Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Richard Rorty Exchange Part XI

This is my response to the philosopher's post (Exchange Part X). My comments follow the **. His comments are un-starred.

** Ok let’s not fly off the handle here, it’s only reality that’s at stake. I'm sorry for the length of this, but I get anxious to defend my view.

** Two approaches at answering. The first is something new, an attempt to avoid the thrust and parry. The second is the blow-by-blow responses which I think continues the back and forth.

** First Approach:

** I wonder if there is a different way to approach this difference. After all, Rorty has engaged and parried the best philosophers on this, especially in Rorty and His Critics. So I doubt we will come to a resolution. The thrust, lunge and parry could go on and on. Now we would learn things about our beliefs and maybe modify them so I think that can be beneficial. But I wonder if there is another approach. Maybe to just clarify what the difference is and see if we can agree on the nature of that difference.

** We both think science is extraordinary and a wildly successful way to gain knowledge. We both think that talking about “discovering reality” and making a distinction between “all the evidence points to it and it seems wholly justified, but is it true?” are useful ways to think and talk. But there is a difference (and this is where we have to see if this characterizes the difference accurately) between how we regard the nature and importance of the concept/realness of “reality” or “the real.” You say we’ve got to have a robust understanding of “the real” and give reasons that argue for its robustness and, dare I say it, its reality. Otherwise we can’t understand why science and any other avenue to truth and the real works. We bang into a world out there, if you drop that notion then we lose touch with it and you (Rortians) are making believe that there is no world we bang into.

** I say, channeling Rorty, philosophers have made a valiant effort to know reality through metaphysics and ontology, debates about realism vs. anti-realism, but they’ve been unsuccessful. Let’s stop those debates about this entity that always seems to be on the other side of knowing and just continue with our inquiries and understand them as the result of social practices that produce useful or un-useful results. Scientists will still talk about discovering reality, but there isn’t much for philosophers to add to our knowledge of reality. Let's do a Wittgensteinian therapy on the need for an extra-pragmatic understanding of reality.

** Does that describe the difference?

** I’d go on to ask:

** Is there anything more to know about reality than that it stands as kind of absolute but ever unattainable goal which may or may not be correcting inquiry so that inquiry can approach it? Is there anything for philosophers to say about it – reality – beyond the various knowings of it in science, mysticism, religion, poetry, literature, history? Do the natural sciences tell us about physical reality as it is in itself and so help us with our metaphysical investigations or does science give us one extraordinarily powerful, elegant, useful, dangerous, predictively successful view of physical reality? Is there anything else for philosophers to do with reality? Can they tell us something more about It?

** You’re saying, “Hey Rorty, don’t be so fixated on the rigid, absolutistic, Platonic, Kantian-noumenal, reality. Rorty, you betray your beholdeness to absolutism in your fixation on rejecting it. Instead let’s set aside that Absolute Reality and the attempt to dismiss any discussion of Reality and talk about "reality." There is something for philosophers to contribute, that we don’t get from scientists, about that non-Absolutist reality.

** Second Approach: And here are your assertions and my response interspersed:

I'm not "satisfied that working toward agreement with my fellows" is all that science is doing and I'd venture to guess that most scientists don't see their work that way either. Most scientists view their work (at least the biologists and physicists I've read) as a kind of exploration, an adventure of discovery.

** But we’re asking philosophical questions. Scientists are usually poor philosophers. Rorty has a reply to the Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg, (in “Thomas Kuhn, Rocks and the Laws of Physics”) the only time I’ve sensed irritation in his tone, and, ironically, he defends philosophy from that scientist’s crude defense of a crude realism.

They almost expect to be surprised by the real. They wonder, ponder and nature often surprises them. It's not just playing with human models that have no ultimate reference or can't "arrive" at any reference beyond itself. I mean, do you think it makes sense to say that germ theory, gravitational theory, cell theory and any other well verified theory in science has no reference to the way things really are?

** What’s the difference between the way things are and the way things really are? I think philosophers think there is a “really are” beyond “are.” Is that “really” the too severe Reality that Rorty is hooked on or the more moderate real that you are advocating as a more reasonable view? And what is that real like? We have no idea how things “really” are but we have been successful in wondering if our current understanding fits all the evidence and, as a shorthand, saying “but is it true?”.

Of course, scientific theories don't disclose reality in any final, once and for all sense, but surely they are more correct than theories of infection that appeal to demon spirits. If Rorty were right there'd be no more sense in saying that astronomy is preferable to astrology or evolution to creationism so long as we can secure agreement that that's what reality is like from our fellows, or enough of our fellows.

** But what is the criterion for determining greater correctness? If it’s explanatory power then demon spirits could be as good within its overall weltanschauung as the theory of infection, depending on the needs of the person to retain their culture. If it’s what cures better I’d say the theory of infection. But I don’t see the use of “gets reality better” or “more like the way things are” except for rhetorical and practical purposes. But astrology is preferable to astronomy if you are trying to understand yourself and guide your life. Does astronomy do that? But if you want to predict the next eclipse or know the extent of the cosmos, I say, do astronomy. If your criterion for knowing the origin of species originates in the absolute faith in the literal words of God in the Bible then creationism is superior. My God! what better authority is there than God? I think that’s wrong, but how do I convince the believer? Steven Hales argues that we have to accept a relativism when it comes to deciding between the rational worldview, the Christian worldview and the tribal hallucinogenic spirituality worldview in Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy. Also Rorty is a Kuhnian and there is a different conception of science derived from Kuhn and the sociology of science which does not see science as a gradually more accurate representing of the real.

But the history of science is and has been a testing of models, falsification of models and re-testing against the benchmark of the real.

** Is there any more to say about the real beyond the ways we have of identifying it? Is it matter, spirit, consciousness, God, some substance, the Tao? How do we know which it is? Is it fruitful to pursue it philosophically? It’s certainly fruitful to continue describing and explaining physical reality using science. Is there a difference between what science currently tells us physical reality is like and what reality is really like?

Often, it has been the individual against the community in this regard. Scientists often don't want to see reality in a certain way, they have their own pet theories of the way things are, but if the theory unifies the disparate data in a powerful and elegant way, they can or often do come around.

** Rorty is fine with criteria such as “powerful” and “elegant.” Powerful meaning predictive, consistent with the evidence, cohering with what else we know. Those are fine criteria of science. The coming around can be explained by the adherence to certain criteria and the arising of the younger generations overturning of the older generations conceptions. The creative individual, on the margins, Einstein let's say, takes the anomalies and evidence and the applied standards of arguing and does something new. This causes a crisis for the established figures. They have to wrestle with it, to the degree that there is a democratic structure in their institution. A debate ensues, younger people (usually younger) are excited by this new approach and enter the fray. A struggle ensues. One side wins. We can say the winners have a better explanation, more of the evidence fits, old conundrums are solved (and new ones created) the old theory’s limitations are seen and it is incorporated into a better, more coherent whole. We can do more things – build atom bombs, yea! Is the world remade in the new conceptions image or do we know better what the world is really like?

Scientific theories and their verification are not at all as arbitrary and socially constructed as Rorty makes out. Rorty wants a guarantee and behind his pragmatism there may be this rhetoric of regret, fueled by his Cartesian anxiety. Knowing is taking a look for him and if he can't be supplied with the super look that will bridge the gap between theory and reality, then we're supposed to give up on knowing reality and settle for playing with models and garnering votes from our peers. But knowing is not taking a look, at least not for Aristotle. It may be for Plato. I'm not sure.

** So you’re saying that Rorty is too hung up on a crudely dichotomous, black-and-white division between Reality with a capital “r” versus not talking about Reality except as is useful in given situations which is too pale and makes no sense of science’s successes. And he misses that there is another small “r” real that is neither of those. Is there a philosophical debate about the character of that moderate real? Maybe I’ve gotten too much of my understanding of philosophy from Rorty. Who are the thinkers talking about it and what do they say it’s like? Do they distinguish old-fashioned, Reality, the noumena, what’s seen from the God’s-eye-view from this other thing called “the real” which scientists are very good at knowing and telling us about? And is this real quarks or sub-quarks or something else according to these debates?


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