Truth and the dance of fact and story (Sense-Making Part 7)

Facts ground us in reality. Stories ground us in meaning. The two together can produce powerful guidance, what we call “truth”. But that dance of Fact, Story and Truth is trickier than it at first seems. This post is my first attempt at exploring that territory looking for useful understandings. I’m glad to have you along.

Truth is what we can depend on. The word “truth” derives from the same Indo-European root as “tree” and “trust”. You can lean on it and it holds you. It’s there when you need it.

Fact and story dance together to generate truth – or at least what seems like truth.

FACTS can ground us in evidentiary reality – the kind of reality, according to sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, that doesn’t go away when we stop believing in it. It’s kinda solid, and there are consequences for ignoring it.

STORIES create and carry meaning we can love and live into – or scare us out of our wits.

Both facts and stories have distinct roles, but together they have a special power and importance. It’s almost like story is yin and facts are yang and together they come alive in the world and bring forth new life.

Vast collections of unrelated facts can just be boring or confusing, and probably get set aside as a reference for someone somewhere who might be able to weave some kind of story out of them that “makes sense”. In science that story is often a theory or hypothesis: These facts – these data points – line up in a particular way that could be really useful if we test it – if we experiment – to see if more facts will line up with it.

If I’m a detective or an investigative reporter or a “conspiracy theorist” or an infant new to this world, I’m tracking facts and weaving them into stories to make sense of what’s happening. If I’m a marketer or a politician I’m starting with a story and finding some facts to tie my narrative balloon to the ground – and it’s amazing how few facts I actually need to do the trick. And whoever I am, I can count on my confirmation bias to pick facts to fit a story I depend on to make meaning for me and to help me ignore facts that would otherwise make me change my story. Because THAT would upset my meaning – my assumptions, my worldview, my world! – and that can be REALLY scary.

In our current polarized political nonconsensual reality, scientists often point out to liberals that their facts won’t win them many converts, that the radical right has the most compelling stories of a kind that facts slip from like lubricated rain. And, ironically, that fact about our political environment is continually ignored by the liberals who claim to be grounded in fact! What a story! And the liberals have stories of their own that have one foot in fact and another in aspiration and critique, often well-supported by confirmation bias-organized truckloads of fact.

We’re all a mix of these dynamics. They’re natural parts of trying to make sense of things in our incredibly complex world filled with competing narratives and information. They are part of the complexity, a part of it that makes sense to delve into to realize their influence upon us.

There’s more to it…

When stories are grounded in reality and facts are come alive in story, they become valuable to our efforts to survive and flourish. When both our facts and our stories are compelling and well partnered, they become extremely powerful guides.

On the other hand, a story without any grounding in fact can make imaginary sense – and be fun and interesting – but is usually of little use beyond that – except for certain manipulative political purposes. Similarly, a fact without any grounding in story won’t make much sense to us; since it’s not in relationship to the rest of life, it doesn’t MEAN anything.

And all that is just the beginning of this dance. There’s WAY more going on here than meets the eye. Here are a few more glimpses of what I mean….

  • In our cognitive process, story is about how different phenomena connect to each other, feed into each other, arise from each other. Story is about “connecting the dots”, about “pattern recognition”, about meaning and sense. It doesn’t have to have much grounding in reality IF its few pieces of reality highlight particularly compelling patterns alive in the minds, hearts, and everyday experience of the folks who hear and act on that story. Need examples? Look around you! Look inside you!
  • Factual reality isn’t just One Thing. A statement about reality isn’t necessarily JUST a truth or a lie. Reality has levels and dimensions and relative importances. A fact can show up in different stories meaning something totally different – having different “implications”. When looked at from earth, the moon goes across the sky. When looked at from off-planet, the moon goes around the earth. When looked at from above the solar system, the moon moves in a spiral around the sun. Of course, if we are on the moon, the earth moves through the sky and circles us and we get to see Earthrise. Another example: Is crime caused by poverty or public policy or personal irresponsibility or problematic upbringing or faulty education or video games or lead in the paint in the cribs and windowsills or… Which is true? Is the story of Single Causation true? Which is important? It depends…
  • Myth and metaphor often take story into layers of truth that are real beyond our usual sense of factuality. The earth isn’t ACTUALLY our Mother, but the mythic, metaphorical story that “she” IS takes us into greater truths that are actually quite grounded in reality, in larger, deeper realms of reality than most of us bother thinking about and where facts, by themselves, cannot lead us. The relational and generative patterns embodied in the term “Mother” are, in fact, thoroughly evidenced in our relationships with Earth. Those patterns have much to teach us about how to survive and thrive on this planet, which is both metaphorically and actually our Home. Likewise, the story that the world is almost totally populated by “people” – our living relatives – animals, plants, rocks and rivers – and even the story that the stars are our ancestors – are actually grounded in large-scale factual evolutionary and ecological patterns that are exceedingly Real and that we ignore at our peril. That’s the truth! There can be wisdom embedded in mythic stories that articulate high level truths often overlooked when we’re focused on more partial, mundane stories, no matter how fact-based those smaller stories may be. It may be a fact that those folks on the Other Side of our political battles are a real danger to our country, but Gandhi suggested “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”, so what’s the story of our differences that, instead, helps us all see more fully and clearly?

In the Big Picture of our collective destiny, we need to move from stories of separateness, conflict, manipulation and control to stories of co-creative relationship, of embeddedness, interdependence and reciprocity. Meeting this challenge involves welcoming the facts and theories of science AS WELL AS the myths, metaphors, voices and imaginations of our arts, traditions, and dreams. It involves fact and fiction working together. And in our political culture, it involves integrating the stories, aspirations and experiences of “ordinary” people – on all “sides” – with the facts and frames of issue stakeholders and “experts” – all feeding into a Bigger Picture of life-serving stories of Truth and Possibility that we can act on to save ourselves and the world-being we have come to love and depend on.

This way of viewing the dance of fact and story – and seeing it as spiriting Truth into existence – is new to me. I expect to be exploring its dynamics more fully in the future, perhaps along with some of you who are reading this and find yourselves interested. I truly like that story.



January 24/26/28 (9am-2pm PT each day) – for the 3-day co-intelligence/wise democracy Open Space “unconference” – Cospiring Co-Intelligencia – open to everyone inspired by Tom Atlee’s and CII’s work. It will be a great time to think together and network about all this. Registration and more info will be forthcoming January 1st.

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