On Philosophy

January 29, 2007

Constructed Facts And Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

A constructed fact (which includes properties and relations) is something that does or does not hold of an object based on its definition, and not on the physical facts alone. In other words, a constructed fact is something that has no causal effect. For example, the number of objects in a collection is a constructed fact. It is true that it is based on some of the physical facts about the collection. However it is not identical to these facts (which a real fact, such as heat, defined as average molecular motion, is). It is not identical for two reasons. First we could count the objects differently and arrive at a different number (for example, by counting halves instead of wholes). Secondly, numbers are part of a larger system, containing such relations as multiplication and division that are not based on the physical facts (what would it mean to multiply two rocks by four rocks?).

A good portion of philosophy deals with what are best thought of as constructed facts. For example, ethics, reference, and knowledge, just to name three big ones. Of these three ethics is the most obvious example. Nothing ever happens just because an action is ethical or unethical, assuming we have left behind the theory that the ethical facts are responsible for our ethical intuitions. And accepting this fact about ethics makes ethical philosophy easier to handle. No longer do we need a way to find ethical facts in the external world, nor do we need for find something that is responsible for the existence of those ethical facts. Reference and knowledge are similar, although there are more who would resist classifying them as constructed facts. Again, the quick argument to show that they are in fact constructed is simply to observe that they have no causal consequences. The fact that a word or concept references an object makes no difference, what makes a difference is how the physical brain handles that word or concept, which is not identical to reference under most theories. And it is the same with knowledge, what matters whether it is believed, and believed to be knowledge, not whether it actually is knowledge or not.

So, if these constructed facts are basically epiphenomenal, why even study them? Well just because a fact is constructed doesn’t mean it can’t be a useful description of the world. Numbers, for example, are a very useful description of the world, and they are certainly constructed facts. Of course what makes these connections to the world tricky is that constructed facts can be known a priori, we can know that 2 + 2 = 4 based on the axioms of mathematics alone, without any empirical observations at all. However, the fact that our constructed facts describe some aspect of the world is a contingent fact, something that can only be known through observation. And no matter how many observations you make you can never confirm that the world always conforms to the constructed facts that you think describe it (although you can justifiably become more and more confident that it does). Admittedly it doesn’t seem like a difficult distinction to master, but failing to keep it in mind leads to philosophies about these issues that assert the world must work a certain way, often to their detriment when the world is shown not to.

But, even given that restriction, constructed facts can be useful. For example you may define knowledge as beliefs that meet some standard, X. You might also show that beliefs that meet X are more valuable in some way than those that don’t. So not only have you described a category of beliefs (which may or may not have members) you have also shown that we should try to ensure that as many of our beliefs as possible fall under that category. And thus a purely constructed notion, about a class of beliefs, has real world value. Even for things with no normative potential, such as reference, the fact that they are constructed doesn’t make them useless. The constructed definition of reference may be designed to reflect how language is used, and thus even though reference itself doesn’t have a causal effect on language use it might still be a good description of language, a good model of language, or simply a good way of thinking about language in abstract.

In fact all philosophy must deal with constructed facts to some extent, because to confine philosophy only to the real facts would collapse it into physics. But deciding what is and is not a constructed fact in a philosophical theory can be difficult. For example, the study of the mind is one such notoriously tricky area. What minds are, and consciousness is, in general is probably best thought of as a constructed fact. But, on the other hand, the properties of human minds and human consciousness are mostly real facts. (One reason that you can’t know the mind the be separate from the body or identical to it a priori.) But deciding where one stops and the other begins can be far from obvious.

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