Knowing “Alternative Facts”



A favorite of mine, Ursula Le Guin,—one of the Top Ones writing in English today,—on February 1 wrote a “letter to the editor” piece for The Oregonian, making a goodish stab at a conversation about “fiction” and “alternative facts.”

Le Guin is honest, bare. Like terracotta, her writing is what it is: useful, beautiful, primitive, stripped of all artifice, and art. Harold Bloom says of Samuel Johnson that you read him, not for correct opinions, but for wisdom. So it is writ in eternity about Le Guin. Thus: Whenever she writes a column, an editorial, a review, a whatever, I read it and I absorb it and I make it my own.


In her editorial, Le Guin (immortal, beautiful) writes: “The test of a fact is that it simply is so – it has no ‘alternative.’ The sun rises in the east. To pretend the sun can rise in the west is a fiction, to claim that it does so as fact (or ‘alternative fact’) is a lie. A lie is a non-fact deliberately told as fact.”

Le Guin is wrong. That is not what a lie is. Facts, yes, are substantiated by reality, which is to say, real things are what ground affirmations called facts. A fact cannot be negated, unless that piece of reality itself is somehow negated, and so can have no “alternative” as long as it remains “fact,” as the divine Le Guin proves incontestably. The alternative of a fact is—annihilation. But facts, we know, are not always “facts.” Calling some-thing something does not make some-thing so. Le Guin speaks of the sun rising in the east. Fact? Yes—at least for this planet. But it is a fact, granted that you are referring to this solar system’s sun, and referring to the planet Earth, and also most of the areas on this planet Earth, except (I’m told) strange ones at strange times in the polar night.

God exists. Fact? Curious! I, immersed in the riddles and sacred babble of metaphysics and divine revelation, answer: “You bet your bottom dollar.” Some persons, like Le Guin, answer: “No, not a fact; a belief; not fact.” But that is funny, don’t you think? For, apart from revelation, I might say that my metaphysics, based on a coherent doctrine of motion, demonstrates the existence of a prime mover (i.e. God), who is outside motion and thus totally unmoved. Incontrovertible evidence, I would insist; evidence so basic that no other evidence “is” if not this first. Enigmatic, but essential. Some persons, happily, believe in God’s existence; some persons, who bother, know it. Both are true, both “facts.”

The question about metaphysics, you see, is important insofar as we are talking about “knowledge.” Reality grounds knowledge, and knowledge accounts for facts. “What is real” is not limited to scientific data; for, scientific data does not contain all knowledge. This is basic. My point: data is not fact until it is “fact.” It has to be tested, like Einstein thrice tested his relativity theory, again and forever in March 1919, before it was regarded irrefutable. It is (of course) irrefutable until refuted, at what point “fact” is understood as never having been “fact” at all. Further, what makes a fact a fact is not science, fundamentally. What fundamentally makes a fact “factual” is metaphysics. For metaphysics, whichever metaphysics you choose, is what makes science “science.” Are earthquakes real? Depends on what you mean by “real,” and “real” here means “what is,” and the study of the “what is” is metaphysics.


Conway speaks about “alternative facts” and she is widely condemned for shamelessly lying. She could be condemned for an infelicity, but not for lying. We have no idea whether or not Conway is lying, for we do not know what she knows. If a lie were what Le Guin says it is, then Conway (possibly) lied. But Le Guin does not accurately explain what a lie is. Her account is deficient. For a lie is not just a non-fact deliberately told as fact. A lie is an untruth deliberately told as truth in order to deceive a person. I, alone, might shout to the Moon: “The Moon is not!” Is what I say a “lie?” It is an untruth, for plainly the Moon “is,” but is the statement “The Moon is not!” a lie? If I am trying to deceive anyone or myself, then yes. Am I trying to deceive myself? Let’s say, in this case, no; I’m just deliberately telling an untruth, a non-fact, representing it as a truth and a fact. Am I lying? No, for I lie only when I intend to deceive.

Le Guin might well respond: “Well, you know what I mean.” To which I would respond: “My dear, so I do. But, like Conway, you are guilty of an infelicity, and just as dangerous a one. For you define lying as something other than what it is.” Conway, correct or incorrect, meant that some figures point to the same conclusion, and that there are other figures that point to a different conclusion, and that some conclusions are more influenced by “bias” than by figures. This is what she obviously meant, whether she is right or not about whatever.

For you see, the problem with Le Guin’s definition is that her word “deliberately” does not quite cover the extent of what it means to lie. Those of us who’ve (to our shame) told a lie once or twice know the mechanics of lying, better perhaps than the eternal Le Guin. Lying involves deceiving persons, whether other(s) or oneself; deliberately telling non-facts and representing them as facts is not lying; this could also mean “pretending.” This is what fiction is. Deceiving involves telling an untruth as truth so that the untruth is believed rather than the truth. A deceiver needs to know the truth in order to lie.


Last point: Was Le Guin lying when she described what a lie is? We know that it is not what a lie really “is.” But her untruth, or non-fact, about what a lie is “was deliberately told.” Le Guin’s definition is a lie, if one uses the criteria of her definition alone. Fortunately, Logic presupposes reality or truth. Because we know that Le Guin’s definition of lying is untrue and incomplete, the fact that she is claiming it as truth (in the criteria she sets forth) indeed makes her definition artificially, but not really, a lie. According to her criteria, her statement is an artificial lie; artificial in the sense I mean when you call some-thing something etc. According to reality, thank God, it is not a lie at all: it is just inaccurate. The definition “A lie is a non-fact deliberately told as fact” is a non-fact deliberately told as fact, and is (yet) not a lie.

Sometimes some persons are just mistaken. Sometimes they’ve just got wrong information, or are ignorant, or biased, or imprecise, or what-have-you. This does not make them liars.