Brute Facts: A Primer

There are, generally, two ways to explain a phenomenon: you can either describe what or who “brought it about” or you can describe it at a deeper, more fundamental level. These two approaches have sometimes been referred to as the ‘personal cause’ and the ‘non-personal cause,’ respectively. This bifurcation traces its origins back to Aristotle who originally described four distinct types of causes. But we won’t go into that here (instead, check out my post on Aristotle and the Four Causes). For our purposes, we just need to know that there are different ways of explaining a phenomenon and they are not synonymous.

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For instance, let’s say that the image currently displayed on the background of my desktop computer is my black cat Dolce. According to the first way of explaining a phenomenon, we could explain Dolce’s presence based on my affinity for my pet or her aesthetic appeal of her beauty or any other personal reason that we could fathom. When dealing with personal reasons or causes, it is important to note that there can be a nearly infinite number of them that could be used.

But according to the second way, we could explain Dolce’s presence as the background image of my computer by digging deeper and focusing on other pertinent elements of the phenomenon. We could focus our attention on explaining how the image is actually composed of many pixels and actually isn’t a unified whole. We could also go deeper than that though and talk about how everything that my computer does (or can do) relies on the presence/functionality of electricity flowing into my house and into the wires of my desktop computer. We can still go deeper than that though! We can appeal to the world of subatomic particles and how their movement (or lack thereof) has consequences for our everyday lives (including how our computers function).

As you can see, we can dig pretty deep into this. And this principle of reasoning holds true for nearly all phenomena (not just the extremely simple example above). That’s what makes research and analysis (in the broadest senses possible) such long-term endeavors. If we really want to establish the JTB model of knowledge of a particular phenomenon, we must always try to find that fundamental level of explanation. Otherwise, we run the risk of accepting falsehoods or incomplete truths.

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But…it is nonetheless possible that some fact or description of a state of affairs cannot go any deeper without losing its semantic, epistemic, or ontological significance. That is to say, for some ‘brute’ aspects of our existence, there seemingly is no other question we could ask about its cause. When asked ‘why’ or ‘how’ something is the way that it is, we simply have to shrug our shoulders in resignation and say “It just is.” When we use the expression “It just is,” we are signaling that any further investigation or inquiry will likely be futile. It may not provide us with a definite answer or, worse, it could provide us with an entirely new myriad of follow-up questions or hypothetical situations to consider.

‘A brute fact is a fact that cannot be explained in terms of a deeper, more “fundamental” fact.’ Advocates of the concept assert that one or more of the following are brute facts: fundamental laws of nature, the existence of the universe, values of physical constants, basic laws of logic, axioms of arithmetic, phenomenal consciousness.

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Brute facts are especially significant because, according to some philosophers, they serve as counterexamples to the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). The PSR asserts that everything has an explanation as to why it exists or why it is the way it is or why certain trends or processes take place. Brute facts, in contrast, have no deeper explanation or possibility of understanding than what we know. Brute facts are not like current medical mysteries or technological limitations; if something is genuinely a brute fact, we cannot and will not ever be able to know why such-and-such is the case or why such-and-such took place as it did.

What do you think? Do brute facts exist? If so, what are they? How can we be sure?

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