Facts, Truth, Correspondence

by Neil Rickert

In an earlier post, “What’s a fact, anyway?” I wrote about the dependence of facts on conventions.  Today’s post is intended as a followup, and perhaps it will clarify some of the issues.

In what follows, I shall use the acronym WAFA to refer to the earlier post.

A commenter to WAFA suggested as a corollary, that “the whole idea of ‘facts’ can be tossed out as well, since it is dependent on the conventions people set up.”  In this post, I want to explain why that problem does not actually arise.  And that, inevitably, gets us to questions such as “What is truth?”

Facts and brute facts

In his 1995 book The Construction of Social Reality, John Searle distinguishes between what he calls “brute facts” and what he calls “institutional facts.”  Searle mentions the height of a mountain as an example of a brute fact, and facts about money as examples of institutional facts.  That’s a good distinction, and not anything that I am attempting to undermine.

When we talk of brute facts, we must still recognize that the English speaker will express brute facts differently from how a French speaker or a German speaker might express them.  So when we talk of a brute fact, our main concern is not with the syntactical aspects of what is expressed as a fact, but with whatever it is in nature that the syntactical form is expressing.

As I read the Wikipedia entry on lightning, I notice the statement:

An average bolt of negative lightning carries an electric current of 30,000 amperes (“amps”) — 30 “kiloamps” (kA), and transfers five coulombs of electric charge and 500 million joules — 500 “megajoules” (MJ) of energy. Large bolts of lightning can carry up to 120 kA and 350 coulombs. The voltage is proportional to the length of the bolt.

Most of us would consider that a brute fact.  If we think back to the time of Aristotle, then lightning happened then, too.  However, the people of that time were unable to express the brute fact that I have just cited.  Not only were they unable express it, they were also unable to contemplate that brute fact, and they were unable to collect any data relating to that cited brute fact.  They did not have any of the concepts that would have been needed to think about that brute fact.

The main issue that I was attempting to discuss in WAFA, was the issue of what is required in order to be able to express a brute fact, in order to be able to contemplate a brute fact, in order to be able to collect data regarding a brute fact.  Discussing this is a bit awkward, for in ordinary usage the term “fact” refers to a linguistic expression.  With that usage, and keeping in mind that people at the time of Aristotle could not contemplate or express anything about the electrical current in lightning, then it would seem correct to say that at that time there were no such facts about the electrical current discharge in lightning.  That is, we might say that there were brute facts (what was actually happening in the natural world), but no ordinary facts (linguistic expressions of those brute facts).

For consistency throughout this post, I shall use “brute fact” to refer to something that is happening in nature independent of any linguistic expression.  Analogously, I shall use “institutional fact” to refer to something, perhaps in the form of agreement and practices, that is happening in the culture.  When I use “fact” in other contexts, I shall be referring to linguistic expressions, typically to linguistic statements that are used to express brute facts or institutional facts.  By way of example, what I called a “conventional fact” in WAFA could be considered a linguistic statement used to express an institutional fact.

When I asked the rhetorical question “What’s a fact, anyway?” my point was to as the question of how there are ordinary facts (linguistic expressions of fact) that are able to express brute facts.  What I argued in WAFA, was that our ability to express facts is dependent on conventions that we have adopted, conventions such as are involved in having coordinate systems or classification schemes.

Correspondence with reality

If we were to ask the average person on the street, “what is a fact?” the reply would probably be to the effect that a fact is a true statement.  That leads us to the question of what does it mean to say that a statement is true. For that, the correspondence theory of truth seems appropriate.  The correspondence theory is sometime stated as “A sentence is true if it corresponds to the facts.”  This seems circular and unsatisfactory, if we are considering facts to be true statements.  But what people probably mean is “A sentence is true if it corresponds to the brute facts,” where brute facts are taken to be what nature is doing rather than linguistic expressions.  So that brings us to the question of what exactly we mean by “correspondence.”

As a mathematician, the term “correspondence” suggests a mapping or a homomorphism.  That is to say, it suggests that there is some kind of procedure for mapping brute facts into linguistic facts.  And such a mapping would seem to meet the requirements of a correspondence account of truth.  We are left with the question “Where does that correspondence mapping come from?”

To Jerry Fodor, the answer is simple.  The correspondence is innate, because we already have an innate Language of Thought (see Fodor’s 1975 book of that title).  But then Fodor follows a rationalist philosophy, wherein it is standard to assume some kind of innate knowledge.  The empiricist literature is a lot murkier.  Empiricists don’t like to assume such innate structure.  Yet empiricist accounts of knowledge acquisition seem to be implicitly assuming that there is a fixed, presumably innate correspondence.

It is difficult to reconcile the idea of a fixed correspondence with human history.  Take the brute facts of gravitation as an example.  Aristotle had one way of expressing these as linguistic facts.  Newton came up with a different way of expressing them.  Einstein (in his general relativity) provided yet another way of expressing them.  And there are people working on a quantum theory of gravity who are presumably considering other possible ways of expressing such brute facts.  So the correspondence used to allow us to have ordinary facts about gravity has changed several times.  The most likely explanation for this is that scientists are themselves engaged in constructing the correspondence that we use.  And my reading of the history of science is consistent with the idea that the correspondence we use is a human construct.  It is difficult to see how it could be anything else.

So now let us look at the implicit criticism in the comment on WAFA:

Yes, it may be helpful, but it can become quite arbitrary…so the whole idea of ‘facts’ can be tossed out as well, since it is dependent on the conventions people set up.

That is the common criticism made of any account of science that hints at construction.  But it is surely mistaken.  It is true that there can be something arbitrary about a constructed correspondence.  But it does not follow that “the whole idea of ‘facts’ can be tossed.”  If we change the correspondence we use, that changes the linguistically expressed fact if we consider it only as a syntactic entry (or as ink marks on paper).  But we usually consider a fact to be semantic, not syntactic.  If we change the correspondence, the there might be a need to translate linguistic expression based on one correspondence into a suitable linguistic expression based on the other correspondence.  But it is still pretty much the same fact, even though translation might be needed.  For sure, perfect translation might not be possible (Quine’s thesis on the indeterminacy of translation).  But it does not follow that we would be talking about different facts, nor does it follow that we would be inventing reality.

I grant that the position I am taking disagrees with the conventional wisdom in philosophy.  There is a reason that I named this blog “The Heretical Philosopher.”  What the position I have presented amounts to, is a disagreement with the widely held view that perception is passive and delivers representations in some fixed way.  Instead, I am preferring a view similar to that of perceptual psychologist J.J. Gibson, that perception is an active process.  And this includes the view of Eleanor Gibson on the importance of perceptual learning, from which it follows that the correspondence we use is not innately fixed.

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