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:
- Knowledge and Reality (by Dan Kaufman)
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.