Prolegomena for a Pluralist Metaphysics: One More Thing (Some Stuff about God and Intelligibility)

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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Of all things the measure is man, of the things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.    –Protagoras

1.

A common mistake that people (and philosophers, especially) make is to look for intelligibility in the wrong place. This is made worse by the fact that beyond intelligibility we also seek approval of – even permission for – our beliefs and actions. The cause of understanding and virtue is rarely well-served by insecurity.

Philosophers like to assuage their epistemic and moral insecurities by appeals to neutral, human/person-independent standards. That there are no such standards (nor could there be) is why these appeals and the accompanying theorizing never come to anything but stalemate and deadlock and finally, skepticism or fancy. We have seen this play out in Bernard Williams’ critique of Peter Singer’s utilitarianism, which I summarized in an essay on Williams’ “The Human Prejudice.”  Singer and other modern moral philosophers think that moral philosophy provides a “view from nowhere” from which to determine how we should and shouldn’t act, but as Williams points out, moral inquiry and discourse are only comprehensible as expressions of human sensibilities. There is no way to deduce or otherwise demonstrate the truth of moral principles or the correctness of particular moral judgments.

If there is no such thing as the cosmic point of view, if the idea of absolute importance in the scheme of things is an illusion, a relic of a world not yet thoroughly disenchanted, then there is no other point of view except ours in which our activities can have or lack a significance.

It is no accident that the characteristics that every major moral philosophy identifies as morally significant – happiness and suffering; liberty and agency; rationality and dignity – are all things that happen to be of great importance to us. When was the last time a moral philosopher suggested that having an exoskeleton or hibernating or undergoing metamorphosis is what makes something deserving of moral consideration? Don’t hold your breath waiting. And understand that the retort that these are morally insignificant characteristics does not contradict the point I am making but rather, confirms it.

Human motivation and personality are complex, and as often as not, insecurity and arrogance cohabit within a single person. The desire that there should be an independent, authoritative standard of belief and conduct and that finding it should be the object of moral philosophy is motivated not just by the desire to be given permission to think and act as we do, but by the ambition to be in the position of granting such permission (or not) to others. We love to pretend that our demands on other people aren’t merely expressions of what we want but reflect some standard that floats above in the logical ether, and such a stance confers a significant rhetorical and discursive advantage, even if its actual authority is (as Anscombe once put it) “mesmeric.”

The inclination we are discussing is ultimately atavistic and hearkens back to pre-modern, religious ways of thinking (and to childhood). The point is to avoid negotiation and compromise, which is fundamentally antithetical to both personal and civic equality. Looking for neutral, transcendent standards that could provide some kind of ultimate authority began as a quest for God, and the modern philosophical version is simply a secularized variety of it. The comfort and authority we once received from the deity we now find in a priori metaphysics and deductive logic. “God says so” becomes “Logic and Reality say so.” (Apparently, Philip Goff, panpsychist extraordinaire, now thinks that not only is consciousness built into “fundamental reality,” but morality too.)

2.

Speaking of God, one of the most common arguments one finds across the spectrum of Christian apologetics is that God is necessary to render morality as a whole intelligible and to provide epistemic foundations for moral claims. It is an odd argument, given the attitudes and behaviors ascribed to the god in question in the relevant canonical texts. After all, this is the god who not only ordered his followers to commit genocide but who did so himself, by way of a global flood. This is the god who damns people to eternal torment, even for minor transgressions. This is the god who instructs angels to torture innocent people and who murders people’s children. This is the god who, morally speaking, is worse than our worst psychopaths. So, how could he possibly render morality intelligible or provide epistemic foundations for particular moral claims?

The standard move in response to this objection is to claim the inscrutability of God’s morality and of God himself. The apologist tells us that there is a good to all the apparent horrors God orders or commits in the Bible, but we are incapable of seeing it. He tells us that the characterizations of God one finds in the Scriptures are metaphors, whose purpose is to help us get a sense of the Creator, despite his being inscrutable to us. But this only worsens the problem rather than solving it. God is supposed to make human morality intelligible. God is supposed to provide epistemic foundations for human moral claims. A god whose morality involves doing and commanding things that are directly contradictory to what we normally think of as moral and whose character directly contradicts what we ordinarily take to be virtuous – or is inscrutable – can do neither.

The only coherent role a god – any god – could play with regard to the intelligibility and justification of the moral would be as a super version of us. If you tell me that we can try to make sense of morality by imagining what a perfectly moral person would be like and calling that person ‘God’, then that makes sense. (Leo Tolstoy, in his famous work in the philosophy of art, argued that the “religious perception” of a people consists of their conception of their own perfection.) The trouble is that neither the Christian god nor the god of any other traditional religion can plausibly play such a role for us today. Gods are only comprehensible as part of an exercise in imagining human perfection, but the conception of perfection found in the traditional religions is archaic; a reflection of the values and mores of people living in very ancient and cruel times. For a god to play such a role today, he or she will have to represent an idealization of contemporary values and mores, and as these inevitably will change in the future, any conception of god will have to keep changing as well.

3.

The argument presented throughout these Prolegomena has been that we feel forced to adopt “crazy” philosophies as a result of what seem to be a number of highly significant but unsolvable problems, but that in fact, these problems are illusory; the result of our sustaining a number of incorrect, but longstanding and widespread ideas and inclinations. These include:

1.) A hypostatic conception of ontological commitment.

2.) A commitment to explanatory unity.

3.) Conflating reasons and causes, actions and events.

These latest thoughts, however, suggest that I should add a fourth –

4.) The belief that the intelligibility and understanding we seek is of something that lies beyond human experience, representation or sensibility.

– which I gestured towards in these remarks at the end of the previous installment:

[T]here is a certain irony in the fact that the whole idea of divine intelligences occupying a supra-sensible, transcendent space was in part motivated by an inability to see how the world could be intelligible otherwise, but as it turns out, this intelligibility is entirely (and merely) a matter of the world including within it intelligent animals like us. It is an intelligibility that lies in the world’s representation, not in the world itself, an insight that we owe to Kant and his first Critique. And it is an intelligibility that can survive neither the aspirant-quasi supernaturalism of the idealists and panpsychists, nor the intentionality-abolishing efforts of the reductive and eliminative materialists.

The point is not that the world or morality are “in my mind or anyone else’s. (I can hear Crispin Sartwell complaining along these lines right now.) Of course they aren’t. Rather, the point is that it is our experience of the world and of morality that we wish to render intelligible, not some thing-in-itself; that what counts as intelligible – what constitutes intelligibility – with regard to some object of inquiry is as much dependent on the one engaged in the inquiry as it is on the object itself.

121 comments

  1. I completely agree. I see human knowledge as the result of the interaction between the subject of knowledge (us) and the object of knowledge (external reality). So this knowledge depends on the characteristics of the object of knowledge AND of the subject of knowledge. This concept can be easily extended to the knowledge acquired by any other sentient being besides us. So the idea of objective knowledge, i.e. knowledge which is independent from the subject of knowledge (the view from nowhere), is fundamentally incoherent.

    Regarding morality and religion, societies do not get their morality from religion, but rather religions (the original sacred texts plus the corresponding interpretations) get their morality from the society that originated them. It is no wonder that the Old Testament feels so different in terms of its morality from the New Testament: completely different historical periods and societies.

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  2. “We love to pretend that our demands on other people aren’t merely expressions of what we want but reflect some standard that floats above in the logical ether, and such a stance confers a significant rhetorical and discursive advantage, even if its actual authority is (as Anscombe once put it) “mesmeric.” […] Looking for neutral, transcendent standards that could provide some kind of ultimate authority began as a quest for God, and the modern philosophical version is simply a secularized variety of it.”

    I agree entirely. This is where Kant went badly wrong. It is not just utilitarians who get this wrong, it’s Kantians also.

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  3. “what counts as intelligible is as much dependent on the one engaged in the inquiry as it is on the object”: Yeah, but this is in some ways trite. We can all think of many occasions when another person can prove to us that they find X intelligible, but we do not. Sometimes we can remedy this to our own satisfaction, else why are we reading this blog? Given past performance, why can’t we extrapolate gains in intelligibility to future people?

    As to reasons and causes etc, I think it’s crazy not to try and unify them, but this reflects my optimism about the “soft” sciences.

    And as to neutral, human/person-independent standards, what else is the project of civilization about if not that? The point is not to avoid negotiation and compromise, but to justify it by finding those external standards that can rationally justify disagreement about some things, but agreement about others. People joke about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a smorgasbord where everyone can pick the bits they like, but more charitably it is “a composite synthesis of all these outlooks and movements and of much Oriental and Latin American wisdom” (Charles Malik). I don’t have any problem with the human part of the universe having objectively good rules for running their societies, even though there may be multiple maxima on the happiness landscape.

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    1. David,

      As to reasons and causes etc, I think it’s crazy not to try and unify them

      I agree entirely with you. The history of science shows a progressive shift from a fragmentary world to a world of “explanory unity“. We haven’t got there yet since, quite obviously, science is a work in progress. Science, for the most part, is predicated on the assumption of explanatory unity. That assumption has never been disproven, only shown to be incomplete. But then, of course, science is incomplete.

      What puzzles me is the strong, almost emotive, opposition to the idea of explanatory unity. Why such opposition? What purpose does it serve. Is the oposition ideological in nature? Much better, I think, is to step aside and let science get on with its job. Science is better placed to answer that question than philosophy.

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      1. I’ve written scores of pages and engaged in hours and hours of dialogue, in which I present the arguments against explanatory unity. If people want to engage with them, I’m happy to take them up on it. Until then, that’s where things stand.

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        1. Until then, that’s where things stand.

          I am afraid that is not where they stand. This is a matter to be decided by science and not philosophy. So no matter what philosophers pronounce on the matter science will inexorably advance and the answer will become clearer over time. But as things stand it is readily apparent that science is incrementally advancing towards a goal of explanatory unity.

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          1. And like so many of the things I’ve talked about in this series and elsewhere, it will not be resolved.

            If it will not be resolved then perhaps it is more approriate to adopt a more tentative stance. But I am well aware of my own internal inconsistency when I say that. In other comments I have argued for the adversary principle as our best means of uncovering truths. A tough combativeness when advancing one’s own beliefs is a required part of the adversary process. But only if, in the back of one’s own mind, there is a willingness to learn and adjust. Which is why I argue for multiple perspective taking. It preserves the internal flexibility needed for learning and adjustment.

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    2. It’s funny that what you think the project of civilization couldn’t but be about is something that would never appear on any list of things I would think of, in trying to give an account of civilization.

      It’s almost as if there are intractable disagreements and likely no fact of the matter, by virtue of which they could be resolved.

      I wonder who’s been saying that?

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    3. As for the first part, as I’ve never said anywhere that *nothing* can be demonstrated or proven, you must be talking about somebody else. I’ve been quite specific as to the sorts of things that cannot be demonstrated, and as I’ve yet to hear any actual, specific counterarguments, that’s where things stand.

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    4. “The point is not to avoid negotiation and compromise, but to justify it by finding those external standards that can rationally justify disagreement about some things, but agreement about others.” No. While it’s important to find and admit common ground in pursuing negotiation and compromise, such cannot constitute any “external standard,” since it is itself an agreement between the parties involved. The alternative to negotiation and compromise is violence, not submission to external standards. That’s the only justification negotiation and compromise need, our desire to live with each other in relative peace.

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  4. (Apparently, Philip Goff, panpsychist extraordinaire, now thinks that not only is consciousness built into “fundamental reality,” but morality too.)

    Thanks for that reference. I love to learn new perspectives and I know that I always benefit from other people’s perspectives. He has written some very interesting papers. I have just gotten hold of his book and look forward to some interesting reading. My first impressions are that his ideas are intriguing and worth studying.

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    1. I’m sure you’ll find some of it interesting. As you know, these Prolegomena were inspired, in part, by his (and others’) panpsychism, which are exhibit A of precisely the way in which I think philosophy’s gone terribly wrong. Of course, everyone’s miles may vary.

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  5. … this intelligibility is entirely (and merely) a matter of the world including within it intelligent animals like us

    Merely?? That is the most astonishing fact about the Universe. That random assemblages of particles choose to aggregate somehow, by means unkown and so far undescoverable, into complex, self aware organisms possessing intentionality, intelligence and free will, has to be the most astounding fact about the Universe.

    Now if you could point me to the laboratory studies where random processes were routinely shown to create intelligent intentionality from tiny, inert particles, then I would think you had a good case. But you can’t, and so your case amounts to little more than wishful thinking.

    …a matter of the world including within it intelligent animals like us. It is an intelligibility that lies in the world’s representation, not in the world itself

    If the world were not intelligible then no possible representation would succeed.

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    1. If the world were not intelligible then no possible representation would succeed.

      As best I can tell, there is no evidence that the world is intelligible.

      For sure, the intelligible aspects of the world are intelligible. But that seems tautological. And we have no idea what we are missing.

      I’ll put this in perspective. Toward the end of the 19th century, Marie Curie discovered radioactivity. Neither Aristoltle nor Descartes nor Newton nor anybody else had previously noticed it. They had not seen anything that suggested there was something unintelligible. Radioactivity was just invisible until Marie Curie pointed it out to us.

      And, for all we can tell, it might be that much of the world is invisible to us, and thus unintelligible to us.

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      1. The criticism fails to engage with the point that I made quite explicitly and which, ultimately, we owe to Kant: the subject matter of science is the world as experienced, not as a thing in itself. And much later, in the last century, Donald Davidson offered us a powerful analysis of just why “reality,” conceived of as “the thing in itself” not only can have no structure — and thus cannot be an object of understanding — but is likely not even coherent. See his “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.”

        https://theelectricagora.com/2016/06/15/course-notes-5/

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        1. the subject matter of science is the world as experienced, not as a thing in itself.

          No, the very success of science was founded in the move away from experience towards objective observation using ever more sensitive instrumentation. This was done with great mathematical rigour. It is the very success of this mathematical rigour in describing and explaining these observations that gives us so much confidence that we are dealing with an objective reality and not just our experience of it.

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        2. Donald Davidson offered us a powerful analysis of just why “reality,” conceived of as “the thing in itself” not only can have no structure — and thus cannot be an object of understanding — but is likely not even coherent.

          The entire structure of science and its blinding success is testimony to the falsity of this idea. Yes, I agree with you, philosophy is in trouble.

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        3. I had an earlier reply, in which I indicated how much I liked your main point. But it looks as if I might have clicked the “close tab” button instead of the “post comment” button.

          My reply above was intended only to comment on Peter Smith’s point about intelligibility. I often see that argument, and it always seems wrong.

          The criticism fails to engage with the point that I made quite explicitly and which, ultimately, we owe to Kant: the subject matter of science is the world as experienced, not as a thing in itself.

          I can’t comment on Kant, because I have not directly studied him. The subject matter of science is not the world as experienced (with “experienced” in the past tense). That should surely be “the world as we experience it” so that we move to the present tense. At least in part, science works by changing how we experience reality.

          As for Davidson’s paper — when I read it, I disagree with it. You read it in a way that leads you to some conclusions that I like. But I am having trouble seeing how you read that in Davidson’s paper. I guess I should go back and read it yet another time.

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  6. These Prolegomena are, of course, skeletal. When I revise and collect them together, I am going to fill a number of things in to a greater degree.

    One of the things I would fill in, in an expanded version of this last installment, is the stuff regarding insecurity and how it impacts on both ethics and inquiry more generally, and I think the metaphor of individual, human development is a strong one.

    Even the most well-adjusted, independent adult finds himself yearning for his parents; for the days in which he would be told what to do do and what to think; for the days in which there were authorities and consequently, certainties. These are powerful sources of comfort, and it is emotionally very difficult to know — and to really internalize — that one has to figure out what to do and think oneself; that one has to contest with others who think and do differently; that one may get things wrong — or even if right, one may lose; that it is all on oneself and that there are no other authorities.

    And yet, that is the hallmark of a healthy, well-adjusted adult: the capacity to accept these hard realities and to flourish within their boundaries. When adults — beyond natural, fleeting yearnings — earnestly turn to non-existent supernatural or philosophically transcendent standards, principles, rules, etc., they abdicate that authority. The result is an absence of real leadership and authority, and in its place arises a fictional space in which we conduct fictional battles. We are at a time, now, when this problem seems to be peaking, and the results are disastrous.

    The same goes for inquiry, and it is quite easy to see. I have tried to show this not just in these Prolegomena, but throughout my work. The pretense that scientific investigation is anything but a human activity; the idea that it is motivated by anything but human interests and ends; the notion that its object is anything other than the world as human beings experience it; the suggestion that there ultimately is one story that tells everything about it and that it is “reality’s” story, not ours. These are also expressions of the desire to escape adult forms of responsibility and authority.

    Ultimately, understanding must involve demystification. And the views of morality and of science that I’ve been examining here and throughout my work all represent a desperate desire to re- rather than de-mystify.

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    1. One of the things I would fill in, in an expanded version of this last installment, is the stuff regarding insecurity and how it impacts on both ethics and inquiry more generally

      Yes, that is urgently required. The first part of your essay made much of what you considered was the defective motivation of philosophers. By all means disagree with them, but impugning their character by assigning disagreeable motives to them is a step too far. That is not a philosophical argument.

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      1. But until there is an actual engagement with the arguments, all we can do is contradict one another. Which is not productive. If you ever want to actually engage with the arguments, I am very happy to do so.

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    2. I always have the impression that realists (as opposed to anti-realists) crave certainty in their lives and don’t deal well with uncertainty and ambiguity. The solution in the past was religion, it is now scientific-realism and scientism.

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    3. I don’t miss the days when my parents told me what to do and what to think. Their way of thinking generally had nothing to do with my life. But I sure do miss the days when they took responsibility for all the annoying details of daily life, putting winter clothes in plastic bags as spring arrives (I’m in the southern hemisphere), being polite to neighbors who I’d love to scream at, paying the bills, going to the supermarket, housework, revising the monthly bank statement, the details of filing an income tax return (and I have to do it in two countries), worrying about whether there are enough rolls of paper towels, discovering that I need extra large garbage bags when I only have large garbage bags.

      The list is endless. Such such were the joys when I had no idea that life was made up of such things, when I blissfully would shower for hours until my father began to pound the bathroom door shouting about the gas bill back when I believed that hot water naturally flowed out of the pipes in the same way that the moon appears in the night sky.

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        1. Don’t worry about it.

          It’s basically just a pretext for receiving this conversation through email instead of having to click on the website every few hours. I’m not enough of a philosopher to join in the conversation myself, but it’s worth following.

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      1. To be clear: this is an expression of enthusiastic agreement with Professor Kaufman’s comment of September 19 at 12:37pm. My reply is so far down the thread, it might have been unclear what I was commenting on.

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  7. When adults — beyond natural, fleeting yearnings — earnestly turn to non-existent supernatural or philosophically transcendent standards, principles, rules, etc., they abdicate that authority.

    Perhaps that is so in your mind but we believers in the really existing transcendent experience no abdication. Rather we shoulder the responsibility of self discipline, restraint, temperance, forgiveness, charity, justice, etc, etc and all other forms of virtuous behaviour.

    If there is any abdication it is the abdication of responsible behaviour so that narcissism, hedonism and sollipsism can be justified.

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    1. Well, as with the rest, this is my perspective on the matter, and I’ve offered a number of arguments as to why. Until the arguments are engaged with, the disagreement simply remains.

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  8. Philosophers like to assuage their epistemic and moral insecurities by appeals to neutral, human/person-independent standards.

    This is where I think you started to wrong. It is always dangerous and indeed rather messy, to talk about the motivation of others. Perhaps you should do what David Chalmers did, when he asked them and produced his fine study of attitudes in the philosophical community.

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  9. the suggestion that there ultimately is one story that tells everything about it and that it is “reality’s” story, not ours. These are also expressions of the desire to escape adult forms of responsibility and authority.

    I find this argument quite strange. You deal with the arguments for a unitary explanation by impugning the motives of the people making the argument!

    1) I maintain that science is progressively showing that there likely is a coherent, unitary explanation for the world.
    2) You reply that this is an expression of my desire to escape adult forms of responsibility and authority.
    3) What???
    4) Perhaps it is because
    – I am curious about the nature of the world
    – I am looking for explanations that provide understanding
    – I am willing to follow the evidence where it leads.
    5) That is how I would reply if you questioned me.

    Yes, greater understanding does tend to reduce insecurity. But this is understanding of all kinds, an understanding of our environment that gives us mastery over our environment.. By understanding the mechanisms of Covid-19 transmission I can take better avoidance measures and thus feel more secure. By understanding the causes of crop failure I can increase farm yields, increasing my economic and emotional security. And so on.

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    1. Appreciating the usefulness of our scientific results does not imply commitment to any particular ontology. In Quantum Mechanics, for example, you can use “shut up and calculate” without committing yourself to any of the more than 15 different ontologies being attached to QM today (the so-called Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics).

      By the way, those 15 different ontologies provide today exactly the same experimental results. Some of them might in principle provide different results with more sophisticated instrumentation, but we might never get that instrumentation because of financial and practical constraints. Some of them might in principle be impossible to falsify (e.g. the many-worlds interpretation). So most likely we are going to have multiple contradicting QM ontologies for quite a long time.

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  10. You give Kant some praise for his metaphysical vision, but you and Mark English imply he went wrong in his moral one. Kantians might have gone wrong, and Kant might have gone wrong in some of the details of his moral philosophy, but his general outlook might be akin to yours, at least in spirit. (And, for what it’s worth, I make this point only because I’m perhaps overly sensitive to the tired caricatures of Kant that have been handed down through years of analytic philosophy’s ascendancy. That tradition was and remains largely transcendentally realist (in Kant’s terms), interpreting Kant through the very lens he was concerned with shattering.)

    Kant showed how the tradition was pervaded and embarrassed by its unquestioned transcendental realism, the idea, roughly, that conditions of intelligibility are simply there, already woven into (whatever it is we end up counting as) objects of knowledge (be they Berkeley’s ideas, Russell’s sense data, Plato’s forms, the positivist’s logical atoms, the physicist’s fields, the mathematical logician’s sets, etc.). The transcendentally realist outlook shapes moral philosophy, too: its moral manifestation, called heteronomy, is the idea that conditions of valuableness are simply there, already woven into (whatever it is we end up counting as) valuable. Kant argues that there is no sense to be given to the idea of value existing independently of the first-person-singular-and-plural point-of-viewishness of agents. To think otherwise is to cede responsibility, to deliberately remain immature — “God says so” or “Logic says so” or “Reality says so.” It’s to abandon the idea that what’s good, and what it’s good to think, do, and feel, is always up for reasonable negotiation among free persons. Ultimately, it’s to deny the undeniable fact that we are agents who think, do, and feel things on the basis of how, and how good, we take things to be. As Kant puts it, “nothing is so important through its utility, nothing so holy, that it may be exempted from [free critique’s] searching review and inspection.” Even reason’s authority is “never anything more than the agreement of free citizens.” There’s no specific understanding or evaluation of things, laid out in advance, that we are aiming to achieve, nothing already inscribed into reality — either in ourselves or in the world — that we are aiming to discover and to which we could or should cede authority in making decisions. How things are (with us, with the world), and how good they are, and which standards we ought to apply in our judgment of such things, are settled by nothing more, but also nothing less, than our reasoning with one another.

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  11. “Appreciating the usefulness of our scientific results does not imply commitment to any particular ontology…”. Sure, but there is some re/constraint. “Last Tuesday-ism” and “Brain-in- a-vat” are a couple of nonscientific ontologies, while MWI is tightly coupled to the experimental findings, even though it is just as offensive to common sense. And we have an expectation that there may be advances in science that will exclude some of these ontologies, eg recent work excluding Diosi-Penrose. I had thought that the scientific ontologies such as those that the National Libraries of Medicine curate were a different beast than the kind of stuff philosophers discuss, but it turns out they do work on medical ontologies, which have to respond to changes in scientific knowledge.

    “The pretense that scientific investigation is anything but a human activity; the idea that it is motivated by anything but human interests and ends; the notion that its object is anything other than the world as human beings experience it”: Again, this is both a statement of the bleeding obvious, and completely missing the point. Consider Quantum Mechanics. The reason we study it is because we have human reasons to understand our experience of the world, but our experience includes the facts that mesoscale objects don’t interpenetrate, that absorption spectra have discrete bands, that laser light at the checkout is truly monochromatic, that hydrogen seeps through metal, that you can actually see superfluidity, matter waves etc etc..

    “…expressions of the desire to escape adult forms of responsibility and authority”: yawn

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    1. Given that you are now yawning at me, I am going to drop out of the discussion. You’ve once again managed spectacularly to miss the point, but given your attitude, I am not motivated to try and explain things further.

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    2. “Sure, but there is some re/constraint“. Is this a strawman about anti-realists claiming that scientists make up any ontologies they like, completely decoupled from experimental findings? Is this what you really think anti-realists are saying?

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  12. Dan: Going back to the ethical question. Of course morality is grounded in human needs and interests, but grounding it simply in human desires is problematic. Suppose Alpha desires the death of Beta, and Beta desires that Alpha and Beta get along peacefully. To settle this dispute they agree to toss a coin. Half the time Beta wins and all goes well. But half the time Alpha wins, and that’s the end for Beta. In general, if all desires are equal then cooperators lose out to predators. The only solution to this problem is to set some limits on permissible desires. Whether we should call this an “objective” limit is not very important. But that there have to be limits of this sort seems to me clear. Does it not seem so to you?

    Alan

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      1. There are no grounds. For morality or for anything else.

        If that were true we would not be having this conversation. If there were no grounds for anything we would merely be a formless, patternless mass of undifferentiated particles.

        At the very least the laws of nature are the grounds of our existence.

        But I am curious. Why do you so vehemently pursue this poorly conceived idea? You have placed the motivation of others under a brutal spotlight, e.g. “The inclination we are discussing is ultimately atavistic“, so I think it is now time to consider your motivation. You have after all opened the door to that line of enquiry.

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        1. Notice I have extended the courtesy of first asking about your motivation before speculating about your motivation. It is really not a bad idea to proceed in that way.

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        2. That there are no grounds is a pretty run-of-the-mill Humean/Wittgensteinian epistemology. It’s not like some crazy idea I came up with. I’m happy to talk about the core elements, if you like. I’ve published quite a bit on this as well, so if you want to email me, I can send you some PDFs.

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    1. Alan,
      your hypothetical is unrealistic; obviously, Beta needs somehow to maneuver Alpha into wanting to live peacefully. There are a host of ways this has been accomplished throughout history. Or each moves to a different locale. Alternatively, Beta kills Alpha.

      Setting limits on permissible desires only comes after some social compact has been achieved. It’s achieved through legislation (in autocratic societies, by fiat). It’s objective only in the sense that all participants are agreed to abide by it, or aware of it and of possible consequences not in their interest.

      Since this is the result, it cannot be a ground, except as a potential for the desire on the parts of the possible participants.

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  13. You see, I think you are right about one thing. We do all have deeper unstated motivations. Because they are unstated our speculations are founded on the fleeting glimpses that others’ afford of their motivations. And that allows wildly varying interpretations. So we should procede carefully and charitably when assigng motivations to others.

    With that qualification, here is my understanding. First I will concede that there is a deep need to find a unitary explanation of our experiences and the world we inhabit. It is an intuition that is founded on our own internal unity as we experience the world. I am a seamless whole. Whether true or not, that is how it ‘seems’ to me. This seamless whole that is apparently me is driven to understand the world. And so my intuition of unity influences the way I understand the world and seek explanations. I look for evidence that the disparate, incongruent, contradictory parts of my experience fit together in a unifying explanatory framework.

    And that has been the history of human enquiry. At first we lacked the necessary tools and methodology. Our ancient narratives reflect our inability to see unifying explanations. As we began to acquire the tools and methodology our understanding grew and to our gratification an underlying unity began to emerge. I say gratifying because it seemed to confirm our basic intuitions. The slowly revealed unity was satisfying because it gave us a feeling of deeper understanding.

    But this is a twofold process, one that takes place in our own lifetime and one that is unfolding over the lifetime of our species.

    In our own lifetime we each go through childhood, adolescence and adulthood. This is a process where we go from the uncertainty and insecurity of immature knowledge to the greater certainty and security of acquired knowledge. During the uncertain, insecure and immature phase we are protected and guided by our parents. This protection is only partial so there still remains great insecurity. As we reach young adulthood we gain the greater certainty and security imparted by experience and acquired knowledge. And that launches us into the world of independence. Once there we achieve greater mastery over our environment and consequently, greater security.

    This is exactly the reverse of what you describe and this is why I think you are so wrong.

    There is an unfortunate consequence though. With this greater certainty and improved mastery come a reduced curiosity and drive to learn more. The progress of the individual becomes first stasis and finally obsolescence.

    In my next comment I deal with the second process that is unfolding over the lifetime of our species.

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  14. To continue.
    Let’s say that I hurl a rock over a large distance. I observe that it follows a nice parabolic path. In that instant my mind has leapt from a series of discrete observations, the positions of the stone in space, to a unifying explanation, that hurled rocks predictably follow parabolic paths.

    My intuition that there must be unitary explanations is beginning to be confirmed. On further investigation I discover the mathematical and physical basis for this behaviour. I can encode this in elegant mathematical statements. Aha, I have just discovered a most satisfying explanatory unity. It has great utility and my intuition becomes stronger.

    But it doesn’t end there. As I look further and deeper it becomes apparent that everywhere I find unifying explanations. They are unifying in the sense that countless discrete observation can be reduced to and unified by much simple and rather elegant mathematical statements that have great predictive power.

    Now this happens to be a most powerful discovery. We have discovered that under the seething, multifaceted surface of existence lies an orderly framework that unifies many of our observations. We have discovered that laws of nature exist. And this discovery imposes a powerful unity on our understanding of our observations of the world. And as science progresses we discover more and more unity. Our intuition grows stronger.

    But it is also true that science is rather incomplete, very much a work in progress. So it is unsurprising that we discover large and seemingly unbridgeable discontinuities in the fabric of our explanations. We may stand at the abyss of one of these discontinuities and cry despairingly, that it is unbridgeable. We are then ignoring the evidence of the past centuries that science has always been bridging these chasms. Difficulty has never been synonymous with impossibility.

    Now it may well turn out that some of the discontinuities in the fabric of our knowledge are not only in fact, but also in principle, unbridgeable. But we can’t know that yet because that state of our knowledge is still too immature to make that determination. This is the business of science.. They encounter the chasms and build the bridges. Ultimately this discussion will be decided by science and not despairing philosophers.

    I say “despairing philosophers” advisably because it is becoming increasingly evident to me that some philosophers do not want there to be a unifying explanatory framework. it seems to me they are motivated by ideology and not enquiry. But now we are on the slippery ground of assigning motivations to others.

    And a final observation to tie it all together. In my last comment I said that “There is an unfortunate consequence though. With this greater certainty and improved mastery[from childhood to adulthood] come a reduced curiosity and drive to learn more. The progress of the individual becomes first stasis and finally obsolescence.

    It is in the final stages of stasis that precede obsolescence that we lose hope and conclude that the chasms are unbridgeable. Our emotional drive has been dissipated by an arduous journey through life. It is a sad but inevitable state and we all arrive there.

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    1. Even if physicists succeeded in finding a Theory of Everything (e.g. a successful mathematical formula for quantum gravity with a single ontological interpretation), that would be better defined as a Theory of Everything We Know So Far.

      We would have no way to find out whether, for example, a particle collider of the size of the solar system (or of the size of the galaxy) would not reveal new structures that would force us to come up with a completely new math and ontology.

      There could be layers of reality that are in principle unreachable by us (invisible physical dimensions, parallel worlds with which we cannot communicate, etc.) from which we could never extract any empirical information.

      In a similar fashion, it is not that difficult to imagine intelligent aliens with completely different senses, mind and culture than ours, coming up with a description of “reality” (“their reality“, of course) which is completely incompatible with our own description.

      The bottom line is that the idea that science reveals “the true objective reality” is fundamentally a metaphysical belief, not a conclusion based on empirical evidence

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      1. “The bottom line is that the idea that science reveals ‘the true objective reality’ is fundamentally a metaphysical belief, not a conclusion based on empirical evidence.”

        Yes. This is exactly the right point to make. When the science stans say things of the form ‘Science tells us that reality is . . .’ or ‘If you follow the scientific evidence, you’ll see that reality is . . .’ and do so under the pretense of “being empirically minded,” they manifest a profound and consequential confusion.

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          1. Fortunately not all scientists are naive realists. Besides Massimo, I can mention for example the well respected quantum-gravity researcher Sabine Hossenfelder, who declares herself an instrumentalist (where instrumentalism is a form of anti-realism). Here is her interesting definition of “explanation”, as provided by a physical theory:

            “A physical theory provides an explanation when the theory allows one to calculate
            measurement outcomes in a way that is computationally simpler than just collecting the
            data” – no ontological invocations here …

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          2. Yes, scientists have convictions like “objective reality is intelligible”, which can be called metaphysical and which ultimately can’t be proved like a mathematical theorem is proved.

            But to paraphrase Ilya Prigogine: “le jeu a un enjeu”. Sometimes, there’s something at stake when you make a (metaphysical) bet. I like the expression “epistemic risk” in this context, because the epistemic risks we’re prepared to take depend on the metaphysical bet we made.
            Every pedestrian who crosses a bridge, every user of a smartphone, every car driver who brakes … is taking a considerable epistemic risk. They are betting that objective reality indeed is intelligible and the designer of the bridge, smartphone, brakes indeed knows truths about it.

            It’s not the usual way to think about crossing a bridge or braking the car, but in a certain sense these actions are *experiments*. They tests the hypothesis that the knowledge of the designers is true knowledge about objective reality. It’s not only scientists who test this hypothesis – we are doing it all the time.
            The fact that we almost never think about crossing bridges etc. as experiments is quite remarkable. Maybe we’re making a good metaphysical bet?

            As regards the realism – anti-realism debate, I didn’t call it childish. I wrote that science does reveal truths about objective reality *in any reasonable definition of the expression*. What followed was written under the assumption that objective reality exists, a stance that usually is associated with realism. In other words: I wasn’t writing about the realism – anti-realism debate.

            Is Sabine Hossenfelder “fortunately” an anti-realist? I don’t know her exact opinion, but (as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out), people rarely are entirely anti-realist. Typically, they believe that things like tables exist (even when they are not looking at the table) but have doubts about the wavefunction in QM. Perhaps the wave function merely is a description of the knowledge we can have about systems, but not something that “exists”? Etc. etc. Perhaps we should ask Sabine if she thinks gravitational fields are a part of objective reality; or if she thinks they are just convenient devices to do calculations.

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          3. “They tests the hypothesis that the knowledge of the designers is true knowledge about objective reality“ – No, they test the hypothesis that the knowledge of the designers is true knowledge about reality as we experience it. To use an extreme metaphor, even if we lived in a simulation it would still make sense to talk about building a bridge that does not collapse, but it would be incorrect to say, in that scenario, that such knowledge refers to objective reality.

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          4. We disagree, that’s clear.

            I think in physics, chemistry, engineering etc. “reality as we experience it” can’t be very different from reality as it is. It would be truly mindbogglingly weird if things like electrons, cement, concrete, hydrogen and car brakes “really” had properties totally different from the properties we found through scientific examination. Suppose we discover tomorrow that QM can be incorporated in an totally deterministic theory. Would it make Heisenberg’s inequalities incorrect? No, it wouldn’t. Perhaps this totally deterministic theory would *explain* these inequalities, but they would stay true nevertheless (within the accuracy of the measuring tools we have at the moment).

            As regards living in simulations, I think – but Dan may correct me – that he dislikes those lines of thinking. And I do dislike them with him.

            Actually, that’s one of the reasons why I participated in this discussion. Dan writes “philosophers like to assuage their epistemic and moral insecurities by appeals to neutral, human/person-independent standards.” I don’t think these standards exist in many of the questions Dan addresses. But I do think too that the intellectual ingenuity that proposes likely candidates for these standards, has a counterpart in the philosophy dedicated to the scientific image. Simulations, really? Because we only have “experiences” and representations of reality, we have no access to truths about this reality? Critical thinking is important, but it can fall in love with itself.

            By the way, does Sabine Hossenfelder think (or act as if) gravitational fields are mere computational devices? They are not directly observable, after all.

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          5. “reality as we experience it” can’t be very different from reality as it is.

            To say that X is different from Y is to report the result of a comparison. But if we have no access to reality in itself, then no actual comparison is possible. As best I can tell, it doesn’t mean anything to talk of reality as it is.

            Because we only have “experiences” and representations of reality, we have no access to truths about this reality?

            There are no truths about reality in itself. There are only truths about how we experience reality and about our representations of reality.

            I can’t read Dan’s mind, but I think he is trying to get at the creativity of perception. Typical descriptions present us as passive observers of a world that is independent of us. But we are not mere passive observers. Our engagement with the world is very different from that of a passive observer. Our role is far more creative than that.

            The world, as we experience it, depends very much on our biology. I expect that it also depends on our culture, but not as much as it depends on our biology. We call something a chair, at least in part because we can sit on it. But a bird cannot sit on a chair. We call something a power line because it transmits eletrical energy. A bird does not know about that electrical energy. But the bird can sit (or perch) on that power line.

            To illustrate, consider the so-called “hard problem of consciousness”. This problem is posed as if we are passive observers of reality. And it is hard because nobody can see a way for a passive observer to have our form of consciousness. But once you understand that our engagement with reality is far more creative than that of a passive observer, it becomes clear that the hard problem is looking at things in the wrong way.

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          6. “Would it make Heisenberg’s inequalities incorrect?“ – Focusing on mathematical results rather than on any ontology associated with the math is an aspect of Instrumentalism (a form of anti-realism).

            Regarding the simulation scenario, evidently you missed the word I used when presenting it: “metaphor”.

            Regarding what Sabine Hossenfelder think of gravitational fields, and without speaking for her, I think you can easily derive it from the quote I mentioned above.

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          7. “If we imagine an intelligent species with entirely different sensory modalities and a wildly dissimilar psychology, their science — including their physics — would be unrecognizable to us.”

            I don’t know what’s worse: p-zombies, simulations or this.
            How are we ever going to find out if this statement makes sense? How would we communicate with a species with a wildly dissimilar psychology? Perhaps our physics is very similar but we simple don’t understand each other. Perhaps they study other things than we do, but their physics is entirely compatible with ours etc. etc.
            Anyhow, an intelligent species with different sensory modalities and a dissimilar psychology can have accurate knowledge about objective reality too. If you don’t agree, I’m curious to know why.

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          8. Our sciences are a product of how we experience the world. The sciences of a species with a radically different experience will reflect theirs.

            Your second paragraph makes my point rather than contradicting it.

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          9. I’ll point again to the parable of (intelligent) ant, bat, and fly, that I think Neal Stephenson traces to Hao Wang. The three wildly different creatures explore the same environment – what can they agree upon? Well, secondary qualities such spatial positions and times. He then points out that this is as true of the different sensory regions of the human brain – we don’t question the fact that we can recognize a previously seen object by touch, or that that blind mathematicians can do work on geometry. So Bah! to unrecognizable physics.

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          10. As I’ve said a hundred times now, there is only world. It is the pictures of it that we are talking about, when speaking of the scientific and manifest images. Obviously, given these sorts of responses, I have failed to communicate. Hopefully I will be more successful in my revision.

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  15. “The argument presented throughout these Prolegomena has been that we feel forced to adopt “crazy” philosophies…”

    Crazy indeed. ‘All’ philosophies suffer from the 4 potential problems summarized above. We do not routinely distinguish between thoughts that describe our inner world from those describing the outer world. To the individual they feel equally real – an illusion. Morality, purpose and goal is thus constructed separately by everyone, yet very few of us realize this and most suffer from the delusion that their truth could or should apply to everyone.

    The bad news is that this craziness is part of our physiology. We are extraordinarily social, and each one of us goes through a phase of avid education and indoctrination in social and cultural matters. Young people in school are generally taught that there is a right way and a wrong way. A few of us try to sort all this out later, apparently with little success. Trust me, it is not easy!

    The good news is that we are learning. A single universal political philosophy is an impossibility. In fact, the opposite seems to be far superior: individuals are primarily encouraged to independently pursue their projects and then, secondarily or incidentally, to make a contribution to the community.

    It is my guess that a system that favors individualism over communitarianism is ideal, but the devil is in the details. There are no absolutes and so we have to learn skills of better communication and cooperation.

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  16. I’m surprised by the direction this discussion has taken. I believe that the points Dan addresses remain valid, even if we had a scientific Theory of Everything, for the simple reason that the whole intellectual machinery that gave us such a ToE is inadequate to answer many important questions in the manifest worldview.

    But I’m equally surprised when I read
    “science reveals “the true objective reality” is fundamentally a metaphysical belief, not a conclusion based on empirical evidence.”

    Science does reveal objective reality in any reasonable definition of the expression, and certainly in definitions one can’t merely philosophize about but with which one can *do* something.

    Sure, a metaphysician could always claim that our scientific knowledge doesn’t tell us anything about “true” objective reality. But, please, tell me then: how we can find out whether our knowledge of objective reality is knowledge about “true” objective reality or not? By doing better, more accurate science? No, this won’t work, because whatever scientists will discover, it won’t be, according to this metaphysician, knowledge about “true” objective reality.

    The claim that scientific knowledge is not knowledge about “true” objective reality always strikes me, to borrow a word from Dan, as “childish”. “Hey man, try to refute me!” (and I won’t tell you how you can refute me, because I don’t know myself).

    (I’m also tempted to write here that *especially in the manifest worldview* well-founded scientific results are part of true objective reality. Does someone take the manifest point of view and claim we can walk on water? As far as I know, the manifest worldview takes the position that whatever the “true” objective reality of electrons etc. may be, it can’t be very different from what we already know scientifically.)

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    1. No one has to deny, in order to make the point being made, that scientific knowledge is knowledge of objective reality. The point is simply that the claim “science reveals objective reality” is a metaphysical claim; the claim “science does not reveal objective reality” is, accordingly, also a metaphysical claim. No scientist puts together a research program to test the hypothesis that scientific knowledge is knowledge of objective reality. Adducing scientific knowledge as evidence in an attempt to answer the question of whether scientific knowledge is knowledge of objective reality either presupposes that scientific knowledge is knowledge of objective reality or, if it doesn’t simply presuppose that, is irrelevant to answering the question.

      (By the way, on one way of reading him, Kant simply assumed that scientific knowledge was knowledge of objective reality. (He didn’t claim to adduce scientific evidence for it.) He just showed that “objective” can’t mean what the transcendental realists take it to mean, and he explained how we need to reconceptualize some things if we want to recover the commonsense view that we have genuine knowledge of spatiotemporal objects that more or less resist our agency.)

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    2. Trying to reduce the long standing realism vs anti-realism debate to “Hey man, try to refute me!” is what I would call childish.

      As I mentioned before, in addition to philosophers there is a number of well respected cutting-edge scientists who subscribe to some form of anti-realism.

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      1. I tend to think sufficiently sophisticated anti-realism has much in common with sophisticated scientific realism. Unobserved entities appear in many theories, and it is to be a realist to know some of these will disappear, and others become observables using the appropriate technologies. David Hull frivolously comments:

        By “metaphysical entity” I mean any entity postulated as one of the basic constituents of the world but which turns out to have no empirical content. The identifying of a genuine metaphysical entity is not always easy, especially when the system of which it is part is first being formulated. Hertz’s hidden bodies and Wittgenstein’s objects are obvious cases of metaphysical entities. As it turns out, so are Aristotle’s essences. But who could have predicted that aether and caloric would go the way of metaphysical entities, whereas electrons and genes would retain their status as theoretical entities.

        As to hidden metaphysical commitments, my favourite scientistic philospher, Mario Bunge (who died earlier this year) wrote:

        Charles S. Peirce (1935), in my opinion the deepest and most original and versatile of American philosophers, thought it possible to construct scientific metaphysics, that is, metaphysical theories using the vast storehouse of mathematics and factual science. I concur, and add that doing scientific metaphysics should be far more interesting than fantasizing about physically impossible worlds. Besides, whereas speculative metaphysics is groundless (or unjustified), the hypotheses of
        scientific metaphysics can be checked by their compatibility with current scientific knowledge. For example, the relational (or adjectival) theories of space and time are consistent with the theories of relativity, whereas the theories of absolute space and time are not. Again, whereas the philosophies of mind involving the psycho-neural identity hypothesis are consistent with cognitive neuroscience, the dualistic theories are not (see Bunge 1977a, 1979a).
        Furthermore, I submit that every time scientists discover something, and every time technologists design a workable artifact, they confirm materialism. By contrast, no mountain of scientific and technological achievements is likely to satisfy the theologian, the pseudoscientist, the idealist philosopher, or even the scientist in love with the bizarre, or who wishes to épater le bourgeois…

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  17. “It is no accident that the characteristics that every major moral philosophy identifies as morally significant – happiness and suffering; liberty and agency; rationality and dignity – are all things that happen to be of great importance to us. When was the last time a moral philosopher suggested that having an exoskeleton or hibernating or undergoing metamorphosis is what makes something deserving of moral consideration? Don’t hold your breath waiting. And understand that the retort that these are morally insignificant characteristics does not contradict the point I am making but rather, confirms it.”

    So?

    Despite what Williams says about there being no “cosmic view”, he’s still strangely mesmerized by an “absolute conception” of the world, and is dismissive of stuff that falls outside of it. Morality wouldn’t exist without rational, social beings? That’s like marveling that medicine wouldn’t exist without organisms. That medicine doesn’t concern itself with rocks shouldn’t shock anybody. I find your falling in with this mindset strange considering your skepticism of scientism and views from nowhere, but oh well. Other urges win out.

    You believe people trying to establish independent standards for regulating morality are premodern, religious, childlike, and resistant to negotiation and compromise. Which honestly isn’t a great thing to say if you’re trying to negotiate or compromise with these people. And you do so by appealing to the supposedly independent standards set by arguments establishing that there are no grounds for morality or anything, which should subsequently regulate our morality for some perhaps not-value-laden reason. I dunno. I hunger for something more down to earth.

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    1. Of course people “establish independent standards for regulating morality,” the most obvious of which are laws. I don’t see Dan denying that. But you remark “Morality wouldn’t exist without rational, social beings? That’s like marveling that medicine wouldn’t exist without organisms.” But this is exactly the implicit, and sometimes explicit, presumption of Moral Realism, the most obvious example of which is ‘the Will of God’ among religions.

      Denying metaphysical grounds is not the same as denying the fruits of reasoning; it is a matter of reasoning about the world we have, not some perfect world hidden in the shadows. I can’t think of any position more down to earth.

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      1. This is exactly right. I’m frankly somewhat stunned by the discussion. People either really misunderstood the underlying point, not just of this last installment but of the entire Prolegomena or came with such settled preconceptions they couldn’t see it. My philosophical inclinations are grounded, disinclined towards exotica and esoterica, explanatorily humble, and weary of the repeated outrages to common sense that seem to have become part and parcel of mainstream philosophy. And given that the piece is primarily about God and morality, the focus of the discussion, which has been directed at everything but God, is notable.

        Ah well, ’tis par for the course.

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        1. “the focus of the discussion, which has been directed at everything but God, is notable.”

          Yes, but your fourth principle is about “intelligibility and understanding” in general, and doesn’t even mention ethics or theology. And your genealogical argument about adult responsibility are like all such – defeasible. Why not take the traditional theological view that a quest for certainty is driven by the every individual’s awareness of mortality – “the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall”.

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      2. Hullo EJ

        “Of course people ‘establish independent standards for regulating morality,’ the most obvious of which are laws.”

        But would this mean anything other than the threat of force to Dan? This is not a standard conferring rational legitimacy and such legitimacy is precisely what’s in question.

        “But this is exactly the implicit, and sometimes explicit, presumption of Moral Realism, the most obvious example of which is ‘the Will of God’ among religions.”

        I don’t see that it needs to be. Did fluid mechanics exist before fluids? We could say no and say that it evolved out of the development of the universe. Or we could say yes and say the potential was there given whatever set of preconditions. These can easily come out as equivalent descriptions without any pressing need to favor either. “Who cares?” really. Maybe I just take the lesson much more to heart than Dan that we don’t need things to be skyhooked onto eternal, transcendent, or scientifically-authenticated categories for them to count as real.

        “Denying metaphysical grounds is not the same as denying the fruits of reasoning; it is a matter of reasoning about the world we have, not some perfect world hidden in the shadows. I can’t think of any position more down to earth.”

        I’m fine with that, but I disagree on his account of the world we have. That includes Dan’s subjectivism, and his claim that there’s no way to deduce or demonstrate the correctness of a moral judgment, and his statement that there are no grounds for morality or anything else. I think this is implicitly relying on the notion of skyhook grounds as the only grounds worthy of the name.

        I linked this in my last comment, but Dan probably deleted it because it was a wonky link to JSTOR through a local library connection. Found a better one here:

        https://williamjamesstudies.org/william-james-and-moral-objectivity/

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  18. Okay, I’m going to try this one more time, with a slightly different formulation.

    The point is *not* that there are *no* standards of belief or action. Of course there are. The point is that there are no standards of belief or action that lie “outside” human nature and experience in such a way as to grant any side in a dispute a discursive trump card or any theoretical statement the imprimatur of “reality’s perspective.”

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  19. couvant2104 says, “Every pedestrian who crosses a bridge, every user of a smartphone, every car driver who brakes … is taking a considerable epistemic risk. They are betting that objective reality indeed is intelligible and the designer of the bridge, smartphone, brakes indeed knows truths about it. It’s not the usual way to think about crossing a bridge or braking the car, but in a certain sense these actions are *experiments*. They tests the hypothesis that the knowledge of the designers is true knowledge about objective reality. It’s not only scientists who test this hypothesis – we are doing it all the time. The fact that we almost never think about crossing bridges etc. as experiments is quite remarkable. Maybe we’re making a good metaphysical bet?”

    I’m sympathetic with the strain of American pragmatism woven into this comment: there’s something to the idea that science is a more refined version of the bumping-about and trial-and-error of everyday experience.

    However, the argument put forward is of the same form as Johnson’s attempted refutation of Berkeley and is therefore idle. The fact that we cross bridges cannot serve as evidence that the bridge-makers know objective reality. Those arguing along the same lines as Professor Kaufman are saying that to describe it as crossing a bridge is to misdescribe it: what we should say is that we (and lifeforms relevantly like us) *experience* (something we count and describe as) crossing bridges. (Similarly, what Berkeley was arguing is that Johnson *experiences* kicking a stone.)

    And to try to explain empirical successes (such as building and using bridges) as due to their tracking some metaphysical substratum is to do no more than *redescribe* those successes in different, more loaded terms. (When one says “Empirical successes are such because they track metaphysical reality,” they’re saying “When one sees empirical successes, one sees (or should see) the tracking of metaphysical reality” — sort of like saying “When one sees Trump speaking, one sees (or should see) a huckster trying to sell us something.”)

    Professor Kaufman, this and your recent comments about other life forms makes me wonder whether part of the source of these overweening metaphysics is a failure to recognize (and to accept and to deal with) the deeply contingent nature of our forms of sensibility, of life, of mindedness.

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    1. Idealism is one of the philosophies that these Prolegomena were designed to oppose. That you associate anything I’ve said here with Idealism means that I obviously have entirely failed to communicate. The characterization of my views as “overweening” is also entirely inapt. The philosophy I present throughout is deflationary, as made quite explicit in the installment on ontological commitment.

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      1. Sorry. It was I who was not communicating clearly.

        By “these overweening metaphysics” I was not referring to your ideas. I was referring to the targets of your ideas: those who wish to explain empirical successes or ground our ethics in alleged metaphysical substrata.

        Also, I took you to be saying is that our theories capture our experience of things: “Our sciences are a product of how we experience the world. The sciences of a species with a radically different experience will reflect theirs.”

        I was trying to bring out the futility of certain arguments for the idea that empirical successes can only be explained by our tracking a metaphysical substratum. I certainly don’t think you’re an idealist — you’ve made that quite clear throughout.

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      2. My concluding thought, in other words, was a friendly addendum: the outre theories you oppose might also have their source in their creators’ failure to live with the utter contingency of things.

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    2. “a failure to recognize (and to accept and to deal with) the deeply contingent nature of our forms of sensibility, of life, of mindedness”

      Yes, and I would add a couple of fallacies:

      Anthropocentrism: All other animals have limited brains and will never be able to figure out what reality really is, but we are special.

      Chronocentrism: Centuries ago humans came up with such silly things as the Ptolemaic system, but we have finally reached a point in history where we can understand how things really are.

      Western thought might also still be under the unacknowledged influence of Christian beliefs. For instance, the old idea that god made man on his image in such a way that man could understand and appreciate nature, i.e. god’s work.

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    3. Animal Symbolicum,

      “The fact that we cross bridges cannot serve as evidence that the bridge-makers know objective reality.”

      I just wanted to point out that the metaphysical bet “nature is intelligible” is a remarkably good bet in science and engineering. It makes us take epistemic risks like crossing a bridge etc. that remarkably often end well. I hope you can agree with that.

      “… describe it as crossing a bridge is to misdescribe it: what we should say is that we (and lifeforms relevantly like us) *experience* (something we count and describe as) crossing bridges.”

      We have sensations and experiences and representations, but no immediate access to the Ding an sich, OK. But how does that preclude our ability to discover accurate knowledge about objective reality? Is there anything that forbids objective reality to be the source of sensations and experiences, and that forbids aspects of our representations to preserve important aspects of this causally acting objective reality? I don’t think so. By the way: imagine that the human species made representations that don’t correspond to objective reality. Evolution would wipe us out quite rapidly, I think.

      Does this count as evidence? Not if you demand god-like perfection of evidence. But for me as a human being, it’s quite compelling. I can live without god-like immediate access to the Ding an sich – just like I can live without the god-like certainty of religions that want to guide my moral behavior.

      That brings me to the reason why I reacted in the first place. I was reading things like “I am afraid that is not where they stand. This is a matter to be decided by science and not philosophy.” I sensed a longing, not for god-like but for scientific certainty in matters where a scientific approach is misguided.
      But then I also read things like “science reveals the true objective reality is fundamentally a metaphysical belief, not a conclusion based on empirical evidence,” and I sensed a whiff of another longing, one for god-like perfection in science.

      I found the expression of both these longings surprising for a piece that starts with “Of all things the measure is man”, and that wasn’t waiting for demands for god-like or scientific certainty.
      But that’s just me.

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        1. You write about “… some standard that floats above in the logical ether …” and such stances that confer “a significant rhetorical and discursive advantage …”.

          If I’m not mistaken, you dislike the use of and the search for these standards. Well, I agree. It’s just that I feel that your position entails an equally disdainful attitude towards standards that demand god-like certainty of science; standards that, of course, confer lots of rhetorical advantages.

          I’ve seen them, these rhetorical advantages, explaining patiently to me we’re not crossing bridges, we’re merely experiencing “something we count and describe as crossing bridges”.

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      1. “imagine that the human species made representations that don’t correspond to objective reality. Evolution would wipe us out quite rapidly“.

        That is the old idea that evolution selects for truth. No, evolution selects for representations of reality that are sufficient for propagating your genes. Imagine, for example, that reality has 11 dimensions (as stated by certain versions of string theory). Would evolution need to make you see all those dimensions, when the lion in the savannah can only see three dimensions? Evidently seeing three dimensions is completely sufficient to outsmart the lion, and it is hard to imagine how seeing all those additional dimensions would give you any evolutionary advantage.

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        1. Ugo, I’m getting tired of this. Not even in the wildest imagination of string theorists humans see more than three spatial dimensions when they’re confronted with a hungry lion.

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          1. Obviously that is not what I was saying. I was pointing out that, even in a world with 11 dimensions, evolution would not necessarily develop perception of all those dimensions in a given species unless it gave some competitive advantage over another species. Which is intended to show that there is nothing in evolution per se which would guarantee the development of an accurate perception of reality

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      2. We have sensations and experiences and representations, but no immediate access to the Ding an sich, OK. But how does that preclude our ability to discover accurate knowledge about objective reality?

        It depends on what you mean by “accurate knowledge” and what you mean by “objective reality.”

        I don’t have a problem with gaining accurate knowledge about objective reality. But “accurate” can only mean that it meets our standards. And the standards that we use are all human standards. As for “objective”, I don’t see how that can be other than what is the consensus view of objective. And I’ll note that the consensus of YECs (Young Earth Creationists) is very different from the consensus of scientists.

        Yes, we can usually cross bridges with safety. But that’s because of the pragmatism of science and engineering. It does not require that bridges be built to human-independent standards.

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        1. “But “accurate” can only mean that it meets our standards. And the standards that we use are all human standards. As for “objective”, I don’t see how that can be other than what is the consensus view of objective.”

          = = = = =

          This is exactly right. I wish I’d written it.

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          1. “the consensus view” and “human standards”: Back to Berkeley? So when the bridge has fallen down and nobody notices?…You may or may not think Meillassoux’s “ancestrality” argument is impressive:

            ‘Event Y occurred x number of years before the emergence of humans.’ The correlationist philosopher will in no way intervene in the content of this statement: he will not contest the claim that it is in fact event Y that occurred, nor will he contest the dating of this event. No – he will simply add – perhaps only to himself, but add it he will – something like a simple codicil, always the same one, which he will discretely append to the end of the phrase: event Y occurred x number of years before the emergence of humans – for humans (or even, for the human scientist). This codicil is the codicil of modernity…

            …We said above that, since Kant, objectivity is no longer defined with reference to the object in itself (in terms of the statement’s adequation or resemblance to what it designates), but
            rather with reference to the possible universality of an objective statement. It is the intersubjectivity of the ancestral statement – the fact that it should by right be verifiable by any member of the scientific community – that guarantees its objectivity, and hence its ‘truth’. It cannot be anything else, since its referent, taken literally, is unthinkable. If one refuses to hypostatize the
            correlation, it is necessary to insist that the physical universe could not really have preceded the existence of man, or at least of living creatures…

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          2. Kant distinguished empirical judgments from judgments of taste and aesthetic judgments and certainly did not reject the distinction between the subjective and the objective. He simply rendered it more sophisticated than the crude versions peddled by those like Descartes and John Locke, and he defended it from the skepticism that otherwise inevitably arises.

            Objectivity was never identified with the noumenon, but rather with the phenomenon. It reflected the understanding that mind penetrates world, just as world penetrates mind.

            But the entire question of objectivity is a red-herring — or represents a basic misunderstanding of what I wrote — as I am not speaking of the distinction between subjective and objective. (Which, by the way, is problematic in itself and can hardly be adequately dealt with in the breezy manner indicated in your extended quotation.) As I explicitly indicate, I am talking about the view, popular in philosophy, that there are “neutral, human/person-independent standards” and that these lend judgments/actions a special kind of authority, whether epistemic or moral.

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          3. “nonsense bordering on gibberish”: I wish there was a little intersubjective agreement on this objective fact 😉

            It is certainly not an extended quotation, but I presume you have read the original chapter. The fuller argument is sketched in the last sentence, re “hypostatisation of the correlation”, where correlation is “…the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other [so that it is impossible] to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another…”. He specifically alludes to interpenetration of mind and noumenon. Just as you have tried to assail other “ontological commitments”, Meillassoux suggests the “correlation” is another such overspecified metaphysical constituent of the world that ineluctably leads to crazy commitments – he comments that “Cartesians” have no problem with the distant past having only a “mathematical” (but non-Pythagorean) existence. I take this as arguing fictionalists and their ilk do have a problem. The distant past is just as indispensable to science as mathematics, and the sciences not a facon a parler, but the actual “ground” (not in the technical sense, whatever that is) of current being.

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          4. The fuller argument is sketched in the last sentence, re “hypostatisation of the correlation”, where correlation is “…the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other [so that it is impossible] to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another…”.

            That does sound like nonsense bordering on gibberish.

            On the other hand, I am not greatly impressed with studying correlates of consciousness, and I assume he was making a point about that kind of study.

            he comments that “Cartesians” have no problem with the distant past having only a “mathematical” (but non-Pythagorean) existence. I take this as arguing fictionalists and their ilk do have a problem.

            I’m a mathematical fictionalist, and I don’t have any problems with the idea that the past only has something similar to a mathematical existence.

            The distant past is just as indispensable to science as mathematics

            Have you tried reading Hartry Field’s “Science without numbers”? (Full disclosure — I haven’t read it either, though I did browse through it).

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          5. Hartry Field not only was one of my professors in graduate school, but I was his research assistant for two years. I took numerous courses from him. And yes, I’ve read the book. I’m a mathematical fictionalist too. And a deflationist about truth — as Field is.

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      3. couvent2104, my comment was sloppy. Apologies. I was wrong to use the phrase ‘objective reality’. I should have written “The fact that we cross bridges cannot serve as evidence that the bridge makers have come to know *a metaphysical substratum*.”

        Like Professor Kaufman and others here, I don’t wish to deny a recognizable distinction between the subjective and objective. (Now *that* would be crazy.) What I would wish to deny is a certain conception of what objectivity *amounts to*. Neil Rickert has hit the nail on the head in this connection. The philosophical tradition, including the public intellectualizing it inspires, is beset by a certain conception of objectivity that borders on fantasy — a conception manifesting in claims to be attempting to know the mind of God, to know how reality looks from no perspective at all, to have reality tell us what to think — and that conception needs to be chastened.

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    4. “we (and lifeforms relevantly like us) *experience* (something we count and describe as) crossing bridges.” I think this is incoherent because of the “we” – Dan is arguing for incommensurability (translation, scientific v. manifest etc), but why then agreement or even such a thing as relevant similarity?. If there is a recognition that we are all knowers that have so much in common, how can this not have regular law-like bases at a metaphysical level. To say that we, as currently constituted, can only know reality in certain ways is tautologous, unless you believe we have nonmaterial, computationally unbounded minds.

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      1. What relevance amounts to (and what accuracy, or agreement-with-experience, or objectivity, or reality, or truth etc. amount to) is settled by nothing more than, but also nothing less than, reasonable negotiation. I’m not talking here about determining which things are relevant (etc.); I’m talking about determining the standards according to which we (should) determine which things are relevant (etc.). Relevance isn’t built into reality, but that doesn’t imply that reasonable people can’t count on other reasonable people to recognize what’s relevant in shared circumstances and, if disagreement arises, to talk about it and negotiate the standard of relevance if need be.

        We make the final decision about these things in conversation with others. Suppose you think agreement with reality is the ultimate standard for a theory to meet. (What I say holds for standards of relevance, mutatis mutandis.) It’s still our call whether a theory agrees with reality. It’s our call because the conceptions of agreement and of reality are negotiable. (And precisely what the theory says — what we are supposed to compare to reality — is negotiable too.) And it’s question-begging to argue that your conception of agreement-with-reality agrees with reality while someone else’s doesn’t.

        I take all of this to also address your question, “If there is a recognition that we are all knowers that have so much in common, how can this not have regular law-like bases at a metaphysical level.” My response is: by having a basis at a human, non-metaphysical level.

        You might think, “Well, if our knowledge claims are grounded on negotiable judgment calls, then that renders our knowledge on the whole pretty flimsy!” But there’s another, perfectly legitimate conclusion to draw: If our knowledge claims are grounded on publicly negotiable judgment calls, then, taking our knowledge on the whole as such, it just shows how robust those judgment calls are and can be, and how important it is to protect the publicity of discussion.

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        1. “it’s question-begging to argue that your conception of agreement-with-reality agrees with reality while someone else’s doesn’t”:
          https://social-epistemology.com/2017/07/10/its-no-game-post-truth-and-the-obligations-of-science-studies-erik-baker-and-naomi-oreskes/

          In the fullness of time, when someone says they were wrong about a particular scientific theory or similarly (to my mind) a mathematical theorem, it is not public negotiation that drives this, or the fact there is shared humanity with those who have turned out to be correct. These are prerequisites, but there is a difference between assenting to a metaphysical or a theological or a moral proposition, and seeing that a mathematical or scientific technique is valid, and that the results of using that approach are the facts of the matter. There is an amusing Rorty comment:

          We find it natural to think of “what S knows” as the collection of propositions completing true statements by S
          which begin “I know that. . . .” When we realize that the blank may be filled by such various material as “this is red,”
          “e = mc2,” “my Redeemer liveth,” and “I shall marry Jane,” we are rightly skeptical of the notion of “the nature,
          origin, and limits of human knowledge,”

          Now sure, scientific knowledge is provisional, in one sense, and scientific skepticism is a thing, but the disputes are of a different nature than in other domains because of the interpenetration of the rational and empiric. I was reading why Newton claimed precedence over Hooke on inverse-square laws and universal gravitation, where the latter had clearly suggested both first – Newton argued that Hooke did not have the necessary mathematical apparatus, which includes the ability to provide predictions to be tested (modern physicists have looked at Hooke’s geometrical approaches and found them interesting failures). And as an experimentalist, Newton did stuff like measure movement of objects in a vacuum in order to detect the drag effects of a gravitational aether (a la vortices). The natural philosphical is just a different style.

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          1. davidlduffy, I’m unsure about what you’re aiming to do in this comment, but I agree that it’s important to recognize the difference between assenting to some proposition and seeing validity for yourself. I’d add that between the two, the latter is the more valuable cognitive goal. Of course, nothing I say above contradicts this. Either in the case of assenting or in the case of seeing, determining whether I’m correct in my assent or whether I’m actually seeing validity is a matter of public negotiation — as is determining whether Newton’s measurements were accurate.

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          2. davidlduffy, thanks for the link to the interesting article. I’ll enjoy chasing all those footnotes, too.

            Again, though, I’m just not sure what you’re attempting to accomplish in linking to it. For one thing, the authors refer favorably to Helen Longino — a philosopher of science whose work I’ve taught for many years and who has convincingly demonstrated the need in science for the kind of “conceptual critique” (her term) I’ve been describing here.

            For another thing, the authors call for exactly the thing I’ve been describing. In their words: “Yet, the indispensability of scientific knowledge to political action in contemporary societies also demands the development of standards that justify public acceptance of certain scientific claims as definitive enough to ground collective projects, such as the existence of a community-wide consensus or multiple independent lines of evidence for the same conclusion.” They call for the “development of standards” — not, take note, the discovery of standards that were baked into reality by God or in the Big Bang. The authors explicitly mention “community-wide consensus” and “multiple independent lines of evidence for the same conclusion” as standards “definitive enough to ground collective projects” — not, take note, magical, conversation-stopping entities such as “the data” or “what reality is like” or whatever it is that scientism decrees one worships.

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          3. Hi AS. My linking to the article was the list of bad actors (some of whom, I think, spur arguments like those of Meillassoux) and the lovely call for “truth, facts, and reality outside of the scare quotes”.

            Re “conceptual critique” – I don’t have a problem with this (and have read Longino). I was glad, for example, that Steven Fuller’s arguments that Intelligent Design is a scientific theory were found wanting in a court of law. But consider the kerfuffle about reproducibility of research in social psychology and other scientific fields. These are problems that partake of epistemology and logic, but the disputes and proposals for resolution are scientific (this includes mathematics via statistics!) in nature, rather than philosophy of science. But obviously they do have great relevance to society in general, consider just the scientific basis of claims about implicit bias.

            Latour’s recent book starts with quite an interesting anecdote, where “some fifteen French industrialists responsible for sustainable development in various companies, facing a professor of climatology, a researcher from the Collège de France. One of the industrialists asks the professor a question I find a little cavalier: ‘But why should we believe you, any more than the others?’…I wonder how the professor is going to respond. Will he put the meddler in his place by reminding him that it’s not a matter of belief but of fact? Will he once again summarize the ‘indisputable data’…But no, to my great surprise, he responds, after a long, drawn-out sigh: ‘If people don’t trust the institution of science, we’re in serious trouble.’ And he begins to lay out before his audience the large number of researchers involved in climate analysis, the complex system for verifying data, the articles and reports, the principle of peer evaluation, the vast network of weather stations, floating weather buoys, satellites, and computers that ensure the flow of information—and then, standing at the blackboard, he starts to explain the pitfalls of the models that are needed to correct the data as well as the series of doubts that have had to be addressed on each of these points…”

            Any why is this? Even a physics undergraduate from a different field takes 2-3 years before he can appreciate all the subtleties of the climate science (apparently this was an experiment with N of 1). So yes, the principles re policy have to be those of courts of law and “STS”. But, one of the factors regarding faith in the institutions of science is the expectation that a random physics undergraduate can be inculcated with the techniques, and demonstrate for themselves the objective truth, so a scientific community is a group who can take up the same methods and get the same results about the atmosphere, just as the community of chefs is regarding the sensual world of others (to take up unity of gastronomic science). I keep coming back to quoting Fisher and his ideas about randomization. If the mathematics is right, and experimental procedures sufficiently rigorous, then other “standards” are irrelevant – the data speaks for itself: “Let the Devil choose the yields of the plots to his liking. . . If now I assign treatments to plots on any system which allows any two plots which may be treated alike an equal chance of being treated differently. . . then it can be shown both that the experiment is unbiased by the Devil’s machinations, and that my test of significance is valid”.

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          4. davidlduffy, I’ve been laying out some reasons to reject what I see as an all-too-common but intellectually bankrupt idea: the idea that there’s no such thing as objectivity unless there are absolute measures built into a metaphysical substratum. I’m not denying that it takes time to develop the subtle techniques and expert judgment enabling one to distinguish the objective patterns from noise (or that we can’t just wish objective reality to be a certain way, or that coming to know what things are like is a hard-won achievement, etc.). In other words, I’m not denying that there’s a distinction to be won between the objective and subjective. What I’ve been doing is arguing against a certain account of what it means for knowledge to be objective and outlining a different conception.

            Your responses to me amount to various ways of insisting that there’s a distinction to be won between the objective and subjective. This is a fact, as I’ve said, that I’m not denying. You can present all the examples of objective knowledge you want, or explain until you’re blue in the face how much work it takes to discover what’s true or what’s objectively real, or how important standards, expertise, trust in the scientific institution, etc. are, and I’ll just keep agreeing. For that’s just not what’s in question. What’s in question is what it means to be a standard, where a standard comes from, what it means to call a standard an objective standard, what it is for something to meet a standard, and so on. You’re just not engaging with the point.

            Re: Fisher: So randomization techniques reveal reality. Did reality tell him this? Was it the reality revealed through randomization techniques that told him that randomization techniques reveal reality?

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          5. His failure to engage with the point is why I stopped engaging with him on it. He either doesn’t understand the point or is too stubborn to earnestly engage with it. Regardless, it’s an exercise in futility.

            The purpose of addressing the general epistemic situation through the lens of morality was because with regard to the latter, the point regarding standards is quite clear. The desire for perspectiveless, transcendent standards is expressed in obvious absurdities and dead ends. Whether invisible super-beings or abstractions attached to logical skyhooks, it is very easy to see why these could not function as standards for *human* conduct, regardless of whether they are even viable ideas in the first place. (Which, of course, they are not.)

            This is harder to see in the more general epistemic situation — exhibit A of which is science — but the point is exactly the same. The desire for warrant is a more general, epistemic version of the desire for righteousness and virtue, and it also is one that only is intelligible within a human frame of reference. This means that whatever grants it — whatever its source is — must ultimately be a human one. And it *is*, as the thing we seek to render intelligible, the thing the beliefs about which we seek warrant, is the world of our experience; the world of discrete objects in space; matter; energy; etc.; and *not* some independent “reality.”

            The moral case also exposes and brings into focus the combination of insecurity and arrogance that lies beneath the desire that standards, whether moral or epistemic, be transcendent, which I think adds an important dimension to a subject that is too often addressed too abstractly.

            Perhaps the final cut, in which the installments will be brought together and edited with an additional layer of detail added, will receive more careful and well-considered responses, but we’ll just have to wait and see. I certainly appreciate your efforts to make the discussion more productive, as well as the efforts of a few others.

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          6. Professor Kaufman, you refer to “the combination of insecurity and arrogance that lies beneath the desire that standards, whether moral or epistemic, be transcendent.”

            Yes, exactly.

            If you combine this idea with the idea that a person’s philosophical framework is largely a function of that person’s personality and sensibility — an idea you’ve floated, even if expressed differently — it’s easier to understand why the Nietzsches and the Wittgensteins of our tradition might see fit to respond to certain views with remarks that are diagnostic and therapeutic in spirit.

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          7. Dan,
            “The moral case also exposes and brings into focus the combination of insecurity and arrogance that lies beneath the desire that standards, whether moral or epistemic, be transcendent, which I think adds an important dimension to a subject that is too often addressed too abstractly.”
            Yes, since the problem of motives has been brought up, I think it’s important to remark that the arrogance – and child-like deference to authority, and anxiety over uncertainty, etc. – are built into systems of realism, especially moral realism; they need not be (although they may be) motivations on the part of their proponents. Because to hold rigidly realistic views is to hold to a view that by its very nature is comforting, reassuring. Anti-realism suggests that there may be something beyond what we say we know, something we don’t know or cannot know. That by its very nature is unsettling.

            Is there motivation built into various projects of anti-realism? Of course. But I don’t think it’s the historically obvious (although it may have been once), i.e. the fear or anger at the various churches, or even at god. After all, after the ancient era, the first anti-realist position in the West was Medieval Nominalism, and the Nominalists had nothing but faith in the divine, But what they possibly shared with the modern view was a sophisticated weariness with attenuated arguments that ultimately fell apart on analysis. Weariness, then, and a desire to get on with more rewarding discussions, seems to be the motivation built into anti-Realist arguments. Why try to find the metaphysically “Real’ when paying one’s bills is sometimes difficult enough? “Not only is there no God, but try finding a plumber on Sunday.” – Woody Allen.

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          8. “What’s in question is what it means to be a standard, where a standard comes from, what it means to call a standard an objective standard, what it is for something to meet a standard, and so on. You’re just not engaging with the point.
            “Re: Fisher: So randomization techniques reveal reality. Did reality tell him this? Was it the reality revealed through randomization techniques that told him that randomization techniques reveal reality?”

            Dear AS. I am grateful for you continuing to engage on these matters. I’m afraid Dan K has become a little tired of restating what he thinks are knockdown objections that will inevitably convince the, for example, 56% of respondents to the PhilPapers Surveys who “accept or lean toward: moral realism”, and the 75% who “accept or lean toward: scientific realism”. Unless of course, there are psychological factors present that make it impossible for them to evaluate these arguments correctly.

            Part of the Baker and Oreskes essay addresses the concept of the marketplace of ideas. A putative property of markets is that (some) norms arise “naturally” – in a mathematical fashion – from the inputs of the desires of the participants as they rub along with reality. We do have various standards that hold bridges shouldn’t fall down, and presumably agree that these arise out of reasons that even other animals have, even though they are “free floating” ie inaccessible to the subjective worlds of those animals. In the case of other animals, one might call these objective reasons, I think. You may allow me then, I hope, to say that human engineering standards are actually objective in this sense, though trading off versus many other goals eg efficiency in several senses. If one is a consequentalist, there is a calculus that, given some minimal goals rooted in the practicalities of human existence and shared with other life, allows us to generate and judge norms and standards etc, such as Gautherian contractualism, Hayekian or Posner’s economic analysis of laws and norms and so on. So Hayek argues, apparently, “that the [nature of] common law is a ‘spontaneous order'”, satisficing an overall goal (not norm!) of “maintaining social order”, which arises in a natural way from individuals not wanting to be hit on the head and have their goods taken. His argument stands or falls on his concept that reality is unintelligible because of its complexity, but that markets improve on individual rationality or present scientific modelling of the human sphere. I don’t actually agree with all this, but put it up as one response to your question.

            As to Fisher, he has simple questions: how can I really know whether Muriel Bristol can tell when the milk is added before the tea? or, which wheat cultivar produces the most grain? These meet my definitions for objective. The point whether randomization helps us know facts about nature in the presence of confounding is mathematical, and automatically (in the sense of deductively, I guess) gives rise to norms for the practical successful running of experiments (his 1935 book is The Design of Experiments). Cheers.

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  20. We have sensations and experiences and representations, but no immediate access to the Ding an sich, OK. But how does that preclude our ability to discover accurate knowledge about objective reality? Is there anything that forbids objective reality to be the source of sensations and experiences, and that forbids aspects of our representations to preserve important aspects of this causally acting objective reality? I don’t think so

    Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.

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  21. It is often said that ‘the view from nowhere’ would help us find the truth about objective reality, presumably because pure logic will prevail independent of our passions. The problem is that nowhere does not exist, we can’t even imagine what nowhere would look like.

    On the other hand, ‘the view from everywhere’ can be conceptualized: it is abstract and can not be accomplished by any kind of living creature that we can conceive of. But it certainly would include a view of trillions of galaxies and billions of trillions of suns. This view would also include a familiarity with the insides of subatomic particles and the disparate passions of each person on the planet. This is the real universe, as it is, that also includes dark energy, dark matter and whatever mysterious else. Unfortunately, Homo sapiens sapiens etc will never be able to synthesize the whole lot. The only place where that could ever happen would be in a Mind of God – the idea of a deus is therefore not completely irrational. And as if our meager faculties could ever define a true god, but we have tried from the beginning of time. But many of us believe they have seen, heard or felt the presence of god.

    As D’Arcy Thompson is reputed to have said, everything is the way it is because it became that way, through evolution. Therefore, we must not forget that we are looking at a target moving though ‘time’. That means, i.a., that each of us has a different story. My parents, grandparents, family and community crucially contributed to who I am. We are all the same and we are all different, it all depends on the power of the lens we are using.

    We should all do our individual and unique bests. There is no such thing as common identity in reality, we are all unique. The whole is very sensitive to the changes produced by every individual. Profound differences between groups and individuals are a given, we just have to improve on how we deal with those differences.

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