synthetic zero

May 23rd, 2010

There’s a long history of realism vs anti-realism in philosophy (both in the West and in the East), but recently there’s been an upsurge of interest in “Speculative Realism“, which is the latest pendulum swing back towards realism. As I’ve written before (also: here), I have sympathy with the idea that we can, in some sense, talk about reality, but I nevertheless take grave issue with much of what currently comes under the rubric of SR, particularly what’s now being called “object-oriented” philosophy. My old friend Liz Losh recently wrote an epic series of posts about the recent conference about the opening of the Richard Rorty Archive last week, and in her last post on the subject she talked about Michael Bérubé’s remarks regarding the nature of scientific truths in his closing talk, which Bérubé summarized here:

This time I merely claimed that human deliberations about Neptune and quarks and the cosmic microwave background radiation involve intersubjective agreement, but it’s intersubjective agreement about the not-human.  That doesn’t make it any more “foundational” than human deliberations about justice or beauty, but it does mean that when Neptune and quarks and the cosmic microwave background radiation are disclosed to us, we have to understand them precisely as entities which beforehand already were.  Just like Heidegger says in section 44 of Being and Time:

Newton’s laws, the principle of contradiction, any truth whatever—these are true only so long as Dasein is.  Before there was any Dasein, there was no truth; nor will there be any after Dasein is no more. . . .  To say that before Newton his laws were neither true nor false, cannot signify that before him there were no such entities as have been uncovered and pointed out by those laws.  Through Newton the laws became true; and with them, entities became accessible in themselves to Dasein.  Once entities have been uncovered, they show themselves precisely as entities which beforehand already were.

I have been mulling over that passage for 25 years now, and that’s part of what my Rorty Story is about.  But first, let me make clear to Dave and everyone of like-Dave mind that in talking about these entities-which-beforehand-already-were I am not (as I said at the conference) indulging in any Stupid Realist Tricks.  First, I am not suggesting that physics is not a language, that it gives us direct unmediated access to the way the natural world would describe itself if it could; on the contrary, I keep harping on the cosmic microwave background radiation because (a) it’s really important, being physical evidence of the Big Bang, and (b) its discovery involved a Latourian network of scientists, wherein one guy realized that the inadvertent finding made by other guys just might be related to this other guy’s unpublished paper.  (Details.) Second, I imply no teleology, no sense that discoveries in physics are moving us somewhere progressively and incrementally, and that someday we’ll finally get it right once and for all; on the contrary, I strongly suspect it’s quantum turtles all the way down, in all the extant universes.  And last, I am not suggesting that the kind of knowledge we obtain from physics is a template for all other kinds of human knowledge, that it affords us a model of the way we could deliberate about justice or beauty if we just tried hard enough; on the contrary, I’m saying that it’s a highly specialized and ungeneralizable kind of knowledge that involves intricate interpretive protocols for understanding stuff that isn’t Dasein and doesn’t have Dasein’s interpretive protocols.

So Bérubé here makes a decent attempt to qualify his remarks regarding these “entities which beforehand already were”, but I have to say I think he doesn’t go far enough. In fact, I think Heidegger’s original statement, which he quotes, has some serious problems: I want to propose a different sense of reference which I think in some sense attempts to bridge the gap between realism and anti-realism.

In many discussions of this subject, for example, in “Dave Maier tells you interesting stuff about Rorty” (also linked by Liz in another one of her posts), people seem to get caught up in the question of whether a given proposition is true, or false, or somewhere in between. For example, he says “We are fallible; our methods of justification do not guarantee that the resulting belief is true.” Similarly, in the above, Bérubé speaks of “entities which beforehand already were.” Though Bérubé explicitly says “I am not suggesting that physics is not a language” — it appears to me that in accepting Heidegger’s formulation “entities which beforehand already were” he’s missing out on the full implications of what, particularly in science, it means to talk about physics being a language: that is to say, in science (and I would argue, in everyday language as well, though it’s a bit more sloppy in the case of everyday language), a language implies a paradigm; that is to say, every proposition is embedded within a paradigm in the Thomas Kuhn sense. A paradigm is not just a set of beliefs or assertions; it is a socially-constructed framework which cannot be completely verbalized which sets up the context for a proposition. You cannot correctly consider a proposition or assertion without the context of its paradigm (Imre Lakatos - if there ever were a man whose appearance fit his name more perfectly, I don’t know who it would be - and Paul Feyerabend also contributed a great deal to this area of philosophy).

I won’t repeat Kuhn’s classic arguments here, you can read them all in his famous Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He pointed out a few crucial things: the first being that two different paradigms can both describe reality even if they are logically inconsistent or even incommensurable; that is to say, you can’t choose between paradigms just on the basis of whether or not they match up with reality. In fact, paradigms can be so different that it is impossible to translate a proposition from one paradigm into another: that is to say, it’s not just a matter of determining whether a proposition is “true” or not, because to test a proposition inherently involves choosing a paradigm in which one can interpret one’s experimental evidence.

So really what is at issue isn’t just the truth or lack thereof of an isolated proposition (or even a set of propositions), nor the “existence” of a term within a language or paradigm (i.e., the “existence” of a quark, a neutrino, or Neptune), but rather the proposition or term in the context of its accompanying paradigm. To defend the realist position for a moment, I would say that I think it is reasonable to suggest that a given scientific theory, including its unwritten (and un-writable) paradigm, could be said to “refer” to reality in the sense that the social activity of science, including the experimental process (which is a dynamic, and large-scale, feedback process involving reality, scientists, experiment, communication, conceptual models, propositions, and so on) does involve both intersubjective agreement and some sort of interaction with reality in some sense. What I don’t think is reasonable to suggest, however, is that a “quark” could be said to “exist” in any stronger sense than this. That is to say, a quark is really just a term used within a theory, embedded in a paradigm (or multiple theories and paradigms, really), and to say it “exists” or “does not exist” is really beside the point: the point is that the strongest sense in which it could be said to “exist” is in relation to, or embedded within, the language game, or paradigm, which allows one to even be able to speak of an entity called a “quark”. A quark is no more and no less than an element in a theory which we infer backwards from observation in the context of that theory which is described and embedded in a paradigm which cannot be fully written down or defined precisely, and which is part of a larger social activity, itself in some sense, I would admit, embedded in reality. I don’t deny the realist claim that it is sensible or reasonable to suggest that this entire, large, networked activity could in some sense be said to refer to reality; but to talk about a quark as referring to an entity that already existed I think is both unwarranted and fundamentally incorrect. Any selection of an “entity” from the background of the unsayable ground is inherently dependent on a selection process which has to reference a paradigm — which is inherently a social, networked, and vast process; the entity per se is primarily a feature of the language, and “reality” only comes in in a larger, global sense as part of what goes on when using the entire paradigm to attain social or individual ends (to come back to Rorty’s pragmatism). Thus, I don’t think that physics has a particularly special place among language games — there are still the same fundamental skeptical issues that arise as when talking about any language game — and not only do they arise but they have arisen time and again in the history of physics, in which previously seemingly solid concepts or terms have been undermined radically by newer developments. The extent to which this is the case, the radical nature of these departures, is probably something which is not entirely familiar to non-specialists, but is well worth studying for anyone seriously interested in this subject.

The real point I’m making, however, is not only that one has to test or question the entire paradigm when one tests or attempts to verify a scientific assertion: it is that it is quite possible for multiple paradigms to co-exist and all have varying degrees of validity and/or utility to human beings, even when some of them may be incommensurable with each other. For example, traditional Chinese medicine, with its meridians and qi and so on appear to be efficacious (as the A.M.A. Journal has reported, many alternative therapies, including traditional Chinese therapies, have been shown to be effective), yet the paradigm is clearly incommensurable with Western medicine. It’s hard to know whether meridians and qi “exist” or not, but it’s nevertheless possible to scientifically test whether or not the paradigm as a whole, and in specific treatment cases, works. I would assert that all one can say about Chinese medicine is that it seems to work and we don’t know how to explain this from a Western biophysical perspective, but my suspicion is that the paradigm of qi, meridians, and so forth maps into something about reality, in some approximate sense, which leads to efficacious treatments, but that mapping is likely to be incomplete, as are all such mappings. The paradigm as a whole “refers to reality”, in other words, but the terms within the paradigm may have no clear correspondence with things “out there”, except in the sense that the entire paradigm, taken together with the way it is used, “works” in some sense (back to pragmatism). I am comfortable with the idea, in other words, that an entire theory including within it terms like “quark” can be said to “refer to reality” in some sense, and even to say that it is sensible to talk about this reference being to the universe as a whole even “before” the invention or discovery of the theory, but to talk about “quarks” as though they refer to reality, independent of this larger systemic form of reference, I think is going too far, and really unnecessary philosophically. The larger systemic form of reference I am proposing here I think is adequate for all practical purposes, and can explain why it is we feel our theories about the world “refer to reality” without having our thinking devolve into any form of correspondence theory, however subtle and qualified.

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2 responses to this post:
  1. judson says:

    hi, it’s judson you might know from Ellen or a LISA meeting. anyway, am checking out the space, saw this “Let me start with where I agree with Rand. I agree that blind faith, or believing things without reason, is both unnecessary and in many ways problematic.”

    You might want to know the technical reason it is necessary. and why it is impossible to avoid. every single thing we experience sensorily is just blind faith, and whatever conclusions we draw from the raw impulses (not yet images, etc) are based on those dubious premises. furthermore, metaphorical concepts, like a number “line”, is a made-up abstraction, but one nearly all of us have faith in.

    Belief is like oil to a brain; it works much much better with it, and sometimes not much at all without it. Ayn may be sloppy with her logic, but most folks come off that way, when they don’t have all the info or know what info is relevant.

    social software is pretty much just a magnet for sloppy thinking. but sloppy thinking is so common, that it’s not worth bothering over. just stay cool and do your thing.

    you won’t find much relevant info on twitter. it’s sloppy folk logic, as is rand’s, albeit another variation, and nothing to take seriously. a good book on this subject (whether we agree or not with his thesis) is “computation and cognition” by pylyshyn.

    have fun

    June 23rd, 2010 at 8:39 am
  2. mitsu says:

    This isn’t really the case, for the simple reason that it isn’t necessary to have 100%, absolute certainty. That is to say, if we were to adopt your definition of “blind faith” it would have to apply to everything, since we cannot even trust our own reasoning or our memory as it might have been replaced in the last instant by aliens or something of that kind. But, to reference Wittgenstein again, that would not be playing the language game correctly. So of course we need “blind faith” in order to be absolutely certain of anything at all, but we certainly don’t need blind faith in order to adopt provisional hypotheses based on the available evidence which seem parsimonious and consistent with what appears to be our memory, etc.

    June 23rd, 2010 at 8:58 am

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