Fact Constructivism: Three Problems - Fear of Knowledge - Paul Boghossian
We can search far and wide for better or more convincing arguments for description-dependence; but we would come up empty. As far as I can tell, once one distinguishes carefully between the description-dependence of facts and the social relativity of descriptions, fact-constructivists have very little to offer us beyond the sorts of unpersuasive examples deployed by Goodman and Putnam.
So far, I have been arguing that we have been given no good argument for believing that all facts are description-dependent, and thus no reason for doubting the common-sense view that many facts about the world are independent of us. Quite the contrary, we have seen reason to think that fact-objectivism is presupposed even by the sort of cookie-cutter constructivism with which Goodman seeks to oppose it.
But the case against fact-constructivism is stronger than this. It’s not merely that we have been given no reason to take the view seriously; it’s that we can give seemingly decisive reasons against its ultimate coherence. There are at least three serious problems.
First, and as I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, it’s a truism about most of the objects and facts that we talk about - electrons, mountains, dinosaurs, giraffes, rivers and lakes - that their existence antedates ours. How, then, could their existence depend on us? How could we create our own past? Wouldn’t this commit us to a bizarre form of backwards causation, where the cause (our activity) comes later than its effect (the existence of the dinosaurs)? Let us call this the problem of causation.
Second, and even if we did suppose that the universe has existed only for as long as we have, isn’t it part of the very concept of an electron, or of a mountain, that these things were not constructed by us? Take electrons, for example. Is it not part of the very purpose of having such a concept that it is to designate things that are independent of us? According to the Standard Model of particle physics, electrons are among the fundamental building blocks of all matter. They constitute the ordinary macroscopic objects that we see and with which we interact, including our own bodies. How, then, could their existence depend on us? If we insist on saying that they were constructed by our descriptions of them, don’t we run the risk of saying something not merely false but conceptually incoherent, as if we hadn’t quite grasped what an electron was supposed to be? Let us call this the problem of conceptual competence.
Finally, and perhaps most decisively, there is what we may call the problem of disagreement.
As I pointed out in the last chapter, it is i principle possible to combine a constructivism about a given fact P with the view that we were somehow metaphysically constrained to construct P, once we had considered the question. But as I also pointed out the social constructivist is not interested in such mandated constructions. His whole point is to emphasize the dependence of any fact on our contingent social needs and interests, so that if our needs and interests and been different then so, too, would have been the relevant facts.
And it is just as well that the social constructivist rejects mandated constructions, for it is in fact very hard to make sense of them. If a given fact really does owe its existence to our intentional activities, it is hard to see how there could fail to be possible circumstances in which we might have chosen to construct a different fact incompatible with it. (Kant’s own claim about geometry came to grief: soon after he made it, Riemann discovered non-Euclidean geometries, and some one hundred years later, Einstein showed that physical space was in fact non-Euclidean.)
Suppose, then, to put the matter in general schematic terms, that we construct the fact that P, and that the construction in question is metaphysically contingent. Then it follows that it is possible that some other society should have constructed the fact that not-P, even while we construct the fact that P.
So far, so good, for that is precisely what the constructivist is after. However, we are now able to argue as follows.
1. Since we have constructed the fact that P, P.
2. And since it is possible that another community should have constructed the fact that not-P, then possibly not-P.
3. So: it is possible that both P and not-P.
But how could one and the same world be such that, in it, it is possibly the case both that P and that not-P? How could it be the case both that the first Americans originated in Asia and that they did not originate there but originated instead in a subterranean world of spirits? How could it be the case both that the world is flat (the fact constructed by pre-Aristotelian Greeks) and that it is round (the fact constructed by us)? And so forth.
Social constructivism about facts looks to be in direct violation of the Law of Non-Contradiction:
Necessarily: It is not the case both that P and that not-P.
The problem doesn’t depend on there actually being two communities that have constructed mutually incompatible facts. So long as it is simply possible that one community has constructed P and that another has constructed either the fact that not-P, or a fact Q that entails that not-P, we get a violation of non-contradiction.
This problem of disagreement is a perfectly general problem for a constructivism about any domain; the problem doesn’t just arise for a global constructivist thesis. So long as the constructions are said to be contingent, there will be a problem about how we are to accommodate the possible simultaneous construction of logically (or metaphysically) incompatible facts.
Chapter 3: Constructing the Facts
Paul Boghossian - Fear of Knowledge