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Posted by Harvey on June 24, 2002 17:55:37 UTC

Hi Luis,

***L: Indeed, because your wording seems to have been quite carefully chosen, I think you might realize that agreeing to the largely accepted understanding of metaphysics -- the assumption that physics is based upon something deeper than itself -- would be quite detrimental to your position. H: "I'm not following you here. Metaphysics is an attempt to understand the underlying processes of the Universe that are not empirically at hand. All theories are dependent on metaphysical concepts since all theories are not 100% dependent on empirical confirmation". L: This is disappointing. Admitting metaphysics assumes something beyond physics would be admitting the very assumption I'm trying to examine here, and I'd likened your decision to characterize metaphysics as phenomena "in the background" of physics (as opposed to "beyond") to a sign that you do see what I'm saying.***

I still can't see what you are getting at. Metaphysics must come before physics so that you can understand and explain a process going on in nature. We cannot instantly know all there is to know about the world, hence we must try to construct explanations and 'test' those explanations in the way of empiricism and philosophical/logical review. The whole basis of Occam's razor is a means to 'test' the philosophical soundness of an idea. If we could observe every element of a theory, then why even look upon an Occam's razor, just check the microscope or telescope to do our checking. Obviously, there are just too many unverifiable processes in nature to allow us to eliminate the philosophical/logical inquiry.

***"Metaphysics is an attempt to understand the underlying processes of the Universe that are not empirically at hand." Act. React. Successful instincts propagate. If we may some day be able to enumerate what works for us on an instinctive level, does that mean there is some "knowledge" out there for us to unravel? Not in my view.***

If we took your reply to its proper implications, then we shouldn't explain anything - just act and react. We should cease explaining evolutionary processes, cosmological processes, etc. Many of these processes are unobservable and require us to construct theoretical perspectives that rely on a great deal of metaphysical concepts. What you would in effect be doing is eliminating science's ability to explain the unknown.

***>>>"Metaphysics is an attempt..." Right. "An" attempt. One way of trying. But not the only possible way.***

Correct. It is an attempt, or one possible means, etc. However, interpreting our senses as providing insight into the real processes of the world is also an attempt or one possible means by which to interpret sense data. We could ignore sense data completely and sit in a dark room in the spacestation so that our senses distract us as least as possible. It is one way to avoid our inclination to provide uncertain explanations of the world.

***"All theories are dependent on metaphysical concepts since all theories are not 100% dependent on empirical confirmation." And so we see again that you are not getting my point. The conclusion that "all theories are dependent on metaphysical concepts" is based on the premises "theory equals knowledge, and knowledge equals reality." I do not think that knowledge is an objective thing; I do not characterize "knowledge" as an outside "something" we may or may not find.***

The conclusion that "all theories are dependent on metaphysical concepts" is based on the premise that we can construct models of the world that can be partially validated by corresponding our model predictions to our observations. This is a reasonable premise. However, we know from experience that many theoretical attributes cannot be validated by finding correspondence between our model predictions and our observations. These attributes are metaphysical. We could ignore them, but as it turns out many of these attributes are absolutely necessary to provide a satisfactory explanation of the physical phenomena. In fact, even in the way we treat our sensory experiences requires that we rely on unvalidated explanations simply because it appears to be a satisfactory explanation given the phenomena in question. For example, when Galileo was promoting the heliocentric model of the solar system, he lacked a scientific explanation as to why the moon and earth could move through space at fanastic velocities without the moon being left behind (in fact, he could not explain why humans were not thrown out in space as the earth moved about in its orbit of the sun). There were no physical laws known which could explain how all this was possible. These concepts, at the time, were metaphysical attributes of the heliocentric model. Galileo was able to provide more reason for accepting the metaphysical arguments of the model once he found four moons of Jupiter, but he still could not account for the metaphysical attributes of the theory, yet the heliocentric model required that we accept the metaphysical conclusions (i.e., the earth and moon somehow stay locked in relation to each other without the velocity through space having an effect).

***H: "In addition, there are usually elements of a theory that cannot be empirically verified but must be inferred based on the success of a theory. This summarizes a great deal of the antirealist position" L: I know you're trying to identify my position here, but I'm an agnostic; I am not an antirealist. You don't characterize my position as a realist one because you assume reality can't exist unless it can be fully accounted for before it exists.***

I don't consider your view as realist since you seem to object to the use of inference to the best explanation as a practical determination of explanations which we cannot directly observe. For example, the best explanation of the solar system was the heliocentric model, however there were many attributes of this explanation that they couldn't observe in Galileo's time. Hence, this was 'knowledge' that couldn't be fully accounted for. If we limited ourselves to only non-metaphysical attributes, then we couldn't develop a theory to explain a phenomena. Rather, we should mostly reject scientific explanation altogether since most theories depend heavily on metaphysical attributes to make full sense of the explanation.

***That is, to you reality is its own explanation. But to me this is aggrandizing the concept of "explanation." In your view, I think, knowledge is perfection, therefore objective knowledge exists... and since none of us is capable of pure objectivity, then something must exist in order to do this objective knowing to begin with, right? I think you're begging the question with an assumption you cannot seem to dismiss, if even for a moment in order to consider an alternative explanation.***

I think objective truth exists up to the point of the uncertainty principle allows. That is, there are things that are true in terms of position, momentum, time, and energy up to a certain point in measurement accuracy. Prior to that point, it appears that under classical conditions this information is 'knowable'. Whether we can actually know it depends on our ability to access the information, but our knowing or lack of knowing doesn't affect what is actually the case (in a classical sense). Our metaphysical explanations or metaphysical references are not overly hindering our ability to explain the situation as it exists since we have very good reason to accept our explanations. For example, we have very good reason to accept General Relativity, so we don't need to feel hindered by the metaphysical explanations of the theory. We can believe in the theory as a good approximation of nature (i.e., as a 'truth' of the universe based on the established range of the theory) without being concerned that we are also relying on metaphysical explanations in some cases.

We can consider alternative explanations, however these alternative explanations usually go against the established theory. We can reject the established model and try to use another model, however those explanations are often unsatisfactory since they are not as parsimonious, or not as beautiful, or not as empirically adequate. If we do not pick our theories which overwhelmingly best satisfy the observations and predictions which we have successfully made, then how can science progress? Should we dump an explanation simply because it has metaphysical elements, is that what you suggest? Every successful theory of science should be dumped in that case.

***H: "By saying that we break things down a longtime after we start experiencing the world, you are much closer to understanding my position." L: I understand the 'rationale,' but I think I also understand how this 'rationale' is an irrational assumption based on our unavoidable bias. I think I understand what propels us all to feel the way you do; my suggestion is that this force is a function of simple psychology. We all have a well-established sense of "complete," "whole," "myself," etc. once we finally sit down and start discussing reality with one another. We're all very biased.***

The issue is that what do you do knowing that we are biased. Yes, I agree, humans are terribly biased and our conceptual framework has no means to proceed without this anthropic bias firmly in place. Reality might be entirely different than what our bias will allow us to understand. The interpretation of our sense impressions might be a cosmic joke. However, if this is so, how do we discount our sense impressions without becoming victim to our own good intentions? Also, why should we reject the only meaning that we have available on the mere possibility that we may be horribly incorrect? By taking our sense impressions as an more or less accurate reflections of reality, we are able to make strides in the way of improvements for our species. Why shouldn't we accept reality as we some sophisticated version of what we see on a day by day basis? Why not accept our theories as some sophisticated version of what we observe? Why not accept our metaphysical explanations as they relate to this process of obtaining meaning of our experiences? I can think of many reasons why a complete rejection of our conceptual schemes will lead us into severe trouble. However, the reasons to accept our conceptual frameworks is numerous. In addition, we have shown the ability to fix our conceptual schemes when they fail and make us intelletually dishonest. This path, in my view, is unavoidable and for better or worse we must stay on this path even if it is fraught with pitfalls.

*** Me: "In my opinion, an 'imaginary' object is just as real as a 'more-than-imaginary' object.
You: "So, what keeps the dragon in your garage from eating you right now?" Vis--vis reality, let's consider three phenomena -- (1) an ink pen, (2) looking at the ink pen, & (3) remembering looking at the ink pen. Should we take from your position that only (1) is real? Maybe you believe (1) is real, (2) is partially real, and (3) is mostly unreal? Are some things both real and unreal? What if an object can only exist as a product of the imagination (like a unicorn, or a dragon)? Is this object doubly unreal because as far as we can tell it's never fully existed as an independent, reproducing species? Strange that you should call me the "antirealist"!***

Why would you say that my views are antirealist? When we say something is 'real', we use the word in a specific context. In some contexts we might say "that was real fun". Other contexts we might say "that was a real good thing you've done", "Coke is the real thing", "real numbers are infinite", "quarks are real even though they are unobservable", etc.

If we use the term 'real', then we should probably be more specific. I was being specific when I was talking about the ontological materialist who derives all things as causally composed of some indivisible 'stuff'. If you mean to change the context of 'real' then please tell me what you have in mind. Are you saying that the term 'real' has no meaning whatsoever? If so, then how do you explain the fact that there really are lions found in Africa, but there are no fire-breathing dragons found anywhere in the world? It is obvious that some things are more real than other things. The purpose of physics and philosophy is to decide what those things (or at least a description of what our conceptual framework thinks about these things), in order to give a better account of the world.

***Not so! -- you might say -- there is more to reality than the material reality we observe. But what is the premise for this conclusion? Seems to be, "there is more to reality than material reality we observe." And this premise is based on the assumption that "since there is stuff to know, knowledge is stuff." In other words, "we know stuff, and the knowledge of this stuff was something we found. Therefore the knowledge was there to begin with."***

Again, when you talk in terms of 'material reality' you have to define what you mean (which is why it is important to have at least a description of what our conceptual framework considers to be real). If you mean that a fire-breathing dragon in your garage is part of 'material reality', then I would think you have a different notion of material things than I have. On the other hand, if you define 'material things' as stuff that you can feel with your hands, then I would think that you consider many materials as not part of the 'material reality'. Herein lies the problem for your view. You want to use the term 'material reality' as if it already has full meaning that is somehow a de facto view of what we all accept of the world as given, but this is simply not the case. Our 'knowledge' of the world is in context of our conceptual framework, including concepts such as 'material reality'. Which is why if we are to come to an understanding of the world, then we must understand our conceptual framework and the 'knowledge' that it is based on.

***In my opinion knowledge happens only when there is something to do the knowing. You might agree, but the difference lies herein: to my view, it is quite possible that reality would exist whether or not anyone were around to know it.***

I agree that reality exists whether we are here or not. The issue for me is how do we define knowledge. If we define knowledge in an ontological sense (e.g., there are facts of the world that are true and those collection of facts is the knowledge of the world), then I think knowlegde mostly exists (with a certain amount of uncertainties due to the UP). On the other hand, if we think of knowledge as what is known by some human, then knowledge is perhaps as you suggest.

***If you really want to label me as an "anti-" something, then just call me an "anti-knowist," though I'm afraid the term 'agnostic' does well enough on its own.***

An agnostic is specific to the issue of theism. Someone who is an agnostic on the truthfulness of scientific theories is an antirealist of scientific theories, on mathematical truth: antirealist on mathematical truth, etc. I'm not sure, but are confusing an antirealist with a solipsist?

***What you seek is "true knowledge," a full account of reality, which therefore cannot exist unless there is some omnipotent "knower." This is your entire argument; it assumes its own conclusion before it even begins.***

No, this is not my argument. My argument is that whatever approach you take of 'knowledge' this is part of your conceptual framework which is horribly tainted. The only means to 'untaint' your knowledge is to realize that there's nothing you can do about your tainted knowledge and just go on 'as if' you do not posssess tainted knowledge and simply correct your knowledge when you are intellectually required to do so (i.e., to remain intellectually honest). That is, you are not in a position to reject partial accounts of your tainted knowledge since you do not know what is and isn't tainted, and you are not in a position to fully reject all knowledge since you do not want to live in a dark spacestation room the rest of your life, therefore we must board Neurath's ship and rebuild our conceptual scheme one plank at a time.

Since we must make deep assumptions about the nature of the world based on what is meaningful to us, we should maintain this approach consistently throughout our voyage. We only replace a plank when we are intellectually required to do so. We always try to introduce meaningful planks (which, it if works and keeps the ship sailing, we believe are planks of truth). If the meaningful planks do not fit, then we throw that plank overboard (with a little ceremony).

As far as the agnostics, we don't throw them overboard, we just try to make them understand that if we don't try to put meaningful planks in our ship while it is sailing, we will all sink.

Warm regards, Harv

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