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Why There Are No Facts In Philosophy

Philosophy is a unique subject for various reasons. One of its most novel characteristics is that it does not establish facts: there are no facts in philosophy. The discussion about facts (or the lack thereof) in philosophy usually revolves around the topic of metaphysics. But the same principles would equally apply to the other major branches of philosophy, namely, epistemology and ethics. Even if there are such things as moral facts—a debate among moral philosophers—that claim itself has not been established as fact precisely because there are no established metaphysical facts (saying there are moral facts is a metaphysical claim). Thus, any discussion about facts in philosophy is going to breakdown to a discussion about facts in metaphysics.

In saying that there are no established facts in metaphysics, the claim is twofold: (1) there is no established consensus in the philosophical community concerning the answers to metaphysical questions and (2) there is no established consensus on how to go about verifying one metaphysical position over another. In other words, there are no non-controversial answers. If we take a look at other disciplines, astronomy for instance, we find that there is a strong consensus that the earth is a sphere. There are also various agreed upon methods to confirm that this is the case. It thus becomes an established fact that the earth is spherical. The only part of philosophy or metaphysics that is analogous to this is the established historical facts concerning the existence of and proposed ideas of certain past or current philosophers. Otherwise, there is no set of information or established facts or theories that one must adhere to in order to remain respectable in the philosophical community. In fact, philosophy is notorious precisely because of its bizarre, counter-intuitive, and seemingly radical positions (e.g. the claim that ordinary objects, like chairs, do not exist, or the claim that we do not know that we have hands).

One reason given for why metaphysics has this peculiar non-factual nature is to say that there is something wrong with metaphysics itself. Or more specifically, there is something wrong with metaphysical questions and statements. The logical positivists of the early twentieth century gave such a response. They argued that this peculiar characteristic of metaphysics (and philosophy in general) was due to the fact that, despite initial appearances, metaphysical questions and statements are meaningless. Thus, questions and statements about free will, God, being, matter, time, personal identity, are all, quite literally, nonsense. Such questions are nothing more than a string of words jumbled together that seem to make sense—that seem to have the sort of content that allows for an answer—but in fact do not. It is not surprising then that metaphysicians have not only had trouble coming up with answers to these questions but have also had trouble agreeing with one another. Of course, the logical positivists evasion of metaphysics was eventually shown to be a failure (most famously by Quine in his earth-shattering article, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.”) This is not to say, however, that there are no longer  philosophers who suspect that at least some metaphysical problems are reducible to problems of language and meaning.

A second response—one favored by philosopher Peter van Inwagen—is to say that while there is nothing wrong with the nature of metaphysical questions, there is something about human minds that makes us unable or unfit to investigate metaphysical questions (at least to the degree of satisfactoriness that we desire). This is not to say, as Kant did, that it is logically impossible for any being that represents external reality to themselves by means of their internal states to answer metaphysical questions. Rather, this is the more modest position that states that while it is logically possible that there could be creatures that have minds that are attuned to answering metaphysical questions, it turns out that humans are not those creatures. Human are attuned to do physics but perhaps not attuned to do metaphysics.

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