I am having a debate with someone on the internets. He claims that there are no such things as facts absent interpretation. For example, if I see a ball dropping, it's not a fact that a ball is dropping, rather it's that I interpret via sense apparatus that there is a ball dropping. Likewise, if many people see a ball dropping, it's not a fact that a ball is dropping, rather it's a consensus of interpretations. He says that thinking the world is made of facts absent interpretation is a self-serving view I have.

It seems to me that "the world is made of facts" is tautological, though, since a fact is essentially defined as something that has actually happened in the world. Likewise, in the ball dropping example, I see a clear distinction between a fact - that a ball dropped - vs. recognition of the fact - that I saw and understood a ball is dropping. One can be wrong and think something is a fact when it isn't, but that doesn't change the fact. So facts and interpretations are two clearly distinct things.

The nub of it seems to come down to whether the world exists outside of anybody's perception of it. This seems straightforward to me, but I'm not sure how to prove it - or even if it's possible to prove. Is it simply an axiom of our existence - that we know of an independently-existing world via our senses?

It seems disagreeing with this is essentially a form of solipsism - that only my perceptions can be known to exist - and is solipsism not "the only epistemological position that, by its own postulate, is both irrefutable and yet indefensible in the same manner"? But is the opposite of solipsism - that there is a world that can be known to exist - defensible/refutable?

  • A fact is a statement, so it can not be "what actually happened", which is an event, and the world can not be made of facts. You are following the naive stereotype known as "transparency of language", when we naively identify events with what we say about them. However, what we say, or even can say (factually or not), depends on our conceptual vocabulary in addition to events, so facts are inevitably framed by it. So the "someone" is right, there are no facts without interpretation, but solipsism is the other extreme, that they are nothing but. – Conifold Apr 10 '18 at 21:25
  • Could you be referring to the questioning of knowledge as justified true belief? en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettier_problem philosophynow.org/issues/63/… – CriglCragl Apr 10 '18 at 23:02

A more profitable line might be something like this: Interpretation as a relation between two things has a domain and an image. The domain is the collection of sense data. What is the image?

If the solipsist thinks the only possible thing the image can be is a series of mental states, then the onus is on the solipsist to explain why mental states are not facts, where a fact is supposed to be "the states that compose the world that are what are demonstrated in the interpretation of sense data".

A more philosophically sophisticated version of broadly this line was proposed by Hilary Putnam in his response to the "Brain in a Vat" skeptical scenario. For Putnam, the key move that the skeptic makes is in getting me to accept a dichotomy that I cannot possibly be in a position to understand. If I am indeed nothing more than a brain in a jar in some mad scientist's laboratory, such that the only experiences I have are those that are fed directly into my brain through either some complex computer simulation or even just some highly regular sequence of electric shocks, then how in the world can I ever be in a position to understand what it means for something to be a brain in the sense in which I am a brain in this scenario? All I ever form thoughts about are elements of the computer simulation, or the results of random electrical discharges etc.

So it's just plainly false for me to say, even in the skeptical scenario, that I'm a brain in a vat. The stuff of the world that I live in is what I'm talking about and what constitutes a particular notion for me of what "the facts" are, regardless of whether there is a distorting filter between my interpretation and some abstract hypermetaphysical "Reality". That's not to say everything I refer to is a psychological fabrication - we only acquire reference in response to the world that we encounter, and for Putnam the key point is that we are causally connected to the parts of the world that we take to constitute our facts.

Of course, this is a kind of Antirealism about the world, because even though there remains a sensible notion of "the facts", this comes at the expense of a notion of a fixed domain of mind-independent and ultimately metaphysically "real" things. But, if we accept some of the ideas about how language works as presented by Frege and Wittgenstein, the idea that Facts, rather than things, are primary to us opens up the possibility that we can hold on to factiveness without surrendering ground to the skeptic.

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  • Isn't this essentially agreeing with his argument that there's no such thing as a fact outside of our perception? For example, no part of the world of a blind person is visual sense data, so a blind person would conclude that factually there is no such thing as visual sense data since he has never had an experience of it - he just has to believe others who claim there is. Yet via observation of others he would be able to conclude that they can sense in a way he cannot, so rationally he would have to accept vision as a sense even though his world contains none of it – Claudiu Jan 30 '14 at 0:52
  • Yeah, the restriction to particular causal mechanisms might paint a more restrictive view of the world than causal connections in general would otherwise allow. But then, it's two different points to say that there are different interpretations and that there are different ways to causally interact with the world. I think it's useful to think in that respect about what interpretation-independent facts are, because on Putnam's account, the blind person is causally connected in a different way, which makes the facts different for them. Interpretation isn't what's at stake here. – Paul Ross Jan 30 '14 at 16:39

You are having an argument about realism and direct perception. I think you (and possibly your interlocutor) are forcing a dichotomy where one need not exist.

I'll start with something incidental from what youw rite. Ludwig Wittgenstein in the Tractatus makes an assertion that the world is a collection of facts [Taschung]. But it's not clear if Wittgenstein does so in a tongue in cheek way to test a certain understanding of how the world works.

Now, I turn to the apparent dichotomy driving your discussion. It sounds like you are your interlocutor accept this claim:

Either everything is just interpretation or everything is pure fact

Worded in this way, the problem is that this dichotomy is false. There's a clear middle position or rather there are many middle positions that ask about how we interpret what we know. This is not to say the disagreement is resolved. In quick sketch, here are several different philosophers resolved it:

the pre-Socratic sophists: everything is interpretation, so nothing is really true. Do what you want. skeptics: nothing is true.

Plato: there are ideal Forms that exist and we have prior knowledge of these. We detect these Forms in the poor copies that compose our world.

Aristotle: we know things through perception and from this our mind can distill essences of things.


Augustine: Plato's ideas plus God illuminating us. Aquinas: Aristotle but we need God to illuminate so we can do this last complex step of perceiving essence.


Descartes: [i.e. rationalism] = what we have are our ideas and the world is uncertain except insofar as there is a good God that guarantees somewhat the veracity of our perceptions -- note the echo here with Aquinas on that point. Hume: there are no forms or ideas. We just have perceptions we bundle together as if they are objects of kinds. Kant: what we see is interpretations. We have no access to things as they are but only as rendered through the forms of sensibility and the categories of understanding [which are in our minds]. World is a construct of our minds that organizes things according to this.

Hegel: Aristotle + Kant. We have access to the things as they are, but we are always overlaying them with our interpretations. ...

Post Modernism at its worst: everything is interpretation completely not based on anything.

So there's a lot of middle ground between it's all interpretation and it's all pure fact that we can get without using our brains to do something to it.

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You can always play pseudo-philosophical games. "I know the sun will rise tomorrow morning." "Oh no, you really don't KNOW that." "Yes I do." "No you don't." etc.

Don't do that. Get real. Philosophy is first and foremost grounded in common sense. Yes, we do know the sun will come up tomorrow. We do know the Super Bowl is being played in New Jersey this weekend. (Niner fan here, no rooting interest). We do know Chris Christie is governor of New Jersey; and that instead of showing himself off to the nation this weekend in anticipation of a 2016 presidential run; he's currently mired in an ugly political scandal that might destroy his career.

These things are facts. If you are doing philosophy you can not pretend you're a college freshman up way too late consuming mind-altering substances and talking about "The meaning of it all" with your buddies. Sorry, that is not philosophy.

There are facts. There are facts that every sane person experiences and agrees with. What are those facts, and how we can know them, and how we can be certain that we are seeing facts and not just our interpretations of facts; are the legitimate questions of philosophy.

But you can not do philosophy by saying, "Oh well maybe I'm just a brain in a vat and my programmers are giving me all these crazy ideas." That just doesn't lead anywhere useful.

Now here is my key point. I maintain that solipcism isn't a useful philosophical point of view ... even if it's true. Yes. Because it's not useful. I am making a utilitarian argument. What I know and how I can know it are good philosophical questions, given the basic reality around me.

But I have to start with common sense and reality. Maybe I really am a brain in a vat. Buy more likely I'm on planet Earth in the year 2014 by the Western, or Gregorian calendar. The Super Bowl's this Sunday. I'm typing my thoughts into a browser window on my computer. A browser is a program written by programmers in a programming language. I can drill down my reductionist viewpoint to the bits on the wire and the quarks in the atoms of that wire if I need to. Science is real, the Internet is real, my computer is real.

To assume otherwise is pointless. Even if I am actually a brain in a vat, there is no point in assuming that ... because I can't then use my reason and logic and powers of observation to try to understand the world around me.

Whereas if the things around us are facts; if I accept basic reality and I assume that it's understandable to my reason; that gives a much more fertile and interesting domain in which to do philosophy.

Solipsism is therefore an idea that is wrong, even if it's right! Because it's useless as an organizing principle for my life.

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  • I guess what's really going on with a lot of the more interesting philosophical takes on this kind of solipsism is that the vulnerability of our common sense model of the world to it is both worrying and also resolvable. If your methodology can defend the possibility that you just imagine everything, that's a sign that you're not very well grounded in the facts. Philosophers like Putnam see solipsism as implicated in problems with a naive realism account of our conception of the material world - avoiding BiaV scenarios can be an argument in favour of other conceptions of "factivity". – Paul Ross Feb 3 '14 at 16:01
  • Or more directly, I think you ought to acknowledge the normative force of the challenge: you're not a brain in a vat, and hedging your bets on the question of whether you are or not might leave certain dangerous implicit assumptions in your methodology unchallenged. – Paul Ross Feb 3 '14 at 16:15

Time allows us to experience events, events from the transient present become fact to those that observe them and reference them from memory. But only with a faith in the recollection because we are unable to determine any truth with the process of there allocation from our perception and its interpretation of the observation of those events.

An argument for determination of any truth is able to be counter argued and leave you with no method of determining any truth if the argument for action and reaction holds. This argument if it has no counter argument, as the only truth leads to a necessity of having to have faith in everything you appear to observe or recollect as being the truth without the assurance of proof.

Or maybe action and reaction is not a valid argument which frees us and enable us to determine truth through argument and not need faith which the argument 'causes'.

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This matter about epistemology was resolved many years ago in different ways by both Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn.

Karl Popper describes intersubjectivity, meaning that everything you describe is a kind of consensus you establish with the people you are talking with in first place. Homonyms are an example of this: if you're talking regarding police officers and you use the word dick, there is a chance you're talking about a detective rather than about a penis.

Aside from the definitions, there is intersubjectivity in the propositions: We all can see the sun rises everyday, and never discuss that fact. But that intersubjectivity is nothing more than our assertion of the reality (this becomes more common when you assert something about people's behaviour depending on what you're used to see). This plays a significant role in fact sciences when we have to describe what elements are in play (forces, masses, energy, ...) and we all agree the existence of such concepts, their meanings, and how do we perceive them.

Kuhn goes even further: He describes the crude reality that the way you describe your world may not be intersubjective at all, coining the term of paradigm, which has a set of core values/beliefs as its starting element. It doesn't mean that -forcefully- it won't, but there is a high chance that it might occur. Examples of that:

  • Is light a wave or a particle? regarding early quantum mechanics.
  • Is an embryo a person or not? regarding the currently active debate of abortion right now in Argentina.

The saddest part is that Kuhn describes the interaction of different paradigms more like a darwinian struggle than an actual evolution of knowledge, on which you just get convinced or stay in your paradigm (however, when he writes an addendum regarding others philosophers calling him irrationalist or relativist, he argues than such struggle heads always towards an evolution of sciences with more precise knowledge).

So the answer is yes and no regarding the existence of facts:

  • Yes: We can say that, for people watching the same, the facts do exist. They will perceive something... moving. Perhaps. Unless somehow they don't, and that is just a person's sensorial mistake, say.
  • No: Depicting facts is more about language, semantics, and a core set of starting values than about what actually happened. A perception may be interpreted and described in potentially infinite number of ways, and so creating different propositions (a fact is just a primitive proposition - even Prolog uses that concept in this way).

The point here is that facts are propositions, and are an abstraction of what we pick with our senses (they abstract the energy and surroundings we can perceive) and what we describe with our core values and our languages (which are abstractions of the stimuli provided by our senses).

There is something that is stated in Fides et Ratio which, believer or not, you should take as starting point if you defend the facts: You are defending the path of obeying your direct (or indirect) senses. This is important: There are sciences having an object of study which is not related to our senses. One of them is theology, which studies what is written in the Bible (regardless the actual truth of what is described there as things that actually happened or not). Formal sciences also fit here (math, logic). Finally, when you study laws everything gets more complicated (as an introductory subject, they tend to discuss whether it is a science, it is not, or it has a scientific component aside to other types of components). So you must remember which one is your starting point, object of study, or core set of values before even starting to debate. You cannot prove anything, in your corrent system, which is beyond your starting point (thanks, Gödel).

My tip to you: Don't go that way. There is no way you can prove or disprove anything going the way of the solipsism. Either you find a starting point you both share, or every discussion will be pointless.

And Rivière's corpse is opening a Chandon while we discuss this topic.

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