Prolegomena for a Pluralist Metaphysics: The Scientific and Manifest Images
by Daniel A. Kaufman
I’ve characterized contemporary philosophy as beset by a number of “intellectually desperate” views that have come not just to mar the discipline but have led too many outstanding philosophers to waste their time and considerable talents. Of course, philosophy has always entertained views that when subjected to sober reflection and good sense are revealed to be ridiculous and absurd, but the cost of doing so today is discipline threatening. Aside from a small number of elite institutions, philosophy finds itself struggling to exist, in the face of an economically strapped student-population that seeks practical, income-producing educations and a university system that has already largely relegated philosophy to general education and is now increasingly contracting out that education to community colleges and high school “dual credit” programs. The novel coronavirus and its impact will only exacerbate this effect and create new, even worse ones. This is a time when disciplines must appear lean and sober and practical if they are to survive the ongoing transformation of the university, and philosophy is not helping itself with its penchant for the weird and the crazy. A discipline associated with politically “woke” histrionics and meltdowns and reputational bloodletting and ever-weirder flights of philosophical fancy – Muons are conscious! No one has agency! – has zero chance of surviving in the current climate, and I am fully prepared for the very real possibility that the study and discussion of philosophy may return almost entirely to private life and civil associations, in the manner of the Salons of the 19th century.
The “woke” dimension of the problem is not primarily intellectual in nature, but rather a matter of disciplinary standards – of codes of behavior and of research and publishing norms – that we are going to have to summon up the will to enforce, regardless of how nasty and vicious the woke-set get. The philosophical flights of fancy, however, are entirely intellectual in nature, and I suggested in the first installment of these prolegomena that they are the result of very bright people finding themselves confronted with perplexing, seemingly intractable problems, after having taken on board any number of assumptions, some of which may be widely venerated, but all of which are wrong. Philosophy’s first problem requires a political solution from within the discipline’s membership and institutions, which is unlikely at the present moment given philosophy’s compromised leadership. Its second problem demands hardnosed philosophical analysis and a serious re-examination of fundamental matters, in the spirit of Quine and Wittgenstein and the Ordinary Language philosophers.
Hence these prolegomena.
To the extent that there is a “foundational” element to my analysis of the mistake underlying the assumptions I’ve been talking about, it is to be found in Wilfrid Sellars’ paper, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man” (PSIM).† As mentioned in the first installment of these prolegomena, there is a significant dispute as to the correct reading of Sellars’ landmark paper, yielding wildly contradictory interpretations among Sellarsians (the eliminativist Churchlands and humanist Richard Rorty, for example, have both claimed PSIM as an influence), but as my efforts here are not historical in nature, these disputes are irrelevant. The ideas I will employ are derived from Sellars’, but if it turns out that they are at odds with what he thought he was doing, so be it. Let them belong to Sellars** for all I care (to employ a CUNYism I picked up in graduate school in the 1990’s). For some background regarding my take on Sellars, see the dialogue I did with Massimo Pigliucci on PSIM for my show, Sophia, on MeaningofLife.TV.
The relevant kicking-off point for my purposes in PSIM is the following passage:
[T]he philosopher is confronted not by one complex many dimensional picture, the unity of which, such as it is, he must come to appreciate; but by two pictures of essentially the same order of complexity, each of which purports to be a complete picture of man-in-the-world, and which, after separate scrutiny, he must fuse into one vision. Let me refer to these two perspectives, respectively, as the manifest and the scientific images of man-in-the-world…
These images exist and are as much a part and parcel of the world as this platform or the Constitution of the United States. But in addition to being confronted by these images as existents, he is confronted by them as images in the sense of ‘things imagined’ — or, as I had better say at once, conceived; for I am using ‘image’ in this sense as a metaphor for conception, and it is a familiar fact that not everything that can be conceived can, in the ordinary sense, be imagined. The philosopher, then, is confronted by two conceptions, equally public, equally non-arbitrary, of man-in-the-world and he cannot shirk the attempt to see how they fall together in one stereoscopic view. (Part I, ¶s 11; 12)
The Scientific Image is one that (to the extent such a thing is possible) attempts to provide a picture of the world as it exists in the absence of persons, their points of view, and the things that follow from those points of view. Its aim is to be as “objective” as possible, in the ordinary sense of the word. It proceeds entirely by way of third-person investigation and is a picture of us and of the world painted entirely in terms of quantifiable magnitudes and mechanistic explanations, suitably refined and complicated by modern biology and 20th and post-20th century physics.
With respect to the Manifest Image, Sellars emphasizes that it should not be understood as in any way primitive or pre-scientific. That would be what he refers to as “the Original Image” – our earliest, pre-scientific and to a degree, “pre-rational” picture of ourselves and of the world – the Manifest Image of which is a “refinement” that continues to be built alongside the Scientific.
I have characterized the manifest image of man-in-the-world as the framework in terms of which man encountered himself. And this, I believe, is a useful way of characterizing it. But it is also misleading, for it suggests that the contrast I am drawing between the manifest and the scientific images, is that between a pre-scientific, uncritical, naive conception of man-in-the-world, and a reflected, disciplined, critical – in short a scientific – conception. This is not at all what I have in mind. For what I mean by the manifest image is a refinement or sophistication of what might be called the ‘original’ image; a refinement to a degree which makes it relevant to the contemporary intellectual scene.
I mean the sort of refinement which operates within the broad framework of the image and which, by approaching the world in terms of something like the canons of inductive inference defined by John Stuart Mill, supplemented by canons of statistical inference, adds to and subtracts from the contents of the world as experienced in terms of this framework and from the correlations which are believed to obtain between them. Thus, the conceptual framework which I am calling the manifest image is, in an appropriate sense, itself a scientific image. It is not only disciplined and critical; it also makes use of those aspects of scientific method which might be lumped together under the heading ‘correlational induction’. (Part II, ¶s 4; 5)
The Manifest Image is the picture of us and of the world that includes persons, their points of view, and the things that follow from those points of view. It is a world characterized not only in quantitative but qualitative terms; a world in which first- as well as third-person accounts of things are included; a world in which people do and create things for reasons; and thus, a world in which the available explanations must not be restricted to the mechanical (broadly speaking) but must also include the teleological. It is a world, consequently, that is centered around values; those things that we represent as being good and which comprise the ends towards which our reasons and actions and forms of life point. As Sellars describes it, “there is an important sense in which the primary objects of the manifest image are persons” [Part II, ¶15], after which he goes on to say that:
…the conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives. A person can almost be defined as a being that has intentions. [Part VII, ¶7]
These person-centered elements of the world clearly exist, in that they are the values of bound variables that occur in true statements, and it will be my view that this is all that existing consists of (suitably modified, of course). Obviously, this is the view of existence that W.V.O. Quine promotes in “On What There Is” (though he limits his ontological commitments to those bound variables that operate in true statements belonging to our best scientific theories, a constraint that is neither credible nor necessary (it would mean, for example, that the lunch you just ate does not exist)).
Equally clearly, however, these person-centered elements have no place in the Scientific Image. They cannot be investigated entirely in the third person, neither can they be characterized in terms of quantifiable magnitudes, nor can they be explained or understood entirely in terms of “mechanistic” causality. As we’ve just observed, the explanations of people’s reasons and actions and the institutions and forms of life that we create by way of them are ultimately teleological in nature, and teleological explanations have had no place in science since the 17th century. (Even in biology, where explanations may be teleonomic, but never teleological.)
Sellars describes this state of affairs as a “clash” between the images, and the ways in which some have tried to “resolve” this clash should be familiar to everyone. There is of course the reductionist solution (“Manifest objects are identical with Systems of imperceptible particles in that simple sense in which a forest is identical with a number of trees”); the representationalist – or on certain ways of thinking about it illusionist – solution (“Manifest objects are ‘appearances’ to human minds of a reality which is constituted by systems of imperceptible particles”); and even a third solution, which is hard to imagine anyone offering today, according to which the representation/illusion is the other way around (“Manifest objects are what really exist; systems of imperceptible particles being ‘abstract’ or ‘symbolic’ ways of representing them.”) Refreshingly, given contemporary predilections, Sellars suggests that this option should be taken as seriously as the others. (Part V, ¶2)
Reductionism is a bust, of course, and has been now for decades, regardless of the fact that some have been determined to continue pursuing it, nonetheless. I am not going to rehearse the reasons why in these prolegomena, nor am I going to explain why eliminativism and illusionism are equally hopeless. They are among the “desperate” solutions these prolegomena are designed to help us avoid, and I’ve addressed them elsewhere, on multiple occasions, most recently in a dialogue with Massimo Pigliucci, when we discussed contemporary efforts to characterize consciousness as an illusion or worse – as the panpsychists do – as some elementary, though non-material, property of matter.
The fact is that persons, reasons, actions, and the institutions and forms of life created by them are never going to be reduced wholesale to elements within the Scientific Image, nor can or should they be assimilated piecemeal with elements therein. Sellars explicitly warns against such “piecemeal reductions” in PSIM, crediting Wittgenstein with exposing the folly in attempting to do so:
[T]he so-called ‘analytic’ tradition in recent British and American philosophy, particularly under the influence of the later Wittgenstein, has done increasing justice to the manifest image, and has increasingly succeeded in isolating it in something like its pure form, and has made clear the folly of attempting to replace it piecemeal by fragments of the scientific image. (Part III, ¶3)
The folly involved is that of committing repeated, systematic category errors, and all of the myriad assimilations people would like to make between the Scientific and Manifest Images and their respective ontologies involve such errors in one way or another. The assimilation of persons and human bodies or body parts; reasons and causes; actions and events; the common “furniture” of life and lattices of atoms or quanta or what have you. All involve category errors of a similar kind. All represent a misunderstanding of how the Scientific and Manifest Images relate. And all, when they inevitably fail, push us to embrace the sorts of “desperate” solutions we’ve been discussing.
Sellars famously describes the relationship between the Manifest and Scientific Images and between both and the world as being “stereoscopic” in nature (a stereoscope being a device by which separate left-eye and right-eye images, when viewed simultaneously, yield a single, three-dimensional image.) (Part I, ¶ 10) The idea is that a complete picture of the world and of ourselves in it requires both the Manifest and Scientific Images; that a single Image can only be produced as a result of looking through the two; that neither can replace or somehow “absorb” the other and yield a complete picture.
I don’t think that this bothers anyone too much, so long as it is meant only epistemically. Where people begin to lose their minds and start flailing about, messing with one “desperate” view after another, is when the stereoscopic vision is played out in the metaphysical arena, for it undeniably indicates a pluralist metaphysics, which to most philosophers, raises puzzling, seemingly intractable problems, all of which will be familiar to anyone who has studied the philosophy of mind and its history, which has forever been stalked by the specter of metaphysical Dualism.
The rest of these prolegomena will be dedicated to sketching out why I don’t think any of these problems arise and why, consequently, I view them neither as a threat, nor as a reason to pursue “desperate” measures. They are due entirely to assumptions like those I laid out in the first installment of these prolegomena and other related ones, assumptions the mistaken nature of which I intend to demonstrate in upcoming installments.
†All references to Sellars’ “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man” are from: http://www.ditext.com/sellars/psim.html