Reality junked – Weekend quiz

Who said this?

Historically the concept of the ‘real’ has been formed in contradistinction to mere ‘illusions’ based on sense deceptions or on other experiences of purely mental origin.  There is, however, no fundamental difference between such corrections of one sense experience by others . . .  and the procedure employed by the physical sciences when they ascertain that two objects which may to all our senses appear to be alike to not behave in the same way to others. To accept this latter test as the criterion of ‘reality’ would force us to regard the various constructs of physics as more ‘real’ that the things we can touch and see, or even to reserve the term ‘reality’ to something which by definition we can never fully know.  Such a use of the term ‘real’ would clearly pervert its original meaning and the conclusion to be drawn from this is probably that it should be altogether avoided in scientific discussion.

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Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

Sounds a bit Husserlian to me.

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

Well, not a Dunera boy this time, but he has a birthplace in common with Fred Gruen.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

That’s an interesting take on realism:

To accept this latter test as the criterion of reality would force us to regard the various constructs of physics as more real that the things we can touch and see

One philospher who has taken the constructs of physics to be more real than the commonsense, medium sized objects we can touch and see is Paul Churchland. Churchland argued that commonsense entities like beliefs and desires were no more real than witches or phlogiston.

Churchland argued that beliefs and desires were unlikely to feature in any future theory of how the brain worked. Instead they would turn out to be entities postulated by a discredited folk psychology — a pre-scientific theory like Aristotle’s physics.

Churchland was quite prepared to purge his ontology of commonsense objects. Unless the best theories of science used them, they didn’t exist.

After reading the book you quote from, John Gray said the author was a Kantian. I’ve sometimes wondered whether he’s a pragmatist.

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

I’m glad that everyone is able to grasp the overall meaning of this passage, but I’m finding it hard to make sense of the individual bits. The second sentence doesn’t even make sense. ‘Such corrections’? Which corrections? Perhaps the ellipsis eliminated the answer. On top of that, the clause of which the ‘two objects’ is the subject doesn’t have a verb. The there’s ‘the latter test’. I search in vain for a reference to any test or test-like thing in the preceding sentences.

The conclusion, that science should steer clear of abstract terms like ‘real’ unless they are defined in specific technical ways (like real GDP), doesn’t seem like a blinding insight.

The Worst of Perth
14 years ago

So they’re saying, “There are things we know we know, and there are things we know we don’t know…”

SRK
SRK
14 years ago

The use of scare quotes around ‘real’ and the last sentence suggest Rudolf Carnap. He held a deflationary position with respect to theoretical entities – whether such things existed depends upon the ‘conceptual scheme’ or ‘language game’ that is adopted; the question of whether such things exist independntly of our conceptual schemes is a pseudo-problem. So he thought there was no substantive dispute about whether or not theoretical entities are ‘real’, and thus there was no point in worrying about that question in scientific discussion.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

I’m not surprised this passage seems obscure (although I think SRK gets it). I read it as part of an old debate that involves the Vienna Circle and thinkers like Ernst Mach.

 

Start with the question about how we know about the world. Empiricists argue that the senses are the foundation of everything we know. We begin with sensations of light and colour, heat and cold, sweet, sour and bitter etc. From these ‘internal’ sensations we hypothesise an ‘external’ world of physical objects. While we can know our sensations directly we can only make inferences about the physical world.

 

If you accept this way of thinking (which you shouldn’t), then you have two worlds — the mental world of sensations and the physical world of objects in space. Naturally it’s tempting to apply Ockham’s razor and dispense with one of them. If you dispense with the physical world, then science is all about gathering data expressed in terms of sense data and coming up with theories which allow us to predict and control future experience. Talk about physical objects needs to be translated into talk about sensations. This maneuver takes us back to Berkeley’s idealism and the problem of whether objects like trees continue to exist when there’s nobody there to observe them.

 

Few people are happy with this kind of idealism. But materialism didn’t seem much more appealing. Was it really possible to dispense with sensations? This led some philosophers to suggest that mental-talk and physical object-talk were really two different ways of talking about a single reality that wasn’t essentially mental or physical. This was called ‘neutral monism‘.

 

If idealism and neutral monism seemed unappealing then you could go with ‘realism’. Non-mental, physical objects really exist but we know them only indirectly via our sensations. Drop a spoon into a glass of water and it looks bent. But if you touch it with your fingers, it feels straight. Most people would say that this was an optical ‘illusion’ and that our visual sensations were misleading us. In ‘reality’ the spoon remains straight. Here’s Hayek’s comment without the ellipsis:

Historically the concept of the ‘real’ has been formed in contradistinction to mere ‘illusions’ based on sense deceptions or on other experiences of purely mental origin. There is, however, no fundamental difference between such corrections of one sense experience by others, as we employ, e.g., to discover an optical illusion, and the procedure employed by the physical sciences when they ascertain that two objects which may to all our senses appear to be alike to not behave in the same way to others.

If we turn to science for correct description of ‘reality’ we end up having to ditch the idea that idea that the sky is ‘really’ blue or that grass is ‘really’ green. Physical objects don’t really have colours — they just reflect light of a certain wavelength under certain conditions. So, strictly speaking, we should stop talking about red cars and purple t-shirts. These properties are illusory. But as Hayek suggests, if we keep going down this path then almost all the things we thought were the building blocks of the real world end up vanishing in a puff of scientific rigour. Ordinary ‘real world’ objects like red cars and purple t-shirts have no place in the theories of physics. Does this mean that they don’t exist?

 

I think Hayek argued himself into a blind alley on this issue. He ends up saying that there are two ‘orders’ — a sensory (or phenomenal) order and a physical order. While the mental world is ultimately part of the physical world, it’s impossible to bridge the divide between sensory order talk and physical order talk. The sensory order is all about patterns and the relationships between objects aren’t governed by strict laws. The physical order is different. Its objects are defined in terms of law-like relationships with other physical objects. None of the objects can be understood apart from the theory as a whole.

 

I’m not an expert on Hayek’s theory of mind and his epistemology and I haven’t read The Sensory Order closely. So it’s possible I’m misinterpreting him. But it seems to me that the book doesn’t have a lot to offer readers today. It’s too wrapped up in old debates that didn’t go anywhere.

SRK
SRK
14 years ago

Oh, so it was Hayek. I didn’t realise that that was what NG @ 5 was saying.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

SRK – You might have picked the wrong author but you got the right debate.

John Gray argues that Hayek had a deflationary approach to metaphysical questions. He reads Hayek as a Quinean pragmatist:

There is much to suggest that, when Hayek denies any ultimate dualism in the nature of things, he is not lapsing into an idiom of essences or natural kinds, but simply observingmuch in the fashion of the American pragmatist philosopher, W. V. Quinethat nothing in our experience compels us to adopt ideas of mental or physical substance. Though Hayek has not to my knowledge ever pronounced explicitly on the question, the whole tenor of his thought inclines to a Quinean pragmatist view of ontological commitments. In his skeptical and pragmatist attitude to ultimate questions in metaphysics and ontology, Hayek lines up with many positivists rather than with Kantian critical philosophythough positivists themselves sometimes claim, with some justification, to be treading a Kantian path.

As you’d know, Quine’s mentor was Rudolf Carnap.