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In my philosophical discourses typically relating to cosmological arguments, I've been astounded by brute facts, and how they relate to contingency and necessity. My reflections can be adduced by a particular comment from a post about brute facts:

(1) No brute physical facts are necessary (because if they were, they would admit explanation and not be brute). (2) Therefore all brute physical facts must be contingent physical facts. (3) But by Weak PSR, no contingent physical fact can be a brute physical fact, because every contingent fact admits an explanation... - Mark

This comment adduces my questions about brute facts. By definition, brute facts are facts that have no explanation, but simply just is. By virtue of this non-explanation, a brute fact seemingly would not cohere with a necessary entity nor a contingent entity, since both admit to an explanation (necessary beings explains itself, while contingent entities call for an explanation distinct from itself)

I'm aware that the proposition that 'all contingents entities call for an explanation/cause' is presupposing the Principle of Sufficient Reason, but I doubt whether this applies to all contingent entities.

My question is then what are brute facts, if they are neither necessary or contingent?

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    Does this answer your question? An argument against brute physical facts Feb 26 at 21:43
  • This exact same question was asked less than a month ago (philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/89334/…). Please search before you ask a question. Feb 26 at 21:44
  • @DavidGudeman The first question is "Is this argument about brute facts strong given views on necessity and contingency?" and the second, "What are brute facts if they are neither necessary nor contingent?". Care to explain how those questions are identical?
    – J D
    Feb 27 at 17:51
  • @JD, answering the first pretty much requires answering the second. Feb 27 at 21:30
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    Re your key question "presupposing the Principle of Sufficient Reason, but I doubt whether this applies to all contingent entities", yes per Leibniz. One might object in a Kantian vein that the concept of explanation, rightly demanded of all individual contingent beings, is applied beyond its proper sphere in demanding an explanation of the totality of contingent beings. But Leibniz might well counter that this objection assumes a whole theory of the “proper spheres” of concepts. Thus the whole conjunction of contingencies may be a brute fact under Kantian.. Feb 28 at 6:19

4 Answers 4

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Short Answer

Most generally, a brute fact is roughly something that is self-evidently true and without explanation, and claims about the necessity and contingency of claims is a byproduct of different and UNNECESSARY metaphysical first principles. In the prior post, the attempt to link what might be seen as an epistemological characterization of brute facts regarding their necessity and contingency is itself not a metaphysical necessity. Modal logic and possible-world text is itself unnecessary in making and defending claims (though obviously impoverished from a conceptual view, modality and probability being a wonderful addition to logic.)

What is a brute fact if one discards the logical and epistemological tools of necessity and contingency? A brute fact.

Let's explain.

Long Answer

The (Unnecessary) Connection between Brute Facts and Modal Logic

Both brute facts and modal logics are both obviously epistemological topics since they deal with knowledge, which for the sake of this conversation, we'll just characterize as the product of JTB+, justified, true belief with one or more additional criteria to deal with Gettier's largely, unpragmatic objection. Let's make some observations:

  1. Human reason is largely informal and very defeasible. Humans are not deductive-logic machines that execute formal systems. Certainly, Euclid's Elements was a transformational product in knowledge. Deductive reasoning was held up as a model for good logic for thousands of years in a mania that borders are on religion. It's good stuff. But David Hume among others poked a hole in widespread claims that the only reason is deductive reason, even though the scandal of induction taught an important lesson. Abduction also is an important type of logical methodology. The fact that formal systems didn't really even catch on until after Gottlob Frege set analytic philosophical circles on their path shows how unnatural deductive systems are (a fact that's apparent if you ever teach a geometry class to teenagers).

  2. Modal logic is one method of logic, but it is not strictly necessary in logical discourse, as useful as it is in inductive reasoning. As someone with strong empirical beliefs, I find modal realism utterly indefensible since it fails to meet even the basic requirements to overcome Russell's teapot. Every thinker must balance two unbalanced positions, that of radical skepticism that knowledge fundamentally doesn't exist, and that of faith, that one can have knowledge without rational or empirical proof. A brute fact is roughly a pragmatic line in the sand in this goal of balance, and one doesn't have to even examine whether or not they are necessary or contigent because they carry perceptual and intuitional force. The existence of brute facts is contingently a brute fact itself, and one of the goals of philosophy is to explain them.

Modern psychology recognizes how there are cognitive and emotional biases in reason, and for good cause. There are cognitive and emotional biases in reason. Reason is often abused by thinkers, starting and not ending with formal fallacies. Anyone who has ever raised a child knows that humans from birth are constructed to want first, and rationalize second. Most 5-year olds are pretty good at explaining why their beliefs justify their desires.

So, it is important to use modal logic, no doubt about it. But it is not necessary to make claims. It does help constrain reality and helps humans make sense of the world, and clearly separates us from our Great Ape cousins Pan troglodytes, Pan paniscus, and Gorilla gorilla. We make language and it enriches our mental lives particularly through the material inference, the hypothetical, and the counterfactual conditional. These activities are so important, they are built into our vocabularies and grammars, such as the subjunctive case among PIE speakers

  1. Past brute facts can often be explained with an advance in knowledge and technology (hence the sciences), but there is simply NO good argument to say that ALL physical brute facts are contingent and will or can be explained. In fact, fallibilism which acknowledges both the defeasibility of human reason and the practical limits of logic including scientific underdetermination and various incompleteness theorems, not to mention Gettier dashing any hopes at a simple characterization of knowledge, calls for a defense of that claim. Fallibilism essentially underlines that knowledge is constantly in flux, is constantly being rebuilt, and that it is imperfect, which like in war where such imperfect knowledge is called the fog of war a la Clausewitz.

The Nature and Purpose of a Brute Fact

Simply put, a brute fact is the pragmatic acceptance to practice moderate foundationalism. From WP:

As an alternative to the classic view, modest foundationalism does not require that basic perceptual beliefs are infallible, but holds that it is reasonable to assume that perceptual beliefs are justified unless evidence to the contrary exists.25 This is still foundationalism because it maintains that all non-basic beliefs must be ultimately justified by basic beliefs, but it does not require that basic beliefs are infallible and allows inductive reasoning as an acceptable form of inference.

A brute fact simply is a self-evident; an unproved, but generally intuitional or even perceptual claim that serves the purpose of allowing for more sophisticated reason. And in the course of that defeasible reasoning, if it comes to light the brute fact is actually wrong, so be it. Or perhaps the can gets kicked down the road and today's brute fact becomes tomorrow's fact based on theory, so be it. Another brute fact will be claimed to continue the process of important reasoning. And there simply is no need to engage in grand metaphysical speculation about the nature of brute facts any more then there is to understand material science to drive a car.

2022-02-28 RESPONSE

@JD Could you please give an example of a brute fact being something that is "self-evidently true and without explanation". I assume a brute fact is not just a correct analytical statement. – Jo Wehler

@JoWehler Sure. "A container is larger than its contents." Is this not self-evident? Have you ever seen a container contain something larger than itself? Can you explain why this is true without begging the question? What is it about extensionality that makes this true without exception? It is a self-evident and a brute fact. – JD yesterday

The fact that the content is less than the container follows from two statements which are analytically true: 1. The content is a subset of the container. 2. Volume can be compared by filling with small standard cubes. IMO the explanation of the original fact reduces to the set-definition and to the volume-definition. - Jo Wehler

Absolutely. No doubt. We are in agreement there. But, the property of the extension of space such that mastodons fit in caves only bigger than them precedes both the set-definition and the volume definition, or any other definition you can cook up in any language simply because the property in question inheres to time-space which existed long before there were eggs heads to cook up definitions. The difference is vaguely addressed here in "self-evidence" (WP). As suits physicalism, language is a tool that reflects the physical state of affairs, and while one can demonstrate contradictions of language, some contradictions are linguistic artifacts that reflect the necessity and contingency of the physical world independent of language. It is an empirically true statement that it simply is not possible to stuff 10lbs of poop in a 5lb bag, which is a necessarily true fact independent of linguistic convention.

I would say attempts to claim that physical reality is constrained by language, generally, reflects the fallacy of mistaking the map for the territory. The analyticity of a claim is charge d'affaires of truth when it comes to physical descriptions. While it is readily possible to show the contradiction inherent in the symbols, and that is a useful tool doubtless, the truth of the proposition lies in it's correspondence to reality. So, here we see coherence in the rational and correspondence in the empirical simultaneously.

Thus, "A container is larger than its contents" is true ULTIMATELY because a container is larger than its contents. This is epistemologically speaking the quintessence of disquotationalism. You may of course, challenge that strictly speaking my use of the analyticity when I invoke disquotationalism, since I am blurring the lines between the analytical and the synthetic, and you would be encouraged to do so, because it would lead you to Quine's objection to the distinction Two Dogmas which I believe raises the obvious objection that you attempt to create two mutually exclusive classes of claims is artifice that cannot ultimately be sustained despite it's general utility.

In short, where you and I seem to differ is that you seek to make the brutishness of the truth merely in language, where I elevate your claim to a metalanguage so that the brutishness lies in the object language. You can reject my subsumption of your claim to an abstraction correlated to a physical experience, but I'd of course would wonder why.

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  • @J D Could you please give an example of a brute fact being something that is "self-evidently true and without explanation". I assume a brute fact is not just a correct analytical statement.
    – Jo Wehler
    Feb 27 at 20:13
  • @JoWehler Sure. "A container is larger than its contents." Is this not self-evident? Have you ever seen a container contain something larger than itself? Can you explain why this is true without begging the question? What is it about extensionality that makes this true without exception? It is a self-evident and a brute fact.
    – J D
    Feb 28 at 5:00
  • @J D The fact that the content is less than the container follows from two statements which are analytically true: 1. The content is a subset of the container. 2. Volume can be compared by filling with small standard cubes. IMO the explanation of the original fact reduces to the set-definition and to the volume-definition.
    – Jo Wehler
    Feb 28 at 6:35
  • @JoWehler Absolutely. No doubt. We are in agreement there. But, the property of the extension of space such that mastodons fit in caves only bigger than them precedes both the set-definition and the volume definition, or any other definition you can cook up in any language simply because the property in question inheres to time-space which existed long before there were eggs heads to cook up definitions...
    – J D
    Feb 28 at 14:39
  • The difference is vaguely addressed here in "self-evidence" (WP). As suits physicalism, language is a tool that reflects the physical state of affairs, and while one can demonstrate contradictions of language, some contradictions are linguistic artifacts that reflect the necessity and contingency of the physical world independent of language. It is an empirically true statement that it simply is not possible to stuff 10lbs of poop in a 5lb bag, which is a necessarily true fact independent of linguistic convention...
    – J D
    Feb 28 at 14:45
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According to Wikipedia, Poincare distinguished brute facts from their scientific description. The first is ontological and the second, epistemic.

Now, scientific descriptions can be founded on other scientific descriptions and hence not refer directly to a brute fact.

Thus a brute fact ends a chain of scientific descriptions. They are those ontological facts, that at some time and some place, found a set of scientific descriptions.

It was Anscombe that relativised facts themselves. And in this sense, ontological facts become contingent on other otological facts. And those that were not so contingent, were the brute facts. Her examples tended to come from the social sciences. It was Searle that coined brute phtsical facts.

The way that the term 'fact' is used here should be distiguished from Wittgenstein. For him, a fact is more akin to Poincare's 'scientific description', the totality of which is logical space. In Model Theory, this would be called the semantic space.

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The popular definition reads

„a brute fact is a fact that cannot be explained in terms of a deeper, more ‚fundamental‘ fact.“

According to this definition „brute fact“ is an epistemic characterization, not an ontological characterization. It simply says: Presently we have no explanation. But possibly later generations will have an explanation. Therefore a brute fact of today may be explained tomorrow. Because a brute fact is not an ontological characterization, I am sceptical that the classification "contingent - necessary" applies.

In the 19th century the German physiologist Reymond Du Bois-Reymond coined the phrase

Ignoramus - ignorabimus (We do not know – we will never know.)

In 1872 Du Bois-Reymond named a series of problems unsolved at his time (ignoramus), and added two problems which he classified as „ignorabimus“. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignoramus_et_ignorabimus The latter two relate to matter and force on one hand, and to mental processes on the other hand. Du Bois-Reymond elaborated his speech from 1872 in a later paper „On the seven world riddles.“

Today both problems of Du Bois-Reymond are object of intense research, e.g. research on quantum gravity and research in neuroscience. Here the domain of what we know has expanded in a significant way.

Possibly the characterization as a "brute fact" is always just temporarily. But I expect: Always new generations will detect new issues which serve for a while as their „ignoramus“. Examples of present brute facts are the value of certain universal contants like the speed of light, the constant of gravitation, the Planck constant.

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I have to disagree somewhat with the other answers on here, as I feel they are not what you are "looking for". (or maybe they were?)

In essence, if none of the other answers satisfy you or someone else who reads this, then consider the statement: "Every formal language or theory has assumptions". This 'assumption' can be that which empiricalists would call 'practice' or the actual doing of logic, 'foundationalists' might say this is simply the negation of relative nonbeing (AKA primitive marks or undefined terms; a la 'set' in ZFC-theory), which is dependent on context. In essence, it is impossible fro absolute nothingness to exist and to not exist, since it is beyond this duality. Even designating it, 'absolute nothingness' is still deeming it to be something.

These assumptions, are not unlike the unmoved mover, but they are also the thing being moved as well. Both still and moving, to use Aristotelian imagery. In an undifferentiated 'something' to even say 'in' it, is a duality which makes it differentiated. I would invite you to consider what an isomorphism or equivalence is in, higher category theory, for a more formal approach to this question.

In essence, meaning is isomorphism. It is infinite, and yet totally, finite. In being so, all things must have a form or image, and yet it is impossible that it does because you cannot tell one from another. Uniqueness is just as important as existence!

(I apologize for the informal use of the word 'things' here, I am writing this in haste, but I immediately recognize how important it is. If I can show people that neither eternalist nor nihilist attitudes are correct, and yet are completely correct, I will do so!)

In a sense, Laozi might say that in one perspective, being is predication.

I'd love to add more, but this is some food for thought for others. I cannot possibly give you a comprehensive answer to this in one post, although mauybe someone else can?

The form of no form.

Forced to fashion it, I call it Dao.

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