The naïve realist’s plea for the positivist’s pluralism of views

scientific realism vs anti-realism
scientific realism vs anti-realism

Dear Ryan, this posting has been on my list far too long. I loved this your diagram of the realism/anti-realism antagonism. The very topic is cool. Most people will shake their heads about the options you are presenting. “Where exactly is the atheist’s position in this field? What would Richard Dawkins choose?” It is cool inspiration to reconsider one’s personal point of view in the philosophical mess we tend to avoid in our normal work and in our function as hobby philosophers.

I am, of course a naïve realist – most of the time. Tell me that my little son (who woke us up so early this morning) is not real, and I will tell you to stop bothering me with all your lame philosophy. Reality is what I see when I open my eyes, and we all know these situations in which we compare the reality surrounding us with information we receive – let’s say from a map. I compare the map in my hands with the reality I see surrounding me.

I am otherwise a positivist on this diagram. We had a little Facebook chat on this in which you gave me parts of the realist’s side. I have no idea whether we can sort this out.

Six considerations:

1. The positivist’s view includes the realist’s view

The positivist paradigm is that we are all interpreting data. The naïve realist’s view is in this view a basic model, a model with the charm of leaving out some steps. And you are right: You should be ready to see the fist approaching you as simply a fist, that will hit you in a fragment of a second – block it or get out of its way or you will have it in your face.

The positivist has the better arguments where the naïve realist runs into his first misconceptions. The world might look flat, but it is not. It might feel like standing firm and immovable – but that is just because you do not perceive how the moon is slowing us down. The sky looks blue, but that colour will go if you shoot yourself into space. You do not see viruses but you rather believe that they exist… The positivist will hint at the limited models of reality all individuals are using.

The structural realist (of your diagram) will intervene – he too is able to tell where the naïve realist is getting things wrong. The naïve realist should make certain experiments and he would understand his need for the more advanced models of realty which science can offer.

The positivist is simply the greater radical on this scale with his claim that we are all using various (historical and personal) models to match and to handle our data.

2. We do not see reality here and our view of reality there

This is basically the Kantian argument about the Ding an sich, the thing as it actually is (even in moments in which it is not perceived). This thing is eventually transcendent. You never get reality here and your picture of reality there, so that you can compare how well your picture is doing the job. You get your perspective, your view, different views if you change your perspective but always just views and you make statements on the basis of these views. These statements correlate or they do not correlate with statements you find elsewhere – let us say on a map, a photo, or in a written account.

The entire process of getting a better and better picture of reality is hence without the confirmation that we have now got the correct view, the view legitimised by the object itself. In a confrontation between different scientific claims we will never have the advocate of reality here and the advocates of different interpretations there. We will always see clashes of people with sets of data and different interpretations of these data.

We need a theory to understand the dynamics of these clashes and this theory is the theory of knowledge the persona and collective construct (which we might prefer to base on data). Our very notions of objectivity are part of the construct with conflicting parameters of giving a “typical” picture (see Lorraine Daston’s and Peter Galison’s wonderful book on the topic).

3. The history of knowledge is not the story of a continuous approximation towards the absolute truth of reality

This is basically the 19th- and 20th-century narrative of the “scientific revolution”. It begins around 1500: Copernicus presents his model of celestial movements, the first navigators get around the globe, microscopes and telescopes are soon invented to give better and better pictures of the macro and the microcosm – a story of the world as it is and the collective of scientists coming closer and closer until they cross the magic line on which they have solved the last riddle and covered the last blank spot on their maps.

The approximation is an absolutist narrative that does not tell us much about the actual situation. The early modern era was not really that interested in natural sciences. The academic world did not turn towards empirical research. The universities remained interested in book knowledge in the four fields of academic learning: theology, law, medicine, and philosophy. The “learned republic” embraced Copernicus, Kepler and Newton as modern geniuses but the taught the multiplicity of theories in their philosophy classes – not because Copernicus was a taboo but because learning had its own ideal of the wide view that can present all the options discussed by scholars through the centuries.

We learn little about the past and its specific pluralism where we present our own narrative of research on its march towards the 1:1 understanding of reality. The positivist’s view is the liberal view in this situation: It says that we are always handling different models – not only because it takes some time for a new model to reach all branches of academic learning (and the wider population), but because we have have different competing views in all disciplines and a pluralism of options to suit different needs in different branches of knowledge. We do not want our architects to construct their houses under the weight of computations Einstein’s far more advanced theory of space and time will require. A static three dimensional world is what the architect needs. Astronomers can go to n dimensions if that solves their problems.

The idea that we are reaching reality in its complexity is eventually an absolutist narrative. It is designed to defeat rivals in a clash of competing views but not a model we will use ti understand the plurality of views and their interconnectivity.

4. The positivist’s view is a liberating alternative

Our equations and theorems are not really aiming at structural equivalents to the reality out there. The statement that “an object that tumbles as soon as its centre of gravity is no longer above its base” is not about a centre of gravity, a more massive point to be found in any object and about a force this centre can begin to exert once it has reached the magical point. The data you can give me about the atoms of the plate on my table are not structurally closer to reality than the photo I can make. We have observed that languages develop according to laws, but it would be stupid to claim that speakers are acting under these laws when they change the pronunciation of a language.

The claim that we are on a course of approximations – with reality as the final destination point – is useful in confrontations between competing views. It is otherwise a threat of dead end roads and a justification of stupid research. No one is interested in the picture of this reality, I am still waiting for the team that will map the positions of all the leafs on that tree outside my office. We are threatened to run into the dead end road as soon as we feel we are getting closer and closer – this was the feeling of astronomers on the old Ptolemaic model and they were extraordinary precise with their prognostics of celestial movements. The images they gave…

Representation of the apparent motion of the sun and planets from the earth. Taken from the Astronomy article in the first edition of  the Encyclopædia Britannica (1777) Wikimedia Commons
Representation of the apparent motion of the sun and planets from the earth.
Taken from the Astronomy article in the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1777) Wikimedia Commons

…were the images you would give on a course of approximation and constant refinement.

The retrograde motions of Mars and Uranus in 2003 (Tunc Tezel) A composite image created by superimposing images taken on twenty-nine different dates.
The retrograde motions of Mars and Uranus in 2003 (Tunc Tezel,
A composite image created by superimposing images taken on twenty-nine different dates.

The Ptolemaic model was, we will confess it in hindshight, a dead end road. But the model Copernicus presented was initially less accurate – downright erroneous with its assumption of circular movements. The new model needed Johannes Kepler to refine it before it could claim to be the better approximation to reality and it needed the odd experiment of Léon Foucault‘s pendulum to prove that this the new model was more than just a different visual presentation. We can use Kepler’s and Newton’s representations to predict gravitational effects on earth or whenever we send a space probe like a billiard ball through the solar system’s moving gravitational fields.

Albert Einstein remarked this in his appreciation of Ernst Mach’s positivist brand of empirio-criticism: The idea that we are creating models – models we might not perceive as a approximation, model which might much rather contradict all our views of reality – is liberating. It allows us to create alternative models for any set of data we want to handle more efficiently. The new models can be counter-intuitive, they can contradict our immediate observations of reality, they can contradict established models. The idea that we can generate such laws simply to efficiently describe “how” things behave is liberating and as Comte predicted the brilliant step to leave the realist’s search for the theological “why” they really happen.

It must be understood that I advocate simply a suspension of judgment where there is no ground for either affirmation or denial. I merely desire to keep in view that all our positive knowledge is relative; and, in my dread of our resting in notions of anything absolute, I would venture to say that I can conceive of such a thing as even our theory of gravitation being hereafter superseded. I do not think it probable; and the fact will ever remain that it answers completely to our present needs. It sustains us, up to the last point of precision that we can attain. If a future generation should reach a greater, and feel, in consequence, a need to construct a new law of gravitation, it will be as true as it now is that the Newtonian theory is, in the midst of inevitable variations, stable enough to give steadiness and confidence to our understandings. It will appear hereafter how inestimable this theory is in the interpretation of the phenomena of the interior of our system. We already see how much we owe to it, apart from all specific knowledge which it has given us, in the advancement of our philosophical progress, and of the general education of human reason. Descartes could not rise to a mechanical conception of general phenomena without occupying himself with a baseless hypothesis about their mode of production. This was, doubtless, a necessary process of transition from the old notions of the absolute to the positive view; but too long a continuance in this stage would have seriously impeded human progress. The Newtonian discovery set us forward in the true positive direction. It retains Descartes’ fundamental idea of a Mechanism, but casts aside all inquiry into its origin and mode of production. It shows practically how, without attempting to penetrate into the essence of phenomena, we may connect and assimilate them, so as to attain, with precision and certainty, the true end of our studies,—that exact prevision of events which à priori conceptions are necessarily unable to supply. [Text at]

We might keep the game open to allow progress and to allow a better understanding of the pluralism we are constantly producing with all our knowledge.

5. But I must confess that the universe has regular structures – repeating patterns, patterns which we should therefore grasp with descriptions of an equal regularity

Yes, as Wittgenstein noted in his Tractatus with the caution to remain within the limits of this observation:

6.36 Wenn es ein Kausalitätsgesetz gäbe, so könnte es lauten: „Es gibt Naturgesetze“. Aber freilich kann man das nicht sagen: es zeigt sich. (If there were a law of causality, it might run: “There are natural laws”. But that can clearly not be said: it shows itself.)

6. The realist’s statement that reality is really out there is otherwise dysfunctional

Positivism is a method to organise descriptions of data and to use data within the limitations of any such constructive picture. We – you the physicist and I the historian – might eventually be sitting in the same boat on this course. I look at documents and tell you what has happened according to this evidence and my interpretation of the documents. You take a look at the results of experiments and interpret data the experiment has generated. You can run hundreds of these experiments to go into “big data” of statistic significance. I can go for big data in my field and explore more documents. You are not down there, between the individual particles, you are not following them as they spin on their individual courses and I am not back in the 18th century to tell you that I really saw what was happening.

Where in my work do you want me to proclaim that reality actually exists? I am doing funny work in this respect, because it might actually make sense to state that “The Illuminati really existed” – in a debate with conspiracists and an audience that feels ready to say: “OK, they are completely fictitious”.

The reality statement is otherwise no statement to make among historians, and things would become really awkward if I gave the reality affirmation with each and every statements I am about to make. My reader would interrupt me with the uncanny question whether I insisted on the reality of my statements because I feared that I am actually hallucinating.

The reality statement is as a scientific statement meaningless. It has a meaning in debates with conspiracy theorists or solipsists – yet there again it will remain dysfunctional. You cannot persuade either of these two guys with an affirmation of your belief in reality. I will again resort to the positivist’s view that we are all working with models of data. The conspiracist’s model is usually a cheap construction that subverts knowledge others have to generate. You defeat Ken Ham with a look at the poor and manipulative “knowledge” he is producing not with more and better knowledge about the evolution. (No word about the solipsist for I have not met him yet.)

Literature & Links

  • Lorraine J. Daston/ Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2010).
  • A conversation with Raymond Geuss, “A World Without Why. In which world do we live? Does the world suffer from ingrained relativism and nihilism or is it imbued with meaning after all? Philosopher Raymond Geuss talks to four by three about his latest book A World Without Why, why clarity and order can be functions of repression, constructive versus radical criticism, the meaning of life and the role of art within philosophy.” 2015

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