Reality and realism

Let’s have a new topic, preferably one that is not Christian apologetics.

This is mostly intended as a response to a comment by KN, but I think it deserves its own thread.

There’s a recent blog post elsewhere that is related:

Personally, I think of myself as a realist. But I agree with some of Dan Kaufman’s criticisms of traditional views of reality.

Now my response to KN. The quotes will all be from KN’s comment (linked above).

I think I’m more inclined towards realism about objects than you are. I find this curious because you and I both appreciate Gibson’s work on affordances, and I am a realist about affordances — affordances are real features of the organism-environment relationship But perhaps you are more inclined to think of affordances as “projections” from the organism onto the environment?

I’m not sure I am understanding the point there.  Affordances are not objects.  Moreover, what counts as an affordance will depend on the knowledge and interests of the person (the perceiver).

“Objects” are that which pushes back against us, thwarts us, offers resistance to our actions.

I’m not sure that’s completely satisfactory.  But, ignoring that for the moment, even that conception of objects makes them pragmatic things rather than logical things.  And it makes what counts as an object depend on our interactions with the world.

If Nature had no joints at which to be carved, then any criteria for successful action would be equally arbitrary as all other criteria.

I’m not sure that makes sense.  The world is not homogeneous, so even arbitrary choices are  not equally arbitrary.

I live in Illinois.  The border of Illinois and Iowa is the Mississippi river.  That could perhaps be considered a seam.  But if I look at the border of Illinois and Wisconsin, part of the border is a river, and part of it isn’t (the river was not followed as far as it could be).  The part that is not along a river doesn’t seem to fit the idea of seam.  Even if there are seams, we are not bound to follow them and often don’t.  And where there are no seams, we still carve up the world.  So whether or not there are seams isn’t all that important (in my opinion).

If we were trying to define the boundary of Illinois and Iowa today, we would probably do that in terms of GPS coordinates, rather than using the river.  The way that we divide the world depends on our abilities.

And here’s where I largely disagree:

So while we should always be on guard against the assumption that any theory correctly describes the structure of reality, we really cannot do away with the assumption that reality does indeed have an intelligible structure, and indeed one that is knowable by us because our cognitive capacities are a part of that structure and informed by its history.

If I climb a rock, I look for footholds.  I don’t doubt that the footholds are real enough to support my weight.  But the footholds are not part of the structure of the rock, they are just accidental inhomogeneities.  That they are footholds derives from my pragmatic choices, from my temporizing.  If the rock were completely smooth, I would not be able to climb it (or maybe I could find some glue pads, and then climb with those).

I see nature as like that, in that it is not homogeneous.  So we can find something like footholds that we can use to anchor our descriptions.  But that does not make those anchor points part of the structure of reality.

Here’s where I disagree with Gibson.  According to Gibson, we pickup information from the immediate environment.  I used to think that way, but it doesn’t work.  The better view is that the environment is devoid of information.  We create information.  Part of what the brain does is creating information.  We (or our perceptual systems) use whatever “footholds” or “anchor points” that we can find to anchor some sort of practical coordinate system to reality.  And then the mathematics that we see in science comes from the very mathematical way that we have used those coordinate systems to systematically divide up the world.

When I look at scientific laws, a large part of these laws have to do with anchoring our coordinate systems and using those anchored systems to allow us to make measurements (making a measurement creates Shannon information).

When I look at Maxwell’s equations, they allow one to derive the wave equation.  From that, we can conclude that our measurements of electromagnetic phenomena satisfy the wave equation.  I don’t think it means anything to say that light itself satisfies the wave equation.

So now think of water waves.  If I’m right about information, then perception works by virtue of our brains doing something similar to measurement.  So when we see water waves, we are really seeing waves in our measurements.  And, indeed, it is known that the water molecules just go up and down, or in small approximately circular motions.  The molecules don’t advance in the wave (except when the wave is breaking near the shore).  So perception is really looking at something like measurements that our brain is making.

So here’s my objection to phenomenology.  As I see it, the phenomena are created by the brain (I think some folk would agree with that), and so it isn’t that we are seeing phenomena.  Rather, it is that we (or our brains) are creating phenomena as part of what seeing is.  The basic underlying idea of measurement (which is really a kind of categorization) is something that can be studied when it is done publicly by scientists.  So, at least in principle, we can understand how phenomena arise, and need not just take phenomena as a starting point.

When I go through all of that, I cannot find a standard whereby we can judge the correctness (or truth) of a scientific theory.  We can judge how well it works, but pragmatism is a guide, not a standard.  That’s why I disagree with talk about whether theories are correct.  We should limit ourselves to talk about how well they work.  We can then talk of the truth of the data, if it conforms to the standards set by the theory.

264 thoughts on “Reality and realism

  1. Two articles that I found (courtesy of News at Uncommon Descent):

    Why Science Needs Metaphysics“:

    Once the logical independence of reality from science is accepted, the question is why reality has a character that enables it to be understood scientifically. The intelligibility and intrinsic rationality of reality cannot be taken for granted. Even the greatest scientists, such as Einstein, have seen that the intelligibility of the world is a mystery. He famously remarked that “the eternally incomprehensible thing about the world is its comprehensibility.” Like the way in which mathematics seems to map the intrinsic rational structure of the physical world, this is presupposed within science and cannot be given a scientific explanation. It appears to be a metaphysical fact, and the explanation for which, if there can be one, must come from beyond science.


    a review of The Territories of Science and Religion“:

    Harrison regularly points out that “science” is not a natural kind. Similarly, he emphasizes that “science” is not a thing. Our use of the word “science” — as in “science clearly shows us” — is predicated on its own myth, a little noble lie, a wink and a nod by which we agree to group an array of disparate human practices as if they constituted one thing. And what defines that “thing”? What are the parameters of “science”? Well, that it’s not “religion.” This fulfills one of the primal functions of myth: validating a view of reality and a community of practice by “othering” an enemy and threat. Yet this mythically constructed “science” lives off of the borrowed capital of the “religion” it displaced.

    Two very different approaches — metaphysical and historical (or: genealogical, for us Nietzscheans) — but plenty of food for thought in each, and also in the contrast.

  2. Kantian Naturalist:

    Why Science Needs Metaphysics“:

    Although I agree with the author that metaphysical questions are outside of science, I don’t agree that science needs metaphysics.

    One can say science depends on aspects of reality which can only be discussed philosophically. For example, certainly science depends on our ability to detect and rely on regularities, but so does human existence and activity in general. Nothing special about science in that dependence.

    But it is a metaphysical question of why reality has that regularity. Unless one is happy with an anthropic explanation.

    I would say the converse of the title is true: metaphysics needs science. Or, more accurately, metaphysics done well must be consistent with science when science bears on the metaphysical issue being analyzed..

  3. Kantian Naturalist: .

    Mainstream economists are, by my lights, apologists for corporate and finance capitalism, really not much different from apologists for evangelical Christianity. They have their self-enclosed little models that make perfect sense to those trained in their self-referential jargon, and when reality doesn’t conform to those models, they run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

    Be that as it may, I’d say that’s more of a comment on economists than on whether the discipline is scientific.

    I admit that many of the predictions economics makes are not reliable yet, that economics seems to have very few theories accepted by all, and that since the economy has such an influence on our lives, economists are relied on for advice their discipline cannot reliably give. But none of that changes whether economics can be scientifically done.

    I can think of other fields which are clearly scientific but where some practitioners go well beyond their science. I’m thinking of neuroscientists who draw conclusions about free will and moral responsibility from their work, and of geneticists who claim that in its current state individual genetic mapping can be relied on to predict future onset of disease by the individual (except for a very few special cases) .

  4. BruceS,

    Yes, that’s a nice distinction: science would need metaphysics only if our ability to engage in scientific inquiry (make observations, design experiments that generate useful data, test hypotheses, etc.) required an understanding of why reality has observable regularities and irregularities.

    Doing science requires that reality have detectable regularities; it doesn’t seem to require that scientists themselves have an account of why reality has detectable regularities.

    BruceS: metaphysics done well must be consistent with science when science bears on the metaphysical issue being analyzed..

    That’s surely correct as well.

    I think we need (something like) both “transcendental metaphysics” and “scientific metaphysics”, where the former is an account of why reality has any detectable regularities at all, such that there can be scientific inquiry, and the latter is an account of what reality is actually like, informed by scientific inquiry.

    We proceed from metaphysics to science and from science back to metaphysics. And it could happen that sustained reflection on the results of empirical inquiry can prompt a revision in our conception of the starting point. The Grand Dream is consistency across all three — transcendental metaphysics, empirical inquiry, and scientific metaphysics.

  5. BruceS,

    Perhaps economic could become a science at some point, but I’m not going to hold my breath! 🙂

  6. Kantian Naturalist: Mainstream economists are, by my lights, apologists for corporate and finance capitalism, really not much different from apologists for evangelical Christianity.

    That’s too often true, though I’m not sure that it is fair to all economists.

    We use numbers as names for our coins and other units of money. And that use of mathematical names is what make mathematical economics possible. That’s a good example of nominalism (as a philosophy of mathematics) at work.

    It is the mathematical economics that gives the field some credibility. So it is understandable that there is some tie in with bankers (who control the money).

    What I see as a problem, is that a lot of economics is tied to a theory of rational behavior. But that seems to be largely a priori. I don’t see economists spending time looking at psychology studies of the rationality or otherwise of human behavior. And I think economists often make big mistakes by not doing the empirical work into how humans actually behave.

  7. Neil Rickert:

    What I see as a problem, is that a lot of economics is tied to a theory of rational behavior.But that seems to be largely a priori.I don’t see economists spending time looking at psychology studies of the rationality or otherwise of human behavior.And I think economists often make big mistakes by not doing the empirical work into how humans actually behave.

    Behavioral economics

    Complexity economics

    There are some economic theories which try to account for your concerns.

    Although there is the counter that says as long as the macro model works well enough, the detailed analysis of the underlying assumptions does not matter.

    Not that any of the models work that well.

    Still awaiting Hari Seldon

  8. BruceS: Why Free Markets Make Fools of Us

    Yes, that’s a good discussion of the problem. The marketing industry is very clever at undermining the ability of people to make rational choices.

    The beauty (?) of mathematical proofs

    I followed that blog for a while. But I eventually gave up on it. The trouble is, that it is philosophy of mathematics as seen by professional philosophers. And professional philosophers usually don’t see mathematics in the same way that mathematicians see it. One possible exception is Penelope Maddy. She started out as a philosopher, but seems to have come to thinking more like a mathematician.

    The post you linked to briefly mentions G.H. Hardy’s view on beauty in mathematics, and that seems pretty close to my own view (and, I think, a common view among mathematicians). But, true to their form as professional philosophers, they have to come up with some other account.

  9. Neil Rickert:

    I followed that blog for a while.But I eventually gave up on it.The trouble is, that it is philosophy of mathematics as seen by professional philosophers.And professional philosophers usually don’t see mathematics in the same way that mathematicians see it.

    Should they?

    Of course, they should not come to conclusions that contradict mathematical work.

    But neither should they give any particular priority to mathematicians views on philosophy issues in math, IMHO.

  10. BruceS: Why Free Markets Make Fools of Us

    Time is also the enemy of fools.

    Rationality is important in matters of global survival, but not necessarily in matters of which toaster to buy. Even in the matter of survival, centralized decision makers have a lot to answer for. WWI, WWII, Vietnam, etc.

  11. In the “Varieties of Religious Language,” I’d said that:

    whether intelligent inquiry reveals that reason can immediately intuit the structure of reality or if it is something more prosaic

    I wanted to lay stress on the immediately as well on the intuit. The question between myself and Erik here is not whether we can know anything about the world in itself, but whether we can know anything about the world in itself independent of culture. By “culture” I am thinking of two things primarily: language and technology. A shared language allows us to integrate different embodied perspectives on reality into a single model of reality of it, for the purpose of more successful coordination.

    Technologies augment and supplement of our embodied presence in the world by allowing for both more precise measurements at various spatio-temporal scales and for detecting sources of information opaque to our unaided senses, and where those technologies are themselves invented, designed, built, and used, and improved in cooperation with others.

    While some philosophers might allege that we don’t have any grasp of the world in itself because our conceptual maps of it are mediated by language, culture, and technology, this seems badly mistaken to me. (It is, in a subtle way, a version of the Myth of the Given.)

    Encultured mediation is not only not inconsistent with a weak form of metaphysical realism, but the only kind of metaphysical realism that has sufficient epistemological grounding is going to be one where encultured mediation by discourse, embodiment, language, and technology is our distinctively human mode of access to the word in itself and one in which discourse, embodiment, language, and technology are all themselves part of the natural, empirical, real world in itself.

    In other words, the best way of making sense of metaphysical realism is by rejecting epistemological foundationalism. The neopragmatists (Rorty, Putnam, et al.) are wrong to think that we must reject metaphysical realism once we’ve rejected epistemological foundationalism, and everyone else is wrong to think we must accept epistemological foundationalism in order to vindicate metaphysical realism.

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