by Tim Harding
This might seem like a simple question, but the answer is not so straightforward. The Macquarie Dictionary defines a fact as ‘what has really happened or is the case; truth; reality’. This implies that facts are objective, as opposed to opinions which are subjective. The distinction is important to scientific skepticism, which looks for objective evidence in support of dubious claims that are made.
The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability; that is, whether it can be demonstrated to correspond to either empirical observation or deductive proof (such as 2+2=4). For instance, the proposition ‘It is raining’ describes the fact that it actually is raining. The rain that falls can be objectively measured in a rain gauge – it is not just a matter of opinion.
On the other hand, an opinion is a judgement, viewpoint, or statement about matters commonly considered to be subjective, such as ‘It is raining too much’. As Plato said: ‘opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance’.
Philosophers generally agree that facts are objective and verifiable. However, there are two main philosophical accounts of the epistemic status of facts. The first account is equivalent in meaning to the dictionary definition – a fact is that which makes a true proposition true. In other words, facts describe reality independently of propositions. This means that there can be unknown facts yet to be discovered by science or other investigations. But we cannot verify a fact unless we know about it. So the other account is that a fact is an item of knowledge – a proposition that is true and that we are justified in believing is true. This means that we either have to accept that there can be unknown and unverifiable facts, or we must adopt the position that facts are things that we know.
Mulligan, Kevin and Correia, Fabrice, ‘Facts‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
Russell, Bertrand (1918) The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, Open Court, La Salle.
Russell, Bertrand (1950) An Inquiry Into Meaning and Truth, Allen & Unwin, London.