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.
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.
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.