Elly Vintiadis and Constantinos Mekios (ed.)
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, £50
Say you are waiting for your mom at the cinema, but she doesn’t turn up. You wonder if she’s stuck in traffic. Or if she has mixed up the dates. But not once, I assume, do you consider the option that there is no reason or explanation for her absence. Most situations or facts seem to have this feature: although we might not know what explains them, we assume that something does.
Those who claim that there are (ontologically) brute facts believe that not all facts are like this; rather, there are facts without explanations. An advocate of such facts could, for example, make the case 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.
The topic of bruteness is not limited to just one branch of philosophy, but is relevant for different fields like metaphysics, philosophy of modality, philosophy of science, and epistemology, by raising questions such as: Is it possible to draw a proper distinction between facts whose explanation is unavailable for now and facts that in principle cannot be explained? Are there brute necessities? What counts as evidence for brute facts? Are brute facts ‘mysterious’ and anti-scientific? Are emergent facts, if there are any, necessarily brute?
This collection is the first systematic and wide-ranging exploration of bruteness, addressing all of the above questions. Although much has been said about what explanation amounts to, the same is not the case for what it would mean for facts to lack explanation (as Vintiadis underlines in her introduction, throughout the volume ‘facts’ should be understood quite liberally as covering properties, laws, states, phenomena, and so on). This book intends to fill the gap by promoting ‘awareness of, and interest in, the largely ignored topic of brute facts, with the hope that it will initiate a systematic and rigorous treatment of the topic’ (p. 1), as Vintiadis writes in her instructive introduction.
The volume includes original essays by philosophers and scientists that approach the topic from different angles, which either support or criticize the existence of brute facts. The obvious challenge is to manoeuver in a consistent but at the same time rich and engaging manner. That challenge is met here. The chapters mainly divide into two general approaches to the topic of bruteness:
The question of modality: Are modal facts (facts about what could, could not, or must be the case) brute?
The question of emergence: What is the relation between emergent facts or properties and bruteness, if any?
The one or other of these questions is addressed in very different ways by the volume’s contributors. In what follows, I will first give a brief overview of the concept of bruteness. Next, I will delve into the two questions above by presenting a selection of claims and arguments from the individual chapters.
It is common throughout the volume to trace the ongoing discussion about bruteness back to so-called British emergentism in the first half of the twentieth century, represented by C. D. Broad, C. Lloyd Morgan, and Samuel Alexander. Empirical evidence forces us, they argued, to accept that some things cannot be explained, things they referred to as emergent qualities or facts, and that we must adopt, as Alexander (, p. 410) called it, an attitude of ‘natural piety’ towards such facts. Informed by the science of their time, they frequently used chemical phenomena as examples of something that trivially depends somehow on physical properties, but also represents genuine novelties in reality whose forthcoming cannot be predicted or foreseen, even by an ideal epistemic agent, and thus cannot be reduced to what they emerge from. In some sense, as John Symons writes in his chapter, their ‘view of emergence begins from our commonsense recognition that nature is divided into distinct levels or kinds’ (p. 182).
Some argue that brute facts must be posited when the chain of explanations comes to an end. For many, such a conclusion about non-predictable or inexplicable phenomena appears anti-scientific, and therefore implausible. The rejection of brute facts is often associated with the assumption that everything is subject to explanation, which is summarized under the principle of sufficient reason (PSR).
The distinction between what Eric Barnes (), whose article has become somewhat seminal for the current debate, calls ‘epistemically brute facts’ and ‘ontologically brute facts’ is vital here. The former refers to facts that are brute for us (either because we in principle cannot cognize an explanation or because an explanation is unavailable for now). The latter are more interesting and refer to facts that are brute per se: there is no explanation for such a fact in virtue of the way reality is. The best definition that one encounters in the volume of such an ontological brute fact is provided by Elanor Taylor: ‘F is a brute fact =def F is a fact, there is no possible explanation for F, and there is no person-relative or species-relative explanation for the impossibility of that explanation’ (p. 30). Many of the facts that were thought to be ontologically brute in the past have turned out simply to be epistemically brute. So, any advocate of brute facts must give a convincing story about how to distinguish ontologically brute facts from facts that we just don’t have an explanation for right now.
A physicalist would most likely refer disparagingly to ontological brute facts as ‘nomological danglers’ (Feigl ; Smart ). PSR seems to deny the existence of this type of fact in the same way as theories of metaphysical infinitism, which assume that dependence relations go on ad infinitum and that all facts obtain in virtue of other facts. (There are no fundamental, metaphysical facts on this view. But brute facts are not necessarily fundamental facts, as Taylor argues convincingly in her chapter, so infinitism and bruteness are in principle compatible.) But, as Vintiadis emphasizes in the introduction, such a straightforward rebuttal of brute facts is not as convincing as has been assumed, since PSR has its own theoretical drawbacks and has in fact fallen out of fashion recently—for example, due to its seeming commitment to necessitarianism (the view that all truths are necessary truths).
Let us turn to the question of the relation between modality and bruteness, addressed by John Heil, Dana Goswick, James Van Cleve, and Joseph Levine. All agree, in some sense, that modal facts are not brute, but they do so for very different reasons. In ‘Are Modal Facts Brute Facts?’, Goswick introduces the position of modal primitivism: there are brute modal facts; facts about necessity, contingency, and possibility cannot be reductively explained. As a committed naturalist, she argues against this view by giving a novel reductive account of modal facts (eliminativism is simply a non-starter, she says, and non-reductive accounts are unacceptably anti-naturalist). By adding a response-dependent clause to her theory of modality, her conclusion is that modality should not be understood as an objective, subject-independent feature of reality, but as a creation of the subjective mind, and hence not brute.
Heil, in his rather speculative and open-ended ‘Must There Be Brute Facts’, takes a slightly different approach and explores the modal status of the way the universe is, which he connects to that fundamental metaphysical question of why there is something rather than nothing. If there are brute modal facts, they must be brute because of the way the universe is. Is the way the universe is the ‘big brute fact’? It makes no sense, he concludes, to ask why reality is as it is. Brute facts, if there are any, must be contingent facts, since we can only ask for explanations for something if it could have been otherwise.
In ‘Brute Necessity and the Mind–Body Problem’, Van Cleve investigates the status of ‘brute necessities’: propositions that are necessary, but for which there is no explanation of their necessity. In the chapter, Van Cleve provides a helpful taxonomy of explanatory categories (p. 69), which brings him to consider whether necessities are autonomous (not apt for explanation), brute (apt for explanation, but have no explanation), or have an explanation (through themselves or through something else). He concludes that we cannot rule out the existence of brute necessities, undermining both Heil’s and Levine’s assumptions that only contingent facts can be brute. He mentions ethics and the mind–body problem as two areas that might be said to contain brute necessities.
Let us turn to the question about emergence. In their illuminating chapters, Symons and Mark H. Bickhard treat, among other things, how British emergentism and its resurrection in contemporary metaphysics can inform the debate about bruteness.
Emergentism introduces the notion of something that cannot be reductively explained by that from which it emerges. Kevin Morris gives a rather good definition in his chapter, ‘Truthmaking and the Mysteries of Emergence’:
[…] to say that some property M is emergent is to say that while instances of M synchronically depend on instances of other properties, instances of M are truly novel additions to the world; and instances of M are genuine additions to the world, at least in part, in virtue of making a unique and distinctive causal contribution. (p. 113)
In philosophy of mind, emergence is attractive as an alternative to panpsychism and reductive versions of physicalism. Thus, an advocate of emergent facts allows for the possibility for non-physical brute facts in the case of the mind–body problem: facts that cannot be explained by lower, more fundamental facts.
The accusations against emergent bruteness are many: the position is incoherent, anti-scientific, mysterious, or plainly unintelligible, because it violates the principle of sufficient reason and epistemological virtues such as simplicity. Morris emphasizes some of these drawbacks, criticizing recent attempts by Elizabeth Barnes () and Ross Cameron () to make sense of emergence by positing emergent properties as fundamental, although dependent, truthmakers. The central question of brute emergence, he argues, still remains a mystery on such an account.
In ‘Are There Brute Facts about Consciousness?’, Torin Alter also applies a more sceptical approach towards brute emergent facts, such as consciousness. We must remain agnostic, he argues, because we simply don’t know enough about physical reality yet, although a range of anti-materialist arguments do have a good case for undermining certain reductivist materialist positions.
On the other hand, the chapters by Peter Wyss, Symons, Vintiadis, Gerald Vision, and Argyris Arnellos and Charbel El-Hani offer different types of defences of emergentism (or at least the plausibility of some version hereof).
For example, Wyss argues that brute emergence should be embraced because of its explanatory power and epistemic usefulness: although emergent brute facts are unexplainable, they can themselves function as explananda in other conceptual contexts—for example, if one wants to understand identity and individuation as ontological primitives. We must savour the idea of ‘natural piety’ for some facts, he argues, but also recognize that they can be useful in other explanatory contexts.
If there are emergent facts, Symons argues in his ‘Brute Facts about Emergence’, they must have brute properties. He centres his argument around the principle of sufficient reason and claims that brute emergence is only incompatible with a strong and implausible metaphysical version of PSR, which states that everything has an explanation. He contrasts this with the weaker version of PSR, according to which it is a heuristic device for scientific investigation. If one accepts the latter, one can affirm the existence of brute facts without abandoning scientific method and rationality.
I think the most convincing argument for the existence of brute facts is found in Taylor’s ‘How to Make the Case for Brute Facts’. She argues that any good case for brute facts must follow the method of most contemporary metaphysical theories, namely, inference to the best explanation. She rejects claims that we can infer brute facts exist from categories such as fundamentality or from the lack of explanation for a given fact. The first because fundamental facts can sometimes have explanations; the second because it does not rule out that an explanation could be found in the future (as history tells us). The best approach will be to integrate one’s theory of bruteness into a naturalistic, metaphysical framework, she argues (in this way, her approach is similar to that of the British emergentists). If one wants to make the case for bruteness, one must have inductive, scientific support. This does not guarantee that the facts are ontologically brute, but it is the only way to support the claim that some facts are.
To sum up, I am positive that this first-rate and much-needed volume will be pivotal for future debates about bruteness. That many of the chapters are marked by a certain inconclusiveness and an agnostic spirit towards the topic simply indicates that this field is very much live, and it should encourage more philosophers to get involved.
Naturally, the chapters discuss much more than I have been able to recount here. If you are not interested in reading the whole thing, I would recommend the thorough introduction by Vintiadis and the chapters by Taylor and Bickhard, which provide a historical context as well as some central distinctions and arguments for and against the existence of brute facts.
Kristoffer Balslev Willert University of Aarhus firstname.lastname@example.org
Alexander, S. : ‘Some Explanations’, Mind, 30, pp. 409–28.
Barnes, E. : ‘Explaining Brute Facts’, Proceedings of the Philosophy of Science Association, 1994, pp. 61–8.
Barnes, E. : ‘Emergence and Fundamentality’, Mind, 121, pp. 873–901.
Cameron, R. P. : ‘Turtles All the Way Down: Regress, Priority, and Fundamentality in Metaphysics’, Philosophical Quarterly, 58, pp. 1–14.
Feigl, H. : ‘The “Mental” and the “Physical”’, in H. Feigl, M. Scriven and G. Maxwell (eds), Concepts, Theories, and the Mind–Body Problem, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 370–497.
Smart, J. J. C. : ‘Sensations and Brain Processes’, Philosophical Review, 68, pp. 141–56.