Whether brute facts are possible

Hume gives what is still the best account of what it would be to reduce phenomena to brute facts:

[The] ultimate springs and principles are totally shut up from human curiosity and enquiry. Elasticity, gravity, cohesion of parts, communication of motion by impulse; these are probably the ultimate causes and principles which we shall ever discover in nature; and we may esteem ourselves sufficiently happy, if, by accurate enquiry and reasoning, we can trace up the particular phenomena to, or near to, these general principles.

But success at reducing material activity to, say, gravitation is evidence that the statement “matter is gravitational” involves the same sort of predication as “squares are quadrilateral”, and the more success we have at the reduction the more confident we become. Successful reduction therefore drives out the idea that the explanans is simply a contingent, given brute fact and instead is taken as evidence that it involves per se predication.

Hume wants to divide reductive success from discovery of something ultimate, but the division seems unreasonable: Reductive success consists in finding the ultimate. The sense that we really can go no further in analysis is the grasping of an ultimate. We don’t take our failure to find a further reductive explanans as evidence that there is one out there we can’t find.

Sure, we can be mistaken about what is ultimate. Per se predicates are very difficult to find and very prone to refutation by experience. But we already knew that from Aristotle.

The basic issues are (a) whether sense experience ever gives insight or whether it is simply homogeneous repetition, and (b) whether the defeasibility of insight requires that insight never actually occurs. Both claims strike me as untrue to the experience of repeated events, and the second seems to conflate a fallible activity with one that cannot happen.

Most Empiricist or Kantian epistemologies suffer from just this sort of overlooking the reality of sensation giving rise to insight. Even Aristotle seems to do this – though he was probably the most eel-balanced empiricist who ever lived, when asked to explain insight he mumbled an enigmatic metaphor about soldiers fleeing from a battle. The difficulties in accounting for insight are very real – it’s not clear that one can define insight in a positive way, and there is certainly no formal-logical account of the process. The temptation to brush it aside altogether is unavoidable. That said, even the sharpest critique of the reality of insight – say, the grue-bleen problem- is still proposed as an insight into cognition.

The theory of recollection is still probably the most rigorous theory of insight on offer.

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