A Discussion on Realism, Anti-Realism, and the Question of Human Knowledge

by Daniel Kaufman and Dan Tippens

The two Dans — Kaufman and Tippens — discuss metaphysical Realism, its troubles, and what our knowledge is knowledge of.

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53 Comments »

  1. I listened to the discussion. It was quite interesting.

    I’ve always thought of myself as a realist, but I’m being told that I am an anti-realist. However, my way of looking at things is somewhat different from yours. My preliminary conclusion from your discussion was that I am indeed an anti-realist. But some of what was said near the end made wonder if that was too hasty a conclusion.

    I come at this from a different direction. I’m not a philosopher, except in the sense that everybody is. I’m more a mathematician and scientist. I’ve been theorizing about human cognition, and that leads me to theorizing about how an evolved organism can have knowledge of the world. My conception of knowledge is based on abilities (or knowing how), so I don’t assume a picture theory of knowledge.

    My general conclusions are that there is a human independent reality, but there isn’t a “way that the world is”.

    My first disagreement was when you brought in Quine’s “gavagai” argument. I see that as an important argument, but I see it as addressing something different from why I don’t believe there to be a way that the world is.

    My second disagreement was that carving up the world seems important to me, yet you say that your anti-realism rules that out. Perhaps we have very different ideas about carving up.

    The above was mostly introducing myself.

    Now some questions. Firstly, it is often said among mathematicians, that a topologist is somebody who cannot tell the difference between a donut and a coffee cup. I see that as very much related to the questions that you were discussing. I am wondering how you see it.

    Secondly, I see my view as possibly being similar to conventionalism. I’m wondering if you have any comments on that.

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  2. In codicalism, the substrate is “the reality”, and languages (whether natural, mathematical, or programming) are tools made by us that are not to be confused with the substrate itself (which is ultimately ineffable).

    Codicalism, it seems, deconstructs the distinction between realism and anti-realism.

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  3. Well done, and quite informative on my primary interests regarding philosophers, viz. a) what do philosophers do? and b) what do they contribute to our culture?:

    a) They critically analyze language and b) they highlight the fact that there is a great amount of confusion. Despite their sincere efforts, confusion is still abundant.

    I think I now have a clearer understanding of Dan K’s noumenal reality (reality as it is in itself): we know it is there, we can talk about it even though we have no descriptive words for it. This is almost an impossible challenge, but it does correspond very closely to Godel’s theory of incompleteness.

    Science in its speculative mode is quite aware of this problem and has found some means by which to access this great unknown. The effects on our culture have been great.

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  4. Neil: You’ll have to explain the point underlying the coffee cup/doughnut joke, before I can address it. Also, even if one agrees with Ryle that knowing-how is prior to knowing that, it doesn’t follow that there is no knowing-that.

    Philip: The idea that reality consists of an ineffable substrate is precisely what much of the argument against realism is about.

    Liam: I’m not sure I’m getting you. It’s precisely the notion of an indescribable, quality-less noumenal reality that Davidson has shown is incoherent. So, no, “we” don’t know it is there.

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  5. I’m also a mathematician, and I’m sadly not very well-read in philosophy. Nevertheless, I really enjoy reflecting on some of these ideas. Among mathematicians, I suspect that Realism/Platonism is the default view, if any thought is given to the question. It’s extremely tempting, because many mathematicians (including myself) find that the abstract structures we wrestle with feel _extremely_ real to us.

    I work in harmonic analysis on Lie groups, for instance (never mind exactly what that is, for the moment). Lie groups feel as real to me as an animal or a chair. I seem to experience them in the same way I experience a book or a desk or the wind, for that matter. They come in various species, and we have a very nice taxonomy of them. We study their “behavior.” We use words like “action” and often say that a Lie group “acts” on some other structure. Perhaps it’s the (useful) language we use which is tricking us into feeling this way, or perhaps it’s the fact that we spend so much time producing mental models of them in order to study their behavior (there’s another slippery word…), but whatever it is, it’s extremely hard for me to pry myself from the idea that Lie groups somehow really exist “out there.”

    (mathematical digression)
    I think I can at least partially explain the idea behind the coffee cup/donut joke, although Neil may prefer to answer in a different way. Roughly speaking, it’s that a topologist and a geometer care about different things. Both study “shape” and “form” in some sense, but they study different aspects of it. To simplify things a bit, I’ll say that a geometer cares about things like angles and distances, but a topologist doesn’t. A topologist cares about less rigid aspects of the structure, such as whether there’s a “hole” in the object. To a topologist, a coffee cup and donut look the same because they share the same _topological_ structure. But to a geometer, they look different because they have different _geometries_. One could say that the topologist and geometer carve up the world differently, and have different ways of distinguishing objects.

    I’m not sure whether you’re familiar with the language of category theory from mathematics. It has become more popular over the last few decades, somewhat at the expense of the language of set theory (which is still incredibly useful and important). It’s a very useful language from the standpoint of helping us think clearly.

    A “category” is a type of mathematical structure. More specifically, it’s a collection of “objects” (roughly speaking, instances of the category) together with “morphism” (roughly speaking, mappings between objects which preserve the internal structure of those objects). The internal structure of the objects is in large part _defined_ by which mappings between objects are deemed to be structure-preserving. An “isomorphism” is just a one-to-one mapping between objects which is a “morphism” in both directions. [Of course, the really useful aspect of category-theoretic language is that one can talk about “functors” which map one category to another in a “structure-preserving way.”]

    Anyway, the upshot of this is that in mathematics there is a category called “topology” in which an ideal coffee cup and donut are isomorphic, but there are other categories in which they are not isomorphic.
    (end mathematical digression)

    By the way, Daniel, I’m curious about something which you started to get into at the beginning of the conversation but never came back to. You posited that there is no reality independent of the minds which observe the world. Nevertheless, you seemed to suggest that you don’t believe that the universe “sprang into existence” at the moment when the first sentient being began to to observe it. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood the nature of your anti-realism.

    Anyway, thanks for the very interesting conversation! I’ve been following your conversations with Massimo on BloggingHeads and was also sad to see the end of Scientia Salon. Good luck in this new venture!

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  6. Liam Ubert,

    “I think I now have a clearer understanding” – Actually, you follow this with remarks that indicate you don’t have such a clearer understanding, especially since you appear to be attributing to Dan K a Kantian notion which he believes has been shown by others to be insufficient.

    Further, your final remark indicates that you have chosen to ignore Dan K’s caution that the Realism/Anti-realism problem is “empirically neutral” – ie., it does not respond to empirical practices, nor does it interfere with them. It has to do with whether epistemological claims have necessary ontological implications.

    The way this finally intersects with scientific practice is not so much a matter of theory but of attitude. It can be demonstrated, for instance, that Richard Feynman was a thorough-going anti-realist – he didn’t really care whether particles were ‘really’ there. On the other hand, Brian Greene seems pretty convinced that there are ‘really’ strings ‘out there’ (and apparently everywhere). Their work *as* practice has proven largely similar mixtures of mathematics, instrument deployment, and verbal descriptions of processes.

    But attitudes do matter. I suspect that those with an anti-realist attitude would be more willing to give up on unproductive research, since they have less invested in the ‘reality’ of the research matter. On the other hand, a realist attitude would give one greater confidence in the explanatory power of research results. But this is just speculation, and would need behavioral research to argue adequately.

    None of this has to do with whether anything has been ‘accessed’ through practice. No one doubts that there’s stuff. The question is how do we talk about it, and whether our talking about it is definitive of what it ‘really is,’ or merely the best we can do in any given circumstance.

    My own suspicion is that the whole of human discourse is an on-going series of fictions used to give us some sense that we belong here, and can have confidence in what we are doing, confirmed socially by others like ourselves. It doesn’t tell us anything about what is ‘out there.’

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  7. I get it that codicalism would thus be considered anti-realism. It’s certainly anti-Platonism.

    On the idea that “Lie groups somehow really exist”, at least from a constructivist-codicalist viewpoint, one can have languages about “continuous things” without continuous things actually existing in reality (the substrate).

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  8. I didn’t make it to the end of the discussion, not because it was not interesting, but because I don’t have time to set aside to watch it. Consequently I am not sure if the following was brought up.

    The logician Augustus de Morgan, I think, has it right:

    “Our most convincing communicable proof of the existence of other things is, not the appearance of objects, but the necessity of admitting that there are other minds besides our own. … When once we have admitted different and independent minds, the reality of external objects (external to all those minds) follows as of course. … There must be a somewhat independent of those minds, which thus acts upon them all at once, and without any choice of there own. this somewhat is what we call an external object: and whether it arise in Berkeley’s mode, or in any other, matters nothing to us here.”

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  9. It seems like the fly in the pudding that puts out the realist is always going to be the frame of reference. Does it seem like the realist would be willing to accept that something radically different than people say tralfamadorians( that perceive time two dimensionally) could hold that there’s a single frame of reference, as the essence of realism claims that there is?

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  10. Great discussion, guys. I think reality has a determinate nature apart from frames of reference. It’s just that we can’t *describe* this determinate nature without invoking a frame of reference. If reality having a ‘determinate nature’ is held to be a notion that already involves a frame of reference, I would agree, but then say that this is a notion (within a frame of reference) that is true of a reality outside all frames of reference. Frames of reference must be able to talk about what is outside of frames of references, no? If not, what would be the criterion regarding the worth of a given frame of reference in “describing the world”? Here, I don’t mean to suggest a correspondence view of truth–I am a Tarskian deflationist–only a view that the notion of a determinate reality apart from frames of references is not incoherent. That a description is framework-bound doesn’t mean it is arbitrary.

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  11. ejwinner comments: “No one doubts that there’s stuff. The question is how do we talk about it, and whether our talking about it is definitive of what it ‘really is,’ or merely the best we can do in any given circumstance.” This seems fine with my understanding.

    Dan K’s position seems too finely nuanced:

    “The anti realist does not deny the existence of other things. He denies a certain account or interpretation of those other things.”

    “It’s precisely the notion of an indescribable, quality-less noumenal reality that Davidson has shown is incoherent. So, no, “we” don’t know it is there.”

    So it is only out there when one feels like it? The fact of the matter is that searching for an accurate account of reality has been one of the most astonishing successes of humankind. If everything in existence, including the contents of our minds, is made up of the stuff of noumenal reality, then our naive view of reality also represents a real version of it, just extremely limited and laden with ‘fictions’.  Our fictions are also real – and this is not as trivial as it sounds.

    Perhaps we should take a cue from the logical positivists: if a statement is empirically neutral, it is by definition meaningless. I have a hard time imagining any interesting statement that is also empirically neutral, i.e. is completely devoid of predictive power, i.e. meaningless.

    “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.” (from the OP)

    So we agree: there is stuff out there, and talking and thinking about it is of “tremendous interest”. That to me means that it is not empirically neutral. The philosophers are correct, natural language can not engage noumenal reality, except in the most superficial way, as we are doing here. But there are other languages that theoretically could, as Phillip Thrift and Matthew Dawson suggest above.

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  12. Hi Daniel – ” I’m not sure I’m getting you. It’s precisely the notion of an indescribable, quality-less noumenal reality that Davidson has shown is incoherent. So, no, “we” don’t know it is there.”

    Is this the royal ‘we’? According to the usual description this reality would have all qualities and no qualities, and we can know it is there, or, rather, here. (‘Noumenal’ may not be the right word though). At any rate, a phenomenon beyond the categories such as Kant posits is bound to be indescribable.

    Just sticking up for an opposing view.

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  13. Hi DanK and DanT, I really should have waited for the video. In using arguments against realism, with no clear definition of anti-realism, DanK’s original essay had me assuming he was open to constructionist or Berkeley style anti-realism (those were not disputed in text). Admittedly, the form of “anti” realism DanK describes in the video, may be a bit too subtle.

    If the result is (as someone here suggested) a Feynman-esque indifference to questions of whether models represent some underlying reality, then that makes sense. If it goes further to reject the possibility of models of a physical universe representing reality (which I always took by the term anti-realism), then I remain confused as to how that final step is made.

    In the video it sounded like DanK was specifically targeting the plank in the realist position that external objects have a deterministic nature, which knowledge-building tries to represent. Is this right?

    It seems to me certain levels of interaction with the world can elicit responses which get at (because they require) some approximation of how the universe is “as it is”. And this relies on a very real deterministic nature.

    For example, in molecular biology it is possible for someone to estimate what physical shape a chain of molecules must fold into to emit a certain wavelength of light when it absorbs a specific wavelength. While too small to see, an electron microscope can directly visualize the system and it turns out to be the same shapes and sizes predicted. Also XRay diffraction patterns suggest the same conformations and sizes. One can then change a cell’s DNA which changes the protein to get different conformations with different predicted effects.

    This seems to involve separate “frames of reference” (human, electron microscope, and XRays) reaching the same conclusion, with the added power of manipulating separate objects to effect the subject several steps down a required casual pathway. This level of complex interaction appears to demand some validity between the model and certain aspects of the world as it is, unless one accepts an idealist concept.

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  14. Matthew Dawson: No, of course the universe didn’t spring into existence once conscious creatures began experiencing it. I simply don’t see what that has to do with the question of whether speaking of planets or stars or quantum particles is intelligble independent of any conceptual scheme or frame of reference. This is why the use of this point as a kind of “Gotcha!” puzzles me.

    Pmpaolini: It’s precisely the whole “inside the frame of reference versus outside the frame of reference” that is the problem. This way of understanding our situation in the world is based on a number of fundamental mistakes.

    PeterJ: I don’t see how anything you’ve said, here, constitutes an argument against the anti-realist’s points.

    Dbholmes: Simply saying “x is a wavelength” or “there are wavelengths” presupposes a conceptual scheme. This is Quine’s point that it is only intelligible to speak of there being rabbits or rabbit-stages relative to a conceptual scheme. And I don’t see how anything along Berkeleyan lines follows from it.

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  15. Hi Dan,

    The anti realist does not deny the existence of other things. He denies a certain account or interpretation of those other things.

    Yes, but what I am taking from this is the “ and whether it arise in Berkeley’s mode, or in any other, matters nothing to us here.” ie that we know there are objects external to the mind and that is all that we really need to know.

    Is the Moon there if no one is observing it? Why do we want to know? What difference would it make?

    In fact I think it is only the existence of other minds that is important to us (including non-human animal minds). If I were to discover that the Moon was nothing but outward appearance then it would not bother me much. If I discovered that my sons were nothing but outward appearance then it would be devastating.

    If other people were like figures in a dream, having no internal lives of their own then life would not be worth living.

    But of course, like most people, I don’t even give a second thought to this idea. But for the rest of it, stuff that doesn’t think and feel, who cares what its nature is?

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  16. My worries from the initial post have indeed been dispelled — Daniel Kaufman has made it clear enough to me that he’s both an epistemic anti realist, as well as an ontic realist. Furthermore I did find his most hopeful point to be a scarcely included final note. Even though Daniel has spent a great deal of time studying both prominent and less prominent thinkers, he also mentioned wanting this issue to be resolved and set aside. Here here! The field of philosophy simply cannot progress, without also developing a community with its own generally accepted understandings. Those of us who are able to fully accept epistemic anti realism, along with ontic realism, should thus be in better position to tackle the field’s greater questions.

    I require a community which is not quite the same as the “bloodsport heyday” of Scientia Salon. Sure the competition may have been fun, but the effective goal of making dissenters look stupid, did conflict with my greater need to actually communicate my various ideas. While this competition certainly didn’t go poorly for me, it also produced defended minds which were thus far more difficult to breach. Therefore I do hope for The Electric Agora to develop a more civil and open community, especially given my own radical ideas.

    So once again, it’s not just the scientist, the philosopher, or even the human that takes what it thinks it knows (evidence), and then uses this to assess various ideas that it’s not so sure about (theory). This is also how a perfectly non-lingual lizard should function (assuming that it’s conscious). In the end all I can know about reality is that I do personally exist in some perfectly non defined manner. Furthermore I am quite aware that this was spoken through the reference frame of English, though it’s surely all that an idiot can manage regarding such ontological notions.

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  17. Liam Ubert,

    “if a statement is empirically neutral, it is by definition meaningless” – the problem with this statement is that it is itself empirically neutral. Most language is ’empirically neutral,’ which the Logical Positivists never grasped.

    The criteria of predictability does not implicate any necessary ontology of the predicted behavior. The sum-over-histories (developed Feynman, by attitude an instrumentalist) is a predictive tool, concerning the behavior of what we agree to consider sub-atomic particles, that register in certain instruments. It doesn’t tell us that ‘the world really is made up of sub-atomic particles.’ (Predictability, taken as methodological priority, doesn’t lead to realism, but to what is known as ‘instrumentalism’ – the anti-realist assumption that the important question is ‘how things work,’ not ‘what things are.’)

    You seem to claim that
    a. our senses work perfectly,
    b. the information they receive is readily decipherable,
    c. the technology we use as sense prosthetic is trustworthy,
    d. allowing us to get a picture of the whole with little difficulty,
    e. described in language logically clarified, impeded neither by any bias,
    e. nor by structural problems embedded in language per se.

    Taken together, a and b constitute naive realism, the dominant epistemology throughout the Middle Ages, which assured people that meat gave birth to maggots.

    Loosing faith in this led, in part, to development of the technology of the new sciences; distrust of the reliability of the new technology led to improved technology.

    If there weren’t inherent structural problems in language, logical clarification would be unnecessary; potential biases implicit in those structures would never present a problem.

    Thus questions of language and reliability remain.

    I’ve also argued the reality of fictions; but I draw from this that what constitutes knowledge is a layering of ‘realities,’ which never quite come together to form a whole “reality.” I accept some constructivism: perhaps all we ‘know’ is the discourse we use to map what we call ‘reality;’ and I accept enough instrumentalism to hold that successful navigation of that map doesn’t require that the map be a ‘true representation’ – only that it works.

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  18. Liam wrote:

    Perhaps we should take a cue from the logical positivists: if a statement is empirically neutral, it is by definition meaningless.

    ——————————————–

    You can, if you like. Just be aware that no one else does. The view has been thoroughly discredited, Quine being one of the primary discrediters.

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  19. A lot of the confusion in the comments here and in those attached to the background essay would seem to have arisen because people (quite reasonably) assumed that ‘anti-realism’ involves a denial of the existence of something, whereas Dan’s anti-realism seems to be more about a denial that certain explicit claims can be meaningfully made.

    This is fine. I personally am quite comfortable with the critical approach outlined in the early part of the interview. And Dan’s acceptance of a kind of naive or commonsense realism reassured me.

    Some lingering doubts remain, however.

    This is from the last section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on scientific realism:

    “It is not uncommon to hear philosophers remark that the dialogue between the various forms of realism and antirealism surveyed in this article shows every symptom of a perennial philosophical dispute. The issues contested range so broadly and elicit so many competing intuitions (about which, arguably, reasonable people may disagree), that some question whether a resolution is even possible.”

    I don’t see any way of deciding on a position. Personally, I am attracted to scientific realism, but draw back from making unnecessary metaphysical commitments.

    The intellectual history side of all this is interesting and instructive. I feel I have learned something over the years by being exposed to various forms of conventionalism, instrumentalism, positivism, etc. But the debate within philosophy over recent decades has become, I think, somewhat sterile and self-perpetuating.

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  20. Eric –

    “I require a community which is not quite the same as the “bloodsport heyday” of Scientia Salon. Sure the competition may have been fun, but the effective goal of making dissenters look stupid, did conflict with my greater need to actually communicate my various ideas.”

    Well, communicating ones ideas is not usually a good way of preventing ‘bloodsport’. 🙂

    I don’t think dissenters were ever made to look stupid and I enjoyed the toing and froing. It’s a tricky problem though. I would disagree with most of what’s said here but feel I cannot keep wading in to disturb the peace. .

    Dan – I was disagreeing with your point, not anti-realism. You go on to say, ‘No, of course the universe didn’t spring into existence once conscious creatures began experiencing it’.

    Creatures, no. But nobody will ever show that something can exist in the absence of consciousness, and this inability seems relevant to the topic.

    My view would be that the reification of matter is at the root of the these merry-go-round problems that never go away. We assume it is there but cannot prove it, so are left with what seems to be a problem. Are we really clear what is meant by ‘exist’ and ‘real’? For some philosophers these words would have opposite meanings, such that what is real does not really exist and what exists is not truly real. I’m saying this just to suggest that there’s another way to come at the realism/anti-realism question.

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  21. I don’t know what an “epistemic anti realist is.” If it is a skeptic, then I am not one.

    Daniel I do now suppose that it could be disconcerting for someone to fabricate a term that they presume of you, and even when done respectfully. My apologies. Thus I’ll try again by only referencing myself.

    I am an “epistemic anti realist,” as well as an “ontic realist.” By this I mean that my own understandings can at most bear only rough approximations to any actual reality itself, though I can still be certain that some kind of actual reality does exist, and this is because I do perceive personal thought. Consider a lizard that is given to exist beyond me. If it perceives a tasty worm, this will simply be an “epistemic” understanding that it has, not a fully accurate perspective of reality (and may be an illusion entirely). Thus for all matters of “epistemology,” or that which the conscious entity thinks it knows, I see no rational alternative to anti realism. (Does anyone else?) But if I do think anything at all, in itself this cannot be falsified. Thus for me an “ontic reality” must exist in some manner. (Right?)

    Since “thought” does happen to be an essential element to these definitions, I’ll quite briefly mention what I mean by this: I define thought as “the processing element of the conscious mind.” Thus “pain” will be a demonstration of thought, as well as figuring out how to avoid it.

    Yes Phillip, I could go along with “Rortian Antirepresentationalism,” if it means that there is no ultimate language, even though something must exist (me at least!). Can anyone else offer objections or support? Dantip? I would hope for as many of us as possible to reach some kind of agreement, and so help Daniel Kaufman put this issue to rest…

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  22. Hi DanK, your reply did not address the point I was trying to raise and I apologize if my example/wording wasn’t clear (too tech-y the message was lost).

    I planned to ask about internal realism, so I was very glad that you stated it is close to your view, and especially glad you linked to that article on internal realism so I can point at a less tech-y version of the argument I was trying to make!

    Your nice cookie-dough cutter analogy with DanT seems similar to Forrai’s two level cake analogy and both reveal a potential problem…

    “Why should the top layer, Forrai asks, match the bottom layer? Although it is possible that they match, it seems very unlikely, Forrai says, that they will. Indeed, Forrai says it would be something like a miracle if our concepts should map onto entities that are ontologically independent of the mind.”

    But I don’t agree. Its impossibility assumes a disconnect between mind and the world in which it exists. I had never heard of content externalism before, but the description given is the kind of thing I was trying to get at.

    “…the world ontologically, and not just causally, (at least partially) determines the mind. Content externalism has it that the world is ontologically independent of the mind; its structures and categories are there well before our arrival on the scene. The mind, however, is not so ontologically independent: the concepts that populate the mind… are the result of causal interaction with the world, either through evolution, learning, or both… The world is somehow or other ontologically fixed independently of the mind, and then the mind derives a number of its concepts and categories from its causal interaction with the world. And… it is neither a mystery why many of our concepts should refer to the world, nor is it possible that all of our judgments should turn out to be false.”

    I was trying to give an example of learning.

    The concept of the internal realist leaves me wondering how we are ever successful at doing anything?

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  23. dbholmes:

    First, I only cited the review for its definition of internal realism in the first paragraph. I was not intending to endorse it or the book otherwise. And I said it is the closest “named” position to my own. But it is not my view. It still has way to much of the sort of crude subject/object – inside/outside talk that is what causes people to persist in holding precisely the sorts of false pictures that I oppose.

    As for the rest, I’m sorry, but I just don’t see how it contradicts the position I’ve taken. As a Wittgensteinian, I believe that the
    “contents” in the mind are socially-linguistically dependent — i.e. no private languages. But I don’t see why this suggests, in any sense, that it is intelligible to speak of the world and the things in it, independently of any conceptual scheme.

    This statement: “The world is somehow or other ontologically fixed independently of the mind” is precisely what Quine (and Carnap) demonstrate is not the case. And I have yet to hear a counterargument that is even remotely up to the task of rendering the case otherwise.

    “The concept of the internal realist leaves me wondering how we are ever successful at doing anything?”

    Given that metaphysical positions like this are empirically neutral, I am left wondering why you are wondering. Indeed, I have to admit that I find peoples’ difficulty with this thesis hard to understand, and marvel at the extent to which the Cartesian picture still exercises such a strong grip on the consciousness of modern, Western thinkers.

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  24. Dan K,

    What does your anti-realism say about intentionality and the distinction between language and reality? Regarding intentionality, it seems the view that mental states and linguistic entities are *about* something beyond themselves would fall into the subject/object dichotomy you find problematic. Same with the distinction between language and reality.

    You say the metaphysical issue of realism versus anti-realism is empirically neutral, but I’m not sure about that. The notion that there is a reality independent of what we believe and say about it is a very basic assumption of science. If science were to adopt your anti-realism in a strict sense, how would the language of science change?

    It seems to me that in ordinary language “reality” functions, perhaps specifically functions, to talk generally about what exists independently of our thoughts and language. While the term might be hard or impossible to define, I don’t see how it is problematic. In fact it seems a term critical to operation of language. Does your anti-realism have a place for the notion of reality, or it considered inherently problematic?

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  25. “Gábor Forrai has written a very clear and articulate defense of internal realism, the view that the categories and structures of the world are a function of our conceptual schemes. Internal realism is opposed to metaphysical realism, the view that the world’s structure is wholly independent, both causally and ontologically, of the human mind. For the metaphysical realist, the world is one thing and the mind is another. For the internal realist, on the other hand, though the world is causally independent of the human mind, the structure of the world – the individuals, kinds, and categories of the world—is a function of the human mind.”  Graham PJ, 2001.

    This paragraph, referred to by Dan K, as sort of indicative of his position, illustrates why the debate between scientists and philosophers is not going to quiet down any time soon, especially since the philosophers operate preferentially in a self-referential system that very few scientists, mathematicians or others choose to enter. The philosophers believe that insights garnered through logic and reason can decide the nature of the universe, no matter what the empirical evidence. Since the world is constantly changing, the frameworks should also change. The right framework is an open-ended system that recognizes the large gaps in information that there are.

    Both the metaphysicals and the internals, in this case, seem to think that the human mind is some ethereal spirit sitting in judgement on what is real and what is true. A more objective basis would be to recognize that we are marvelously complex organisms trying to understand their place in a bewildering environment filled with opportunities and threats. Each one of us is configured differently, built of ontic materials, some of which can only be found in that individual. We may be genetically programmed to be diverse and this leads to different perspectives and intuitions, by design.

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  26. Liam, we really aren’t getting anywhere. As I’ve already indicated, whether one is a metaphysical realist or anti-realist is empirically neutral. It is a matter of how we *interpret* the object of knowledge. There is no empirical evidence, therefore, that would decide the question, one way or another, as it is not an empirical question but a conceptual — and thus — philosophical one.

    The rhetorical trope of isolated philosophers engaged in an activity that “few scientists…choose to enter” has become really tired and boring. Not interested in philosophical analysis? That’s OK. But the “no one cares about it” argument really needs to be retired. For one thing, it is fallacious — plenty of things are true that only a minority of people believe — and for another, it is a bit obnoxious, when invoked in response to a program on philosophy, by philosophers.

    I’m inclined to let the matter drop at this point. We clearly are not going to persuade one another.

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  27. This site appears to have inherited the theme from Scientia Salon of “scientists think X, philosophers think Y”.

    Neither scientists, nor philosophers, are a hive mind. When it comes to matters beyond the reach of empirical testing, scientists have a diverse set of opinions, some informed by philosophy, some not (or at least not consciously).

    And of course it is possible to be both scientist and philosopher.

    It becomes annoying when people express their opinions in terms of “this is what scientists think”, as though they speak for scientists or science in general.

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  28. I think It is true to say that there is not a single “scientific realism”, but there is a loose consensus about unobservables. One is that they are pragmatically essential to doing science (constructive empiricist), that they need to be constantly tested (scientific skepticism, model parsimony), and that historically some really useful ones have eventually been observed in ways that satisfy scientists that they actually are objects, even though they might not satisfy certain definitions for directly perceived. A sufficiently sophisticated antirealism is supposed to be empirically equivalent to a non-naive scientific realism, but I think it has a equivocal relationship with unobservables. The realist viewpoint is that a given hypothesis about an unobservable is closer or further from the true state of affairs, and points to tests we might do. The motivation for such a test is straightforward (“naive”). The fictionalist doesn’t have any reason to perform such a test (everything is working fine as it is), and a “mysterian” that such a test is wasted effort. The empiricist’s motivation is a bit mixed – she might point to previous empirical success in actually visualizing such unobservables as genes and atoms, but this is rather indirect, relying on previous realists’ work.

    Re frames of reference, realists believe it is possible to correctly transform between different frames – whether moving between egocentric coordinate systems, or making sense of apparently irreconcilable differences about, say, timing or perception of events.

    Metaphysics, or ontology, is the study of the most basic and general problems about the universe and the mind. (This is the classical view. We shall disregard Quine’s confusion between ontology and reference class or denotation.) There are four main
    attitudes to ontology: to deny its legitimacy (radical skepticism, positivism, and Wittgenstein); to build on folk physics (like Strawson) or folk psychology (like most philosophers of mind); to construct fanciful theories (like Leibniz’s monadology, Hegel’s philosophy of nature, or Whitehead’s process metaphysics); and to work on Peirce’s scientific philosophy project, which views ontology as general science.

    … Worse, Quine never formulated an exact and comprehensive ontology sketching the salient traits of the things that compose his world. This is why all of his philosophical opinions, like Wittgenstein’s, have gained instant popularity: because they come in small doses and strikingly worded, on top of being extravagant, and thus original after all.

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  29. DavidDuffy –

    “There are four main attitudes to ontology: to deny its legitimacy (radical skepticism, positivism, and Wittgenstein); to build on folk physics (like Strawson) or folk psychology (like most philosophers of mind); to construct fanciful theories (like Leibniz’s monadology, Hegel’s philosophy of nature, or Whitehead’s process metaphysics); and to work on Peirce’s scientific philosophy project, which views ontology as general science…”

    …”Metaphysics, or ontology, is the study of the most basic and general problems about the universe and the mind”

    A fifth attitude would say ontology has to be, in the end, the study of mind, with apperception as a principle method. A sixth would say it is a study of logic, with some weight given to the fact that our usual concept of existence causes logical paradoxes. .

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  30. Hi pmpaolini,

    I’m very happy that you’ve dropped by, since from the past I do know that your mind isn’t overly defended. Furthermore I presume that Daniel Kaufman won’t mind me taking a stab at your question from my own position, (which doesn’t prevent him from doing so from his).

    I believe that “intentionality” does step things up far higher than the current issue of “realism.” There is nothing even slightly tricky about my own epistemic anti realism, and ontic realism. It’s simply that the conscious entity does happen to be a relative idiot, though if it exists (and I’m convinced that I do at least) then there is indeed a reality that it may or may not have any comprehension of. Moving the question further to “intentionality,” however, goes to the heart of my theory itself. Though you’ve asked this regarding language, I believe that intentionality must be addressed long before the conscious entity attains such a tool.

    My theory is that the conscious entity takes what it thinks it knows (evidence), and then uses this to assess ideas that it’s not so sure about (theory). When a theory continues to stay consistent which what it thinks it knows, it does tend to become accepted. But “intentionality” gets into why the conscious lizard, for example, does any of this at all? My theory is that it has personal incentive to do so — negative qualia generally exists for getting its theory wrong, as well as positive qualia for getting it right. So the conscious lizard is not just “a computer,” or functioning under perfect personal irrelevance, but rather has incentive to figure things out given the punishment/reward element of its existence. The more rewarded it is over a given period, the better that existence shall be for it, with the opposite having an opposite effect.

    I suspect that evolution created punishment/reward, and thus consciousness, because standard irrelevant computing did not provide life with sufficient autonomy. Here evolution effectively said, “You personally must figure this out, and your motivation shall be the substantial penalties and rewards associated with qualia.”

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  31. Hi Dan,

    I apologize for going on about this subject which I care much about. I do appreciate the anti-realist position and I believe it represents a fundamental challenge to empiricists when they start philosophizing about reality as it is in itself, but I suspect we can deal with it. Benign ‘scientism’ is still a viable option therefore.

    Anyone interested in my very superficial, ordinary language expositions on ontic reality and consciousness can look here and here.

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  32. Liam:

    I don’t mind the discussion at all! But when you start saying that “no one” cares what philosophers think — to a philosopher, which I am — it is a bit insulting. But the conversation itself is why we’re all here, so have at it!

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  33. Hi DanK, to be fair to me I didn’t take internal realism as your position, just close. Since I was going to raise it as an example anyway, I was glad you did first as a point from which discussion could move.

    I hope you don’t see me as trying to refute or insult your position. I am just trying to get a fix on it while defining my own, with the questions/problems I see. As I’ve said before, Wittgenstein is opaque to me. Perhaps I am not clever enough to see the angle. I never thought I had a problem with Quine, but you seem to get more from him than I did, or at least than I’m willing to grant. I’m not sure I’d accept a label of Cartesian for my position.

    Where I mainly getting confused is when you say objects are accepted, Berkeley and constructionist accounts of objects are not, and planets are accepted as entities that existed before us, yet there is a problem with an idea that the world was ontologically fixed before our minds. The last two in particular seem contradictory.

    I understand that our experiences and discussions of them will be locked within frames of reference. But the idea that experience or knowledge reduces to language games alone, such that experiences cannot be considered as having some mapping relation to a world from which they come, seems problematic. At the very least it seems to ignore one important contributor to the conversations we have: the world.

    This reply is to set up the issue as it stands for me. So you don’t have to reply. My next reply will have an example and specific questions for discussion…

    Hi Robin, I also don’t like science v philosophy arguments. But discussing science as having a specific viewpoint which differs from general philosophy, does not seem to be that. Science uses certain assumptions* as the basis for its working methodology (*which admittedly may be wrong, though some scientists forget). In this sense, philosophy is less constrained in its methodology and subjects, which is fine.

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  34. dbholmes:

    The Berkeleyan says that tables and chairs are mental objects. The constructivst says that we make stars and planets. I don’t see why the anti-realist, as I describe him, need accept either of these notions.

    Yes, our knowledge is of the world and of the things in it. This is not affected by the fact that it is only intelligible to speak of specific things and events, with specific qualities, relative to a conceptual scheme/frame of reference. It is the realist who wants to make the extraordinary claim that it is intelligible to speak of planets or gravity, independently of any conceptual scheme/frame of reference.

    In this sense, I agree with Kant — the object of knowledge, indeed, of inquiry of any kind, is of a world of things under various conceptual schemes/frames of reference. Where I disagree with him is with regard to his claim that there must be some further noumenal world, beyond that, which quality-less and un-describable.

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  35. Dan –

    Regarding Kant.I think maybe you are dismissing a good idea. If we reduce our mental world then we are reducing the categories of thought. If we reduce them fully then we are left with a phenomenon or state that is not an instance of a category, just as Kant concludes. Such a phenomenon must inevitably be indescribable, since words and concepts could only mischaracterize it. In this way Kant’s psychology would mirror Nagarjuna’s ontology, for which the whole of existence would reduce likewise to a phenomenon beyond the categories and which would therefore be indescribable. Relevantly, however, the ontological claim would be that this indescribable ur-phenomenon has no associated noumenon.

    It’s an idea that metaphysics seems to need, while Kant suggests that this phenomenon would be the proper subject for any rational psychology. Perhaps it would be the proper subject for any rational ontology. Just perhaps…
    .. . .

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  36. Sorry Dan, I have quoted Bunge so many times over at SS that I thought a citation superfluous. As Liam implied, he attempts always to be pithy – perhaps too much so. Reading through Lokhorst on the Tractatus at least,

    Click to access wittgenstein.pdf


    the ontology as described as perhaps not that different from that of Bunge’s – objects form the substance of the world; objects, kinds, and relations can only be investigated empirically. However, Proops’ discussion [2004] of the ambiguities.of “substance” and other terms in the Tractatus make all this less clear to me.

    Dear PeterJ, Bunge spends some time later on your 5th and 6th options under “fanciful” – viz his remark about a “classical” definition of metaphysics.

    Putnam’s quip about the efficacy of scientific realism being miraculous if it is not the correct approach is pretty similar to my feelings. Comments about the poor showing in any particular scientific field are answered by “Time will take care of that…”

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  37. To restate the counter-argument that has been made by me and others in perhaps a more persuasive way:

    If pre-existing reality as it is, in itself, was featureless and without structure (sort of like an amorphous dough), then we would not be able to interact with it. The net result would be that we and life would not exist. There could be no conceptual frames of reference

    Eg. Photons interact with a protein, opsin, in the retina, the energy thus captured is ‘transduced’ to an electric charge which is transmitted to a neuron. The opsin is a precise structure that has been engineered through evolution to capture particular kinds of photons having their own precise structure, specific energy and wavelength. Our opsins have been developed to capture maximally useful information without the help of any conceptual frames. ‘Photons’ thus represent a feature and structure of noumenal reality, which Kant new nothing about. Hence his error.

    This principle of living organisms adapting to preexisting structures and features is repeated in millions of ways; taste, smell, food, temperature gradients, pressure gradients, magnetic fields, etc.

    The anti-realists of the 20th century have pointed out something useful: frameworks of communication are very important but can not describe the unknown. They are always out of date and need continuous revision. Conceptual frames are a posteriori and by definition cannot predict the future with certainty.

    If this sounds impoverished, it is not. Our reality consists to a large part of our social interactions. We are human because we have this human body which demands interaction, pleasure, joy, learning, wonder, curiosity, and a lot of other things. We are free to make of it what we want, to experiment, to make mistakes. We could submit to preexisting frameworks if we so choose. However, to anticipate the unknown would be wise.

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  38. Hi DanK, that helped me 🙂

    I have reservations that all realists must make the extraordinary claim you suggest, and more importantly to any idea they must embrace Kant’s noumenal world. I’ve said before that I reject Kant’s concept. And don’t see why realism or content externalism, as described, would use it. But we can get to that in another post if there is space.

    I wanted to use a hypothetical to flesh out approaches to experiences…

    Two people live in a society that maintains the earth is a flat disk surrounded by a solid rotating shell that creates the sky they see. They are at odds whether the lights in the night sky are from holes letting light in from behind the shell, or are solid lights themselves. They build a rocket to reach the shell and see who is right.

    I assume you would agree that these people, after launch, will have experiences which significantly challenge their prior viewpoints, and any changes in viewpoint would be dependent on their new experiences.

    To me, as a realist (maybe a content externalist), learning derives from experiences of the world, and so from the world “as it is”. That is the world has a nature which determines (in connection with our nature as part of the world) the kind of experience we will have. It is a causative relation, from the world to us. It is not always perfect, as their original viewpoint showed, but it is aligned with nature in some way, which future experiences can modify.

    In this example then the earth “as it is” is not a disk and sits in a void with distant stars, with the earth orbiting the closest. This is an ontological fact set independent of their minds. So movement to a new vantage point in that structure forces new experiences on those people, which allows them to change their ideas to a better fit with the real structure.

    If this view is incorrect, could you describe the source of their experiences, and the route by which their view changes about the world?

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  39. dbholmes:

    I don’t see why even a Berkeleyan could not perform exactly the experiment you describe and arrive at exactly the same conclusion.

    I don’t see why an anti-realist has any less access to a “truth-maker” than the realist. Realism and anti-realism are empirically neutral. They are a matter of how we interpret the object of knowledge.

    But I don’t see any engagement, here, with the Quinean arguments. Especially this one, from Ontological Relativity:

    “It makes no sense to say what the objects of a theory are, beyond saying how to interpret or reinterpret that theory in another.”

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  40. Hi David

    “Dear PeterJ, Bunge spends some time later on your 5th and 6th options under “fanciful” – viz his remark about a “classical” definition of metaphysics.”

    I see. In that case I shan’t bother to read him. Are you sure this is what he says? Why would anyone read an author who dismisses the whole of metaphysics and mysticism as fanciful?

    Scientific realism is fine for physics, as you say, as it must be. There it cannot be tested and can be taken for granted unless we are interested in questioning its plausibility by the use of our reason. It would only be in philosophy (and, so they say, in ‘fanciful’ experience) that it would fall to work. Since it is a philosophical theory that floats free of physics this would seem to be a similar case to materialism, an issue that is not a professional matter for physicists.

    To be honest I cannot see much point in scientific realism. It explains nothing and, as we see, it destroys any chance of making progress in philosophy. If we endorse it then we would have to say that existence is a miracle, such that God cannot be dismissed as ad hoc but becomes more or less necessary. It may seem a good idea in physics, but in philosophy it seems to be nothing more than McGinn’s pessimistic ‘mysterianism’ as applied to matter.

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  41. Hi PeterJ. Bunge’s response to your questions about “exist” is: “If there were a single existence concept, there would be a single method for proving the existence of anything. But, whereas formal existence must be either postulated or proved in a strictly formal fashion, material or real existence is a given. Furthermore, it must be justified by empirical tests: by showing that, in fact, the
    thing whose existence has been assumed can be ‘kicked’ and can ‘kick’ back.” I don’t know if it makes you any eager to read him.

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  42. David – Thanks but no, sorry, that doesn’t make we want to read him. Why does he assume that existence is a fact when he cannot prove it? In fact formal analysis shows that existence (as we usually define it) is an incoherent concept. This is, after all, a central problem of philosophy.

    Perhaps there is a good reason why there is no method for proving the existence of anything, There appear to be two methods for proving the opposite result, with formal metaphysics being one. In my book to say that material existence is a given is to say that we are not a philosopher. So, sorry, but not impressed.

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  43. Hi DanK, agreeably, everyone can have the same experiences I described and come to the same conclusion about the “earth” and “stars”. It is in accounting for the experiences where they differ.

    The Berkeleyan can’t give the same account I gave because to them the source of experiences are not objects in the world with any physical relation between them. There are only mental objects, with experiences arranged in some way (presumably by some other mind) to present a relation between “earth” and “stars”. Indeed they require an additional layer of explanation to account for the constancy and consistency of experiences for these relations over time.

    The realist account posits the source as the earth and stars themselves, and how they interact with our senses based on some physical relation between all three (earth, stars, senses). No additional layer of explanation is necessary for relations, and methods of exploration are relatively straightforward.

    If the anti-realist position you use would accept the same account I gave that is fine, because I was not clear if it would.

    And I wasn’t trying to hit all angles (I only have 350 words), just get a start on what approach you take to experiences compared to me. I don’t have the space to unpack the Quine quote, but I will try.

    Yes, when one discusses what the objects of a theory are, it is to basically lay out the underlying assumption/theory by which one will examine other theories in light of past and future experiences. My position is that all ontological statements/positions are assumptions used to formulate other positions/theories, and as such they cannot become certain ontological knowledge.

    That does not make ontological statements arbitrary, unintelligible (as long as one understands the caveat), useless, or not true. In fact it might turn out we actually know what the real world is like (if the assumption matches reality), we just will never be in a position to know that we know. The best we will ever get is confidence with an ontological model, based on its utility.

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  44. Dear PeterJ – if a formal analysis cannot even reach a conclusion about the existence of the external world or other minds, but can repair the modal collapse in Godel’s ontological proof for g-d, I don’t see much hope there.

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