Oh Facts, Ye Silly Brutes!

Posted: September 18, 2014 in Philosophy in the Van Tillian Tradition
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Presuppositionalists often say something like:

“There are no brute facts!” 

But what do we really mean by it?

John Frame states it a little more clearly when he says:

If God is to be thought of at all as necessary for man’s interpretation of the facts or objects of knowledge, he must be thought of as being determinative of the objects of knowledge. In other words, he must then be thought of as the only ultimate interpreter, and man must be thought of as a finite reinterpreter.

To state it even more plainly, God’s “conceptual scheme” is the way the facts of the world really are.  Philosopher Hilary Putnam calls this the “God’s eye view” of the world.  Also, as I pointed out in my last post, this is what Michael Butler refers to as the Christian worldview.

Calling it the “Christian Worldview” or “God’s conceptual scheme” or “The God’s eye view” is ambiguous.  None of the phrases avoid confusion.  Supposing we combine them all and call it simply:  “God’s Worldview”?  We might be closer to what we mean to say, but we’d be swimming against cultural habit which, in the Presuppositionalist community especially, uses “Christian Worldview” ubiquitously.

But the point of this post is to note that, whatever we call it, we should not let our ideological opponents refer to it in terms of:  “the world as it is in itself”, or to use the Kantian phrase:  “the Ding an Sich”.

Why not?

Well, this phraseology presupposes that some facts exist on their own, apart from God’s creative action.  Van Til called this the idea of the “brute fact” – or a “fact that speaks for itself”.  From the Van Tillian perspective, there are no such facts.  To posit such a fact would be to posit a fact existing outside the creator / creature distinction (if that sounds abstract and unclear to you, I apologize.  I can’t expound further here.  The point of this post doesn’t hinge on this statement, so if you find it contentious, simply ignore it for now).

Contemporary philosophers, especially the anti-realists (who agree that there are no brute facts), have specific jargon for describing brute factuality.  For example:

“Putnam says that his anti-realism denies that there are any experiential inputs to our knowledge which are not themselves to some extent shaped by our concepts, by the vocabulary we use to report and describe them.”

And also:

“Goodman remarks that talk of unstructured content or an unconceptualized given or a substratum without properties is self-defeating; for the talk imposes structure, conceptualizes, ascribes properties.”1

Anti-realists like Putnam and Goodman think there are no brute facts because man “interprets” every fact.  Man “conceptualizes” every fact of his experience, and thus, there is no non-interpreted “fact”.  Of course, this view leads to difficult paradoxes, not to mention all the skeptical issues this would raise.  (How do I know you’re conceptualizing the facts in the same way I’m conceptualizing them?!)

Putnam is a good philosopher though, and in the end, he realizes the difficulty of rejecting the “God’s eye point of view” in favor of anti-realist conceptual pluralism.  He concludes:

I am not inclined to scoff at the idea of a noumenal ground behind the dualities of experience, even if all attempts to talk about it lead to antinomies.  Analytical philosophers have always tried to dismiss the transcendental as nonsense, but it does have an eerie way of reappearing.  Because one cannot talk about the transcendent or even talk about its existence without paradox, one’s attitude toward it must, perhaps, be the concern of religion rather than that of rational philosophy. “Realism and Reason” pg. 226.

From a presuppositionalist’s perspective, Putnam is very close to the truth here.

Van Til often reminds us that, because God is infinite (and we are finite creatures) we’ll never understand His “point of view”.  We’re necessarily stuck re-interpreting His revelation of the infinite – which means we’ll necessarily have paradox within our conceptual scheme.

One thing is clear – if an unbeliever wishes to posit the existence of “brute facts”, he’ll have to deal with the arguments of the metaphysical anti-realists (like Putnam and Goodman); he’ll have to demonstrate to us that there is some fact so “brute” it cannot possibly be mis-interpreted.


1. Both of these were cited by Wolterstorff in his essay “Are Concept-Users World-Makers?” The Putnam citation is from “Reason, Truth, & History” pg. 54. The Goodman citation is from “Ways of Worldmaking” pg. 6.

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