Saturday, December 09, 2017

Are there brute facts?

The argument from contingency depends on the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). The PSR states that for anything that exists, there is a sufficient explanation for why it exists rather than not existing. The explanation can take one of two forms--either the explanation is that it exists by necessity (i.e. it's impossible for it to not exist), or it is contingent. If it's contingent, then the explanation will be found in something else that exists and which serves as the basis for, reason for, or cause of the existence of the contingent thing under consideration.

But then there are brute facts. A brute fact is something that happens to be so, and there's no reason or explanation for it. If there are contingent things whose existence are brute facts, then the PSR is false because in that case there would be contingent things for which there is no sufficient reason for their existence.

So what reason is there to think there either is or isn't any such thing as a brute fact? I'm not going to go into all the reasons, pro and con, in this post. I only want to address something I heard a few weeks ago. Ben Shapiro interviewed Ed Feser on his new book, Five Proofs of the Existence of God.

At around 7:40 in the interview, Shapiro brought up the subject of brute facts. Then at about 8:10, Feser began to respond to it. He said there were two problems with it. The first problem is that it's arbitrary and is brought up for no other reason than to avoid the existence of God. There's no independent motive or reason for suggesting brute facts. The second problem with brute facts (9:07) is that it eats away as all explanations in general because if all explanations ultimately rest on a foundation of brute facts, then that takes down the explanatory force of every other explanation. It's all just arbitrary.

While I can see the rhetorical force of Feser's two arguments, I don't think either one of them really undermines the existence of brute facts. The fact that a person might be motivated in an inappropriate way to postulate brute facts doesn't mean they're wrong. To say that they're wrong by pointing to their inappropriate motives is to commit the genetic fallacy. At best, I think this argument only tells us that there is no good justification for believing in brute facts. If there's no rational reason for them, and there are only pragmatic motives for suggesting them, then that does entail that brute facts are nothing more than unjustified hypotheses.

In the second argument, Feser uses an analogy to explain himself. There's a book on a shelf. The shelf is held by brackets. The brackets are held but other brackets. But those other braackets aren't attached anywhere. They're just brute facts. Well, if they're not attached to anything, then the shelf with the book will all fall down. It can't all be held up by brute facts. In the same way, all explanations collapse if they rest of a foundation of brute facts.

I don't think they collapse in the same sense that a book shelf collapses. All that would follow is that you can't give an ultimate explanation for anything. Ultimately, there's no reason for anything. What would Feser say to somebody who bit the bullet and said, "Okay, so there are no ultimate explanations. Everything is, by extension, a brute fact." It seems to me there's something missing in Feser's argument. He's attempting to make a reductio ad absurdum argument against brute facts, but he hasn't explained why the logical consequence of brute facts is absurd.

While I don't think what Feser said amounts to an argument against the existence of brute facts, I do think he successfully undermines rational belief in brute facts. It seems to me that it's unreasonable to postulate brute facts because of Feser's second argument, and brute facts do seem rationally unjustified because of Feser's first argument. That is unless there's some rational reason aside from motivations for brute facts that Feser didn't mention and that I'm unaware of.


At 12/12/2017 1:26 PM , Blogger Staircaseghost said...

That's classic Feser legerdemain in action. Present an analogy as an *illustration* to get a concept across for pedagogical purposes, act as though an *argument* from analogy has been given, then later in the discourse proceed as though the conclusion is an established fact, long ago proved.

(See also stuff like the ubiquitous "hand-stick-stone".)

Imagine the missus complains to me that I'm taking too long with the weekend chores, and I respond by telling her the parable of The Tortoise and the Hare. "So you see, I'm actually getting them done more quickly! QED!"

Given the Church's rather unfortunate history with geocentrism, gravity-based analogies are a uniquely bad choice for Feser to make pronouncements of dogmatic certitude off of. The book is held up by the shelf, the shelf is held up by brackets, the brackets are held up by the wall, the wall is held up by the earth, the earth is held up by oh wait nothing holds the earth up it is whizzing through an empty void at 66,000 mph...

...and yet the book stays up.

Relatively. Not absolutely, but relatively. Almost as though, like explanation, "up" in this case is perspectival and evaluated in terms of human needs and plans and interests.

I take it back, this is a great analogy.


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