synthetic zero

October 14th, 2010

I posted this comment as part of Nick Srnicek’s philosophical blog event on Speculative Heresy:

Hi — Nick had invited me to participate in this blog event but I was, alas, too busy to do so, but he suggested to me I might have some thoughts on this post in particular, and I finally had a chance to read it over and comment. Apologies for the lateness of my remarks.

I have some thoughts about this:

“if the world does not come in categories and objects which are divided up in certain ways, then it makes no sense to say that science (or metaphysics) can be objective in the sense that it aims to describe such natural and mind-independent divisions. In this regard, there is also no reason to prefer the conceptual scheme of science to those which are more pragmatic and “intuitive” since neither could be more ‘in touch’ with the structure of reality.”

As someone with some scientific background, I find this statement rather odd, and difficult to map into the way science is actually practiced. For example, biologists would not necessarily argue that the way the natural world is divided into genera and so on is somehow reflective of the way the world is in a pre-existing sense, but rather they acknowledge the partial arbitrariness of various schemes of dividing the world. But more importantly, scientists tend to think of themselves as evaluating theories based on criteria such as predictive accuracy, falsifiability, parsimony, and so forth. And there are various pragmatic reasons why, for example, parsimony would be valued — and these would be sufficient reasons, it seems to me, to distinguish between scientific theories and other theories which may also have predictive value or pragmatic applicability without having to make arguments that the categories of the theory has to correspond to preexisting ontologies that are in some sense given.

In other words, I think one can distinguish between a speculative realism which accepts the fact that there is a universe or ground of Being independent of our minds and the notion that the way we divide up the world is somehow also objective. I think one could argue that there are more and less parsimonious theories about the world which may be equally true, and in some sense the determination of parsimony is not completely subjective, and so this would be a nod towards the notion that there is something non-subjective about the ontologies of scientific theories — but this would not exclude the possibility of two parsimonious theories with incommensurable ontologies. However, the fact that this is a possibility doesn’t, to my mind, create any insuperable obstacle to scientific progress, because we’re not painted in the corner of saying that every theory which fits reality is equally “good” from a scientific point of view. That is to say, a partial, imprecise ordering of “goodness” of theories is enough to allow progress — what excludes progress is no ordering at all.

In the end, I can see strong reasons to admit to a reality independent of subjectivity but I cannot see any strong reasons to insist that the way the world is divided itself must admit to some sort of objective reality which is singular and exact in nature. Theories are by their nature inherently simplifications — in physics, we model a ball as a perfect sphere in order to calculate about it, we model friction with a single coefficient, etc., even though these things are tremendous simplifications of a vastly more complex reality. We must simplify, create categories and terms, etc., in order to *compute* with any theory, to cognitively process it. Why should we insist these vast simplifications and filters and the symbols we use in our computational processes correspond in a unique way to “the way the world is divided” — to rescue some form of realism, it suffices, it seems to me, simply to admit that the ground, reality, is independent of our theories and has certain properties which our theories illuminate without having to insist that the particular terms of the theory must be converging on a unique “complete and perfect” theory. As theories must leave out lots of detail it seems likely that there will always be the potential for a multiplicity of theories for different contexts, but some sort of partial ordering preserves the possibility of progress.

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