Science and What Exists

To make the transition to Einstein’s universe, the whole conceptual web whose strands are space, time, matter, force, and so on, had to be shifted and laid down again on nature whole.

—Thomas Kuhn

One problem metaphysicians have been dealing with for, well, forever, is the unfortunately necessary intertwining of metaphysics and epistemology. Metaphysics is the philosophical study of what exists; epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge. And it’s trivial to point out that the best we can do in detailing what there is that exists is to rely on our best epistemology: We can’t talk about what we know about, without talking about what (and how) we know. If we know about quarks, it’s not simply the case that quarks exist, but that we figured out that they exist. Our catalogue of items in the universe is inherently tied to our knowledge of those items.

Why is this problematic? Well, many metaphysicians are very conscious and conscientious about keeping existence separate from knowledge of existence. Much of the problem can be traced back to the venerable Bishop Berkeley, who posited that everything in the universe in actually mind-dependent for its very existence — it’s not, Berkeley thought, just that the computer screen in front of you is merely hidden from view when you close your eyes, but that this lack of observation actually means the computer screen is not really there when your eyes are closed. Problems with this theory forced Berkeley to say that God observes everything at all times, and so there’s no worry about things blinking in and out of existence with the blink of an eye. God never blinks. But regardless of the absurdity of this centuries-old bit of philosophy, the aftershocks have stayed with us. There’s something very compelling, apparently, about the idea that our minds have metaphysical power — that minds can create some of reality.

The great irony is that the best scientifically-minded philosophers of the 20th Century, while trying to shore up the mind-independence of the external world, actually gave proponents of mind-dependence a strong foothold in the metaphysical debate.

Naturalized epistemology — the brain child of W.V.O. Quine, though it was clearly anticipated hundreds of years earlier by David Hume — takes science to be the paragon of knowledge-farming; the discipline whose results we are most certain about. Naturalism, though, if we accept it, forces us also to acknowledge the following: We can’t make judgements about the world from some point of privileged access outside of science. That is, there is no way to step outside science and see what there is in the world; we don’t get a clearer picture of quarks without science — science itself tells us about quarks, and without science this piece of ontological furniture would not be accessible to us whatsoever. Our metaphysical house, chock full of interesting furniture, wouldn’t merely look somewhat different without science; it would be a bare, dirt-floored cabin with very little of interest in it.

This leads to a very tantalizing point. Science often changes its mind, and in such episodes of change what we take to be our ontology (our catalogue of things that exist) changes as well. For instance, once upon a time science told us that there was a substance called phlogiston that is released from things when they are burned. This substance — a consequence of a good scientific theory that explained several phenomena related to chemistry — was taken by scientists (and the informed public) as existing in the world. If science is our best arbiter of what exists, then, at the time during which science told us that phlogiston existed, there’s a strong sense in which it actually existed. Science, remember, tells us what there is, and there’s not privileged perspective outside of science to figure out our metaphysics. It turned out, however, that the phlogiston theory of chemistry ran into serious problems, and was more or less wholesale replaced by the oxygen theory of Lavoisier. In this new theory, there was no place for phlogiston. At this point, science told us that phlogiston does not exist.

There are (at least) two conclusions that can be drawn from this, each of which I will encapsulate using the Kuhnian metaphor at the top of this entry:

Standard Naturalism: The whole of science forms a conceptual web from which vantage point we purvey the world. There is no spot outside of the web from which to purvey the world. We can change science by changing some part of the web — this amounts to changing our ideas about an unchanging world. The world is independent of our ideas about it, even as we discover new ways to look at what exactly is in it. For instance, we were simply wrong about the existence of phlogiston. It never existed.

Kuhnian Mutant Naturalism: A scientific theory is a conceptual web that uniquely lays upon the world giving it its shape. When a new theory is developed, an entirely new web is made. There is still no place outside of the web from which to purvey the world, but we can shuck off the entire web in favor of a new one. The world is partly dependent for its existence on our ideas about it — whichever web we throw onto the world actually gives the world its shape. When we change our ideas, we change the world. For instance, phlogiston actually did exist while scientists were working with phlogiston theory. When Lavoisier came up with a new chemical theory, the world actually changed — phlogiston disappeared, and in its place oxygen and other items filled our metaphysical cupboards.

Many have noted from Kuhn’s version of naturalism that he is an anti-realist in the Kantian vein. We won’t get into the thickets of Kantian metaphysics here, but, in short, he believes that our ideas are not merely a pre-condition for theorizing about things, but that theorizing indeed is a pre-condition for the very existence of things. Contrary to this, standard naturalism usually goes hand in hand with common-sense and scientific realism, wherein, as Philip Kitcher notes: “Trivially, there are just the entities there are. When we succeed in talking about anything at all, these entities are the things we talk about, even though our ways of talking about them may be radically different.”

One reason Kuhn is led to his odd metaphysics is because of his implicit description theory of reference. On a description theory, the only way to correctly refer to an entity is to have its unique description in mind; but if a scientific revolution changes the description associated with a key scientific term, then the old description no longer refers. This leads Kuhn to the idea that competing scientific paradigms are incommensurable. It also motivates his metaphysics. If a term once referred and now it does not, all on the basis of our changing descriptions, then by some inferential jump one could think that this correlation was causal; i.e., that our changing descriptive thoughts cause a change in the world.

We’ll examine description theories and the philosophy of language in an upcoming post. Stay tuned…

Cartesian Skepticism

Welcome to the blog’s first foray into epistemology: the philosophical study of knowledge. Today we will be talking about René Descartes, who will be ensconced in infamy for two feats: creating a system of geometry that would annoy high school students for hundreds of years to come, and for presaging “The Matrix”. Much as I actually liked high school geometry, I would like here to talk about the Cartesian skepticism of the external world that made so many science fiction movies possible.

For those of you who haven’t yet read Descartes’ famous Meditations on First Philosophy (mostly referenced plainly as the Meditations), what are you waiting for? Here’s an old translation into English to get you started. There are also approximately a billion print versions available on Amazon, in case you want a more contemporary translation, along with the ability to scribble in the margins.

The Meditations start with Descartes recounting the none-too-astounding realization that he had been wrong about some things as a youngster.

Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences.

So his project in the Meditations was very much foundational. Descartes wanted to tear down all things that passed for knowledge, in order to find a kernel of certainty, from which he would build back up a magnificent structure of infallible knowledge. Those of you who remember high school geometry might be having nightmarish flashbacks at this point, remembering how the subject was built up from just a few, allegedly very certain axioms. The axioms were the firm, unassailable foundation upon which the science of geometry was built. Descartes had similar plans for every other science and in fact every human epistemological endeavor.

His method was, simply enough, to sit comfortably in his pajamas and begin doubting everything that he possibly could doubt. The first victim of his skepticism was his senses. “All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.” A pretty reasonable place to start doubting things. After all, there are a million and one ways in which we are regularly deceived by our senses: optical illusions abound, hallucinations occasionally crop up, and physical ailments of the eyes and brain can cause misperceptions.

But there’s an even more radical skepticism that can crop up from this line of thought. What if it’s not just the case that the senses deceive, but that they don’t exist at all? Take this picture of the human knowledge machine:

Beach ball on the inner screen

On this picture (which, I think, is a pretty sound depiction of what philosophers of that age thought, and indeed is still how a lot of people picture the mind), the only reliable access to knowledge is via an inner screen that has projected upon it images of the external world. The screen here is inside the brain/mind, and the little person viewing the screen is one’s consciousness. If the senses exist, then sometimes they project something misleading on the inner screen, and this gives rise to optical illusions and hallucinations. But on this picture, a skeptic could go so far as to say that the senses might be fictional. If all we have access to is this inner screen, then we just can’t be sure from where its images come. Maybe they come from the senses, and maybe they don’t. Of course, given that there were really no computers or any decent science fiction at the time, the only 17th Century source that would be powerful enough to accomplish this illusory feat would be God. But since God is supposed to be omnibenevolent, and would therefore not deceive us in this way, Descartes conjured up a reasonable facsimile of sci-fi for the time, and said that perhaps there is an evil demon who deceives each of us in this way.

Evil Demon at work deceiving us

Well, that’s a lot of doubt, and a lot of the world’s furniture that has suddenly become dispensable. Stones, trees, and cats might not exist. Neither might other people, for that matter. Descartes found himself at this point in an extremely solipsistic position. He might be the only person in the universe. And this person might not even have a body.

At this point, Descartes took some certainty back from the skeptical vortex into which he was falling. He might not have a body, but if he was indeed being deceived by some evil demon, then he was being deceived. “I am, I exist,” he concluded. And each time he thinks this (or anything else, for that matter), his existence is assured.

At this point, we could veer off into metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, and discuss the ontological corollary to this barely optimistic offramp of the Cartesian skeptical superhighway: Dualism. According to Descartes’ theory, the mind is not necessarily connected to a body; that is, it is logically possible for a mind to exist without a brain.

But let’s save this subject for another post. Now, let’s examine where Cartesian skepticism has taken us, epistemologically.

Skepticism of the external world is a very strong philosophical position. It is really quite difficult to debate a skeptic on matters of epistemology, because the default answer of “but can you really know that the external world exists” is very defensible. Try it out for yourself:

Me: This iPhone is great.
You: If it exists.
Me: What do you mean? I’m holding the thing in my hand!
You: You think you are. Maybe you’re dreaming.
Me: I know the difference between a dream and reality.
You: You think you do. But maybe you’re in a dream, and in that dream you dream that you’re awake, but really you’re still just dreaming.
Me: Oh, come on. That leads to an absurd infinite regress of dream states.
You: Well, it’s still possible. And anyway, you could be living in a computer simulation. Or you could be crazy and hallucinating all of this. In any event, you can’t know for sure that you’re holding an iPhone in your hand. You can know that you have an image of holding an iPhone in your mind. Therefore your mind exists. Does that make you feel better?

And you have won the debate!

The Way Out

So do we have to just give in to the skeptic? Is there no hope for those of us who would like to assume the existence of stones, trees, and cats? Real ones… not just images of them in our minds.

Well, yes, there is. It’s called Naturalized Epistemology (or just “naturalism”), and it was foreshadowed by David Hume way back in 1748. I’ll quote a lengthy passage, because it’s so beautifully crafted:

For here is the chief and most confounding objection to excessive scepticism, that no durable good can ever result from it; while it remains in its full force and vigour. We need only ask such a sceptic, What his meaning is? And what he proposes by all these curious researches? He is immediately at a loss, and knows not what to answer. A Copernican or Ptolemaic, who supports each his different system of astronomy, may hope to produce a conviction, which will remain constant and durable, with his audience. A Stoic or Epicurean displays principles, which may not be durable, but which have an effect on conduct and behaviour. But a Pyrrhonian cannot expect, that his philosophy will have any constant influence on the mind: or if it had, that its influence would be beneficial to society. On the contrary, he must acknowledge, if he will acknowledge anything, that all human life must perish, were his principles universally and steadily to prevail. All discourse, all action would immediately cease; and men remain in a total lethargy, till the necessities of nature, unsatisfied, put an end to their miserable existence. It is true; so fatal an event is very little to be dreaded. Nature is always too strong for principle. And though a Pyrrhonian may throw himself or others into a momentary amazement and confusion by his profound reasonings; the first and most trivial event in life will put to flight all his doubts and scruples, and leave him the same, in every point of action and speculation, with the philosophers of every other sect, or with those who never concerned themselves in any philosophical researches. When he awakes from his dream, he will be the first to join in the laugh against himself, and to confess, that all his objections are mere amusement, and can have no other tendency than to show the whimsical condition of mankind, who must act and reason and believe; though they are not able, by their most diligent enquiry, to satisfy themselves concerning the foundation of these operations, or to remove the objections, which may be raised against them.

So, the idea (if you had a hard time navigating the old-school English), is that if skepticism of the external world is true, it leaves one in the unenviable position of nothing mattering. It is not a stance from which one can do any productive theorizing about science, philosophy, or, well, anything except for one’s own mind. (And even that bit of theorizing will stop at the acknowledgement of one’s inner screen accessible to consciousness.)

Do we have a stance from which we can do productive theorizing about things? Assuming that science is generally correct about the state of the world is a good start! After all, science has some of the smartest people in the world (if they and the world exist) applying the most stringent thinking and experimentation known to humanity. And science assumes the existence of things like stones, trees, and cats — things that exist in the world, not merely as ideas in our minds.

Here’s one of the more interesting perspectives on subverting skepticism, from Peter Millican at Oxford:

The gist of the video is that there are two ways to argue every issue. In the case of skepticism of the external world, you can argue, like a naturalist, that you know that stones, trees, and cats are real, therefore you know that there is an external world; or, like a skeptic, you could argue that we don’t know that there is an external world, therefore you don’t know that stones, trees, and cats exist. They are really quite equally plausible strategies, from a strictly logical point of view. And in both cases you have to assume something to be the case in order to get to your desired conclusion. So do you want to assume that you don’t know there’s an external world, or would you rather assume that you know that stones, trees, and cats exist? Your choice.

If you choose the skeptical path, I hope you’ll choose to pass your solipsistic time entertaining dreams of this blog.