APA 2014-5: On the Reality of Atoms and Subatomic Particles

Silicium-atomesby Massimo Pigliucci

This is going to be my last report from the 2014 meetings of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. Obviously, it has been a rather idiosyncratic set of choices, reflecting my own interests, not necessarily the (much) broader scope of the meeting. Now if I could only convince some of my other colleagues to publish similar commentaries — including here at Scientia Salon — covering their specific interests in science and philosophy…

At any rate, this session was chaired by Otávio Bueno (University of Miami), and the speakers were Bueno himself and Jody Azzouni (Tufts University). Indeed, this was a strange, but welcome, session, with only one paper, entitled “Reasons to Think That Atoms and Subatomic Particles Are Real vs When to Suspend Judgment about the Reality of Atoms and Subatomic Particles,” co-authored and kind of co-presented by a scientific realist (Azzouni) and a scientific anti-realist (Bueno). (The presentation was mostly by Bueno, occasionally humorously interrupted, or substantively supplemented, by commentary from Azzouni. It really was fun!)

So, consider a new scientific theory coming along and positing the existence of some unobservable entities. The standard realist argument is that if those objects do significant work within the theory, and the theory has compelling empirical evidence in its favor, then one should think of said objects as actually existing.

Bueno then introduced a distinction between thin and thick epistemic access: the first one involves only theoretical reasons for thinking of an entity as real; the second one requires some type of detection device or methodology to gather at the least indirect empirical evidence for the existence of the entity.

Of course, perceptual experiences are one kind, but not the only kind, of source of thick epistemic access. Think of transmission electron microscopes, for instance. What convinces us that an object — say a newly discovered sub-cellular organelle — is a real biological structure and not an artifact of preparation is that we can replicate the observation under a variety of conditions and with a variety of instruments, as in fact happened with the discovery of, for instance, ribosomes [1].

This is interesting, and I get the value of separating thick and thin epistemic access. However, it also seems to me that Bueno has significantly extended the categories of observables compared to the standard anti-realist position, which would confine them pretty much to macroscopic objects accessible by standard human senses. And in fact, Bueno did acknowledge that adopting a van Fraassen’s type of strict empiricism [2] about unobservables makes it difficult to make sense of actual scientific practice (e.g., in the 21st century we really should consider viruses to be observables, even though of course they cannot be seen with the naked eye).

Again, this strikes me as fundamentally right, but it is definitely moving anti-realism much closer to realism; then again, on the other side of the divide, Ladyman and Ross-style structural realism [3] has been moving realism closer to antirealism, so there.

Given the above, does the empiricist antirealist still have a line to draw between observables and unobservables? Bueno thinks so, and Azzouni, predictably, disagrees.

The example proffered by Bueno is that of the scanning tunneling microscope [4]: it generates a constant electrical current which is then used to scan a given object up and down. This doesn’t generate an image per se, only information about the object based on how its surface interferes with the electrical current. This information is then processed by computers to generate an image for human consumption. People these days claim that with this instrument we can “see” atoms, but this — according to the anti-realist — is definitely not the case, because the microscope does not actually provide thick epistemic access to the objects of interest. This is evident from the fact, for instance, that the raw data can be represented in a variety of ways, generating very different images. (The “image” accompanying this article is of silicon atoms on the surface of a crystal of silicon carbide, obtained by a scanning tunneling microscope.)

(Notice that the anti-realist here is obviously not saying that atoms don’t exist, only that an empiricist should suspend judgment about the ontology of the entity under study, because the microscope, as sophisticated as it is, does not actually provide anything like images, so that we cannot properly talk about “observables.” Also notice that the anti-realist is perfectly aware of the fact that the distinction between observables and unobservables pertains to human epistemic access to the world, and it doesn’t cut the world at its joints, so to speak. But both realism and anti-realism are epistemic positions in philosophy of science, not metaphysical ones.)

A rather colorful way to think about the situation is that some instruments generate “public hallucinations,” analogous to rainbows: we can all see rainbows, and they have objective existence in the sense that we can describe them and even measure some of their characteristics, but that doesn’t mean there is an actual object out there that corresponds to the visual concept of “rainbow.”

Another interesting case concerns macroscopic objects, like the quest for detecting extrasolar planets. The standard method involves the application of a combination of Newtonian physics and relativistic corrections to infer the existence of an extrasolar planet from the wobbling of a given star. The technique has undergone very fast and very impressive refinements over the past few years, leading to the discovery of more and more, smaller and smaller extrasolar planets [5]. The thick epistemic access here is to the behavior of the star, not the characteristics of the planet (about which we have instead thin epistemic access).

The basic point is that thinking in terms of thick vs thin epistemic access gives the philosopher a tool to wade through cases where there is ontological disagreement stemming from the positing of unobservables in scientific theories, until (and if) they are eventually resolved empirically (e.g., ether: doesn’t exist; genes: do exist and they are made of nucleic acids). This leads to a more reasonable form of empiricism — anti-realism, which does justice to actual scientific practice while still retaining caution when it comes to ontological claims (van Fraassen’s famous goal of avoiding “inflationary” metaphysics in philosophy of science). I am certainly looking forward to seeing the published version of Bueno and Azzouni’s paper!

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] Ribosome, Wiki entry.

[2] Constructive Empiricism, by B. Monton and C. Mohler, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2012.

[3] Structural Realism, by J. Ladyman, 2014.

[4] Scanning tunneling microscope, Wiki entry. See also this animation explaining the tunneling effect.

[5] The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia.

57 thoughts on “APA 2014-5: On the Reality of Atoms and Subatomic Particles

  1. Interesting. I really enjoy these reports and find them useful. One idle comment would be that to call a phenomenon real just because we have ‘thick’ epistemic access may work in physics, but it would be a hopeless approach to metaphysics.

    Like

  2. Hi Massimo,

    [thin epistemic access] involves only theoretical reasons for thinking of an entity as real; [thick access] requires some type of detection device or methodology to gather at the least indirect empirical evidence for the existence of the entity.

    There can never be “only theoretical reasons” for thinking something real, since the theory only has any validity if supported by empirical evidence. Similarly, nearly all empirical evidence is very indirect and theory-dependent.

    Thus I don’t think it is sense to divide things into “thick” access and “thin” access. One could, if one wanted, place things on a continuum with “slightly-thicker” and “somewhat-thinner” and with everything being somewhere on that continuum.

    The thick epistemic access here is to the behavior of the star, not the characteristics of the planet (about which we have instead thin epistemic access).

    The access to the behaviour of that star is actually a lot less “thick” and a lot less “image-like” than that image of silicon atoms from the scanning tunneling microscope (what you’re doing is analysing the spectral lines in the spectrum — things that the human eye cannot see — in comparison with similar spectral lines from a comparison lamp, and then doing a cross-correlation function with a standard-star spectrum, and outputting cross-correlation shifts that one then interprets, with the help of various theories, as velocities; and you don’t even get an image at the end).

    As for whether an entity is accepted as “real”, that cannot (for the above reasons) be a matter of whether the epistemic access is “thin” or “thick”, rather it can only be the result of a whole Quinean-style web of ideas about the whole kaboodle. Thus one starts from an instrumentalism-like position and then justifies a realist conclusion through that whole web.

    … until (and if) they are eventually resolved empirically (e.g., ether: doesn’t exist; genes: do exist and they are made of nucleic acids).

    But that empirical judgement is still wrapped up with the whole theoretical web and can never be independent of it.

    Like

  3. I like the theoretical vs perceptual distinction. With a virus we’re using a perceptual aid but presumably not making any theoretical inferences. If you said access to a virus was not thick, would you have to say that anyone wearing glasses only has thin access to everything visual?

    The scanning tunneling microscope is an interesting example. To me, it’s not the transformation of the data into a visual representation that makes it thin, because everything we perceive is transformed and re-encoded in similar ways by our brains. There’s no reason, in other words, to privilege our particular perceptual apparatus. Intuitively, the exoplanet example feels more clearly thin (theory/inference dependent) than the microscope example for some reason. I don’t know if that’s because it’s easier to imagine an alternate set of “real” things that could cause wobbling.

    Like

  4. Why not start from a non sensory based dichotomy and say existent, versus non-existent.
    Total non existence would be the void, as in absolute zero. Maximum existence would then correspond to extreme amounts of energy, say stars, galaxies, etc. In between these two extremes would be innumerable energy fields interacting and creating these distinctions our neuronal functions register as form and information.
    So I would argue reality is energy and the forms it manifests. The absence of energy would also qualify as real, so non-reality would be forms not manifest, say pink elephants and unicorns.

    Like

  5. I never fully understand why there is a debate between scientific realist and anti-realist because I never felt like the two perspectives actually make a difference in terms of the practice of science and perhaps not even in it’s implications.

    We may say we have thin epistemic access to atoms versus a star (or any other comparisons) but ultimately, if we are able to use science to understand, work with and make progress on research projects; does it matter if we call it “real”? Most scientists I know never care to add the additional term “real” and just talk directly about the concepts and the evidence.

    It seems to me that the better thing to focus on is the evidential support (warrant) for scientific claims, which at least conveys important information in terms of what claims should be taken more seriously. The only other reason I can think of for anti-realist and realist debate is philosophically important (perhaps for metaphysics) but I’m not quite sure what difference is made in philosophy from this perspective as well.

    Like

  6. How so? If anything, I think it should clarify our thinking about the nature of physics and physical inquiry as opposed to metaphysics and metaphysical inquiry — and doing this should help us decide which tools are suitable to each inquiry.

    What exactly is “hopeless” about trying to ground metaphysics in the thick reality of human experience? Do you mind elaborating?

    Like

  7. On a historical note, scientists reached a consensus on how to handle this sort of thing quite some time ago. Prior to roughly 1900 there were serious disputes about the reality of atoms and molecules. One of the things that changed the picture was Albert Einstein’s famous analysis of Brownian motion, in which he showed that the observable jiggling of pollen grains observed under a microscope could be predicted, and even its amplitude calculated, on the basis of the random thermal movement of molecules. That, and other related findings, pretty much resolved the problem for scientists. The general working principle is that if something has observable consequences, it should be treated provisionally as real, until proven otherwise.

    The only difficult cases are situations where there are reasons to believe that more direct observation will never be possible, regardless of developments in technology. For example, a basic principle of quantum mechanics is that a particle cannot have both a precise location and a precise momentum at the same moment. Another principle is that particles are represented by “probability waves”, which can never be directly observed, only sampled from. Given those constraints, it is still legitimate to wonder about how real particles actually are.

    Like

  8. Hi Massimo,

    I think moving realism closer to anti-realism is exactly the right approach. I disagree with you in that I think the most important issue is not epistemic but metaphysical. Most us think reality is an uncontroversially self-evident concept, a property which a hypothetical object either possesses or does not. On the other hand, I think reality as a concept breaks down when it is applied to many objects not in our direct experience, especially abstract objects, hypothetical universes and the possible worlds of modal realism.

    No less so for fundamental particles, fields, strings or what have you. Whether they are real or not does not strike me as a meaningful distinction. The question is whether theories which include them are parsimonious and accurate. This may seem pretty weird but I think it makes sense in light of the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis, where the universe is seen as just another mathematical structure. In this view, which is very similar to that of Ladyman and Ross, the distinction between actual objects and mathematical constructs is dissolved. There is no ontological difference between a physical object which is indispensable to a parsimonious description of the universe and a mathematical construct which is indispensible to a parsimonious description of the universe. Whether quarks exist or are just a useful fiction is therefore arguably a meaningless question, like asking whether 3+3 is actually six or half a dozen.

    That doesn’t mean that I don’t think there is a substantive question to answer when we wonder whether a predicted planet is real or not. Of course there is. My point only concerns classes of things like quarks rather than any specific entity. We accept the existence of stars and planets in general, so the question of whether we should accept the existence of a particular hypothetical planet known only by a starry wobble strikes me as a scientific question predicated on the strength of the evidence rather than a philosophical one. The existence of particular planets is not therefore in my view at all relevant to realism/anti-realism except perhaps as an analogy to make a particular point.

    Like

  9. I do not get the distinction between thin and thick epistemical access and have the suspicion that there is an unwarranted dualistic or at least essentialist premiss hiding somewhere, i.e. that (only?) our mind/our senses are able to see the “Ding an sich”.

    Maybe every thing really must go as per Ladyman & Ross, but if (some) things are really here to stay then shouldn’t it be the reliability of predicted effects that should convince us that there is something and not whether the effects are “measured” with eyesight or a tunnel microscope?
    I would understand a pragmatic argument on the basis that the more indirect a measurement (i.e. the higher the number and complexity of intermediate measurement systems) the higher the probability of error in tendency. But this could be (and routinely is) addressed by an appropriate experimental design.

    Like

  10. Besides electron microscopes, we spend billions on particle accelerators the size of small cities to “see” the existense of particles. The proof of such science has been the existense of nuclear power, weapons and medical breakthroughs etc. Scientists, mathematicians and philosophers are no different than practical “ordinary folk”, when they have something that works they tend to keep using it ’til someone points out something better.

    I’m reading Michael Graziano’s “Consciousnes and the Social Brain” or his theory of consciousness as the awareness or schema of attentional states shared via common languages. It fits well because what we call the ordinary observable world through shared language is also the scientifically observed world which we share socoially through specialized scientific language of mathematics; or for that matter an economically shared world, politically shared world etc.

    Like

  11. Intriguing that epistemology seems to always boil down to Plato’s cave and it’s shadows – and Socrates. Sense data: we say sensed objects are “real” because the only “instruments” are organic, the results being neural impulses. Elementary particles like electrons are “less real” because more instruments (cloud chambers, CEMs, etc.) are needed, but the end result is still a neural impulse as we “see” the instrument’s output. Then there are quarks, whose existence explains observations but which we have reasons to believe will never be observed in isolation. And strings.

    One of my physics professors back in the 1970s claimed that we should always laugh when we employ the word “real” because it was an undefinable word. He often referred to “what we laughingly call reality” when referring to eigenstates of an observed quantum system. We can spend lots of time and effort trying to define difficult words in terms of other poorly defined (and perhaps undefinable) words – or just admit that all our observed knowledge is theory-laden, all our theory is observation-driven, and every bit (sic) of both is subject to doubt. This, I think, is the beginning of Socratic wisdom.

    Like

  12. Peter,

    “to call a phenomenon real just because we have ‘thick’ epistemic access may work in physics, but it would be a hopeless approach to metaphysics”

    But of course the realist-antirealist debate is a epistemological-metaphysical one…

    Coel,

    “There can never be “only theoretical reasons” for thinking something real, since the theory only has any validity if supported by empirical evidence”

    Yes, but the idea is that some elements of the theory are always going to be underdetermined by the data, which means that it becomes then open to debate the extent to which we should think of those elements as indicating “real” objects out there.

    “One could, if one wanted, place things on a continuum with “slightly-thicker” and “somewhat-thinner” and with everything being somewhere on that continuum”

    I don’t think either of the authors would object to that. That still means drawing a distinction between (more or less) thick and (more or less) thin epistemic access.

    “The access to the behaviour of that star is actually a lot less “thick” and a lot less “image-like” than that image of silicon atoms from the scanning tunneling microscope”

    Yes, but I’m not sure why you are drawing the contrast that way: the authors’ comparison was between access to the start and access to the planets, and it seems to me they got it exactly right.

    “But that empirical judgement is still wrapped up with the whole theoretical web and can never be independent of it”

    True, and certainly well known to any philosopher of science. Not sure, however, why you think that’s a problem (or do you?).

    Asher,

    “The scanning tunneling microscope is an interesting example. To me, it’s not the transformation of the data into a visual representation that makes it thin, because everything we perceive is transformed and re-encoded in similar ways by our brains.”

    Yes, but that’s not the same thing. At the very least, in the case of the tunneling microscope you have *two* layers of transformation and re-encoding: the instrument’s and our brain’s.

    “There’s no reason, in other words, to privilege our particular perceptual apparatus”

    There is: it’s ours. Remember that the antirealist position isn’t concerned with a view from nowhere, it tackles explicitly with the fact that we are a certain kind of epistemic agent.

    imzasirf,

    “I never fully understand why there is a debate between scientific realist and anti-realist because I never felt like the two perspectives actually make a difference in terms of the practice of science”

    I never understood why this is somehow a problem for the debate. It keeps surprising (and worrying) me that so many people see philosophy as useful only insofar as it is instrumental to the practice of science. Some times it is, most of the times it isn’t, so what? I would never say that the kind of literary criticism that helps me better understand Shakespeare is useless because it doesn’t help writers do their job better. It’s a category mistake.

    “does it matter if we call it “real”? Most scientists I know never care to add the additional term “real””

    Again, who cares? This is a problem in epistemology and metaphysics, not physics. Second, I beg to differ: scientists at the least ought to be concerned about whether what they postulate is real or not, see the ongoing debate in string theory about a “post-empirical” physics…

    Bill,

    “On a historical note, scientists reached a consensus on how to handle this sort of thing quite some time ago.”

    Did they really?

    “The general working principle is that if something has observable consequences, it should be treated provisionally as real, until proven otherwise.”

    Which only shows how little these alleged scientists understand about metaphysics and epistemology. I think you are trying to shift the discourse elsewhere: sure, every time a scientific theory postulates an hitherto unknown entity X the provisional assumption is that X reflects some kinds of physical reality, and that its status will be revised according to new empirical data. But this is missing the point of the realist-antirealist debate, which is about the relationship between epistemology and metaphysics in the practice of science.

    “Another principle is that particles are represented by “probability waves”, which can never be directly observed, only sampled from.”

    Exactly, it isn’t for nothing that even quantum physicists debate various “interpretations” (read, metaphysical viewpoints) of the fundamental ontology of probability waves.

    DM,

    “Most us think reality is an uncontroversially self-evident concept, a property which a hypothetical object either possesses or does not”

    Perhaps (how did you arrive at that “most of us,” and who, exactly is “us”?), but that only means that one’s metaphysics better be connected to one’s epistemology. Careful there, however, because the antirealists definitely have the more parsimonious metaphysics compatible with the empirical evidence…

    “No less so for fundamental particles, fields, strings or what have you. Whether they are real or not does not strike me as a meaningful distinction”

    I couldn’t disagree more. Either the basic (or near-basic) stuff of the universe is made of vibrating strings or it isn’t. I think the distinction is very meaningful, if we are talking science.

    “The question is whether theories which include them are parsimonious and accurate”

    Uhm, no, to most scientists the question is whether those theories are (approximately) true or not. It’s interesting, however, that you are going down that route, which is the antirealist take: science is in the business of providing empirically adequate theories, not of establishing truth…

    “in light of the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis”

    Yeah, you know what I think of that…

    “There is no ontological difference between a physical object which is indispensable to a parsimonious description of the universe and a mathematical construct which is indispensible to a parsimonious description of the universe.”

    There is: the first one exists, the second one doesn’t (in the physical sense of “exists,” of course).

    “Whether quarks exist or are just a useful fiction is therefore arguably a meaningless question, like asking whether 3+3 is actually six or half a dozen”

    Again, no. Unless you are an antirealist, which I’m not.

    “the existence of a particular hypothetical planet known only by a starry wobble strikes me as a scientific question predicated on the strength of the evidence rather than a philosophical one”

    Except for the (admittedly unlikely) possibility that the sources of those wobbles aren’t planets.

    mira,

    “I do not get the distinction between thin and thick epistemical access and have the suspicion that there is an unwarranted dualistic or at least essentialist premiss hiding somewhere”

    No, there isn’t. As I said, though, antirealists take the fact that we are particular types of epistemic agents as central to how we should think about what we think we know about the world.

    “shouldn’t it be the reliability of predicted effects that should convince us that there is something and not whether the effects are “measured” with eyesight or a tunnel microscope?”

    Except that scientists were convinced of the existence of plenty of other things in the past, which turned out eventually not to exist: caloric fluid, ether, phlogiston, epicycles, etc.

    “this could be (and routinely is) addressed by an appropriate experimental design.”

    What sort of experimental design would actually show you atoms? Or resolve the debate about the ontology of quantum waves?

    Harry,

    “Intriguing that epistemology seems to always boil down to Plato’s cave and it’s shadows”

    Seems a bit of an oversimplification.

    “the end result is still a neural impulse as we “see” the instrument’s output.”

    Yes, but see my responses above about why that makes a non-trivial difference.

    “just admit that all our observed knowledge is theory-laden, all our theory is observation-driven, and every bit (sic) of both is subject to doubt”

    Yes, but there are degrees of epistemic access, as Coel as pointed out.

    Like

  13. Thanks for the response Massimo,

    never understood why this is somehow a problem for the debate…Again, who cares? This is a problem in epistemology and metaphysics, not physics. Second, I beg to differ: scientists at the least ought to be concerned about whether what they postulate is real or not, see the ongoing debate in string theory about a “post-empirical” physics…

    Fair enough, I see your point. I was thinking about it too much from the perspective of scientists.

    For the second point on the debate about post-empirical science and string theory, I think that is a different issue. As I understand it, whether your a realist or anti-realist, you still stick close to the empirical criteria. I would think the same is also true for scientist who may not be interested in the realist/anti-realist debate but would be very much against the “post-empircal” project that some have put forward.

    Like

  14. Hi Massimo,

    thanks for your response!

    No, there isn’t. As I said, though, antirealists take the fact that we are particular types of epistemic agents as central to how we should think about what we think we know about the world.

    So far, so reasonable. But the act that I do not visually “see” atoms, should only count against their existence, if I had any reasonable expectation to being able to “see” them given their existence, should it not? I don’t see how this could in principle be used to defeat circumstantial or indirect evidence of their existence.


    Except that scientists were convinced of the existence of plenty of other things in the past, which turned out eventually not to exist: caloric fluid, ether, phlogiston, epicycles, etc.

    That’s a curious argument. Careful deliberation (to my best ability) has often times in my professional work led me to believe that I was able to confirm a theorem that later turned out to be false. Nonetheless, I haven’t given up on careful deliberation yet! Should I have?
    How did we ever come to “know” that any of your above examples does not really exist in the first place? What about all the things we once thought to not exist since we could not see them (anybody remember Pasteur)?


    What sort of experimental design would actually show you atoms? Or resolve the debate about the ontology of quantum waves?

    I might not understand you right here, but if by “show” you mean it in such a way that you can directly see “the atom” with your bare eyes then you seem to just beg the question, as I do not think any such thing were necessary. To me a scanning tunneling microscope is perfectly sufficient in the case of atoms.

    In the case of the ontological status of the wave function, I do consider this an unsettled question – along with most physicists, I guess. But this has nothing at all to do with the fact that I can’t see a wave function with my bare eyes …

    Like

  15. Einstein, in a letter to Schlick, said that to call something “real” was as meaningful as calling it “Cock-a-doodle-do”.

    It appears to me that the “real” is an intrinsically empty, meaningless category (pigeon hole), whose monstrous importance lies only in the fact that I can do certain things in it and not certain others.

    Albert Einstein

    Of course he wouldn’t go as far as Schlick in this.

    But if we were to regard all physics as mathematics that happens to describe and predict our observations and regard mathematics as consisting solely in the process of manipulating symbols according to formal rules and say no more of the matter, would it really change the way physics is done?

    Like

  16. Noticing there seems to be 3 types of ontologists here (in my perhaps too-simple view):
    M. Everything is math. And all (physical) stuff is math.
    O. Everything is either (physical) stuff or math. And math is not (physical) stuff.
    P. Everything is (physical) stuff. And all math is (physical) stuff.

    (I’m type-P.)

    Like

  17. Asher said:
    “There’s no reason, in other words, to privilege our particular perceptual apparatus”

    Massimo responded
    “There is: it’s ours. Remember that the antirealist position isn’t concerned with a view from nowhere, it tackles explicitly with the fact that we are a certain kind of epistemic agent.”

    This is interesting to me because both our direct subjective access to stuff like tables and chairs, and our inter-subjective access through scienctific measurement and experiment both inform epistemology, right? Often the more precisely we can measure something inter-subjectively ( like quantum stuff ), the less subjective access, and vice versa I think. Kind of like Heisenbergs uncertainty, the more you know about the momentum the less you know about the location.

    So in that sense is Ashers question relevant?

    Like

  18. The irony seems to be that while we have come to realize there are no physically immutable static forms, there remains the assumption that metaphysically immutable static forms are the basis of reality. Are we sure they are prescriptive and not descriptive?
    This premise runs far too deeply in human consciousness to take lightly, because it is the very function of our minds to create metaphysical forms, so could it be a blind spot we don’t see?
    Our maps and formulas describe reality to us, but do they dictate it to nature? Maybe she is not reducible.

    Like

  19. I’ve always been fond of Percy Bridgman’s ‘operationalism’ on such matters (The Logic of Modern Physics, c.1927). I’ve been reading up recently on ‘Radical Constructivism’ particularly the writings of Ernst Von Glasersfeld, who describes Bridgman as an early Constructivist. Not sure if Bridgman qualifies as one? My impression (from Bridgman) is that all you have genuine access to is ‘an interaction’ (or one involving certain ‘operations’). So at best all you can walk away with is an account of precisely that and not a lot more- an interaction. Why do we fuss about what the noumenal world gets up to in or absence anyway?

    Like

  20. imzasirf,

    “whether your a realist or anti-realist, you still stick close to the empirical criteria”

    Well, more so if you are an antirealist, actually.

    “scientist who may not be interested in the realist/anti-realist debate but would be very much against the “post-empircal” project that some have put forward.”

    Sure, but what strikes me as interesting / ironic in the post-empirical project is that the scientists in question don’t seem to realize that they would cross the boundary straight into metaphysics, which is usually a dirty word in scientific circles…

    mira,

    “the act that I do not visually “see” atoms, should only count against their existence, if I had any reasonable expectation to being able to “see” them given their existence, should it not?”

    Well, that’s turning things upside down, from an antirealist perspective: something counts as thick epistemic access if you can see it, everything else is doubtful, to different degrees.

    “Nonetheless, I haven’t given up on careful deliberation yet! Should I have?”

    No, but I’m not sure why you put it this way, nobody is asking scientists to give up theorizing. The debate is in epistemology/metaphysics (about how we should think of what scientists are doing, not in science (about what scientists actually should be doing).

    “How did we ever come to “know” that any of your above examples does not really exist in the first place?”

    By empirical evidence *and* theory change. The interesting question is what is the relationship between the two. In some of those cases it is pretty straightforward, in some of the currently debatable ones (like string theory) not so much.

    “To me a scanning tunneling microscope is perfectly sufficient in the case of atoms”

    Perfectly sufficient for what? To show that there are some structures that interfere with the tunneling process and that when represented by way of special software “look” like the picture accompanying the essay? Sure. Are these “atoms” in the sense of the theoretical entities structuring the world of objects? Well, maybe.

    “But this has nothing at all to do with the fact that I can’t see a wave function with my bare eyes”

    Surely it would be settled if you could see it. Look, I don’t want to trivialize the debate, but my interlocutors should try to avoid that trap also. Indeed, the ontological status of the wave function is a perfect example of where realists and antirealists disagree, and in this particular case, scientists do too, along similar lines. The “shut up and calculate” school of thought in quantum mechanics is essentially antirealist. (I should have noted this before, but I hope it is clear that antirealists do *not* claim that atoms, or strings, or wave functions do not exist. they just caution that the best attitude is one of ontological agnosticism.)

    Robin,

    “regard mathematics as consisting solely in the process of manipulating symbols according to formal rules and say no more of the matter, would it really change the way physics is done?”

    The above mentioned shut up and calculate school would say no, and they would be right (and so would the antirealists). But I assure you that the majority of scientists would be ill at ease: they want to go after truth, not simply empirical adequacy.

    Seth,

    “Often the more precisely we can measure something inter-subjectively ( like quantum stuff ), the less subjective access, and vice versa I think”

    In a sense. Further complicated by the fact that sometimes we measure certain things because we can, and ignore or downplay others because we can’t get a good quantitative hold of it.

    brodix,

    “there remains the assumption that metaphysically immutable static forms are the basis of reality.”

    I’m sure someone holds to that, but not I, nor, I think, the two authors of the paper being discussed here. At the least, that didn’t come up during their presentation and the following discussion.

    mod,

    “Why do we fuss about what the noumenal world gets up to in or absence anyway?”

    Because we are hopelessly curious and refuse to accept our epistemic limits, I guess.

    Like

  21. Graziano is one of these “We are not conscious, we just think we are” fellows, isn’t he? I have to say that after reading his NY Times article I was not tempted to go further.

    He didn’t help himself by the way he presented it. He starts by invoking Copernicus and Darwin and then tells me that he is going to shift from a “credulous and egocentric” viewpoint. So basically, even before he has told me what he has in mind, he is implying that I will be a credulous, egocentric, Creationist, Geocentrist if I disagree with it.

    There is only one response to that approach – to think “This guy must be about to say something really daft, to poison the well that much”.

    On reading the rest it just seemed the usual point-missing exercise. It reminds me of when I finished reading Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained”. Not only had he not explained consciousness, he did not even appear to have understood the question.

    But it kind of raises the question about what kind of epistemic relation we have to things like pain, nausea etc.

    Like

  22. Hi yaryaryar – This comment will be in the wrong order but it’s near as I could pin it to your question. I hope you find it.

    It would be because metaphysics cannot treat a perception as a proof of existence. ‘Thick epistemic access’ would seem to include stubbing our toe on a rock, but would not be enough even to establish the true existence our foot. TEA would be the gold standard for physics, but metaphysics is all about Cartesian doubt and how to overcome it. The whole point of meta[physics is that it cannot depend on TEA. (unless I have misunderstood TEA, which may be the case.

    My apologies, but I can’t keep a discussion going because of the ordering problem.

    Like

  23. Massimo,
    That comment could as well have gone in the emergence thread.
    Yes, I am trying out the premise in my own mind and as DM stated his MUH here, I put it in this thread. Philip Thrift also pointed out the different views and took one similar to mine, but I hadn’t seen it, before posting that.
    Both “the fabric of spacetime, as explanation for GR and the Copenhagen Interpretation as explanation for QM are examples of this premise, that the math is direct correspondence to the/is basis of the reality and not just our observation of it. While the CI is still open to question, spacetime has become part of the canon and is basis for the expanding universe hypothesis. Everritt’s multiworlds and string theory are also clear examples. As Philip put it; “Everything is math. And all (physical) stuff is math.”
    Yet the point I’m working on goes a little deeper, that the very premise of law is emergent. That laws are simply a more basic form of reductionism and as such are notational to the reality, rather than foundational to it. It is just that our minds function as notational devices and so these points of clear pattern expression are more “real” than the fuzzier kinds.
    Yet if we are not focused on details, but just try taking in the larger picture, the reasons for some of these mysteries become clear. For example, the uncertainty principle is simply stating the obvious, that there is no such thing as an objective perspective. Logically it is an oxymoron. As I keep pointing out, even a moving car can’t have an exact location. We can know its momentum, but if we trying measuring its location the way they measure the location of subatomic particles, it would amount to putting a brick wall in front of it.
    So while philosophers may question the nature and even existence of the “rules,” physicists have mistaken regular patterns for platonic ideals and run with it in some increasingly strange directions.

    Like

  24. Except for the (admittedly unlikely) possibility that the sources of those wobbles aren’t planets.

    It happens, according to Stellar activity masquerading as planets in July 2014 Science magazine.

    It keeps surprising (and worrying) me that so many people see philosophy as useful only insofar as it is instrumental to the practice of science. Some times it is, most of the times it isn’t, so what? …

    Whether they are real or not … I think the distinction is very meaningful, if we are talking science.

    If this is all just metaphysical discussion and definitional debating, then just say so, and save some time for the scientists and logical positivists.

    My problem is that when it comes to justifying philosophical distinctions, you fall back to the importance of “talking science”, as if there were some empirical significance to the distinction. Which is it, are we talking science, or talking metaphysical twaddle? If science, then I want to see something instrumental.

    (I spliced some quotes. Please correct me if I am being misleading.)

    Exactly, it isn’t for nothing that even quantum physicists debate various “interpretations” (read, metaphysical viewpoints) of the fundamental ontology of probability waves.

    It is for nothing. I realize that there are respectable physicists who openly hope that some sort of practical application of quantum weirdness is going to come out of one of these interpretations, no good has come yet. Not to the world of empirical science, anyway.

    Like

  25. “There’s no reason, in other words, to privilege our particular perceptual apparatus”

    You respond: There is: it’s ours. Remember that the antirealist position isn’t concerned with a view from nowhere, it tackles explicitly with the fact that we are a certain kind of epistemic agent.

    Agreed, besides which the technical apparatus is made and understandable by humans, while our perceptual apparatus is still largely a mystery. So yeah, important place to draw a boundary.

    Like

  26. I once read of an experiment that showed the more extra weight you put on, the worse your sense of balance. Apparently they had a “sense of balance” measuring device. I was going to point it out to someone who I though could stand to lose some weight, but then wondered, what the hell should a “sense of balance” measuring device look like, and what if was accidentally, with enough Rube Goldberg switchbacks to obscure the fact, almost the same thing as a scale?

    Like

  27. Now about “Everything is whatever it is”?

    I never could quite get a handle on what physical is and as far as I can see maths just means the manipulation of symbols according to formal rules.

    I am tempted by Erwin Schoedinger’s “everything is consciousness”, but I don’t know what consciousness is either.

    Like

  28. Hmm.. I mean Schroedinger or perhaps Schrödinger. I was interested to see recently that Sean Carroll was invoking him in support of radical Naturalism. I wonder if Sean knows?

    Like

  29. I think Massimo was taking what I was saying a little too far. I wasn’t advocating a “view from nowhere” ar all. I don’t think that’s possible. But just because we don’t have, say, an electromagnetic sensory apparatus, doesn’t mean that electromagnetic fields are less real than visible light or tables. Ontologically, my view is that stuff exists by virtue of making differences. Epistemologically, I think the entities in our theories are ways of pointing at things that we don’t have direct, unmediated access to. So whatever “really” exists causes transformations, and knowing things, for us, involves multiple transformations. If there’s one or two extra transformations to take a process we can’t sense and put it in terms of our senses, I don’t think that demotes the “realness” of the thing we’re pointing to.

    In maybe simpler terms — if stuff exists by virtue of making differences, then making differences to our retinas or cochleas is just one, non-privileged way of making a difference.

    Like

  30. Hi Massimo,

    thanks again for your response. Please allow me some more remarks (this time I hope to get the quoting right…)

    “Well, that’s turning things upside down, from an antirealist perspective: something counts as thick epistemic access if you can see it, everything else is doubtful, to different degrees.”

    I still don’t get how anyone could be convinced by this position. When you say “if you can see it”, I guess you mean “you” as in “any human being” right? Or should I suspend judgement on the existence of Australia, given that I never saw it?

    “No, but I’m not sure why you put it this way, nobody is asking scientists to give up theorizing. The debate is in epistemology/metaphysics (about how we should think of what scientists are doing, not in science (about what scientists actually should be doing).”

    You missed my point. I merely aimed to show that your argument was empty. I employ careful deliberation to confirm or disconfirm theorems. The fact that I do err sometimes, does not show that the method is not reliable (or the best there is for the purpose).
    Scientists employ carefully conducted experiments to test their theories and (arguably) aim to deduce what is real (what is the case) from their results. The fact that they do err sometimes therefore shows … ?

    “By empirical evidence *and* theory change. The interesting question is what is the relationship between the two. In some of those cases it is pretty straightforward, in some of the currently debatable ones (like string theory) not so much.”

    But the existence of strings is considered unsettled last time I checked, whereas the nonexistence of elan vital or the aether is taken for granted. Should’t the antirealist say: “We should suspend judgement on both since my senses could never inform me about the truth on such matters and I only have thin epistemical access to these domains.”?

    “Perfectly sufficient for what? To show that there are some structures that interfere with the tunneling process and that when represented by way of special software “look” like the picture accompanying the essay? Sure. Are these “atoms” in the sense of the theoretical entities structuring the world of objects? Well, maybe.”

    In comes the essentialism: Sure, we found some entities that behave according to what your theory calls “atoms” in any way we could test so far to astounding accuracy, so there is something “there”. But how do we know that those are “really” atoms and not some other thing, some pretender? Well, where is the defeater?

    “Surely it would be settled if you could see it. Look, I don’t want to trivialize the debate, but my interlocutors should try to avoid that trap also. Indeed, the ontological status of the wave function is a perfect example of where realists and antirealists disagree, and in this particular case, scientists do too, along similar lines.”

    The only seeing that “seeing a wave function with your bare eyes” would settle was that whatever you are looking at, it surely is not a wave function! If seeing something is physically impossible according to the theory that proposes its very existence, then the act of seeing it can surely not count as a confirmation of the theory, right?

    The ontological status of the wave function is a very bad example as far as I can see, precisely because there are very many realists who think that its ontological status is unsettled. Alas, for different reasons than the antirealist it seems.

    Like

  31. Hi Massimo

    >(how did you arrive at that “most of us,” and who, exactly is “us”?)

    “Us” is humanity. I’m just assuming that most people think that reality is a meaningful concept. I disagree.

    > Careful there, however, because the antirealists definitely have the more parsimonious metaphysics compatible with the empirical evidence…

    My position is not that different from the anti-realist (or indeed the realist). My point is that it is possible to collapse the distinction between them entirely.

    > I couldn’t disagree more. Either the basic (or near-basic) stuff of the universe is made of vibrating strings or it isn’t.

    That assumes there is basic “stuff”, and that Ontic Structural Realism is false. Perhaps you’re right. I’m making the point that there are views from which the anti-realism/realism distinction is meaningless. If OSR is correct, then all there is is structure, and there may be ways of describing that same structure with or without strings.

    > that you are going down that route, which is the antirealist take: science is in the business of providing empirically adequate theories, not of establishing truth

    That’s not quite what I’m saying. I think there is a truth. I think the physical laws comprise a definite mathematical structure. Those laws may be expressible in any number of isomorphic forms. For a trivial example, we can say F=ma or we can say “m=F/a” or even “m=F/a + 42 – 42”. Which is the “real” law? These are just different ways of describing the same isomorphic structure. Similarly, there may be ways of describing reality with or without wavefunctions or strings. A true theory is any one which is isomorphic to the structure of the universe. There is no one correct way to express this structure, so it is a bit meaningless to ask whether particular aspects of a description are actually real or not. For instance, it may be possible to work out a consistent description of the universe on a Ptolemaic geocentric model with epicycles. From my perspective, this model is not actually false as long as it is isomorphic with the structure of the universe. I reject it anyway because it is not parsimonious — there is a much more elegant way to describe the structure of the universe. The question of whether epicycles actually exist is in my view meaningless, but in a heliocentric model they can be seen to cancel out a little bit like the “+ 42 – 42”.

    > There is: the first one exists, the second one doesn’t (in the physical sense of “exists,” of course).

    Correct, assuming Ladyman and Ross are wrong. If they are not, then the first one is composed of or simply is a mathematical structure. I’m just saying that it is perhaps a bit naive to assume that the fundamental constituents of matter can be thought of as physical stuff like tables or chairs as opposed to structures of some kind. The question of whether they physically exist may be meaningless, ditto for physical existence itself..

    Like

  32. This is about as deep as I fathom what it means to be physical (and to be a type-P ontologist):

    [W]e introduce a version of physicalism that formulates the proposition that all available data sets are best explained by combinations of “chance and necessity”—algorithmic rules and randomness. [1]

    In short, we might say that the notion of a physical theory is a Wittgensteinian family resemblance concept, and this should be enough to answer the question of how to understand physical theory. [2]

    If physicalism is true, everything is physical. In other words, everything supervenes on, or is necessitated by, the physical. Accordingly, if there are logical/mathematical facts, they must be necessitated by the physical facts of the world. In this lecture course I will sketch the first steps of a physicalist philosophy of mathematics; that is, how physicalism can account for logical and mathematical facts. [3]

    [1] http://philpapers.org/rec/EDIBPO
    [2] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/physicalism
    [3] http://phil.elte.hu/leszabo/matfil/2013-2014-1

    Like

  33. Massimo: “The example proffered by Bueno is that of the scanning tunneling microscope [4]: it generates a constant electrical current which is then used to scan a given object up and down. This doesn’t generate an image per se, only information about the object based on how its surface interferes with the electrical current. This information is then processed by computers to generate an image for human consumption. People these days claim that with this instrument we can “see” atoms, but this — according to the anti-realist — is definitely not the case, because the microscope does not actually provide thick epistemic access to the objects of interest. This is evident from the fact, for instance, that the raw data can be represented in a variety of ways, generating very different images.”

    If the computer processing was “superfast” so that the image was seen with a delay of one second or less, or if the program detecting the wobbly stars was the same so we saw the planets “almost in real time”? Even modern TV is all digitally processed so it takes a second or more; so the “live” picture on the news channel is delayed (or indirect). I think what we call thicker or closer to reality is linked to time or eventfulness. Now switch to our brains and the biological image we perceived is also indirect (retina to V1 etc) and delayed. Our brains may have a “thicker” perception of the room than our scientific instruments, but thickness or surety may be closer linked to things like probability detection in our brains as well.

    Like

  34. It’s interesting to think of this debate from the context of idealism. Take subjective idealism advocated by George Berkeley. Am I allowed to give a link to my blog so I don’t need to outline his ideas here?
    http://ian-wardell.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/a-very-brief-introduction-to-subjective.html

    Now given that he rejected the existence of a mind-independent reality, one would think that *by definition* he is obliged to be an anti-realist. But I think the question is a bit more involved than that.

    Consider a chair. We visual perceive it, we can stretch our hand out and receive a tactile sensation. Now Berkeley obviously rejected that there is a chair out there independent of my conscious perceptual experiences which causes my perceptual experiences. Rather God conveys to us certain chair-like perceptual experiences. In this case the visual and tactile sensations are unrelated. One doesn’t entail or imply the other. It’s just that we find certain visual and tactile sensations (qualia) constantly together. Our minds essentially invent the concept of physical objects. Thus a chair is simply a shorthand reference to a certain group of qualia (mainly visual and tactile) which are constantly conjoined together in a given characteristic way. So even the macroscopic realm of objects don’t really exist. They are a theoretical construct created by our minds. If the macroscopic realm is theoretical, then a fortiori the microscopic realm is.

    But there is an alternative construal of Berkeley’s metaphysic. Instead of God conveying isolated qualia to our minds so that our minds “create” physical objects i.e they don’t really exist, perhaps God conveys physical objects wholesale or in their entirety. That is to say that God has a concept of a chair in his mind which he directly conveys to our finite minds. In this case chairs and other physical objects really do exist. For sure they don’t have a mind-independent existence, but they are not an invention or theoretical construct of *our* finite minds, and hence can be said to exist. But if macroscopic objects exist, then God could also hold the existence of . .say . .quarks and electrons and other sub-atomic entities in his mind. In which case they exist just as much as chairs and tables and stars.

    Of course in Berkeley’s metaphysic objects aren’t *literally* composed of parts. But that is also the case for a lego or meccano model. So we can say that the world is ultimately composed of electrons and quarks (or whatever) in a similar way to a house made of lego is composed of lego bricks is.

    Like

  35. One very interesting thought I’d like to add. We might be able to get the same macroscopic reality by postulating quite differing groups of types of entities. Thus we can say that all objects are ultimately composed of electrons and quarks. But if some type of idealism is correct, then perhaps macroscopic objects can be analysed in an entirely different manner so that another group of entities interacting together explain the same microscopic state of affairs. So that each way of analysing is mutually exclusive so to speak. Both groups of entities could be considered to be real if in fact God has both groups in his mind, so to speak.

    Like

  36. Coel said:

    There can never be “only theoretical reasons” for thinking something real, since the theory only has any validity if supported by empirical evidence. Similarly, nearly all empirical evidence is very indirect and theory-dependent.

    Sure there can, and it’s pretty directly related to this piece. Dalton’s semi-modern update of ancient Greek atomism had no empirical evidence for well more than a century, yet chemists built on (and improved) its structure during that whole time.

    Of course, there is the likes of string theory, where we not only don’t have empirical evidence today, but we may never. And we may never even know exactly how to try to get confirming empirical evidence. Bill Skaggs pretty much touches on the same. And, Massimo, while setting aside simplifications (such as a certain minority of physicists refused to accept atoms until Einstein’s experiments, I think Bill’s got a reasonable narrative.

    Speaking of, I think sub-atomic particles are “real.” The use of the word “seeing them” is a non-quantum point of view. If they are “looked at” in the right way, we have empirical evidence of them.

    Back to string theory. Even before atoms were “proven,” experimental data and the developing structure of chemistry was based on observations that pointed toward that reality. Yes, there were holdouts, but the consensus continued to grow. Is there anything like that with all the various theories in modern cosmology?

    Speaking of the cosmos, let’s flip from the subatomic to the macro-mega sized.

    Before telescopes of sufficient resolution, plus Hubble’s breakthrough idea about redshifts, we couldn’t see galaxies, nor know that they were independent from our own. But they were still real, and, because our telescope-building and knowledge of star types were improving, we did “see” them soon enough.

    As for various proponents of a mathematical-based anti-realism? Beyond other comments, that only comes from verifiable real-world presentations of various mathematical ideas.

    HarryEllis: IMO, Schrödinger had read too much Hinduism before he wrote about his cat and eigenstates. Call me a quasi-Einsteinian naïve realist or whatever, but, it just seems to be classical probabilities to me. Extending the number of events to which the cat is subject, all at the same time, illustrates that, and a bit of his absurdity, IMO. http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2009/03/why-schroedinger-was-wrong-about-his.html

    Schlafly says:

    It is for nothing. I realize that there are respectable physicists who openly hope that some sort of practical application of quantum weirdness is going to come out of one of these interpretations, no good has come yet. Not to the world of empirical science, anyway.

    So, transistor radios, atomic clocks, lasers (all being used commercially today, not just “ideas” like quantum computing) have no practical application?
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/everyday-quantum-physics/

    No, the quantum world has plenty of macro-level value, and will continue to grow in that, even if it still is seemingly “weird.”

    Like

  37. My interpretation though I’m no expert, is that Berkeley was a realist about mind and anti-realist about everything else.

    I think it’s useful (has been for me at least but then I’m new to philosophy) to bear in mind that a realism is generally and perhaps always relative to something, and that a realist about fairies is someone who believes in fairies.

    I got the impression maybe qua Berkeley we are all *in* the mind of god, so maybe each of us is one of those nattering ongoing conversations that we pick up and drop now and again.

    Also, it’s getting close to the idea taken seriously in some quarters that reality was long ago replaced by a computer simulation. While I don’t advocate it in the least, that could bring back a plausible concept of god as “mind of the universe”, and we are all little demons [(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daemon_(computing)%5D and the chair has the reality of being a subroutine.

    Like

  38. Hi Bill Skaggs,

    The general working principle is that if something has observable consequences, it should be treated provisionally as real, until proven otherwise.

    Where, of course, “real” is taken to mean “has observable consequences”!

    Hi Massimo,

    the antirealist take: science is in the business of providing empirically adequate theories, not of establishing truth…

    Since our only handle on the “truth” of “reality” is empirical adequacy, I’m not sure those two are opposed.

    … something counts as thick epistemic access if you can see it, everything else is doubtful, to different degrees.

    Why are we privileging sight over touch or hearing? If I were a bat, would “thick epistemic access” consist of bouncing sound waves (rather than photons) off something?

    Hi Socratic,

    Dalton’s semi-modern update of ancient Greek atomism had no empirical evidence for well more than a century, yet chemists built on (and improved) its structure during that whole time.

    Such things are never a matter of “*no* empirical evidence”. There was lots of empirical evidence, but it was partial and insufficient.

    … there is the likes of string theory, where we not only don’t have empirical evidence today, …

    Yes we do have empirical evidence for string theory, lots of it! But, again, it is partial and insufficient. The whole reason that physicists pursue string theory is that it is one of the very few theoretical edifices that is compatible with the vast array of empirical data that it has to be compatible with.

    What string theory does lack is being able to generate novel predictions that are testable at energy scales that we can currently achieve. Generating novel predictions that are then verified is the “gold standard” for boosting confidence in a theory, but mere “empirical evidence” is much wider than that.

    “Empirical evidence” and “theoretical reasons” and “thick access” and “thin access” are never a matter of binary yes/no, but always a matter of degree in an entangled Quinean-style web.

    (Re your comment to Schlafly, his statement was about practical applications of interpretations of quantum mechanics, not about applications of quantum mechanics. And he’s right that the reason we haven’t yet decided between the various interpretations is that they haven’t been developed to the point of having observable consequences.)

    Like

  39. I think this is why scientists are generally pragmatists about the reality of their entities. It doesn’t matter particularly if the entities are “real” because they are really just things that either work for making predictions about how the world will act or don’t. We do know that our medium-sized-object concepts do in some respects get carried over when we talk about things like “particles”, but the theories about particles don’t carry that baggage.

    Like

  40. PeterJ,

    metaphysics is all about Cartesian doubt and how to overcome it.

    Just to clarify, are you saying that metaphysical claims are about how to get absolutely certain knowledge about the world? I have not read up on much metaphysics and I often find it hard to pin down what exactly metaphysics’ s goal is but I know from my recent readings of pragmatists (Peirce, Haack), they hold metaphysics to be fallibilist project. This would mean that even metaphysical conclusions can be subject to change based on new evidence and not require absolute certainty.

    Like

  41. This kind of post is very worrisome to me.

    1- It seems to have condescending undertones toward metaphysics throughout the post with no justification for why we ought to feel dismissive toward metaphysics. Perhaps one can defend having that attitude toward metaphysics as Unger does in his new book “empty ideas,” but nothing of the sort has been done here.

    2- It doesn’t seem to recognize that, as Massimo pointed out, the realism vs. anti-realism debate discussed in the OP is not a metaphysical debate about whether or not unobservables are real or not, it is a debate about what our epistemic attitude should be toward these entities. So, it’s unclear to me why Schlafly continues to talk about metaphysics.

    To be fair, perhaps it is because some of the commenters have gotten side-tracked by the metaphysical debate about whether or not unobservables/theoretical entities exist so Schlafly was jumping in on this discussion as well (though this still doesn’t explain (1) mentioned above).

    3- At best this post raises meta (some being metaphilosophical) concerns that are, strictly speaking, red herrings. Those concerns are:

    1- when do we count as talking scientifically vs. when we count as talking about metaphysics?
    2- whether or not all metaphysics is “twaddle.”
    3- whether or not the metaphysical/ontological realist/anti-realist debate (are there actually existing unobservable entities?) is just “definitional debating.”

    It is important to note that 1 and 2 look pretty clearly to be red herrings: completely different (and controversial) topics from the main topics in the original post and the comments under the guise of being necessarily relevant. 3 is a red herring to the original post, but is not (as clearly, at least) a red herring to the comments.

    Putting aside the fact that these are pretty much red herrings..

    Regarding 1- Schlafly says: My problem is that when it comes to justifying philosophical distinctions, you fall back to the importance of “talking science”, as if there were some empirical significance to the distinction. Which is it, are we talking science, or talking metaphysical twaddle?”

    Given that realism/anti realism (the metaphysical debate) is a debate in the philosophy of science, it is going to require a mix of both factual claims about the history of science, descriptive claims about how science is practiced and how people talk in the scientific community, and historical claims about scientific inquiry.
    In order to draw and justify a philosophical distinction in philosophy of science, many times you inevitably have to appeal to some of the aforementioned types of claims that sound as though one is “talking science.” But really, one is still just doing philosophy. (and I just have to note that it’s really ambiguous what is meant by “talking science” in this post, is it scientific hypothesizing about data? Or is it one of the types of claims I mentioned above?)

    Regarding 2- For now at least, Schlafly has given no reason to dismiss metaphysics as “twaddle,” and I don’t feel compelled to time trying to defend the entire field when I haven’t seen an attack. At best it is still a controversial issue that is not unanimously favoring Schlafy’s position.

    Regarding 3- Is this debate just definitional debating?

    First of all, even if it was definitional debating, this is certainly not something that we should immediately assume is a foolish waste of time. Getting as clear as we can on what we mean by certain terms and what is the best use of a term is one of the only ways for many debates to progress (including in science; there are a lot of papers written for the sole purpose of clarifying certain terms that are being used ambiguously in the literature), not to mention the obvious fact that if a word embedded in a hypothesis has two different unagreed upon definitions,what evidence will count as supporting the hypothesis might differ depending on which definition is employed.

    In philosophy, two different definitions for a word can mean two completely different philosophical accounts that have completely different implications- this also doesn’t seem trivial to me.

    This is something that Massimo has talked about elsewhere (like in, I think, one of his books when he talks about the different definitions of “fitness.” (though I can’t remember which one) and in his discussion with Dan Dennett and Lawrence Krauss where he says that he is sometimes bothered when people say “oh this is all just semantics…” See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tH3AnYyAI8)

    Second, like (2), I don’t think we need to rehash old arguments about whether or not this is definitional debating. I will just say that it is too bad that some people seem to take the view that all of philosophy is just pointless definitional debating as their default meta-philosophical position. From this post by Schlafly and others made by him in other posts, this certainly seems to be his unsupported default view.

    Like

  42. SocraticGadfly: Yes, of course quantum mechanics has many practical applications. What has not proved to be useful are the various non-Copenhagen interpretations, such as pilot waves and many-worlds. (My use of the phrase “quantum weirdness” was a poor choice. I was trying to use a phrase that refers to the non-mainstream interpretations, without insulting those who believe in those interpretations.) Those interpretations have not even led to any great theoretical insights, or any generally-accepted explanations of experiments. Physically, the subject has been a big dead-end.

    The realist philosophers may argue that the interpretations are useful in deciding what is real, because they are not constrained by empiricism.

    Like

  43. Hi Philip,

    This is about as deep as I fathom what it means to be physical (and to be a type-P ontologist):

    The Edis, Boudry paper defines it “Asking what it would take for such a claim to succeed, we introduce a version of physicalism that formulates the proposition that all available data sets are best explained by combinations of “chance and necessity”—algorithmic rules and randomness. Physicalism would then be violated by the existence of oracles that produce certain kinds of noncomputable functions.
    The problem is that if everything is physical, according to this definition, then our current best model of physics is radically wrong.

    The physics (yes even quantum physics) model of reality depend on real number, that is to say continuous values. That implies that only a vanishingly small part of reality is computable.

    The Stanford entry says that it is enough to say that it is a Wittgensteinian family resemblance concept. I can’t agree. Actually I have a long history with this entry in SEP. They seem to be recruiting Neurath and Carnap to the modern meaning of the word ‘physicalism’, but of course they both meant something quite radically different by the term. Modern Physicalism is a metaphysical thesis and both Neurath and Carnap were strong opponents of anything with even the whiff of metaphysics.

    But for some reason the SEP author’s research has not turned this up. He says:

    It is not clear that Neurath and Carnap understood physicalism in the same way, but one thesis often attributed to them (e.g. in Hempel 1949) is the linguistic thesis that every statement is synonymous with (i.e. is equivalent in meaning with) some physical statement.

    “Not clear”?? Neurath has an essay entitled “Physicalism” in which he introduces the term ‘Physicalism’ and explains exactly what he means by it. So you would think the sensible thing to do when wondering about what Neurath meant by ‘Physicalism’ is to refer to and cite this essay. In fact I emailed Daniel Stoljar some years ago to draw his attention to this essay and he acknowledged the email,

    But instead he cites Hempel. This is what drives me crazy about philosophy.

    Also, I would be interested to hear the argument that mathematical facts derive from physical facts. This would seem to entail that we could state a physical fact without using mathematics and also that we could define ‘physical’ non-mathematically.

    Like

  44. Schlafley and Coel — agreed on that aspect.

    Coel Not quite so fast. First, I did note that we had partial empirical evidence re Dalton’s semi-modern atomic theory, while also noting it was indirect. I then noted that the empirical evidence we had pointed more and more that this was (with updates) right. I never said we had no evidence. I did miss your own note on indirectness; apologies for partially talking past you, and leading you to do the same.

    Now, per Schlafley, and what I also said about MWH, string theory, etc. (only putting it under cosmology, which I had originally done), we have no such “pointing” today. I should have said that, on atomic theory, something like “we had no evidence confirming its general correctness, but we did have evidence pointing to the likelihood of its general correctness. And, we don’t have such “pointing” today. Which is what you get at.

    I’ll partially agree that thick/thin isn’t binary, but matters of degree; however, I think the two may be like an inverse bell curve.

    Now, specific to the various cosmological ideas “out there” — can we ever (practically, not theoretically) get empirical evidence that will start “pointing” at one particular interpretation? I say no; I just don’t see those levels of energy — and certainly not under good human control — being generated.

    At a minimum, we’re not going to be able to do this before the end of the 21st century. So, as Robin has noted in the past on issues of volition, only even more so — why talk about it? Why can’t we get Brian Greene, to cite a name, to just, politely, listen to Wittgenstein and shut up?

    This gets to the thick vs. thin. Should we have multiple types of “thin,” dividing between what is logically observable at some day, even if not today, and what is practically observable at some day, if not today? Or, per the last paragraph by Massimo, should we have an until/if divide on unobservables?

    We’re also likely a century away from developing any serious project in a quantum theory of gravitation, too, in part for related reasons. Again, we should probably not talk about these things in such speculative terms, while trying to put forward a degree of certainty that doesn’t exist.

    I know that physicists in general don’t like the idea of “be quiet.” No more than many of them liked finding out the universe is expanding, at growing rate, and thus truly infinite.

    And, a thought that Massimo didn’t mention — if these distinctions were put into play consistently, could they affect governmental funding of research? A philosopher of science of some sort says, “That’s too ‘thin’ for me?”

    And, maybe that’s why there’s no chance that a Brian Greene will shut up.

    (This all said, I’m sure Massimo was using “sight” as a stand-in for all five senses; if not, Coel, I could say that you’re privileging bats and hearing over moles and smell.)

    Like

  45. On Edis & Boudry rejecting oracles, they are rejecting the possibility of super-Turing computing. I don’t see why that needs to be ruled out in the physical world or for physicalism to hold. Maybe it doesn’t exist, but I’m not that sure.

    On Szabó’s mathematical physicalism, from reading the documents linked to in “Suggested readings”, what he is basically taking is a formalist/constructivist view of mathematics: Mathematics is a human-made thing made up of written symbols on paper or blackboards, or, now, perhaps electronic data in computers. (As he puts it: “thereby removing the last vestiges of Platonism from mathematics”.)

    Like

  46. If the conversation is going to cosmology and the mathematical foundations for an expanding universe are irrefutable, then why, if this expansion is a consequence of spacetime, based on General Relativity, doesn’t the speed of light increase, in order to remain constant to this expansion of space?
    If an accountant tried the sort of logic by which space expands, based on the redshift of light and this can be measured against stable units, based on the speed of the very same intergalactic light, they would either be laughed at, or in legal trouble.
    If those distant galaxies are moving away, based on the assumption their light will take longer to reach us over time, which is what would cause the Doppler effect, that uses the speed of light in a vacuum, as the denominator against which to compare this presumed expansion of that vacuum of space.
    Religions will pull that sort of blatant sleight of hand and dare you to question it, so it has been disconcerting to see the same actions in a field as presumably objective as cosmology and have just about everyone go silent when I raise the issue.
    The difference for accountants is they operate in a top down system and have to adhere to rules, but cosmologists get to make the rules and there are no judges, other than other cosmologists. Isn’t there even a mathematician out there, willing to consider the self-refuting logic of this?

    Like

  47. The posts by Ian Wardell with reply from Hal Morris, and Wardell with reply by Asher Kay, seem to raise the important issues here is an accessible way. The question is, how confident can we be in our theories concerning the world, given the limited confidence we can have in our direct access to that world? Every conceptualization is a mediation; every instrument is a mediation Much has to be assumed in order to engage in science, no one doubts that (pragmatically, it works), any more than anyone doubts that there is ‘stuff’ in the world, some we can have sense experience of, some we can’t. The question is, can we reliably articulate our science and our experience in a manner that gives us a fairly consistent picture of that world, and our place in it?

    After review of the article and material suggested by it, I feel myself drawn toward structural realism, but I think that pragmatic issues could be introduced into it to make its stronger. It always seems to be a stronger call to discover relationships and let these generate entities, rather than fixate on entities and try to discover relationships. But it also has to ‘work’ as well.

    (In looking up Dalton, thanx to Coel and Socratic, I was interested to discover that he teased atomic theory out of the study of gases, esp. the study of their relationships. But this is just one case, an old one, and I probably had heard about it in school. But it’s a notion worth considering further….)

    Like

  48. Science has led us down into a cave of probability, of uncertainty, an endless abyss of theories, measurements, division, and the equally never ending questions that arise from those so terribly lost in the the dark. Sure the theories are real, as real as Plato’s shadows on the wall were real, shadows are real too don’t you know? But outside the cave, beyond the shadows of darkness is the light of absolute, the light of a crystal clear Way. Do you need any help with the chains? =

    Like

  49. Robin Herbert wrote:

    >It reminds me of when I finished reading Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained”. Not only had he not explained consciousness, he did not even appear to have understood the question.

    I’m definitely not sure (definite uncertainty — oxymoron?) that I understand the question, do you really? (I mean this in a friendly way, not a “gotcha”) I’m very doubtful consciousness is explainable (the same with free will or no, and why there is something rather than nothing).

    I read it, not really expecting that it would “explain” consciousness but thinking that anybody so brilliant claiming to have explained consciousness (though maybe having a screw loose for thinking he’d succeeded) would provide a lot of good food for thought, and I wasn’t disappointed (Note: I came to it only *after* Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Breaking the spell).

    It’s much like my experience of reading Steve Fuller’s _Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times_. Fuller is the intellectual leader of the post-modernish side of Social Epistemology, and I definitely think he has a couple of screws loose. His thesis seemed to be that Kuhn, a disciple of James Bryant Conant (“the evil” James Bryant Conant — I think Fuller might be tempted to say, but that would be un-post-modern), actually put a stopper on the possibility of wild and free-flowing democratic science. I have the distinct impression he failed to make that point though I’m nowhere near ready to critique the book.

    But it was a hell of a read, and I think it left me much more knowledgeable (or at least familiar) with the history of “science” as a concept, and the ways it has been pushed institutionally, especially during the Cold War (and maybe, pertinent to Massimo, just how much cultural pressure it took to launch the long ride of publicly supported science in America, and hence what a huge campaign of persuasion it would take to get that back, and hints on what such a campaign might have to look like)

    Plenty of authors who announce they’re going to do some astounding thing write drivel, but other times these are some of the best books, or most useful to have read, IMHO.

    Like

Comments are closed.