What is Reality? (2): Subject and Object
October 11, 2016
Beginning with Descartes’ cogito, discussed last week, and later developed in intricate detail by Kant, the buffered self emerges by cleaving up existence into two halves: subjects (the cogito, mind), and objects (the world around us, matter). That this philosophy has been successful is an understatement: almost everyone today can distinguish between what is subjective and what is objective, and most associate subjectivity with either personal experience or with error, and objectivity with factuality and truth. It is against this mythos that my recent philosophy argues, offering a different understanding of objectivity, and thus a different perspective on the subjective.
Both of the competing mythologies outlined in the first part, positivism and anti-realism, descend from this Enlightenment philosophy, which is responsible, among other things, for providing the contemporary sciences with their foundations and motives, and for dividing academia into arts and sciences. Positivism elevates objectivity above subjectivity, placing the truth entirely into the objective and thus valorising the sciences. Anti-realism is not the reverse of this, but picks up a different strand in Kant, who recognised that there was a rift between subjective experience and things-in-themselves, such that human subjects are cut off from reality because this noumenal world of objects (as Kant termed it) is completely unknowable through sense perception.
All contemporary views of reality respond to Kant in some way. For instance, object-oriented ontology positions itself as a substantial break from Kant who is accused of correlationism. This is a purported error that speculative realist Quentin Meillassoux characterised as the idea that we only have access to the correlation between thought and being, but never to either considered in isolation. According to Graham Harman, whose work is the wellspring of the object-oriented ontology movement, objects are withdrawn from one another; the Kantian rift between subject and object thus applies between all objects, not just human subjects, a philosophy he develops from Heidegger. Nothing has access to the real, which is always beyond the rift (a term that I am borrowing here from object-oriented ontologist Timothy Morton).
This is a fascinating attempt to break from both anti-realism (by decentralising the thinking subject) and positivism (by keeping the real always out of reach), but it is clearly a sophisticated extension of Kantian noumena, and not a break from it. Reality is still just-out-of-reach for the object-oriented ontologists, it is just that it is so for everything, and not just for humans. Reality is cloaked in obscurity, and thus the only kind of realism that is plausible must find clever ways to speculate (hence, speculative realism). There is an excess of the real, always beyond reach, and this limitation on access to reality applies for all things.
Contact with Reality
At the turn of the twentieth century, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was struggling to incorporate the new discoveries of physics (relativity and quantum mechanics) into a philosophy of reality, and modified Kant in a different way. Reworking Kant’s foundational Critique of Pure Reason, Whitehead suggested that all entities encounter each other through a process of contact he termed prehension. When you put an apple upon a table, the apple prehends the table and the table prehends the apple, while you prehend both through your hand and vision.
Whitehead was an influence upon Harman, and in Whitehead’s extension of Kant’s philosophy to all things, we can see the commonality. But Whitehead offers the opposite move to expanding the Kantian rift, suggesting that our sense experiences are objective, and that subjectivity only comes in when we interpret those experiences into subjective forms. Again, we’re working with Kant’s toolbox, but Whitehead’s claim that sense impressions are objective is a radical break since it downplays the importance of the rift.
Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor look to Heidegger for a very different path to Harman’s. If object-oriented ontology has correlationism as its bugbear, for Dreyfus and Taylor it is mediational theories, which all descend from Descartes’ splitting of the world into subject and object. Against this, they suggest that Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the later work of Wittgenstein suggest a contact theory in which there is:
…a re-embedding of thought and knowledge in the bodily and social-cultural contexts in which it takes place. The attempt is to articulate the framework or context within which our explicit depictions of reality make sense, and to show how this is inseparable from our activity as the kind of embodied, social, and cultural beings we are. The contact here is… something primordial, something we never escape. It is the contact of living, active beings, whose life form involves acting in and on a world which also acts on them. These beings are at grips with a world and each other; this original contact provides the sense-making context for all their knowledge constructions, which, however much they are based on mediating depictions, rely for their meaning on this primordial and indissoluble involvement of the surrounding reality.
Like Whitehead, Dreyfus and Taylor downplay the significance of the rift. They, however, run into problems when they try to incorporate the work of the sciences into their scheme, and are forced to afford scientific investigation a rather special status when they say “You can't explain [science] to anyone while avoiding all such words as ‘true,’ ‘correct,’ ‘real,’...” This for me, as for other commentators on their book Retrieving Realism (e.g. Eric Gerlach), is a substantial weak point in their otherwise brilliant critique of mediational theories.
In Wikipedia Knows Nothing, I back Dreyfus and Taylor’s contact theories of reality – we, and indeed all things, are in contact with the reality we live within – but I resolve the question of the sciences through Isabelle Stengers’ concept of a reliable witness. The sciences are engaged in translation of the knowledge of objects – it is this which deserves the name objective knowledge, and viewed this way it entails no magical road to truth (as Plato effectively claimed philosophers possessed, and positivists sometimes imply scientists possess). The strength of the sciences lie in their capacity to develop apparatus that resist objections, and this is subtly different from understanding their assertions as real or true.
If we are all in contact with the realities we live within, but different things prehend each other in different ways, then we live in a multiverse, an idea offered by William James at the end of the nineteenth century; an each-form of reality, instead of an all-form. Dreyfus and Taylor talk of plural realism to make a similar point, and I have developed the same idea from the work of novelist Michael Moorcock (from whom the physicists inherited the term ‘multiverse’ in a rather different sense). Rather than associating reality with that excess beyond anything’s ability to encounter, we can place reality right here with us, in contact with all things, yet being experienced differently, and yes, ultimately mediated by imagined worlds – but worlds that can only be understood by virtue of our living within them.
Viewing reality as a multiverse does not mean denying any claim of the real, as anti-realism attempts, but acknowledging the different ways of being in contact with reality. It means acknowledging different real worlds instead of making reality a grail that it always just out of reach. If this feels alien, it is because we are accustomed to the modern scheme of belief and reality, subject and object, which presumes – following the long tradition descending from Plato – a single true universe, a unitary reality. Kant’s rift between this and the subject, whether or not it is extended to all things, is not incorrect, it just places the emphasis in the wrong place. Yes, there is an excess of the real, but it is just as much present in the different contact that all things have with reality as it is hidden beyond them.
For more about what it means to live in a multiverse, my new book Wikipedia Knows Nothing is available from ETC Press as a free PDF, or from Lulu as a paid paperback or ebook.
The opening image is a painting by Romanian artist Veres Szabolcs; I am uncertain of the title, but I found it here, on a list of emerging painters at the Modern Edition website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.
I don't think I'm equipped yet to usefully grapple with the multiverse > single-objective-universe proposal for bridging Kant's rift.
Naturally that won't stop me from babbling about it anyway. :)
As I read this essay, I suspected you might be going in the direction of trying to find a good answer to the reality/perception question by appealing to what might be called a "two heads are better than one" tactic: that an accurate perception of the single real universe depends on multiple observers communicating about their perceptions and declaring as "true" only those perceptions on which they achieve substantial agreement. This adds the problem of communication quality, but in return you get a mechanism for minimizing the subjectivity of individual perception of reality.
On the other hand, this takes science in what I think is a dangerous direction: the notion that reality is subject to consensus belief. The frequent claim that "97% of scientists agree that global warming is happening" is an example of this. I'm not arguing either way on the subject of this belief; what concerns me is where this kind of belief leads, as it implies that a sufficient agreement among the perceptions of some experts makes it acceptable to declare, "Reality is now understood and no objections to that understanding will be tolerated." The multiple-perception solution to Kant's rift, in other words, risks becoming anti-science. The parts of reality that could be known are marked as off-limits in order to protect what is currently believed to be known.
Does the multiverse solution not also risk this same effect, because it also depends on multiple perceptions for minimizing flaws in and limits on individual perception? When multiple perceptions of reality conflict (if they can), how are those conflicts to be resolved? Or is such resolution not required?
I wouldn't glorify it by calling it a solution to the problem described above. But over the years I have come to work out a kind of practical framework for grappling with the question of the quality of knowledge of reality.
I mention this because you might find it an interesting perspective on this important point you made:
"The strength of the sciences lie in their capacity to develop apparatus that resist objections, and this is subtly different from understanding their assertions as real or true."
My approach for dealing with that subtle (but important) difference actually springs in part from Keirsey's temperament theory. Thinking about the problems I'd seen in some of the behaviors of INTJs, who often become scientists, it seemed to me that they got into trouble most frequently because they believe that it's possible (and, for them, necessary) to see parts of reality as logical, mathematical Truth. They seek to prove theories to mark these truths as inarguable. But that leads to problems both scientific and personal when new information comes to light that contradicts their desired perception of reality.
The alternative, I thought, to "scientific thinking" is "engineering thinking." Rather than believing in the existence of a single Truth and trying to prove it, engineering thinking accepts limits on the human -- individual or shared -- comprehension of reality and seeks only knowledge within a declared margin of error. In that mindset, "doing science" becomes the more humble (slower but better achievable) project of understanding and reducing the many margins of error.
And I mention this because the engineering mindset promotes Popper's "disproof" approach to science: disproving multiple theories more effectively resists objections than attempting to prove a single theory. Engineering is better science.
More specifically, to the point of your essay, I wonder whether the engineer's tolerance of error in understanding reality more effectively addresses the problem of the rift between what is real and what can be perceived than the scientist's belief that Truth can be known.
My guess is that the error-tolerant perspective doesn't so much contradict a multiverse description of perceived reality as make it unnecessary. It says, "There may be a rift between what is and what can be accurately understood, but that gap is simply a product of the human brain only being able to form and hold models of reality rather than its totality. It is not possible for humans, individually or in cooperation, to fully eliminate that gap either philosophically or practically. So don't accept that as a project. Instead, accept that our models will inherently always be flawed with a margin of error as an inescapable consequence of the limited nature of human existence, and focus instead on reducing that margin of error to simply approximate reality as good enough."
If philosophy can describe science's relationship to truth, what is philosophy's take on engineering's margin-of-error relationship to reality?
I haven't worded this very articulately in a comment tapped over the course of an hour or so into a phone. ;) But I hope the gist of it comes through and that it may have a little value. Thank you for writing about these ideas in a way that encourages even amateurs to participate.
Posted by: Bart Stewart | October 12, 2016 at 06:21 PM
Science vs. engineering in the context of reality is a great riff, and one that I don't see expressed very often! I love your way of putting this; the idealistic view of truth of the 'Scientist' (=INTJ) against the pragmatic view of the 'Engineer' (=INTP?)... this speaks to me, perhaps as much as anything because Temperament theory is a model that I find a very useful shorthand. I myself type primarily as INTJ (although border on INFJ), and I think that's precisely why I have delved into these questions of truth with such vigor. The standard solutions don't satisfy me, and I'm not good at taking the practical stance of the 'Engineer' - although I'm learning with age! :)
Let me pick through some of your other specific points...
"I don't think I'm equipped yet to usefully grapple with the multiverse > single-objective-universe proposal for bridging Kant's rift."
Read Wikipedia Knows Nothing if you want to try. It's short and the PDF is free; I think that should set you up to understand my proposal in broadstrokes. I develop it further in Chaos Ethics but that is a more substantial undertaking!
"Does the multiverse solution not also risk [consensus effects], because it also depends on multiple perceptions for minimizing flaws in and limits on individual perception? When multiple perceptions of reality conflict (if they can), how are those conflicts to be resolved? Or is such resolution not required?"
You might be approaching the multiverse as if it were a universe, which is understandable as we are inculcated into the universe perspective. In a multiverse, you have to distinguish between what resists objections in any world and what does not travel between worlds, or cannot travel through all worlds, at least. But this is too complex a point for me to bring out here. The key point is that the knowledge of objects (objective knowledge) is a subset of the kinds of knowledge, and all knowledge attains that state by being founded upon reliability. Again WKN is the place to look at this idea.
Reality is not a matter of consensus: that only makes sense in a universe, never in a multiverse. Conflicts between worlds will occur, but where they do not concern the knowledge of objects there is little expectation that they will require resolution. What matters is knowledge - reliable practices. The universe mythos invites us to reconcile all observations, and that means some experiences or claims become excluded from some perspectives, because we're trying to make one single vision. What I'm proposing doesn't resolve everything into one totality at all, and each disagreement can be understand as a boundary dispute between worlds. Knowledge is not propositional, it is always a practice - and reliable practices can't disagree, even if what we say about them can.
"If philosophy can describe science's relationship to truth, what is philosophy's take on engineering's margin-of-error relationship to reality?"
For me, the science-as-truth mythos fails to capture what scientists are good at all; the universe mythos that underpins it misleads here, even though it too has some truth to it. The engineering take, as you describe it, involves more of the reliability of knowledge to it. Perhaps this is just theory versus practice, and indeed many scientists are involved in theory practice more than anything practical. But of course, the two relate: when scientists succeed in what they are good at (which, following Isabelle Stengers, is 'making objects talk') they set up engineers to acquire new skills, new knowledge-practices. The mistake is in elevating the scientists above the engineer, of mistaking scientists for prophets. That distorts their actual talents quite considerably.
Alas, that's all I have time for - but thank you for an extremely stimulating comment. And I encourage you to have a go at WKN: it's short, and the PDF is free. I'd be very interested in your take upon its core ideas, which I am still wrestling with myself! Good philosophy, like good science, raises fresh questions and opens further investigations. ;)
All the best,
Posted by: Chris | October 15, 2016 at 09:26 AM
i would argue that Descartes' cogito ergo sum usualy translated as i think therefore i am, should be more correctly translated as i know therefore i am, as the latin cogito (compare to cognition, cognitive process) is related to knowing instead of just thinking. Thinking as a process of knowing.
In the french form of the aphorism, the term pense is used which is translated as think, etymologicaly is plausible (further investigation and anaylis on this are more than welcomed) to be derived from with wisdom, or with knwoledge, i.e pe+n+sa.
In any case, i would say that i know therfore i am would the correct form and meaning of the aphorism
On a sidenote, there is a philosophy/methodology (for physical sciences) advanced (see for example "Principle of Representation-Theoretic Self-Duality", S.Majid, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/S_Majid/publication/243587516_Principle_of_Representation-Theoretic_Self-Duality/links/54cdff510cf24601c08e912e.pdf?origin=publication_detail) where a necessary requirement (i would personaly say a compatibility condition) for representation (theory) is to be isomorphic (or self-dual) to the object it refers to (one can say a faithful representation). And this is linked to various forms of Pontryagin-like duality (which is just intersting in itself).
Posted by: Nikos M. | October 26, 2016 at 12:56 PM
(a way to provide response and let the original author notified would be great to have, anyway)
As reading Bart's comment (with which i agree on many things), it would be good to know that indeed this approach has been active (for example "Science as a Higher Superstition", "Science as Social Construct", and so on), mostly (but not only) by social theorists.
Furthermore, everyone is a scientist (we carry out a bunch of experiments every day for crying out loud here), so delegating this ability and knowledge of ours into a "higher authority" would not be good. Remember that consensus (even scientific consensus) IS NOT part of the scientific method. Dont let anyone tell you otherwise.
Some say, i believe in science. Wrong! Science (true science) is NOT to be believed, it is to be understood and experienced. And if it is false you just throw it away (paraphrasing physicist Niels Bohr here)
All the best,
Posted by: Nikos M. | October 26, 2016 at 01:10 PM
You are correct about the Descartes translation - but I stuck with the form for which this thought is best-known, as this was only supposed to be a short piece and I didn't want to get too weighed down with technicalities. (I probably failed, but I always try!).
Regarding 'I believe in Science'... there is something of a nonreligion that makes claims of this kind, but to make any such claim you must create an extremely abstract thing that fits this role 'Science'. That's why I stopped talking about Science and started talking about 'the sciences' instead. It struck me as the only honest way of approaching the topic. 'Belief in Science', in the sense that the nonreligion requires, is not 'belief in the results of the knowledge-practices of scientists', per se, as it is faith in the 'power of Science' and also 'the power of Truth'. This is a very metaphysical faith, something first criticised by Nietzsche.
Thanks for your comments!
Posted by: Chris | October 28, 2016 at 11:45 AM
Believe in science (or sciences) is meant as what belief is meant and practised. There is a definite practice of belief, i would say blind belief. Belief is only blind (not allowed reconsideration and so on), else it is just estimation, or guess, or a goal and so on. But these are not beliefs, in the sense that they are not practised as such. In this sense the comment had the meaning that science (or sciences) are not to be believed, but understood and experienced --for as long as this holds, and if it doesnt simply dispose of them, disregard them, drop them--. Something that is not allowed (if i can use such a term) in belief (it is neither necesary to be understood, nor experienced, nor revised).
Note that this does not mean that one should not have strong views. It stands to reason that views that are indeed verified, are and should be somewhat strong (and biologicaly important for living among others). And they have to be understood and experienced. And one should be able to also drop them strongly if they are found to not hold, or not hold any more.Superstistion, Stevie Wonder (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CFuCYNx-1g)
Posted by: Nikos M. | October 28, 2016 at 03:32 PM
As i read and re-read the article and comments, i have a question. Maybe it is answered elsewhere or not even relevant, this is for you to say Chris.
How is the multiverse approach to (objective knowledge of) reality, related --if indeed-- to the many-worlds interpretation of (current) quantum mechanics?
Posted by: Nikos M. | October 28, 2016 at 04:23 PM
The only connection between my use of a phenomenal multiverse and the physicists Many Worlds interpretation is that both got the word 'multiverse' from novelist Michael Moorcock. There the connection ends. The way I am using the term is older, though, and can also be traced through the work of William James. I therefore claim 'home field advantage.' ;)
Note also that by Popper's milestone the Many World's interpretation would be excluded from the sciences and treated as metaphysics. Since this is how Intelligent Design and various other things are currently excluded, there is an interesting debate here that no-one is having. (I owe my thoughts on this to Cathy Bryant, who first introduced me to philosophy).
Full discussion on the differences between the two concepts of 'multiverse' can be found in Chaos Ethics, although it's a chunky read that one!
Thanks for asking about this,
Posted by: Chris | October 31, 2016 at 06:42 AM
i see Chris, although (at least) me have a (practical) refutation of that interpretation, Maybe Popper can be revised a bit? ;) In any case it is good to clarify further on this and point to your book which addresses this subject in more detail.
Posted by: Nikos M. | October 31, 2016 at 05:05 PM