about an object (thing/event/subject), and (2) that the statement is only not refuted, which however could theoretically occur at any time (see below the passage on fallibilism by Karl Popper). The scientist making the statement is often not aware of this differentiation, but in many cases he is because a good scientist is (or should be) aware of the conditions and limits of knowledge in his field. Therefore, in many dissertations, a chapter on the research methodology used precedes the main part.

There are three fields of fact-finding:

(1) Intra-subjective: This is the object range of the Philosophy of Mind. These are subject-internal objects such as feelings, thoughts, fantasies, etc. that can only be directly perceived by the subject.

(2) Subjective: This is an object range that lies outside the subject, but is only perceived by the subject. It is about object perceptions (object = thing, event, state of affairs), which cannot be shared and if necessary confirmed by any other subject, simply because no other subject is present during the object perception.

(3) Inter-subjective: The concept of intersubjectivity introduced by Jürgen Habermas corresponds to the concept of ´objectivity´ and has the advantage of emphasizing the role of subjects for the evaluation of objectivity. This is about perceptions that are shared by a plurality of subjects and can be mutually confirmed (what is called ´consensus´).

Accordingly, there are three types of facts: (1) intra-subjective facts that are most important but do not play a role in our current subject matter, (2) subjective facts that can only apply to one individual subject, and (3) inter-subjective facts that apply to a plurality of subjects, i.e. there is intersubjective consensus on their factuality.

With regard to scientific value, there is a serious difference between (2) = subjective and (3) = inter-subjective.

As to (2):
The subjective perception of an object (thing/event/state of affairs) is of little importance for science. Exception: perception can be proven or proven in a way that makes it intersubjectively verifiable, e.g. by film or sound recordings of an object or event. The possibility of deception or fraud through these means is well known. Apart from this method, the subject can try to convey the actuality of his perception to other subjects through his personal credibility, but this is an even more uncertain method than the one mentioned above through technical documentation.

Therefore, the subjective testimony of things/events/states of affaires in science, unlike in law practice (testimony = legal ´evidence´), hardly plays a role. Of course, from the point of view of the subject, an object perceived by him is real and thus factual, which is why he will report the object or the perception of the object to other subjects as a fact. From the point of view of these subjects, however, the question of the credibility or reliability of the report arises. Even in the best case, there can be no complete consensus among other subjects about the factuality of an object reported by others (thing/event/state of affairs), unless there is blind faith in credibility, as is often observed in religious contexts.

This is relevant for historical studies in that some objects (things/events/states of affairs) are often only mentioned in a single source (e.g. Homer, Herodotus, Tacitus), which usually leads to the scientific judgement that the factuality of the object is not completely certain, but, depending on the reputation of the source, only more or less likely, which does not prevent many historians from treating the object as quasi-factual, which in the case of Homer/Troja has led to confirmation of the factuality, but in other cases bears the risk of scientifically masked self-delusion and deception.

As to (3);
Intersubjective consensus is, from a scientific theoretical point of view, the only usable medium for establishing scientifically relevant factuality. The criterion for the validity of factuality is therefore the confirmation of the factuality of an object (Th/E/SoA) by a plurality of subjects. This can happen in two ways:

a) By simultaneous perception of the object by several subjects, who can then mutually confirm the factuality.

b) By checking the factuality in other places and at other times. This is a common practice, especially in the natural sciences (same situation or test arrangement --> same results). The condition is that it is about regular facts (which occur regularly under the same conditions) and not about singular facts (which occur only once).

Of course, intersubjective consensus on scientific factuality is not set in stone either, since perceptions can arise that can shake the consensus and even cause it to collapse. A dramatic example in the natural sciences is the theory of relativity (new view on physical facts) and a less dramatic example in history is the reassessment of Nero's role in the Fire of Rome.

In reference to Ch.S. Peirce, Karl Popper, with his theory of Fallibilism, emphasized above all that scientific knowledge can never be completed and must always be open for revision. Factuality for Popper is always relative to the fallibilistic principle, i.e. a fact is considered a fact because and as long as it is not refuted, and NOT because it is ´true´. Once a refutation has been established beyond all doubt, science will have to revise its previous view. This applies in principle to all fields of science, even in the extreme case of the scientific ´natural laws´: From the point of view of fallibilism, a so-called law of nature is not a ´law´, but an regularity of events that does not have to apply per se forever, i.e. theoretically gravity could function in reverse from tomorrow or not at all. David Hume already suspected this in the 18th century when he postulated in his criticism of the causal law that the stone becomes hot AND the sun shines, instead of the stone becoming hot, BECAUSE the sun shines. Immanuel Kant agreed to this and denaturalized the causal law and put it into the human mind as a mode of thought.

All this means for the consensus topic that intersubjective factuality depends on the scientific consensus and is only established by it.
 
Last edited: