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Could someone explain to me what exactly is meant by the phrase "fact of the matter about" (or "no fact of the matter about")? Another variant is: "(no) fact of the matter as to". In some cases, there's no "about" or "as to" at the end (e.g. see last example below).

This is a phrase I have run into many times, especially in philosophical discourse, but I have not been able to infer its meaning (I'm not a native speaker of English), nor have I been able to find a satisfactory definition for it.

The immediate motivation for this question is reading Block and Kichter's 2010 review of What Darwin got wrong, by Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, where the phrase is used repeatedly. (The fact that the authors resort to the same [IMO somewhat awkward] phrase repeatedly is what strongly suggests to me that this phrase has for them a very precise technical meaning.) Here are the occurrences of the phrase in this review (italics in the original, bold formatting mine):

Their specific charge is that, with respect to correlated traits in organisms—traits that come packaged together—there is no fact of the matter about which of the correlated traits causes increased reproductive success. In other words they appear to be making the very ambitious claim that whenever there are correlated traits there is no fact of the matter about which of the traits causes any effect. ...

If Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini acknowledge the evidence that favors the camouflaging-color hypothesis over the moth-larvae and moth-mobility hypotheses, they will have to say that the biologists have not been imaginative enough—that they have overlooked some other correlated trait for which there could be no fact of the matter about whether it, or the black coloration, caused the reproductive success.

What exactly could this trait be? One possibility, suggested by remarks in some of Fodor’s previous writings, would be that there are two different properties: being black, on the one hand, and matching the environment on the other. Is there a fact of the matter as to which of these causes the reproductive success?

...

...Evolutionary theory, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini say, contains, at its core, a causal notion—selection-for—that picks out the properties that cause increased reproductive success. They then declare that there is no fact of the matter about what causes increase reproductive success when the candidate properties are correlated with others. But correlation is omnipresent, so evolutionary biology totters.

Also, one of the comments added to this review uses several instances of the same phrase:

To the best of my knowledge, Fodor has a view of causation where a causes b just in case there is a covering law: A -> B, such that a has A and b has B. So whenever a causes b, there'll be a fact of the matter [sic] which property or properties of a are such that in virtue of them, a caused b, namely all those properties X such that there is a law X -> B, where a has X and b has B (for some B). So according to Fodor, there are lots of facts of the matter about what causes what, and in virtue of what.

But when there's no covering law, there's no real causation. Fodor's example is that of history. Suppose Frenchman tend to lose battles and all and only Frenchman are short. Is it because they're short or because they're French that they lose? Or because of some other property correlated with Frenchness and shortness? Well, none of the above. There's no fact of the matter because there are no laws of the form: French -> lose or short -> lose. There just aren't any laws of history, not even ceteris paribus laws.

This is also Fodor's view regarding natural history (evolution). White polar bears proliferate. Is it because they're white or because they're snow-colored? No fact of the matter *because* there's no law of the form snow-colored -> proliferate, and no law of the form white -> proliferate. There aren't even ceteris paribus laws of this form.

BTW, when I've tried to find the meaning for this expression via Google, I have come across a few pages where someone asserts that "the fact of the matter" is just another way to refer to "the truth". The simplicity of this definition does not jive with the fact that the authors find it necessary to use the phrase repeatedly, even though it is neither succinct nor particularly colloquial. (IOW, why didn't they simply use some suitable form of "the truth" instead?)

Thanks!

  • I agree it is an awkward expression. It doesn't seem to be a technical or theoretical usage, however -- so it is possible this may be a question better suited for English.SE (unless I have missed something here.) – Joseph Weissman Sep 8 '11 at 21:23
  • I would agree with you if it weren't because I have never come across this phrase outside of philosophy writings. – kjo Sep 8 '11 at 21:38
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    Welcome, by the way! I have added the logic tag and reformulated your headline as a title -- just wanted to let you know so you could improve if you wish. Good luck in your reading -- I might also encourage you to consider contributing any further questions about Fodor's work and ideas you may uncover once you start digging a bit deeper into it. – Joseph Weissman Sep 8 '11 at 23:22
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I still think it is possible you may get a more direct answer about this on the English language and usage stack, but that being said here are my thoughts.

Asserting that "there is no fact of the matter about 'x'" indicates we cannot assign a factual status (either true or false) to the proposition under examination. To reformulate it relative to a truth-value might be misleading as the idea seems to be that the statement or causal relation is effectiely 'unprovable' in some way; that is -- if I am understanding clearly myself -- the phrase indicates the proposition under investigation may be considered neither true nor false.

Why might someone say there is no "fact of the matter"? Consider the contrary: if there were such facts, then these facts would positively indicate some feature of the matter under inquiry. The point seems to be that a positive assertion cannot legitimately be made for some reason. Consider one of the particular usages of this expression you have identified:

Suppose Frenchman tend to lose battles and all and only Frenchman are short. Is it because they're short or because they're French that they lose? Or because of some other property correlated with Frenchness and shortness? Well, none of the above. There's no fact of the matter because there are no laws of the form: French -> lose or short -> lose. There just aren't any laws of history, not even ceteris paribus laws.

The point here seems to be basically that the given logical-axiomatic framework under which we are working does not imply the proposition, so that it cannot be said to be true or false. In other words, given what we know and belive, there simply is no effective statement we can derive which would serve to indicate the truth-value of the issue under inquiry (at the very least none indicated by the rules or laws under which we are operating).

In the particular instance here it seems to be one way of expressing the notion that correlation (the French are short and lose battles; white/snow-colored polar bears thrive) does not imply causation (the French lose wars because they are French or because they are short; the bears prosper because they are white or because they are snow-covered.)

Given the way the question is formulated this may be something of a tangent, but Fodor seems to be making a point about evolutionary biology (we will have to wait for someone better familiar with his work to seriously comment on this.) However, quickly, from the linked article, here is a summary and response to what seems to me to be the basic claim involved here (and which, in passing, uses this phrase several times in such a way as to provide a fairly good context for its intended meaning) -- my emphasis:

Why then do Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini think that problems about selection-for are omnipresent? Because they envisage a vast space of properties and expect proponents of natural selection to discriminate among all the rivals. Not only is there a property of being-a-melanic-moth, there is also a property of being-a-melanic-moth-and-smaller-than-Manhattan. These properties are not only correlated in the world’s actual moth populations, they are correlated universally. Maybe it is impossible, even with the most rarefied genomic technology, to build a moth bigger than Manhattan. If so, the correlation between these properties could not be broken. How then could there be a sense in which one of the properties—being-a-melanic-moth—rather than the other—being-a-melanic-moth-and-smaller-than-Manhattan—caused the increased reproductive success?

We suggest that the question deserves a shrug. Serious evolutionary biology is concerned with comparative causal claims among interestingly different alternatives. Is it the black coloration rather than the larval resilience or the nighttime lethargy? Good question. Is it the coloration rather than coloration-and-being-smaller-than-Manhattan? Silly question. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini create the idea that natural selection is a fine-grained discriminatory enterprise that distinguishes among all the properties philosophers can discover (or invent?) precisely so they can demolish it. The authors’ error is to note correctly that there is some indeterminacy and then to conclude that indeterminacy is total: that there can be no matter of fact with respect to causal efficacy as between any of a set of correlated properties. Evolutionary theory, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini say, contains, at its core, a causal notion—selection-for—that picks out the properties that cause increased reproductive success. They then declare that there is no fact of the matter about what causes increase reproductive success when the candidate properties are correlated with others. But correlation is omnipresent, so evolutionary biology totters.

This critique makes no contact with the practice of evolutionary biology, where the focus is on the causal processes (for example, camouflage) that lead to reproductive success, the salient properties (say, melanism) that play a role in them, and whether other causal processes (say, stillness at night) might have been at work.

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