Knowledge and Reality

by Daniel A. Kaufman

EDITORS NOTE:  This essay originally appeared on Dan Kaufman’s previous blog, Apophenia.  We are reprinting it here, as a preface to a video discussion bewteen Dan Tippens and Dan Kaufman on realism, anti-realism, and our knowledge of the world.  That discussion will be posted this Thursday.


If you were to go to the trouble of asking ordinary people about their views on Knowledge and Reality — accosting them, at random, on street corners, perhaps — and succeeded in getting honest answers, you would likely discover that they hold something like the following view: What it is to know something is to possess some body of information — to have a “picture” of things — that squares with or is true to reality.  If you were to push further, regarding ‘Reality’, they would likely characterize it along the lines of “everything that actually exists” (the ‘actually’ intended to preclude imaginary and fictional things like unicorns and Sherlock Holmes).

It’s not just ordinary people who think this way.  Many philosophers and scientists hold the same view, though they may express it in language that is sufficiently sophisticated to give an impression otherwise.  The truth, however, is that many of those philosophers and scientists who identify themselves as “Realists” take a position on Knowledge and Reality that is largely indistinguishable from the ordinary person’s view, just described. Consider the following, written by a well-established astrophysicist, on a discussion-forum, in which I recently participated:

“It is surely for nature to tell us (science) how things are.  If it is indeed the case that some low-level quantum events have no cause (are not determined by the prior state of the system) then it is science’s job to report that.”

Now, I know exactly nothing about quantum mechanics and thus, haven’t the faintest idea whether or not quantum events have causes, but the view that reality exists, as it is, and that the job of science is to provide us with descriptions that match it, is stated quite plainly.  I would be surprised to discover that there were many scientists, today, who thought otherwise, and as already mentioned, it is a view that is quite common among philosophers, as well.

One of the things that I find most interesting about this is that there are a number of very good reasons for thinking that this “common” view of Knowledge and Reality is false, reasons that have been conceived and expressed by some of our finest thinkers, over the course of the last three hundred years or so.  I think it is worth rehearsing a few of these reasons, even if only to raise some eyebrows, with respect to the seemingly uncritical embrace of this brand of Realism today.

The doubts expressed by Descartes, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, are probably the most familiar examples of misgivings about the idea of a “fit” between our picture of the world and the world “as it is.”  In Meditation One, Descartes observes that the picture of the world that we obtain by way of perception often does not “fit” the world. Standing on the top of a tall building, I may see tiny people below, who are, in fact, of regular size.  Or I may see a person, in a nightclub, bathed in black light, and think that his shirt is purple, when it is actually white.

Of course, such examples are not examples of knowledge — in each case, it turns out that I was wrongabout the quality that I had ascribed — but they point towards more difficult kinds of cases, which Descartes — and John Locke — also recognized.  Suppose that you are in an art gallery, making your way through an exhibition of color-field paintings and are struck by a solid, bright orange canvas. Later, you say to your friend, “I saw a solid, bright orange canvas today.”  Is this something you know? And if it is, does your knowledge describe “reality as it is”?

If the sources I have consulted are accurate, rabbits can only see two colors: blue and green.  (If they are incorrect, then just imagine schmabbits, who can only see blue and green.)  Now, I am not sure what a rabbit would see, if you put it in front of the canvas I am speaking of, but let’s assume that it doesn’t see orange, but something else.  What does this tell us?  Both the rabbit and I have looked at the same canvas, and if Realism is true, there is a way the canvas actually is.  And yet, the two of us experience the canvas differently. We have different “pictures” of this portion of the world.  Is one of us wrong? Let’s presume that both the rabbit and I are in tip-top shape and that the viewing conditions are ideal. It’s hard to see the basis for claiming that one of us is correct and the other is not — that one of us “knows” the canvas is X, but the other does not know the canvas is Y. (We’re assuming, for the sake of the example, that rabbits can know things.) And yet, it also can’t be the case that we are both correct, because the canvas cannot be both X and not-X.

Our different experiences are explained by the fact that the rabbit and I have different kinds of eyes and different kinds of brains.  But this raises a problem for the Realist, who thinks that there is “a way the world is.”  Is color part of that way?  How could it be, without us being forced to say that some color perceptions are right while others are wrong, which, as we’ve just seen, seems arbitrary.  And it doesn’t take much thinking to realize that the same problem can be raised with respect to smell, taste, tactile sensation…indeed, with regard to all of the directly perceptible qualities of the world.  After all, there are a lot of animals, with a dizzying variety of perceptual faculties.  It is for reasons like this that both Descartes and Locke maintained that these sorts of qualities only exist in the mind of the perceiver; that they are features solely of our picture of the world and not of the world itself.  Locke referred to such characteristics as “secondary qualities.”  As for the features of things that they reallyhave — that belong to the world “as it is” — Descartes and Locke thought they were limited to what Locke called the “primary qualities” — mass, volume, and motion, the last of which, of course, also implies the reality of causality.

Ultimately, this view is a refinement of the common conception of Knowledge and Reality, rather than a rejection of it.  While it is true that our immediate picture of the world may not “fit” with “reality, as it is,” once that picture is revisited and we screen out those characteristics that are solely features of the picture and not the world, we end up with a revised picture that does fit reality.  (This is precisely the process of discovery that Descartes describes in Meditation Two, by way of an experiment with a ball of wax.)  But working through these problems and refinements has introduced an idea that is essential to what will be a reason to reject Realism, in its common form: namely, that a part of our picture of the world comes from us and not from “reality as it is.”

David Hume represents the next big step forward in this idea.  Giving greater scrutiny to the characteristics that Descartes and Locke were comfortable to assign to “reality, as it is,” Hume demonstrated that to a great degree, they too come from us.  Take the idea that the world consists ofobjects that exist independently of anyone’s perception; that have “distinct and continued existence,” as Hume put it.  This would seem an essential characteristic of “reality as it is,” as the Realist conceives it.  And yet Hume can see no rational reason why anyone should think that there are such objects. Why, for example, should we believe that a chair in the room continues to exist, after we’ve exited and can no longer see it?  Why should we not think, instead, that the chair exists when perceived and ceases to exist when not perceived?  Hume searches in vain for some evidence — any evidence — that objects actually have such distinct and continued existence, but cannot find any.   All that we have evidence of is the chair existing from t1 to t4, not existing from t-5 to t-10, and existing again from t-11 to the present.

The idea that the chair continues to exist when I am not experiencing it, Hume says, does not come from the chair, but instead, is the result of a number of psychological tendencies and habits, including the tendency to connect things that are close together, whether in space, time, or in terms of resemblance, and the habit of “filling in the gaps,” when sequences, like the one I’ve described with the chair, happen over and over again.   Like the so-called secondary qualities, then, the distinct and continued existence of objects is also a part of our picture of the world that would seem to come fromus and not from “reality, as  it is.”

Hume makes essentially the same argument regarding our idea of causality.  When we say that a billiard ball striking another billiard ball caused that second billiard ball to move, we are saying that one series of events made another series of events happen.  Hume describes this notion of one thing “making” something else happen as an idea of “necessary connection” and maintains (rightly) that it is at the heart of our common notion of causality.  But like “distinct and continued existence,” Hume can find no rational grounds for the belief in “necessary connection.”  In terms of what we actually have evidence of — what we observe, strictly speaking — we just see one event followed by another.  We may, of course, see these two events, one following the other, over and over again, but never, in the course of these observations, do we observe the “making” relation; the necessary connection.  As in the case of our idea of distinct and continued existence, Hume suggests that though our idea of one event following another comes from the world, “as it is,” the idea of necessary connection — of one eventmaking another event happen — comes from us.  Specifically, it is due to the fact that (a) when we see one event, followed by another, over and over again, upon seeing the first event, we anticipate or expect the second event; (b) we unconsciously project this anticipation and expectation into the events themselves, mistaking them for a necessary connection.

By the time we get to Kant, every significant, substantive quality that we commonly attribute to “the world as it is” seems to come, instead, from us (Kant adds spatiality and temporality to those qualities supplied by the human mind).  Finding it impossible to accept that there is no independent reality at all, Kant describes reality “as it is” as noumenal and, in principle, unknowable.  Our knowledge, consequently, can only be of phenomena — of things as they are experienced — but this means that the idea of knowledge consisting of sentences or pictures that “fit” an “as it is” reality becomes impossible to sustain.

In the 20th century, new challenges to common Realism arose, but rather than the focus being on perception and the degree to which our own minds contribute to the picture of the world that results from it, as it was in the 17th and 18th centuries, the new concern was with the role played by language and in particular, by linguistic frameworks, conceptual schemes, and frames of reference.

One of the most well-known of these new challenges came from the philosopher, Willard Van Orman Quine, and specifically from his work on translation.  In the second chapter of Word and Object, Quine describes what he calls a “radical translation” scenario, in which we imagine a linguist trying to translate the utterances of natives, whose language has never been translated before and for which there are no bilinguals.  The linguist is working on one particular word, ‘gavagai’, which, after many days of observation, he determines is uttered when and only when a rabbit is present.  As Quine points out, however, this is not sufficient to show that ‘gavagai’ means rabbit or that the speaker intends torefer to rabbits.  After all, every time a rabbit is present, a set of un-detached rabbit parts is present, as is a time-slice-of rabbit — call it a “rabbity moment.”  No further amount of evidence will enable us to make these further distinctions, since everything that is evidence that a rabbit is present is also evidence that un-detached rabbit parts and rabbity moments are present.  Neither will further acts of ostension — i.e. pointing — succeed in more precisely identifying the speaker’s intended referent, as every act of pointing at a rabbit is an act of pointing at un-detached rabbit parts and at rabbity moments.

As Quine points out, in a subsequent essay, “Ontological Relativity,” the only thing that distinguishes rabbits from sets of un-detached rabbit parts and rabbity moments is their principle of individuation: “If you take the total scattered portion of the spatiotemporal world that is made up of rabbits, and that which is made up of un-detached rabbit parts, and that which is made up of rabbit stages,” Quine wrote, “you come out with the same scattered portion of the world each of the three times. The only difference is in how you slice it.”  Does reality “as it is,” then, consist of rabbits, sets of un-detached rabbit parts, or rabbity moments?  Given what Quine has just told us, to ask this is to ask a somewhat ill-formed question.  Specifically, it is to ask what Rudolph Carnap described as an “external question,” by which he means a question that is asked independently of any linguistic framework or frame of reference. Within such a framework — that is, given a set of rules for counting, distinguishing one thing from another, etc. — I can ask questions like “Do rabbits exist?” or “How many rabbity moments are there?”, questions that Carnap characterizes as “internal,” but such questions are ill-formed when asked outside of a frame of reference, which is what we do when we say, “Yes, but what really exists, rabbits or rabbity moments?”  As Nelson Goodman, the most sophisticated of the twentieth-century’s anti-Realists put it, “If I ask about the world, you can offer to tell me how it is under one or more frames of reference; but if I insist that you tell me how it is apart from all frames, what can you say? We are confined to ways of describing whatever is described.”

The Realist may want to protest that when he asks the external question, “What really exists, rabbits or rabbity moments?” he is really asking, “Which linguistic framework/conceptual scheme/frame of reference” describes reality, as it is?” but this, too, is to ask a question that is somewhat ill-formed. Questions of reality are questions that we ask within frames of references, as it is only in the context of a frame of reference that we have the linguistic and logical tools to make ontological commitments. “To be real…means to be an element of the system,” Carnap wrote, “hence this concept cannot be meaningfully applied to the system itself.”  To the extent that we are asked to choose between conceptual schemes or frames of reference that are at odds with one another, in terms of what they say exists or how many things exist, we can only do so on pragmatic grounds.  Take a “micro-universe,” consisting of X1, X2, and X3.  If I ask how many objects exist in this universe, you might say “three,” but of course, this presupposes both a conception of what counts as an object and of how one counts objects.  As Hilary Putnam pointed out, if one were to ask a “Polish logician,” who treats mereological sums as objects, then in the universe we have described there are actually seven objects: X1, X2, X3, (X1+X2), (X2+X3), (X1+X3), and (X1+X2+X3).  If one were to ask, “Well, which way of counting is the one that matches the way reality actually is,” we would not be able to answer.  The choice between counting the first way or counting the second way will depend on the relative usefulness of each respective way of counting, relative to one’s aims, not on some notion that there is a privileged way of counting that reflects reality “as it is.”

At this point, a person who is unwilling to let go of his Realism may want to say: “Okay, there isn’t a way the world is, in itself, in the sense that it exists pre-conceptualized, independently of us, but there is a kind of generic reality — a world of “stuff” out there, which, depending on which linguistic frameworks/conceptual schemes/frames of reference we employ, becomes fully fleshed out as a picture of this, that, or another world.”  In many ways, such a move is reminiscent of Kant’s characterization of the world-in-itself, as “noumenal,” and would seem to be motivated by similar intuitions and concerns.  Alas, this will not do, for to say that something is to be organized, classified, arranged, etc., presupposes that it already has determinate characteristics — parts and pieces, so to speak.  As Donald Davidson described it:

“We cannot attach a clear meaning to the notion of organizing a single object (the world, nature etc.) unless that object is understood to contain or consist in other objects. Someone who sets out to organize a closet arranges the things in it. If you are told not to organize the shoes and shirts, but the closet itself, you would be bewildered.”

The problem with this move, then, is not in the relationship between “scheme and content,” per se, but rather, in the idea that there can be scheme-less content; that we can separate frameworks from the things they are frameworks for.  But this is just another way of saying that the problem lies in the idea, inherent to the common view of Knowledge and Reality that we have been talking about: that there is a world, separate from us, which our various descriptions and pictures (and the conceptual schemes they operate within) try to “get right.”

In closing, I am tempted to speculate as to why there are so many common Realists among professional philosophers and working scientists, today, but I won’t.  The reasons are likely varied and many and guesses as to what they might be strike me as being of little value.  What is important to understand is that it is not because the problems that I have described and the questions I have asked have been solved or answered.  They have not.  Like the many attempts to provide answers to modern Skepticism, solutions to the problems raised here continue to elude us.

Fortunately, our failure to solve the problems raised need have no effect whatsoever on scientific practice or even on our ordinary, common efforts to navigate our world. The Realism/Anti-Realism schism is empirically neutral, and one’s choice of a position has no scientific or other practical impact. This may seem to suggest that the questions we’ve raised are unimportant, and if what one means by “important” is that something is consequential for our practices, then I would agree that the Realism/Anti-Realism debate is unimportant. I do not define ‘important’ in this way, however, and for me, the question of how we understand our fundamental relationship to the world is of tremendous interest and something that I never tire thinking, reading, or talking about.

Works Mentioned

Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689)

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1738)

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781)

Rudolph Carnap, “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology” (1950)

W.V.O. Quine, Word and Object (1960)

W.V.O. Quine, “Ontological Relativity” (1968)

Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” (1973)

Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (1978)

Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism (1987)





29 responses to “Knowledge and Reality”

  1. davidlduffy

    Like the many attempts to provide answers to modern Skepticism, solutions to the problems raised here continue to elude us…The Realism/Anti-Realism schism is empirically neutral, and one’s choice of a position has no scientific or other practical impact.

    This is the conclusion that always worries me. Franklin in Healthy Scepticism [Philosophy 1991; 66:305] points out that the “most abstract philosophical speculations can have very direct [practical] consequences” – his example is medieval analysis of witchcraft in the Malleus Maleficarum, but this could be just as true of persecution of witches in 21st century Africa and Papua New Guinea. That is, various nonrealisms (and some flavours of realism) leave the way always open to supernaturalism. You can argue that the physicists influenced by the Vienna Circle still made great practical progress, ditto mathematicians, and even Behaviourists. But eventually the virtue of accepting that the best models of the world are those that give novel predictions – unexpected new knowledge – does win out. It’s unclear to me where novelty that coheres with existing knowledge (“Progress”) comes from in other than the realist paradigm: it is dismissed as illusory, as always known, or (equivalently) socially constructed, by adherents of various belief systems.

  2. david:

    It’s unclear to me where novelty that coheres with existing knowledge (“Progress”) comes from in other than the realist paradigm: it is dismissed as illusory, as always known, or (equivalently) socially constructed, by adherents of various belief systems.


    I’m afraid I just don’t see this consequence. Neither how metaphysical anti-realism renders “novelty that coheres with existing knowledge” mysterious, nor how one can legitimately infer its illusoriness.

    Yes, we can always worry about people misunderstanding and making illegitimate inferences on the basis of any number of theories and positions, but that doesn’t strike me as a reason to deliberately hold on to false ones.

  3. I’ll comment directly later, but first:

    At my blog, where I was discussing the ‘reality’ of ‘forests’, I replied to a comment thus:


    The problem is with signifiers that we expect to be pointing out toward the world, but are pointing instead to a concept or a social construct. ‘Forest’ is one of these; as it happens, ‘reality’ is another.

    1. ‘When you get to 221B Baker Street in London England, you will find there, in reality a bank.’

    2. ‘When you read a Conan Doyle mystery story, you will find that, in reality, 221B Baker Street is the home of Sherlock Holmes.’

    Both statements are true, because the ‘realities’ they refer to are constructions within differing domains – the first the domains of politics, history, empirical experience; the second, the domains of fiction, imagination, and the consistent texts of the named author.

    Neither assertion perfectly overlaps the thing we bump into at a certain physical location. That pile of stone and glass and metal and electricity (etc.) is not by nature or by any ontological necessity a numbered structure on a street. ‘Streets,’ ‘numbers,’ ‘maps,’ ‘countries, are all of human invention.

    So I am not saying there is no reality – I am saying there is more than one. * 221B Baker Street ‘really’ is the home of Sherlock Holmes. But if you follow a map to the location we call ‘London,’ you will ‘really’ find a bank.

    There is a problem with this, BTW, and I will try to address it later. But briefly, when you ask the person at the corner, ‘where’s 221B Baker Street?’ and they point to that pile of rock and glass (etc.), have they signified a concept? or merely pointed in a given direction for you to follow? **


    * Rather than ‘multiple realities,’ perhaps a whole constructed of layers of epistemic domains – if we need a sense of a whole, rather than simply negotiating different domains.

    ** Do we need clear distinctions between ‘conceiving’ and ‘pointing,’ so that their performances interlock like gears? or instead a kind of ‘phasing’ from moment to moment of experience and response.

  4. For me this topic does happen to be quite timely Daniel, since I did present the essentials to my own such position last round. But I do wonder how valid it is to label so many modern scientists and philosophers, as “realists”? The quote that you’ve provided from the astrophysicist chap didn’t quite seal it for me:

    “It is surely for nature to tell us (science) how things are.  If it is indeed the case that some low-level quantum events have no cause (are not determined by the prior state of the system) then it is science’s job to report that.”

    I do admit that the “how things are” part does happen to be concerning, but his intended meaning could just as easily have been that science must show us “how things seem to be.” This astrophysicist is someone who I believe I know, and respect him a great deal. Hopefully he will agree to grace you, and certainly me, with his presence here — I love hearing the calm versus emotional dichotomy of your disputes.

    Though you may not know much about quantum mechanics, I believe that you have indeed found a spot in which most modern physicists have irresponsibly gone “realist.” Given Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal, physicists conventionally assert that reality ultimately harbors a “natural uncertainty” — so yes I’ll give you this one. I’d like to help expose the problems associated with this position, both for the sake of Einstein’s posterity, as well as to help rid the field of a fundamental belief in “magic.”

    As mentioned, I did briefly discuss my position regarding our epistemic notions last time: ( This actually got me into a bit of trouble with you, since I thoughtlessly labeled the process as “science,” leaving out “philosophy.” I do consider this process to be far greater still however. When you’re lying in bed trying to figure out if you should get up, here you take what you think you know (evidence), and then use this to assess various ideas about reality (theory). The more that your theory (“I’m late?”) continues to stay consistent with your evidence, (like a reading from the clock) the more you tend to believe your theory. Even a cat, fully deprived of language, shall take what it thinks it knows, and then use this to assess various potential models of reality, in order to function.

    As far as actual reality itself goes however, we’re surely just a bunch of idiots!

  5. labnut

    In closing, I am tempted to speculate as to why there are so many common Realists among professional philosophers and working scientists, today, but I won’t.

    I wish you would!

    You clearly have thought about it and have some well thought out opinions. It strikes me that this is a very interesting question worth exploring. You made no mention of web-of-belief. Why is that?

  6. The original title of the post on Apophenia was “Reality as it is”, if my memory is correct. The subject of the post actually seems more about our existing understandings and our inability to describe anything that does not fit pre-existing frameworks. A definition of reality as it is (RAIS) is conspicuously absent.

    RAIS or noumenal reality or ontic reality refers to the universe of everything: from the realities of the subatomic world, the fine structure of our neurons, to the limits, if any, of the universe, and everything in between. Evidence of this reality has entered our consciousness (in the West) since Copernicus. When Galileo first saw the moons of Jupiter, reality changed and imaginations exploded. His contemporary, Giordano Bruno, had already speculated about multiple universes. (Bruno was killed and Galileo was put under house arrest.) We now know, for an absolute fact, that there is stuff out there, even stuff that we cannot imagine, i.e. even if we detect it we cannot conceptualize it. We also know that all our concepts are severely tainted by the limitations of our mechanisms of consciousness.

    Interestingly, serious speculation by idealists post-date the empirical observations about the mysterious nature of reality. Since neither Kant, Carnap nor Kaufman knew/know anything about quantum mechanics, why would one accept their pronunciations on the nature and limits of knowledge? The scope of philosophy is limited, by and large, to informal language and its conclusions are at best strongly suggestive opinions that lack confirmatory evidence. But as Godel has suggested, even in a completely described formal system there are (intuitive?) truths that cannot be demonstrated. The truth/RAIS extends far beyond what you or I know.

    A fine appreciation of the mysteries of RAIS is the source that keeps on giving. It is hard to see how this is empirically neutral. All our little devices and implantable prostheses are just the beginning. Our frameworks will automatically adjust by catching up, conservative tendencies notwithstanding.

  7. Just a short note — modern science deals with descrbing phenomena (as opposed to noumena), and only those that are “reproducible”. In other words, a given phenomenon is considered to be an objective property of the “world out there” if it can be observed independently by any person (or an alien, or a supersmart rabbit) to have the same properties, anywhere and at any time.

    For example, the color of a rock depends on whether the observer is a daltonist or not, and is therefore not objective. But the mass of the rock should be the same for all possible observers, and is thus called objective, despite being a phenomenon (and not a noumenon, if I’m using the terminology correctly…). 🙂

  8. RAIS or noumenal reality or ontic reality refers to the universe of everything: from the realities of the subatomic world, the fine structure of our neurons, to the limits, if any, of the universe, and everything in between. Evidence of this reality has entered our consciousness (in the West) since Copernicus.

    We now know, for an absolute fact, that there is stuff out there


    Given that there are no arguments offered here, in response to the many arguments described in the essay, I’m afraid this is little more than foot-stamping.

    Quine offers a number of very powerful arguments, both in Word and Object and later, in Ontological Relativity, as to why ontological commitments are always relative to a frame of reference. If you want to be at all persuasive in your insistence that ontology is framework neutral, you’ll have to engage those arguments. Otherwise, all you’re doing is stipulating and asserting.

  9. Eric, you are absolutely correct that my attribution of a realist position is both the result of intuition and anecdotal evidence. If my main purpose was to identify predominant philosophical attitudes, then certainly, some sort of empirical study would have to be done.

    In this case, however, whether or not realism is the majority position I take it to be, it is one that I take to be of interest and worth discussing.

  10. With regard to your first point, I have become increasingly reluctant to ascribe motives to people.

    With regard to the second, the web of belief describes a particular view of justification — largely coherentist — but doesn’t have much effect on the specific issues the article takes up.

  11. Hi DanK, good topic, nicely written, but I’ll come in swinging 🙂

    The progression of the argument seems to subtly transform an epistemological issue into an ontological issue, whereby lack of certainty regarding Knowledge leads to Anti-Realism.

    In between Knowledge (K) and Reality (R), is Perception (P). Descartes and Hume basically show that we can’t be certain about K accurately mapping to R because it relies on P which may be flawed. While Hume rules K of causation as coming from some internal second order P, he does not rule out causation existing in R.

    The issue of color P does suggest that color is not intrinsic to an object but relative to how we perceive properties of an object. In that case it is not that an object is neither red or orange, but can be both, dependent on observer effects.

    Space prevents me from addressing the language issue, but I would argue it is an extension of the same. Yes our Ps and language involve frameworks, but that does not eliminate a R that we are trying to model with our K.

    A person takes a prism and shines a ray of white light onto one side. The result is a band of different colors projected to a wall from another side. Regardless of different color P, two people can map out bands and name what they see. Differences in P will be noted, but that would not change the fact that they are both attempting to discuss things about R (real light actually split into a real spectrum by a real prism).

    Now it’s possible that our Ps and so K of objects are completely disconnected from R (so no light or prism only a demon arranging our Ps), but that would not remove the existence of a R that could theoretically be mapped (our minds, a demon, and the carefully arranged Ps we call objects). Given consistencies of Ps of objects there must be some R underlying it, something demanding an explanation and so an attempt at K.

    In reality, does this message contain 350 words?

  12. davidlduffy

    Marko – I think your appeal to the Galilean idea of primary and secondary qualities is nicely discussed by Patricia Churchland in a 2002 paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience “Neural worlds and real worlds”. She comments there is no principled cut between the two at a phenomenological level, so leading down a slippery slope: “Immanuel Kant struggled to keep from sliding down, Bishop Berkeley was convinced that sliding was the only logical recourse, and Georg Hegel was a thoroughgoing Idealist”. Her cure is that neuroscience can explain the inconsistencies and faults of perception better.

    Specifically on Idealism, “Like any hypothesis, large-scale or small-scale, Idealism’s value has to be measured in terms of its distinct explanatory and predictive results. On this criterion, Idealism scores in the hopeless range. It does no explanatory or predictive work in science or in ordinary life. Indeed, as Berkeley more or less admitted, even if one believes Idealism to be true, one has no choice but to act as though it were false.” Of course there are harder nuts to crack, like the “Mathematical Universe” 😉

    Dan – “Neither how metaphysical anti-realism renders ‘novelty that coheres with existing knowledge’ mysterious…”. I think the last quote by Churchland kind of says it: providing one has made certain philosophical commitments to rationality that are necessary to navigate our practical lives, those same commitments make predictive power one measure of how good an idea is. If my concepts about colour are based on the biology of the human eye, and are repeatedly borne out, I will be more likely to assent to the idea that if I were a dog I would see the world in black and white.

  13. A couple of points…

    Firstly, I think the description in the essay of the ordinary person’s view of reality is inadequate. Surely he/she would include the reality of human culture and so Sherlock Holmes and unicorns (as cultural elements, as more or less identifiable characters or ‘creatures’ in books and films and stories told etc.).

    This issue is closely related to a point I made in a comment on the original post.

    ‘[Quoting Daniel Kaufman:] “… [F]or me, the question of how we understand our fundamental relationship to the world is of tremendous interest and something that I never tire thinking, reading, or talking about.”

    I too am interested in getting a clear view of things, but I don’t know that I would characterize it in terms of understanding my (or our) “fundamental relationship to the world”. I just want to better understand the world (which includes myself and others and language and culture and all the rest)… ‘

    I just don’t understand why one would focus on “my fundamental relationship to the world”. The phrase seems to assume that “I” exist (or could exist) apart from or independently of the world of which I am a part.

    Heidegger got a lot of things wrong, but this crucially important issue he got right.

  14. Epistemic domains – schemas or frameworks – form the ground of any knowledge of any reality, and are inextricable from such. Fictions – intentionally constructed domains with no empirical claim beyond the media of construction – are not exceptions, but the rule.

    It was Peirce who noticed that sentences concerning unicorns could not be nonsense, simply because unicorns don’t physically exist, because then we should be unable to say what it is that not physically existing. Thus unicorns could have a mental reality, and sentences describing one – ‘it’s equine, it’s horned’ – would have truth value concerning its mental reality. The implications of this for speculative or experimental science – the science of discovery – were clear to Peirce. Two hundred years ago, the sentence ‘there is a material entity smaller than an atom’ would have been held to be nonsense, so that speculative hypothetical sentences, like ‘there may be a material entity smaller than an atom,’ would have been dismissed. Yet physics did progress as scientists allowed themselves to speculate on such questions as, ‘these readings make no sense unless we suppose that there are material entities smaller than atoms; what might their properties be?’

    One thing fiction can help us do is imaginatively consider the realm of possibilities; it cannot do this on the presumption that what we know of our fictions is not really knowledge. In a convention of Star Wars fans, there’s considerable amount of knowledge of that fictional universe one must have, in order to converse with other members of that community. We want those fans to admit that the characters in that universe do not exist in our shared physical universe; but it’s churlish to demand of them to abjure the data as ‘not knowledge,’ and their conversations ‘nonsense.’

    What this may mean for religions or other systematic ideologies – which may be rife with entities not physically existing – should be clear, but I’ve no space to elucidate.

    However, note I’ve made little reference to sensations, empirical experience, neurological events, or similar concerns; strictly speaking, such are tangential to how ‘knowledge’ of a ‘reality’ is constituted.

  15. Codicalism* emphasizes the view that elements of language and the substrate (of nature) are not to be be confused.


  16. I still wonder how many actual disagreements there are regarding this question, or at least for those who both understand the issue, and are using conforming definitions? If we’re mostly agreed however, then I suggest that we both acknowledge and revel in our progress, not look for ways to fail (which unfortunately has been too tempting in the field).

    As I understand the issue, “anti realism” isn’t mean to imply that reality isn’t real. (By definition, a “reality” simply must be “real.”) Thus any realists who argues against anti realism from this position, I think, should try again. Instead my understanding is that anti realism is meant to imply that the conscious entity’s perceptions of reality must be both imperfect depictions of reality, and that it simply cannot know that any of its perceptions hold any truth to them at all (beyond the given fact of their occurrences). So what reasonably educated person is able to take a premise such as this and also state “Yes, I am a realist”? If we get the fundamentals straight, I doubt there are many.

    Now it could very well be that some or most don’t use these same definitions. But if we were to at least begin from a clear position of mutual understanding, I personally could conceive of a philosophy community finally developing some generally accepted understandings regarding the nature of reality. Who shares my optimism?

  17. Philosopher Eric wrote:

    the conscious entity’s perceptions of reality must be both imperfect depictions of reality, and that it simply cannot know that any of its perceptions hold any truth to them at all (beyond the given fact of their occurrences)


    This seems to suggest that there is a “way reality is” independently of any conceptualization. That’s precisely the view under scrutiny, here.

  18. Hi DanK, I’ll move onto the language/frame of reference portion, which is more subtle than Descartes and Hume’s direct attacks on Perception, but uses the same epistemological vector to deliver an ontological claim.

    “If I ask about the world, you can offer to tell me how it is under one or more frames of reference; but if I insist that you tell me how it is apart from all frames, what can you say? We are confined to ways of describing whatever is described.”

    That, for an empiricist, seems a given. But such an “insistence” is needlessly burdensome. Just because an object cannot be described by a finite being (who is reliant on sensations) without a frame of reference, does not logically entail all descriptions from that frame of reference are false (that depends on how the frame aligns with reality), or that the object lacks any qualities in Reality.

    It seems at best this argument can limit our certainty regarding Knowledge about Reality “as it is” (we will never puncture the frame), but not reject that an “as it is” can exist or be perceived. That reality may never be perceived beyond a frame of reference, is a limit on us, not reality.

    And this is not to take Kant’s position. Using the example of causation, we see one ball move to touch another which in turn moves, and with enough such experiences in our bag of tricks we get this idea of the first ball causing the other ball to move. Now Hume is right and that idea could be a mistake, but that does not mean it is a mistake. The ball may really be causing the other to move. That would be the world “as it is”, and so we are actually able to describe that property. The same would go for color, where after much examination we determine that two different color perceptions come from sensing a single wavelength of light coming from the surface of an object. The wavelength could be “as it is”, and exist even if we were all blind. Right?

  19. Hi Dan,

    To me the most arresting part of your OP was the Humean thought experiment on the continued existence of a chair. I couldn’t believe such ‘nonsense’, so I felt obligated to verify the scenario. You are correct, that is what he maintained: an unobserved chair no longer is a chair. It is not explicitly stated what happens to the chair. He called our idea of the continued existence of the chair a fiction. HOWEVER, according to some students of Hume, he did allow that some fictions may be TRUE!

    I have heard of Hume throughout my existence but never had an interest in his thoughts since I had other matters to attend to. However, a quick glance at The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; David Hume: Imagination is very helpful for perspective. This famous thinker (1711 – 1776) now supports a whole commentariat dissecting what he might have meant or not.

    Hume “approaches questions in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics via questions about our minds. For example, before addressing the epistemological question of whether we have any justification for our beliefs about unobserved states of affairs, Hume asks which of our cognitive faculties is responsible for these beliefs.” (Hume therefore was more of a proto-psychologist and less of an ontologist. He thought he was constructing a “science of man”. Understanding the mind would seem to be a necessary first step in any ontology. Epistemology before ontology?)

    “Hume’s science of man aims to explain the most general beliefs and ways of thinking that we adopt in the course of ordinary life and in philosophical reflection. Often, Hume concludes that these beliefs and ways of thinking are not products of demonstrative or probable reasoning but, instead, are fictions produced by the exclusive imagination.” (As is well recognized nowadays, all of our perceptual sensations are made up, “fictions”, because they are indirect representations of reality as it is. A direct representation of reality is not possible – perfect accuracy is therefore not achievable. Our representations, however, are remarkably precise – the same sensation, “fiction”‘ is reproduced in response to a particular stimulus, almost every time. There are well known exceptions and caveats. By creatively applying science, we hope to improve accuracy. That is exactly what has happened. This suggests that philosophy is powerless without science, in this regard. In other areas the results should speak for themselves.)

    Hume did, in fact, address the dichotomy of noumenal and phenomenal reality: “Numerous Early Modern philosophers shared Hume’s view that only perceptions are ever “present to the mind,” but also held that we perceive bodies that continue to exist at times when nobody perceives them.” Hume called this a new fiction. However, he did not say that this represented a falsehood, rather that it was not possible to reason one’s way to that conclusion. The door was left open for science to answer the question.

    Perhaps the most reasonable position on our question is to recognize both perspectives. There is a noumenal reality of which we have direct access only to a very small part, but our indirect mental representations of it are riddled with ‘fiction’. The remaining challenge then is to try to figure out how accurate we can make the picture. I think we now all know what happens to the chair when nobody is in the room – we just leave the security monitor on. 😉

  20. Dbholmes: Of course, almost anything “could be.” That simply skirts the outer limits of logical possibility. But, it’s not very interesting. If there is a framework independent world, then there must be a way it is, as generic, “stuff” noumenalism is incoherent, for the reasons Davidson gives us. That means that you have to bite the bullet on my rabbits/schmabbits. “yes, damn it! The thing is *orange*, regardless of what that damned rabbit sees.” Is this possibly correct? Yes. Do I think it is? Absolutely not.

    Liam: By fiction, Hume intends falsehood. He doesn’t deny that there is casuality. He simply points out which part of it is “in” the phenomena and which part of it is the result of certain habits of mind. Similarly, he doesn’t deny that there are chairs. He simply wants to be clear as to which aspects of chairs are “in” the phenomena and which are the result of certain habits of the mind.

    Hume is a naturalist, not a skeptic, and he is the last person to take an active anti-realist position. Rather, he shows that realism cannot sustain philosophical analysis, but nonetheless everyone must — and should — act as realists. “Be a philosopher, but be a human being first” to paraphrase him.

  21. This seems to suggest that there is a “way reality is” independently of any conceptualization. That’s precisely the view under scrutiny, here.

    Interesting observation Daniel. This suggests to me that you’re defining anti realism far more broadly than I was — that from this view, there isn’t an independent way that reality is beyond us. Furthermore given the essay, apparently you personally take this belief, and seem surprised that so many scientists and philosophers do not. If I do have this right, it does seem like an odd position.

    Observe Rene Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” Well I can at least tell you that I happen to think, and therefore from my perspective, I must exist. I obviously can’t truly know that you or anything else exists, but if it’s true that I do think, then this does mandate that existence exists. Now if there is an existence which exists, then this will also mandate that there is indeed a way that existence happens to be. Are you able to provide a sensible means by which an existence could exist, but there is also no manner in which it exists? Such a thing would seem untrue by definition.

  22. [Daniel Kaufman to dbholmes:] “If there is a framework independent world, then there must be a way it is…”

    By definition, a framework-independent world can’t be described, so I’m not sure what is being denied. You could reasonably question the notion of a super-framework (or God’s eye view) however.

    But rejecting a super-framework is quite compatible (isn’t it?) with accepting that there is a world which our (necessarily limited) frameworks (partially) describe.

  23. Mark: Of course when we engage in empirical investigation we obtain knowledge about the world. No one disagrees with that, not even Berkeley.

    The disagreement is with the realist’s claim, not with the idea that empirical knowledge consists of knowledge about the world.

  24. “To be real…means to be an element of the system,” Carnap wrote, “hence this concept cannot be meaningfully applied to the system itself.”

    Why not? Surely, if all the parts were real then the whole system would be real. Hidden in this statement is the fundamental assumption that the ultimate system is ideal. This almost certainly is an Humean ‘fiction’. Mountains of new evidence support the opposite basic human intuition. Witness the revolutionary concept of evolution: from ‘nothing’ to the stuff of now; our solar system was first abiotic; consciousness evolved from smart molecules into god-like humans. Reality therefore preceded mind. Our ‘ideal’ culture is crafted therefore from the ephemeral stuff of noumenal reality.

    The indirect realist position, mine and still somewhat speculative at this point, is that everything is real. Surreal thoughts of Santa or schmabbits or of what could be for dinner reflect physical goings on inside of human beings – these individual mental experiences are still completely mysterious. Of course, there is no isolatable Santa neurochemical configuration and will never be. However, at this point idealists start slavering about determinism and Darwinian scientism. But that is unnecessary because the system in which we exist is ‘infinitely’ large and complex and so beautiful that there is more than adequate space for the ‘purely ideal’. In fact the ‘purely ideal’ is the locus of our transcendental creative streak, including the impulse to look for the invisible.

    “The problem with this move, then, is not in the relationship between “scheme and content,” per se, but rather, in the idea that there can be scheme-less content; that we can separate frameworks from the things they are frameworks for.”

    This seems to be a restatement of Carnap above. We have partially solved this problem by simply talking about it and refining our concepts. That there is scheme-less reality is now apparent – content however, cannot be scheme-less. We now routinely expect to find things that we had no inkling about based on prior experience. We speculate, fantasize and imagine and then go out and look for it. Most of the time we find nothing. Still, we evidently have more tools than just “linguistic frameworks/conceptual schemes/frames of reference”.

    The realistic narrative is at least as powerful as the idealistic one, IMHO.

  25. Since neither I nor Carnap are arguing for idealism, I am afraid that you are arguing with someone other than us.

  26. Hi DanK, basically I’d bite the bullet for both myself and the schmabbit. The thing is both orange and what the schmabbit sees, since “as it is” contains its nature and how that interacts with all possible frameworks. A more neutral statement regarding “as it is” would be that it reflects or emits light of a certain wavelength (potentially both the schmabbit and I could agree on this) and given our receptors “as they are” we experience that as orange or whatever.

    Demands that only framework free descriptions of “as it is”, and so wholly unsensed, can be descriptions of reality “as it is” seems to ignore the original problem. We have highly consistent experiences of a world around us. It is possible that nothing exists except our framework based perceptions. But then some form of mechanism to organize them must be explained, because a mechanism must exist. If not, what is the alternative?

    The simplest mechanism is WYSIWYG, hard realism, so the objects are always exactly as they appear and nothing else. Which I agree based on the arguments you discussed we can discount.

    The hardest is hard anti-realism, nothing we experience can be real as we experience it yet we have all these experiences we can discuss in a meaningful way. Frankly I don’t see how that avoids collapsing into solipsism, or explains the general utility of treating objects as real in the way we experience them.

    The middle route says there is an external world of objects with some nature and since we are also objects within that world we are forced into perceiving and knowing everything based on how our nature interacts with those other objects/events. Framework dependence is part of the reality of our existence, and as such cannot be used to dismiss realism in total.

    So I agree that no single experience is framework free, but if there is no real “as it is” nature to anything how are frameworks even possible, especially when they hinge on consistent sets of experiences over time and via multiple senses?

  27. labnut

    Dan-K, it seems to me you arguing for epistemic humility.

  28. I eagerly await the technically delayed video discussion for this topic, though in the mean time I’ll just recap where it is that I find myself:

    In my first comment I wondered if it could indeed be true that many or even most established philosophers and scientists were epistemic realists. Regardless of how valid our understandings might seem, I wouldn’t think that such people would be presumptive enough to attribute “truth” to what it is that we believe. And even if there is such controversy, hopefully we here can do better. Daniel Kaufman did then mention that this poor state was simply an anecdotal opinion, though his experience does naturally bring it credence.

    Then in my second comment I more fully noted that the perceptions of the conscious entity shouldn’t be perfect — it can’t actually know that there is any truth to its various musings. From here Daniel observed that my position did presupposed that existence does exist (correctly), which he mentioned was the nature of the debate itself (which I’m not so sure about).

    Thus in my third comment I observed that ontic anti realism does seem untrue by definition. Nevertheless Daniel might simply have been testing me (checking to see if I could provide a valid rebuttal) and doesn’t actually believe that reality isn’t real. Regardless, the coming video should illustrate his flavor anti realism. In the end I do hope that we here will be able to accept epistemic anti realism, and thus make general progress.

  29. Dbholmes wrote:

    “Just because an object cannot be described by a finite being (who is reliant on sensations) without a frame of reference, does not logically entail all descriptions from that frame of reference are false (that depends on how the frame aligns with reality), or that the object lacks any qualities in Reality.”

    Who says they are false? Quine doesn’t think “that rabbit is furry” is false.

    That being a rabbit stage or a rabbit is ony intelligible relative to a frame of reference simply demonstrates that all ontological commitment is framework relative. This doesn’t render ordinary statements false. It simply denies them the sort of interpretation that the metaphysical realist wants to give them.

    Philosopher Eric: The video is up.