Facts and Theories

And we may add to Agassiz's statement, "General Laws are 'stupid' things until brought into connection and interrelation with philosophical theories."

Generally speaking, when we seek facts, we are not looking for objects in the world, instead we are genuinely attempting to discover what is true or what is the case about an event or an object. In other words, much of the time, "fact" is used as a suitable paraphrase for "true statement."[1] Some of the time, however, facts are thought to be independent of a world view since newly proposed theories not only can conform to some well-established facts but also can imply the existence of hitherto unknown facts. Whether or not such a view of the relation of facts to theories is entirely true or not, it is true that many facts are dependent on theories for their existence. Hence, it is somewhat simplistic to suppose one must always seek facts in order to explain some puzzling state of affairs because what is the case or what is true is often theory-dependent. Somewhat surprisingly, we will discover that almost always our view of the facts "changes" as the theories that imply them change.

Another way to illustrate the difficulties involved with just seeking the facts in order to account for the way things are, is to realize that in any given situation, we simply cannot collect all the facts, even though our initial presumption is we should leave no stone unturned. For example, if we were to try to explain how this page got in this book, we would not go about seeking every related fact before we invoke possible theories of how this "page-event" occurred. The number of facts concerning this page are limitless.

Specifically, it is a fact that each letter of each word is a specific distance from any given letter of another word. Each letter is a measurable distance from any given object in the universe—for example, the distance to a ballerina on a New York stage.[2] The facts relevant to the state of affairs described as "the page being in the book" increase and change over time as the ballerina moves, and, of course, the facts change as we uncomfortably fidget while considering the implications of this example. Therefore, we are able to collect as many facts as we please and still not have them all.

In order to make sense of a given state of affairs in the world, we must select only some of the facts—presumably, the relevant and important ones. But how can we know beforehand which of the facts will be relevant and important? We need some sort of criterion or rule for selection. In other words, in order to find the relevant facts, we need a theory or at least a few ruling assumptions involving what is appropriate in situations similar to this one. We find out the specific relevant facts by applying a theory in order to determine what facts we think should be considered in our explanation. At this point our discussion may have become a bit too abstract for an introductory philosophy reading. Perhaps, a specific example can clarify by illustrating the point of what is meant by saying "facts are normally theory-dependent."



Willard Van Orman Quine, Word and Object, Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1960, 44.


Newton's law of gravitation is "Every object in the universe attracts every other object with a force directed along the line of centers of the two objects that is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the separation of the two objects."