‘Facts’ are facts of a theory

1. Until the sixties of the previous century, there was some kind of consensus about the nature of scientific enterprise. One strand within it had to do with the nature of facts. One thought that scientists collected facts (data) and formulated hypothesis (or theories) to explain them. This distinction between theory and facts was seen as an absolute distinction: facts (or data) existed in Nature (or culture) and theories explained them. However, today, the consensus tells us that this is not the case. (This distinction has been scrutinized from many different points of view since the fifties: in terms of language, in terms of the history of the sciences, in terms of scientific revolutions, in terms of philosophy of sciences…) Today, one accepts that facts are not some theory-neutral entities existing in either Nature or culture and that the distinction between them is a relative distinction. All our facts are theory-dependent; in some contexts we treat some of the claims of a background theory as facts. In another context, the same facts are discussed as theoretical claims.

For instance, in some contexts, one takes the Hindus worshipping Ganesha as a fact. (This fact, for instance, functions as evidence that Ganesha is a god and/or that Hinduism is a religion and so on.) In another context, the same fact becomes an issue of theoretical controversy: are the Hindus worshipping Ganesha or not? (I challenge that nature of this fact and suggest that some kind of theology describes our actions in these terms.)

Is this a truism? Today, among philosophers, it is. What is its status? It is also a hypothesis about the nature of scientific thinking, about the nature of human knowledge and so on. In most discussions today, one assumes its truth.

2. Depending on the context of the discussion (say a dispute about some aspect of the Indian culture), the disputants can treat wearing the bindi or a saree as facts. However, in another context of the discussion, these facts might become theoretical claims. For instance, is the Indian woman wearing a bindi or an Indian male wearing kumkum on his forehead being religious or not? Consider, for instance, the recent French legislation about wearing religious ‘symbols’ in the public. If someone decides to take an Indian to the court, then wearing bindi or kumkum becomes an issue of dispute. Then we will have disputes: one side will claim that it is religious, and the other will probably want to say that it is not religious. (If it happens, I suggest they use ‘The Heathen…’!) In such a case, wearing a bindi will be described using two kinds of theories about wearing a bindi.

3. My book is not about India but about the western culture. It is a study of the western culture using one thread, namely, religion. To the extent I talk about India, I do so using some of the ‘facts’ that Indologists (and others) have so far used. My use of their facts (to show the opposite of what they believe they have shown) illustrates the consensus in the philosophies of sciences (of the last hundred years or more) that ‘facts’ are mostly facts of a theory.