How not to philosophize hammering at a keyboard

I’ve been exceptionally hectic writing up my thesis but when i’ve wanted light relief from the thought processes of babies, I spent a few idle moments thinking about the transcendental aspects of the question of existence of an objective external world. (And as many if not more surfing the internet, getting drunk or sleeping.. sometimes all three at once.) In fact these idle speculations were prompted by a question from an intimidatingly bright young spark from the cybersphere.

As for reality- I’m pretty sure that I live in the real world but I’ll just swing this idea past you:

I know reality as I see it but I am never sure if there is one objective reality- does a hypothetically objective reality exist if there is no one to see it? Does it exist to us at all if we can only internalise and experience things from our own subjective viewpoints? And if there is one objective reality would that be argument enough for the existence of a god?

Being a firm atheist I think not. I think there is a world in which we interact but that world doesn’t constitute an objective reality because all the time we are experiencing that so called objective world subjectively. Or Maybe there is an objective reality but no god? There is definitely a ‘world’ which we all inhabit but that’s different from a reality.

My answer is mercifully brief but also fairly short on actual answers

And my answer is fairly dissatisfying. In this question and in keeping with my day job as a science-dude I am a fully paid-up empiricist when it comes to questions about the universe.

At work and in general i think i make the wager with the world that it is not malicious in it’s actions and appearance. Things that we see are as them seem to be. We start with this assumption and carry on as if it were the case.. as if for some reason or another it does seem to be ‘true’.. the world does behave in an orderly way and as if was real and objective. We carry on from there and we get an incredibly long way, the cumulative successes of science all rest on that assumption and from an equally essential assumption of a system with interal consistency. and one that matches the existence of objective reality at each step of the way.

All of which boils down to the less impressive sounding “Look, it just seems to work allright? So we’re sticking with it, if that’s allright with you guv’nor”

At which point the professional philosophers are laughing up their sleeves at us crude scientists and keen amateur philosophers will think there’s half an idea attempting to get out there.

I petered out there not wishing to take that train of thought any further.. we’d all suffered enough by that stage. Best or worst of all we’ve still got the original question to be answered.

A day or so later I stumbled across a real philosopher summarizing the position i was barely articulating before. It’s rockstar-like philosopher Simon Blackburn and he explains it better but comes to an equally dissatisfying impasse regarding the inescapeably empiricist nature of the conclusion..

The questions of truth, faith, and evidence loom large in the more philosophical of these essays. On the first, Sokal accepts a version of what has become known as the “no miracles” argument for science’s claim to depict reality truly. This starts with some uncontested fact about the success of a science, such as its accuracy of prediction, or its technological application. Our lasers and our cell phones work, our materials have their calculated strengths, our predictions are borne out to extraordinary numbers of decimal places: what can explain this, except that we are getting things right, or very nearly right? Or in other words, that we are on the track of the truth? If we were not, it would be an inexplicable coincidence — a miracle — that we are so often so successful.

The argument is powerful, and I accept it. But it is not the end of the story. For we need also to wonder what it is about truth that makes it compelling. Consider any instance of scientific success. A GPS receiver tells you where you are with astonishing accuracy, based on its distance from four or more satellites orbiting the earth. How does it know those distances? It uses a time differential and the speed of light. For simplicity’s sake, let us consider only the speed of light. What, then, explains the instrument’s accuracy? Science says that the speed of light is so many meters per second, and that is the correct, or the true, value. It is the truth of the estimate that is vital to the working. If we had gotten it wrong, and not by much, the instrument would be useless.

Here truth is in the shop window, as it were. But the curious thing is that we can suggest the identical explanation without mentioning truth at all. Pick up the story right at the end. What explains the instrument’s accuracy? Science says that the speed of light is so many meters per second, and that is true, or science says that the speed of light is so many meters per second and the speed of light is so many meters per second. The second makes no mention of truth, but it works just as well to explain our success. Indeed, it has some title to being science’s own explanation of it, and that it is the best that there is. Science does not typically mention the concept of truth in describing how GPS devices work.

It is a queer thing about truth that it has this self-effacing quality. And it is not as if we have to choose which of the explanations should be preferred, the one with truth in the shop window or the one without it. They come to exactly the same thing. Many philosophers, myself included, think that this implies that the notion has a logical, rather than a metaphysical, function. A large claim such as “science gives us the truth” would be a summary way of collecting together a lot of examples such as “science says that cholera is due to a virus, and it is” and “science says that the earth circles the sun, and it does.” Since we all assent to many such examples, we can summarize our confidence by assenting to the generalization as well.

If truth retires into the shadows as an interesting topic, so do its detractors. Rorty’s campaign careens off the rails, because whether there were once dinosaurs is one thing, and whether our peers let us get away with saying so is patently something else. But evidence can occupy some of the vacuum left by any more substantive conception of truth. The problem with flat-earthers, creationists, homeopaths, and the rest is not so much that they have a duff conception of truth as that they have duff attitudes toward evidence. The problem with creationists, for example, is that they either know nothing about stratigraphical or radiometric dating of geological time, or they misunderstand them, or at the worst they have some fanciful notion that uniformities in nature are not the things to rely upon, in which case they might as well believe that they themselves and their sacred books were all created at the same time, say a couple of minutes ago.

If we cannot take what is uniformly the case within our experience as our guide for hypotheses about regions of the world beyond it, then reasons dissolve and all bets are off. Reliance on such regularity, as Hume saw, is necessary if we are to move one step beyond the immediately given; and in fact, as Kant added, it is necessary in order to think of ourselves as inhabiting a world at all. It is a necessary presupposition of thought itself. So when the creationist arbitrarily strays from relying on regularities, he must be betraying the very reasoning that he himself constantly uses.

The word “faith” raises its annoying head at this point. Is the human reliance on uniformities just as much a matter of faith as the creationist’s reliance on whatever message tells him that the earth is six thousand years old? A lot of modern writing in the theory of knowledge more or less throws in the towel and supposes that it is. Wittgenstein summed it up in his last book, On Certainty, arguing that what we would like are rock-solid foundations for our beliefs, but what we find are things that simply “stand fast” for us — and this raises the disturbing possibility of others for whom different and in our eyes deplorable things equally stand fast.

This is really only a rediscovery of Hume’s own results. But “faith” is the wrong word here, if it implies cousinship with arbitrary stabs of confidence in things for which there is no evidence. Those can, and must, be avoided, because a modest confidence in the wonderful stabilities of the world goes with our capacity to think at all.”

original to be found here..
http://www.powells.com/review/2008_08_14.html

About caspar

Caspar is just one monkey among billions. Battering his keyboard without expectations even of peanuts, let alone of aping the Immortal Bard. By day he is an infantologist at Birkbeck Babylab, by night he runs BabyLaughter.net
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