Ethical Realism

May 21, 2012

What Are Facts? Do Facts Exist?

Filed under: epistemology,metaphysics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 8:21 pm
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Do facts exist? At least one person has claimed that facts do not exist and that thinking they exist would violate Occam’s razor (i.e. multiply entities beyond necessity). However, there is much to be said as to why we have reason to believe that facts exist, such as the reasons to endorse various kinds of realism. I will discuss what facts are, whether they are supposed to refer to something that exists, whether any facts exist, and an objection against their existence. I will argue that all objections to the existence of facts are self-defeating and we have more reason to believe that some facts exist than that no facts exist as a result.

1. What are facts?

The word “fact” has at least one meaning within our language and other languages could have equivalent words that refer to the same concept. We can better understand the concept of “facts” by studying language, considering how the word should be used, and realizing that there are common confusions involving the word.

The meaning of the word “fact” that I’m interested in refers to the reality, state of affairs, or relations that make statements true. What exactly facts refer to is controversial among philosophers, but it involves reality, states of affairs, and/or relations. The statement “the law of gravity exists” is true because it’s a fact that the law of gravity exists—there is a reality, state of affairs, or relation that makes the statement true. Dropping objects causes them to fall and so forth.

It can be useful to consider examples of facts (and examples of how people use the word “fact”). People might say that “it’s a fact that the cat is on the mat,” “it’s a fact that 1+1=2,” or “it’s a fact that John has a headache.” These are all correct ways to use the word. If the statements are true, then corresponding facts exist that make them true.

It can also be useful to consider false statements that claim something is a fact. I can say, “It’s a fact that the Moon is made of cheese” or “it’s a fact that the law of gravity doesn’t exist.” These statements about facts are false precisely because they don’t refer to facts that exist—they don’t properly describe reality.

Some people talk about facts that don’t exist, but there are no facts that don’t exist. If something is a fact, then it exists. There are false claims that something is a fact that isn’t a fact. For example, the claim that “it’s a fact that the Moon is made of cheese” is false precisely because it does not describe a fact at all. (The statement does not refer to a non-existent fact.)

2. Are facts supposed to refer to something that exists?

One important issue is whether or not the word “fact” is meant to refer to something that exists as we use the word in our language (or whether or not the concept refers to something that is supposed to exist). Some people might claim that the word “fact” isn’t even meant to refer to anything that exists. Perhaps saying that “it’s a fact that a cat is on the mat” isn’t supposed to describe something that exists. However, I think saying “it’s a fact that the cat is on the mat” is meant to describe something that exists. The statement could be false—there might not be such a fact. However, the possibility of false statements concerning facts is not the issue here. The question is whether stating something is a fact is a claim about whether a fact exists.

Saying that facts are supposed to exist (based on how we use the word) should not be surprising. Consider the statement that “it’s a fact that the law of gravity exists.” This statement is saying that there is a fact and that fact is that the law of gravity exists. Saying there is something means that something exists. In other words, the statement makes the claim that there is a fact that exists and that fact is that the law of gravity exists. If we said that this fact doesn’t exist, then the statement “the law of gravity exists” would be false.

I think we can know the word “fact” is meant to refer to something that exists as we use it in our language by considering proper and improper ways to use the word (given the definition of “fact” that I am concerned with) . Particularly relevant are two ways many people commonly use the word “fact” that are wrong:

One, some people talk about facts being true. However, facts are not true. Facts are what make statements true. The word “true” refers to statements that describe facts. This is one reason it is appropriate to say that facts exist and statements are true or false. Facts can’t be true or false.

Two, some people think that “facts” differ from “opinions” in that facts have been proven to be true. However, facts do not only refer to things we prove to be true. Consider how many people say that “evolution is just a theory” and others say “evolution is a fact.” These are not mutually exclusive because theories can describe facts.

There are facts whether or not anyone can prove they’re true. Facts do not generally depend on our beliefs or desires. They exist whether or not anyone thinks about them, proves they’re true, and so on. The law of gravity exists whether or not anyone knows about it, thinks about it, proves it, or believes it. Assuming it is true that “the cat is on the mat,” “1+1=2,” and “John has a headache,” these statements are true whether or not anyone knows about them, thinks about them, proves them, or believes them because they would describe facts that exist.

There are exceptions—some facts do depend on thoughts, beliefs, and proofs (to some extent). Those are facts about what people think, believe, or prove. It is a fact that many people believe that murder is immoral, it is a fact that many people have proven something to be true, and so on. However, these facts do not depend on any beliefs, thoughts, or arguments other than the ones that relate directly to the facts in question. For example, many people think that murder is immoral, even if I don’t know that they think that; and scientists have proven that the law of gravity exists, even if we have not proven that they did so.

Once we realize that facts do not depend on our beliefs, desires, or arguments, we can realize how facts (if they exist at all) can be discovered—and how the discovery of facts indicates that they exist as part of reality outside of ourselves. Assuming fact exist, they don’t refer to something “made up” or delusional. Scientific facts seem like a good example. We seem to know it’s a fact that the law of gravity exists and we know the fact doesn’t just exist because we made it up or have some sort of delusion.

3. Do any facts exist?

Perhaps one more reason to think facts are supposed to exist (as we use the word in our language) is that we have some good reasons for thinking there are at least some facts that exist—some forms of realism are plausible. However, my main concern in this section is not that facts are supposed to refer to things that exist given how we talk about them. My concern is that I think it is plausible that at least some facts really do exist. Forms of realism include physical realism, scientific realism, mathematical realism, epistemic realism, and moral realism. I will discuss various forms of realism and explain why I think it’s plausible that physical facts exist in particular.

Physical realism – Physical realism states that there are physical facts. For example, it’s a fact that the law of gravity exists, atoms exist, and an external world exists. There are physical anti-realists who deny that there are physical facts. They don’t think the law of gravity really exists, that atoms really exist, or that an external world really exists. Some physical anti-realists are idealists who think that the world as we know it only exists in our minds—it’s something like a shared dream.

Scientific realism – Scientific realism is not concerned with physical realism—both scientific realists and anti-realists generally agree that it’s a fact that rocks exist. Scientific realism is about whether or not there are facts that certain unobservable entities exist, such as electrons or quarks. The effects of various phenomena are observed in science and scientific theories postulate various entities to explain those effects (such as electrons and quarks). The question is whether or not such unobservable entities really exist or not. Perhaps they are merely convenient fictions.

Mathematical realism – Mathematical realism states that there are mathematical facts, mathematics is not merely a “human invention,” and mathematical truths are not “true by definition.” Mathematics seems to defy language and require intuitive thought. Mathematical facts seem to exist no matter what we believe or prove. Most mathematical realists in contemporary philosophy are called “mathematical platonists” and they believe that mathematical facts are “abstract entities” (similar to Plato’s forms)—they are timeless, nonphysical, and exist outside space and time.

Epistemic realism – Epistemic realism states that there are facts concerning justification and rationality. According to Epistemic realists, it’s a fact that believing that “1+1=3 is true just because your parents told you it’s true is irrational;” and it’s a fact that “it’s rational to believe that the law of gravity exists because of our experience with falling objects.” Moreover, they agree that it’s a fact that “the belief that all men are mortal is justified” and that “the belief that fairies exist is unjustified.”

Moral realism – Moral realists agree that there are facts concerning what’s good or bad, what’s right or wrong, and what we ought or ought not do. They agree that it’s a fact that torturing children is morally wrong, that helping people is often morally right, and that we morally ought not kill other people every second of the day. Moral realists do not think morality depends on our beliefs and desires. Moral facts can be discovered and exist before we know about them.

There are many philosophers who endorse one or more type of realism, which is evidence that many philosophers agree that some facts exist, and I think all of the sorts of realism mentioned here are endorsed by some philosophers precisely because they are at least somewhat plausible given our understanding of the world. Additionally, I think that physical realism is plausible in particular.

Why physical realism is plausible.

Physical realism is plausible for at least two reasons:

First, we have some reason to think science as we ordinarily think of it requires the assumption that physical realism is true. The world is not just part of my dream—it exists independently to my beliefs and desires. The laws of nature exist before I know about them and even if no one thinks about them at all. Scientists want to discover how the world is with the assumption that there are facts that exist whether or not we know about them. If there are no physical facts, then it is unclear what the heck scientists are doing and why they seem to be discovering things.

Second, the assumption of physical facts, such as the fact that an external world exists, seems necessary to explain our experiences of discovery and of a world of regularities that exists in a certain predictable way no matter what we believe or desire. If there is no external world, then we have no idea why we have the experiences that we do.

4. The objection against facts.

An objection to the belief that facts exist (and the assertion that no facts exist whatsoever) is that it violates Occam’s razor, but I think this objection is self-defeating. I will argue that any argument against the existence of facts is self-defeating, and that’s just one more reason for us to believe at least some facts exist.

The objection against facts that I will discuss is that the existence of facts violates Occam’s razor—it multiplies entities beyond necessity. If it’s a fact that a cat is on the mat, then there are even more things that exist. One, a cat. Two, a mat. Three, the fact that a cat and a mat exists and relate in a certain way. Perhaps it would be simpler (and more reasonable) to dispense with facts altogether and just say there’s a cat on a mat.

My reply

First, in order to know if the existence of facts violates Occam’s razor, we need to know what it means for them to be “beyond necessity.” If two theories (or explanations) are equal in all respects except one theory is more complex, then we should prefer the simpler one. Consider the theory that “the law of gravity exists” and a competing theory that “gravity exists and fairies exist.” In this case both theories equally explain my experiences of falling objects, but the theory that “gravity exists and fairies exist” should be rejected because it’s needlessly multiplies entities for absolutely no reason—it’s exactly like the simpler theory except it says fairies exist for no reason.

Even so, it is usually not that easy to decide when Occam’s razor is violated because there can be good things about a theory that might still violate Occam’s razor. For example, many versions of string theory were popular and some postulated more dimensions than others, but it wasn’t clear which version of string theory was best.

Moreover, some philosophers think Occam’s razor is a good reason to reject certain theories even if it’s the best possible explanation available. For example, some philosophers might prefer to have no theory concerning what mathematics is about rather than accept mathematical platonism because they don’t think it’s plausible that “abstract entities” exist.

The question is whether or not the belief that “facts exist” is more complex than an alternative perspective without a good reason for being more complex. Is there a simpler theory that explains our experiences just as well? Consider the theory that we can talk about reality without any facts existing. This theory would confuse what it means to say “facts exist” because the existence of facts is the existence of some sort of reality. Without facts, there is no reality being referred to. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to say that “there is a cat on a mat, but it’s not a fact that a cat is on the mat.”

It is far from obvious that the belief that “facts exist” violates Occam’s razor because there is no plausible alternative it competes with (that we currently know about). We don’t know of a simpler and more reasonable alternative to the belief that “facts exist.” There might be an alternative like that, but if so, it’s an alternative that no one seems to know about at this point of time.

Second, I think there is a good reason to think that the belief that “facts exist” doesn’t multiply entities in the way stated above at all. To say the true statement, “gravity exists,” is to automatically describe a fact. To say that “it’s a fact that gravity exists” means something like “the statement ‘gravity exists’ is true because of some relation to reality.” Facts are part of reality—whatever it is. Facts are not separate from reality. Therefore, facts seem to exist in a reductive way similar to saying that “sandwiches exist.” The word “sandwiches” refers to various potential configurations of particles and nothing more. If those configurations of particles exist, then sandwiches exist. The fact that sandwiches are configuration of particles does not mean that sandwiches don’t really exist and only configurations of particles exist. Additionally saying sandwiches exist doesn’t mean two different things exist for every sandwich—both a sandwich and a configuration of particles.

In a similar way I suggest that when we say that “it’s a fact that a cat is on the mat,” we’re not saying “it’s a fact that a cat is on the mat and the cat is on the mat.” We are merely saying one thing about reality and there are multiple ways to describe that reality.

A similar issue is that there are so many different “facts” concerning reality. We might say that “it’s a fact that a cat is on the mat” or “it’s a fact that a brown cat is on the mat” or “it’s a fact that a cat is on the red mat.” This seems to imply that there are several different facts just because we can describe reality in so many ways. I don’t think it violates Occam’s razor precisely because we are merely describing reality in many ways. Saying several facts exist doesn’t actually mean there are more entities that exist because our talk of facts is reducible to reality (whatever that is).

Third, the objection is self-defeating because any good argument will require potentially true premises, but no statements can be true if facts don’t exist (perhaps other than the statement that facts don’t exist). Good arguments require us to have plausible premises and a plausible conclusion—we need to believe that the premises are true in order to believe that the conclusion is true. The objection requires us to believe that it’s true that “believing ‘facts exist’ violates Occam’s razor” and it requires us to believe the conclusion is true (that facts don’t exist). Perhaps the conclusion would be true if facts don’t exist, but the premise can’t be. Therefore, the objection is self-defeating.

Finally, any objection to the existence of facts would be self-defeating in this way—they can’t be good arguments if facts don’t exist. The fact that all such arguments are self-defeating gives us a good reason to agree that at least some facts do exist. At least it could be consistent with our ability to produce good arguments. An anti-realist who rejects all facts could reject argumentation entirely, but such a person would no longer have the ability to be reasonable.

Conclusion

The word “fact” is meant to refer to something that exists. Moreover, it is not only reasonable to believe that facts exist, but arguments that facts exist seem much more reasonable than arguments that conclude that no facts exist. Finally, there might be an alternative view to the view that at least some facts exist, but it’s not clear what that view is. Until then we can’t consistently argue that no facts exist, and it seems like we have to believe that facts exist to consistently believe that it’s possible to give good arguments (for any belief whatsoever).

Updates (5/23/12, 6/20/2012): I made some minor corrections and clarifications.

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25 Comments »

  1. Isn’t the statement “facts don’t exist” an immediate contradiction? (I see you mention this at the end)

    See also: “There are no absolutes”

    I suppose you could say a fact is the currency of truth. The fact “There is a cat on the mat” is like a currency note which says ‘I promise to pay the bearer one cat on one mat’. And so in this way a fact is backed by truth / reality in the same way that money is backed by gold (or at least used to be). And like currency we tend to just trade in facts a lot of the time, rather than trading them in for the verified truth, because facts are just so convenient to handle.

    Two people handcuffed together wondering through life would have little use for facts when talking to each other. They could just refer to reality directly. But two people living in different villages and communicating by email and phone would find facts much more useful. Again there is a parallel here to be drawn with currency (money).

    Incorrect facts are therefore not unlike forged bank notes – and we may pass them on by accident, or print our own supply…..

    Comment by Abandon TV — May 21, 2012 @ 9:07 pm | Reply

    • Abandon TV,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I don’t know that saying “facts don’t exist” is a self-contradiction because it’s like saying “facts exist” is false because there are none. Of course, those of us who do believe in facts are likely to think it would have to be a fact that facts don’t exist to have such a potentially “true” statement.

      People who refer to reality directly do have a use for facts, like everyone else. They just don’t worry about justifying their beliefs about reality to others.

      Comment by JW Gray — May 21, 2012 @ 9:18 pm | Reply

  2. First off, fine work assimilating a fairly complex question JW. Thumbs up and everything.

    Now for a challenge. First I’m not sure you’re right to suggest there isn’t an alternative to realism about facts. Also we have the problem that it’s possible to beef up the Occam’s Razor argument quite a lot in fact to the point that it becomes a bullet that fact realists bite.

    First, the alternative on offer is nominalism, the claim that it’s not real entities that give the warrant for the things I claim about the world, but something more like linguistic practice. The suggestion is that what facts are, aren’t real things out in the world, but the elements of our language that help us to focus on the relevant parts of the world.

    On Occam’s Razor, the challenge the nominalist gives the realist isn’t simply that the realist needs to accept at least one other entity, a fact, but that the realist needs to accept many different entities. The realist needs to accept that there is the fact the cat sat on the mat but also the fact that the heavy cat sat on the mat, the cat sat heavily on the mat, the brown cat sat on the purple mat and every other possible way we could possible describe the event. What’s worse, we know that in fact several such facts can be real at any time, so the cat sat on the mat and the fat cat sat on the mat both are real facts that exist at the same time. The nominalist has no such difficulty saying simply, there is a state of affairs, but my claiming the cat sat on the mat or the cat sat heavily on the mat, is just how I manage pick out that particular state of affairs at that time.

    So this implies first that Nominalism is an alternative theory under occam’s razor because it can account for our talk about the world and our talk about facts without the realist commitment and it’s able to do so positing far fewer entities, the world and our linguistic practice, as opposed the infinite number of possible entities entailed by fact realism.

    Comment by That Guy Montag — May 23, 2012 @ 8:46 am | Reply

    • That Guy Montag,

      Thank you for your comments. I will reply to them below.

      First, the alternative on offer is nominalism, the claim that it’s not real entities that give the warrant for the things I claim about the world, but something more like linguistic practice. The suggestion is that what facts are, aren’t real things out in the world, but the elements of our language that help us to focus on the relevant parts of the world.

      I don’t think nominalism is an alternative to what I’m talking about. Nominalism is perfectly compatible with the existence of facts. Nominalism is supposed to be an alternative to Platonism involving universals. How can we focus on “parts of the world” if there are no facts? If facts don’t exist, then there is no reality. There is no world.

      On Occam’s Razor, the challenge the nominalist gives the realist isn’t simply that the realist needs to accept at least one other entity, a fact, but that the realist needs to accept many different entities. The realist needs to accept that there is the fact the cat sat on the mat but also the fact that the heavy cat sat on the mat, the cat sat heavily on the mat, the brown cat sat on the purple mat and every other possible way we could possible describe the event. What’s worse, we know that in fact several such facts can be real at any time, so the cat sat on the mat and the fat cat sat on the mat both are real facts that exist at the same time. The nominalist has no such difficulty saying simply, there is a state of affairs, but my claiming the cat sat on the mat or the cat sat heavily on the mat, is just how I manage pick out that particular state of affairs at that time.

      We can say there is a fact for every way we can describe the world and I think I already implied a reply to this challenge. We are merely describing the world in different ways. We can reduce facts to reality (whatever reality is). The number of facts we list does not actually imply more “abstract entities” in existence. Facts are not abstract entities. Consider what I said about sandwiches. The fact that there is a collection of atoms and a sandwich doesn’t imply two separate things exist. They are both the same thing described in two different ways.

      So this implies first that Nominalism is an alternative theory under occam’s razor because it can account for our talk about the world and our talk about facts without the realist commitment and it’s able to do so positing far fewer entities, the world and our linguistic practice, as opposed the infinite number of possible entities entailed by fact realism.

      I don’t see nominalism as a mutually exclusive alternative and I think I already anticipated the challenge you are talking about.

      Edit: You seem to want to suggest that facts are “just the way we talk.” I think there’s a sense that is true. I don’t think facts exist as something “separate” from reality (as something like abstract entities). I think it’s one way we talk about reality. There’s a kind of reductionism at work. It is possible that abstract entities exist, but if so, I don’t think all facts are abstract entities. That’s exactly why I mentioned sandwiches. It’s just how we talk about certain collections of atoms.

      Comment by JW Gray — May 23, 2012 @ 8:59 am | Reply

      • JW: I’m not suggesting any particular answer just going over one of the main contenders to fact realism. If however all you’re concerned with is rejecting idealism or relativism then you’re right, it doesn’t seem to matter much whether you’re a fact nominalist or a fact realist. The debate revolves more around what you end up having to accept in your ontology, how much justice that does to ordinary language and ultimately what kind of bullets you’re willing to bite. So for instance fact realism is the kind of consideration that led the Logical Positivists to try to reject causation and causal talk in favour of covering laws because of things like Hume’s problem of induction: they literally stripped causes from their ontology in favour of purely mathematical descriptions of events which crucially don’t entail necessary connections as causation does. Fact nominalists on the other hand get to keep causation, and ultimately necessity, in exactly the way that Hume does: by treating it as a sort of mental entity which we project onto disparate phenomena complete with the vague threat of idealism which makes us fans of science balk just a little bit.

        Comment by That Guy Montag — May 24, 2012 @ 8:38 am

      • I don’t understand what you are saying. I don’t know what exactly a “fact nominalist” is. My understanding is that nominalism is not only compatible with the existence of facts, but I suspect that almost all nominalists do believe in at last some facts.

        It is true that logical positivists wanted to avoid metaphysics like the plague, so they might not want to say if facts exist or not. I would not say that they actively rejected them. Even so, I think logical positivism is implausible. Verificationism is highly implausible and probably self-defeating.

        I have certainly not proven that facts do exist. Idealism can avoid physical realism, but perhaps not realism of all kinds. Causation is merely one element of physical realism that everyone seems to believe in. Some scientists and philosophers actively reject causation, so I don’t want to claim that we need to believe in it.

        This piece is not primarily concerned with our knowledge of facts — which facts actually exist. The main point is merely that some exist whether we know about them or not. Nietzsche was very skeptical about our understanding of facts because there’s so much interpretation involved with how we observe the world. That is not the issue here.

        Comment by JW Gray — May 24, 2012 @ 8:57 am

      • Then we’re pretty much agreed that your argument is targeted at the idealist or even the relativist and does frankly a good job of it. I was trying to make the point that your arguments are however inclining you towards something other than a full blown realism about facts. You’re actually taking what would properly be considered an anti-realist position about facts, the fact nominalism I was talking about.

        Comment by That Guy Montag — May 24, 2012 @ 9:12 am

      • I don’t know why you would call that an anti-realist position. This is what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says about nominalism:

        But Nominalism is not simply the rejection of universals or abstract objects. For if that were the case, a nihilist, someone who believed that there are no entities at all, would count as a nominalist. Similarly, someone who rejected universals or abstract objects but were agnostic about the existence of particulars or concrete objects would count as a nominalist. Given how the term ‘Nominalism’ is used in contemporary philosophy, such philosophers would not be nominalists. The word ‘Nominalism’ carries an implication that the corresponding doctrine asserts that everything is particular or concrete, and that this is not vacuously true.

        I don’t want to commit myself to the existence of any sort of fact in particular in this piece. I do say a little about why physical realism seems plausible. I think most people will agree that it seems plausible, even if they have a different argument in mind.

        There could be abstract entities, but I don’t want to say all facts are abstract entities. Perhaps that is a “nominalism” of a sort, but why say it’s an anti-realist position?

        Edit: I guess you just mean my position is an anti-realist position in some sense. It is certainly not committed to the reality of facts being abstract entities.

        Comment by JW Gray — May 24, 2012 @ 9:49 am

      • Probably the best image to keep in mind for describing nominalism will be someone like Quine who famously said “accept into your ontology only those entities required by science.” This is roughly what nominalism tries to do, it tries to define the entities which exist in terms of the practices which name them. This tactic is not called anti-realist because it supposedly claims there’s nothing that exists outside of those practices because that would be idealism or a strong kind of relativism. It’s called anti-realist because it’s not committed to the entities in our ontology being determined by their really existing in the world but rather by our practices: green exists because we consistently pick it out, not because it’s a real abstract entity that is instantiated in every green object. This can get a bit messy though because you can then have someone like Davidson come along who then goes on to say that it is also necessary for our practices to match the world in order for them to be understandable as a practices, but this is an extra claim that needs to be made over and above nominalism as such and is often accompanied by a denial of the distinction between realism and anti-realism.

        Now I’m getting the sense that by making this distinction I’ve managed to take us pretty far from whether or not facts exist. I’ll bugger off and try to organise my thoughts into something hopefully a bit more constructive.

        Comment by That Guy Montag — May 24, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

  3. […] Maybe you want to spend your morning considering the nature of facts and, more specifically, whether facts even exist. (via The Browser.) Maybe you don’t. I […]

    Pingback by The Existence And Definition Of Facts | Digressions — May 23, 2012 @ 11:11 am | Reply

  4. I’d argue that one has to take Occam’s razor as a fact to argue that facts don’t exist usings Occam’s razor. Thus claiming facts don’t exist using Occam’s razor as an argument is irrational.

    Comment by Scott — May 23, 2012 @ 7:13 pm | Reply

  5. “Facts,” as I understand them, are statements—and since, as you point out, a fact cannot be false (and still be a fact: just as a circle cannot have corners), though a statement can. Thus “facts” are a subset of statements: namely, the set of statements that are true.

    If you look at the external universe, you see physical reality, which seems to consist of processes involving matter and energy working according to certain laws, but you do not see “statements”. “True” and “false” do not apply to things like rocks, stars, erosion, and rabbits. We can make true or false statements about them, but they exist on their own, beyond logic. Even actual statements, carved into monuments or painted on signs, exist as nothing more than temporary arrangements of slow-moving physical processes. Whatever “meaning” they carry, in terms of statements, totally depends upon human perception and interpretation—and if the human doesn’t happen to know the meanings, the physical marks remain merely physical marks sans meaning. We’re familiar with this idea from knowing the difference the sounds made by a speaker and the meaning thus conveyed.

    So whether facts exist depends on where you draw the line on “existence.” Some, for example, say that unicorns do not exist, even though unicorns are plainly a part of human culture: we have tapestries, stories, poems, legends, and kitsch that clearly demonstrate that unicorns are indeed something that we know quite a bit about. Unicorns are not, admittedly, living animals (nor have they ever been), but they do indeed exist as a part of human culture. But some people say creations of human culture lack “true” existence, somehow: cultural creations are not part of (natural) reality.

    Cervantes studies these puzzles at some length in Don Quixote.

    It strikes me that emergence is in play here: consider that matter is an emergence from energy, and rather different from it. Life is an emergence from matter and energy and though life uses matter and energy, it is not reducible to them (any more than a recited poem is reducible to the quarks involved: different orders of existence). And human culture—the active and constantly growing and evolving collection of memes from which we derive much of our existence as individuals—is again an emergence, this time from life, and has its own processes, laws, and modes of existence.

    Comment by LeisureGuy — May 24, 2012 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

    • LeisureGuy,

      I don’t see how facts can refer to true statements — as an identity relation. That wouldn’t do the work we need facts to do as we use the word. When I say that it’s a fact that the law of gravity exists, I’m not merely talking about a statement. (It doesn’t merely mean “the statement ‘the law of gravity exists’ is true.”) I’m referring to something in the world.

      One question is why statements are true in the first place. There might be more than one meaning of the word “true,” but at least one meaning seems to involve reality, states of affairs, and/or relations. (How moral relativists use the word “true” is often less clear.)

      Comment by JW Gray — May 24, 2012 @ 8:03 pm | Reply

      • I don’t see how you can avoid acknowledging that quite often facts are statements about the natural world (i.e., the world considered separately from human creations), and since these are statements, they exist within human culture, not in the natural world. I get the idea of second imposition, as it were: with words, “carrot” refers to a 6-letter word in the English language and a carrot (without quotation marks) signifies the (usually) orange conical root-vegetable. So facts have a second imposition character when we talk about them as statements, but they also assert true post-hoc claims about the natural world. But when you look at the natural world, you see no claims and no statements: those are things that exist only in human culture. Our knowledge of the natural world (expressed in language, as facts) is not the same as the external world. Korzybski: The map is not the territory.

        Comment by LeisureGuy — May 25, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

  6. Another formulation: think of a fact as an atom of knowledge: collected and combined they support more extensive knowledge structures, so facts act somewhat as the atoms or pixels of knowledge: the smallest unit of knowledge.

    Knowledge does not exist in the natural world: it is a human activity and exists completely within human culture. So that’s where facts are found.

    Comment by LeisureGuy — May 25, 2012 @ 7:27 pm | Reply

    • I don’t see how you can avoid acknowledging that quite often facts are statements about the natural world (i.e., the world considered separately from human creations), and since these are statements, they exist within human culture, not in the natural world.

      It’s not hard. Facts are what make statements true. Statements are not true because we say they’re true. They’re true because of how they relate to reality.

      I do not agree with how you’re using the word. The way you are using the word does not seem to reflect how language works as well as how I use the word, and how I am using the word is the typical way philosophers use the word. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on facts for more information: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/facts/

      I get the idea of second imposition, as it were: with words, “carrot” refers to a 6-letter word in the English language and a carrot (without quotation marks) signifies the (usually) orange conical root-vegetable. So facts have a second imposition character when we talk about them as statements, but they also assert true post-hoc claims about the natural world. But when you look at the natural world, you see no claims and no statements: those are things that exist only in human culture. Our knowledge of the natural world (expressed in language, as facts) is not the same as the external world. Korzybski: The map is not the territory.

      Expressing things in language is not what makes them facts. Facts exist prior and separate from to beliefs, desires, etc. I already explained my viewpoint above in detail. You are not explaining why I should think I am wrong with anything I said.

      Our knowledge of facts could certainly be imperfect. We might know almost nothing about them. It might even be that no statements about the world are strictly-speaking true. Even so, I still think we have a good reason to think that facts exist and if we ever did say anything strictly-speaking true of the natural world, it would be true because of the facts.

      Nothing you say conflicts with my arguments. Nothing you say is an objection to how I define the word “fact.” I agree with everything you are saying except that I don’t agree with how you define the word “fact.”

      I already gave arguments as to why I use the word “fact” the way I do. You did not explain why those arguments are unsound.

      Comment by JW Gray — May 25, 2012 @ 8:03 pm | Reply

    • I don’t think facts are knowledge. I agree that the natural world exists whether or not we have knowledge. But I already explained why I don’t think facts are knowledge. I already told you why I see it my way. I still don’t know why you define the word in the way you do.

      Comment by JW Gray — May 25, 2012 @ 8:06 pm | Reply

      • My use of the word “fact” is perhaps idiosyncratic. I’ll read further at the links you suggest. I just cannot shake that idea that facts are assertions: they assert connections of things, processes, attributes, and I think we agree that they are not tautologies: you have to look at the real world to see whether a statement is a fact or false. But somehow I keep thinking that the way we break down the natural world to fit our minds and languages does not reflect the combined entity. Because of our minds and language, we work in statements, but the natural world doesn’t. And parsing the natural world into facts/statements doesn’t go smoothly (cf. the particle/wave problem: the “facts” there are at the least unusual facts). Perhaps it’s as simple as this: language does analysis, the natural world consists of synthesis. Facts are a product of analysis.

        I’ll go read more.

        Comment by LeisureGuy — May 26, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

  7. LeisureGuy,

    My use of the word “fact” is perhaps idiosyncratic. I’ll read further at the links you suggest. I just cannot shake that idea that facts are assertions: they assert connections of things, processes, attributes, and I think we agree that they are not tautologies: you have to look at the real world to see whether a statement is a fact or false. But somehow I keep thinking that the way we break down the natural world to fit our minds and languages does not reflect the combined entity.

    What “combined entity?” The way we describe facts could be wrong or somewhat inaccurate.

    Because of our minds and language, we work in statements, but the natural world doesn’t. And parsing the natural world into facts/statements doesn’t go smoothly (cf. the particle/wave problem: the “facts” there are at the least unusual facts). Perhaps it’s as simple as this: language does analysis, the natural world consists of synthesis. Facts are a product of analysis.

    You are talking about understanding realty. I think facts are reality. There’s nothing about the word “fact” that guarantees that we understand them well. Sometimes we think we do, but we could be wrong.

    I agree that some people might use the word “fact” in the way you are describing here, but it is not the way that philosophers generally use the word.

    I did describe similar definitions of “fact” that I described as “wrong ways to use the word.” They are wrong ways to use the word as philosophers use it. It would be wrong to confuse the two.

    Edit: When I said that there is a right and wrong way to use the word “fact” I should have made it more clear that there might be more than one way to use the word that could be considered correct and that I am interested in using the word in one way in particular. I might fix that at some point.

    Comment by JW Gray — May 27, 2012 @ 9:07 am | Reply

    • My understanding is that a fact is what Kant referred to as a synthetic a posteriori judgment. His question was for a synthetic a priori judgment, as you know, but the existence of synthetic a posteriori judgments is not. Notice that in this usage “facts” are “judgments”: that is, they exist in the sphere of human cognition, which may or may not be a part of the natural world, depending on how you define it. But if we removed humans from the universe, judgments also go.

      Now of course some alien race could also form some sort of synthetic a posteriori judgments of reality—e.g., matter is made up of teeny particles, which Richard Feynmann nominated as one essential piece of knowledge to keep and pass along. And we would say that the alien race had “discovered” rather than “formulated” a fact, as if the fact had an a priori existence: i.e., it existed as a fact before it was formulated. I have to say that I have trouble with that. Stuff exists prior to the fact, but the fact is a judgment (in my view).

      Interesting area of thought. Mathematical entities certainly do not exist in nature, though we do have the feeling that we are discovering rather than inventing mathematics, but this is well-trodden ground.

      Comment by LeisureGuy — May 28, 2012 @ 1:26 pm | Reply

      • Do you have any reason for thinking any of that? Is evolution synthetic a priori? Is a cat being on a mat? When do people use the word in the way you are describing?

        I explained why I think people use the word “fact” the way I do. I think other people use it that way. It is related to realism. And so on. Do you have any reason to think I am using the word wrong?

        Comment by JW Gray — May 28, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

  8. Aren’t facts dependent on the conceptual scheme in which they take part? As such, to say facts exist could be interpreted in two ways.

    1. That facts exist refers to a final objectivity that could be attained.
    2. That facts exist refers to the idea of necessary relations within a particular conceptual scheme.

    As language changes, would not facts as well?

    Evan

    Comment by Evan Oelschlaeger — July 5, 2013 @ 3:24 pm | Reply

    • The word “fact” can mean different things. Once we define what “fact” means, then we can decide if that concept of fact refers to anything. I am talking about one concept. I am not merely talking about the word “fact” and all the different possible meanings of the word.

      I am pretty much talking about the definition of fact related to the correspondence theory of truth. I am not saying that “true” only has one meaning and that the correspondence theory of truth is the only way to understand truth in all contexts. However, I do think the idea of facts is important to make sense of certain “factual truths.”

      To say that the existence of facts depends on the language is to allow equivocation. The reason that equivocation is a fallacy is because words often have multiple definitions and an argument needs to use only one definition. You can’t alternate between definitions.

      Comment by JW Gray — July 5, 2013 @ 8:06 pm | Reply

  9. […] What are facts? Do facts exist? James Gray | Ethical Realism […]

    Pingback by What are facts? Do facts exist? – — January 11, 2015 @ 7:18 am | Reply

  10. All I got out of this article is this – “Fact: Fact’s do not exist.”

    Comment by Jonathan Shupe — August 11, 2015 @ 9:50 am | Reply


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