The facts and nothing but the facts

As a fictional character, I’m fascinated by people who don’t exist. There are just so many of us — fictional people, imaginary people, hypothetical people and people who will exist but don’t exist yet. But despite our non-existence, we are able to generate facts about ourselves just as you are. And as the opponents of postmodernism will assure you, there is nothing more real than a fact.

The very sensible Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that "The world is the totality of facts, not of things." But unlike (the early) Wittgenstein, postmodernists seem happy to acknowledge the existence of physical things but reluctant to acknowledge the existence of the real world. They constantly outrage their opponents by claiming that facts are ‘socially constructed‘. For critics like Kevin Donnelly, this scepticism about facts threatens to undermine both educational standards and civilization as we know it.

The real world — that is, the world of facts — is crowded with entities like prime numbers so large that nobody has ever thought of them, circles that are perfectly round, and the real reason the crew of the Marie Celeste abandoned ship. Much of the real world will never be known by flesh and blood human beings, yet it exists. Wittgenstein said that "The world is independent of my will." And he’s right — the facts are the facts whether we like them or not.

Facts about people and things continue to exist long after the people and things themselves have gone. It is a fact that Henry V invaded France and won a glorious victory at the battle of Agincourt. And while Henry no longer exists the facts about him will remain forever. That’s why it’s possible to study history. Even if there is nobody left to think about them, there will be historical facts. Facts are clearly more substantial and important entities than people.

I find this comforting. Even though I am not a real person, there are real facts about me. It is a fact that my name is Dr Troppo. It is a fact that I have a bad-tempered receptionist. And it is a fact that Nicholas Gruen misses me when I’m not around. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether a world full of things like you is an unnecessary construct. After all, as William of Ockham might have said "Don’t multiply entities beyond necessity". Perhaps I shall just stick to the facts…. unless of course you have any problems you wish to discuss.

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Damien Eldridge
Damien Eldridge
14 years ago

Facts may exist, but do we actually observe them perfectly? What we think of as facts are perhaps better described as estimates of facts!!!

SRK
SRK
14 years ago

“And as the opponents of postmodernism will assure you, there is nothing more real than a fact.”

As W. V. O. Quine, the opponent of postmodernism, would have assured you, facts are not real.

Rebecca Copas
14 years ago

You are not a person in fact Dr Troppo

rather you are a series of posts into the internet, aren’t you?

That is the only FACT under my own observation at any rate

And the fact about facts is that the patterns facts manifest within are neat

whereas, attempting to sustain an imaginary persona through making weblog posts, in which the concept of meaning to the word ‘fact’ is at least a little distorted by the claim that Dr Troppo is a person (though if you are prepared to permanently give up all your other personality, especially that personality which asserts that some persons suppose that a thing is more real than a fact, then maybe Dr Troppo you can be).

Actually things are the facts. Even facts which are not yet manifest can only manifest as fact, once a thing expresses the fact, (as a matter of fact? but that implies that the matter which facts are made of has only a similarity in the what the word “as” is refering to), and every concept of what might be, one day has its real world expression. The problem is that we seldom recognise if we are imagining the future or the past; and simultaneously tend to mix up small pieces of facts into a conglomerate of unreal representations “as” though fact.

And these are the real facts to the best of my knowledge.

Rebecca Copas
14 years ago

PS within my own experience of the real world being my own ability to assert that a fact is a fact:

I too have a less like my real self but also factual internet persona, named “Curaezipirid” of all the tedious unpronouncible names to have. Its fact however, is just that I frequently sit using public library services internet connections and type that name instead of my name Rebecca, as recognised by Australian legislature.

Yet here in the internet, who knows what the truth is? For example, if I tell you that most days in the past few months now, I have sat in the Brisbane City Library, and used the internet, and have admired how the service is providing a safe day time environment for many of the folk who sleep on the streets here in Brisbane, who at times are decent conversation by comparision to the ASIO operatives who also seem to often enough be using a computer at my elbow.

But how on Earth could you know if I am being factual? The fact is that I, whoever I really am, typed these words into a keyboard of a computure, surely?

Dr Troppo
Dr Troppo
14 years ago

My dear SRK, postmodern is not a synonym for ‘French’ or ‘logically illiterate’. Quine is as much to blame for the current assault on objective reality as Kuhn, Foucault and Derrida.

Quine’s work is exactly the kind of nonsense the enemies of postmodernism should be complaining about. After all, he attacks the (sometimes) sensible Bertrand Russell when Russell claims that facts exist. Quine goes on to brazenly assert his “unswerving belief in external things — people, nerve endings, sticks, stones” while at the same time arguing that facts are not real!

Ms Copas & Mr Eldridge. You both claim to be ‘observing’ facts. Do you both possess some kind of special fact-observing sense organ the rest of us lack? Or is this some kind of horrible postmodernist metaphor?

SRK
SRK
14 years ago

There’s no problem there for Quine. He can affirm that the external world exists, and that external things exist, while at the same time denying that facts exist. This can be traced back to Quine’s rejection of intensional entities.

David
David
14 years ago

Without previously being aware of Quine’s rejection of intensional entities (I only know him as a logician), I think I can see what he’s getting at. Does a fact exist in the same sense as a tree? In fact, can a fact be said to exist at all? It’s a statement about objective reality rather than an object.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

But our we need a prior conceptual apparatus for any discussion of the tree’s existence or non-existence.

Dr Troppo
Dr Troppo
14 years ago

Objective reality? So if this objective reality doesn’t include facts then what it is that true statements correspond to?

And don’t give me any of that postmodern nonsense about rabbits.

SRK
SRK
14 years ago

Why think that true statements are true in virtue of corresponding to facts?

Dr Troppo
Dr Troppo
14 years ago

…and I don’t want to hear any of that rubbish about snow either.

Am I the only one here who believes in facts?

SRK
SRK
14 years ago

Well, I believe in facts if facts are the semantic values of true assertions. I’m not sure what the role of facts is in giving a catalogue of the most primitive constituents of objective reality.

Dr Troppo
Dr Troppo
14 years ago

Right. So you sort of think that facts are real but you sort of don’t. That sounds a bit postmodern to me.

SRK
SRK
14 years ago

LOL. No, I think we need to disambiguate “fact”.

Dr Troppo
Dr Troppo
14 years ago

My dear SRK, it’s perfectly clear what a fact is.

As a result of your unfounded scepticism I’ve decided to remove you from my ontology. Or as you might put it, I’ve decided that you and your ilk have no role in my catalogue of the most primitive consitituents of objective reality.

Goodbye.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
14 years ago

who are you and what have you done with Don Arthur?

Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

My dear Dr Troppo, I think you need to move on from the Tractatus of Wittgenstein 1.0 and dip into the later Wittgenstein (Wittgenstein 2.0) a little. He’s no less sensible than Wittgenstein 1.0.

Let’s consider the word “fact” using Wittgenstein 2.0s metaphor of the word as lever – what happens when we use the word “fact” or assert something as fact? In brief, we assert two things – that we have made a true claim about a state of affairs and that the claim we have made is testable – others can check this fact for themselves, if they care to.

Although the word “fact” looks trivial, small and easy to use, and despite the fact (sorry about the recursive usage – it’s impossible to avoid) that we pull on the fact lever routinely, the mechanism behind it is large, complex, very powerful and, occasionally, hazardous. Especially when we assert something as “fact” when an examination of the state of affairs it is intended to depict shows that it does not correspond to our asserted “fact” at all.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
14 years ago

Are we allowed to mention Karl Popper? Or would that ruin the whole setup and suggest the fact of a disturbing infestation of Rafe-itis?

Liam
Liam
14 years ago

Yes, Doctor Troppo! I believe in facts. I do!
Every time a child says they don’t believe that “facts” have an objective role to play in human moral decisions and the establishment of values, a first-year philosophy student dies.
If we all clap together, we might save some of them.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

I reckon you’re allowed to mention Karl Popper. So long as you’ve read Peter Singer’s excellent article on him.

Rebecca Copas
14 years ago

How is it that it can be so very difficult to discern exactly what the political persuasion of the general balance of belief of the user group of this weblog is?

Its a blog which arrives into my attention within a large field of reputation as having asserted its presence among academics and through the Arts, and within a vague possiblity of having strong leftie inclinations.

Yet these days so many folk are not overtly pronouncing such beliefs. Why?

Need we all become debased by the feild of discourse about what defines what is real, rather than overtly confront the facts which we all agree upon already to be real?

I suspect that my own motivation for having a look in on this site, is possibly best served by finding one of the people it mentions in person to have a talk with, (or at least exchange e-mails); but there is a real position here I am asserting.

Is our society already so far under the influence of the far right . . . (nazism self defines its nature as denying belonging within any set framework of belief, for example, in which the far right are notorious for failing to delineat correct from incorrect behavioural examples, within their own personal spheres: a fact which is today massively influencing organised crime and policing here in Australia) . . . that we all attempt to assert our own methodology, and means, and identity, as a replica of theirs, to combat their presenting their right wing ideas in a replica of left wing social justice aims.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

Ken – I definitely think we should mention Karl Popper. There’s even a link in the post that refers to him. Click on “very sensible” and you’ll get:

Sir Karl Popper, on the other hand, who died eight years ago, seems already to be fading into that ghost world of posthumous reputation where your best friends are not your professional peers but besotted amateur admirers with Web sites and fan clubs.

Again, it’s not difficult to see why. Some of what Popper believed – that we can never know if we have arrived at the truth, that there are no facts without theories, that science is not the accumulation of irrefutable truths but a ceaseless cycle of problems, inadequate solutions and new problems – is available these days in more glamorous form from postmodernists.

Where is Rafe?

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

I imagine Rafe to be busy purging the name of Costello from the register of the H.R. Pufnstuf society. That is, when he’s taking a break from re-interpreting the hidden history of the western world that’s encoded in the scribblings of the Bronte sisters, but only if you’ve got the special crystal spectacles required to *really* understand what they were saying.

Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

Sighted at Catallaxy, this morning, paying out on Raimond Gaita:

It has to be said that Gaita is a lousy writer. His columns in Quadrant under the stewardship of his mate Robert Manne were practically unreadable. Being a devotee of Wittgenstein may have something to do with it, so the appearance of intense moral passion and fervor stands in for clarity…

In my capacity as the House Moralist on Catallaxy I am prepared to match Gaita stride for stride on moral intensity and I think he is off the planet when he attempts to claim the moral high ground on Aboriginal issues…

Dull stuff, on the whole.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

Dr Troppo, I’d like your advice on something I read in the newspaper this morning. According to Peter Hartcher subjects in a Dutch study found politicians like Tony Blair and George Bush less realistic than fictitious characters like Dracula and Superman. Should I be worried?

Nabakov
Nabakov
14 years ago

The fact of the matter is that in the matter of facts, our understanding of what knowledge can be proved to be factual depends on our knowledge of how we can prove that our understanding of this will deliver factual statements.

In short, the Gettier problem is a problem.

FDB
FDB
14 years ago

I can has question?