The critical realists — Roy Bhaskar in particular — attach a great deal of importance to the question of ontology. A theory of ontology should describe the kinds of things, relations, and forces that exist in a realm. So the pre-Socratic philosophers were engaging in ontological theorizing when they asked the question, what does matter consist of — atoms or a plenum?
The question I am raising here is one of philosophical methodology: what kind of epistemic basis is available for formulating and defending a theory of ontology? How can we claim to know various truths about the nature of reality?
There seem to be three possibilities.
- Apriori philosophical argument: derive conclusions about the necessary structure of the world from apriori philosophical principles. This is traditional metaphysics, and few philosophers would advocate for it today. (foundationalist theory)
- Transcendental philosophical argument: arrive at conclusions about what the world must consist of, in order to make sense of our cognitive abilities. This is Kantian metaphysics, which attempts to do without foundational assumptions and to derive conclusions from the prerequisites of epistemic achievements we are known to have. (internalist theory)
- Generalized empirical theorizing: all substantive representations of the world are hypothetical, justified by the contribution they make to our ability to formulate good, empirically supported scientific theories. This is the approach taken by naturalistic philosophers, who maintain that there are no apriori truths and the only vehicle we have for discovering the nature of the world is through scientific imagination and observation. (coherence theory)
Ontology appears to be about the world; but equally it might be considered to be about a set of particularly fundamental concepts and conceptual structures. The question, “What does the world consist of?” can also be presented as the question, “What concepts serve best to represent the hypothetical structure of the world underlying observations?” Concepts are the intellectual tools or schemes through which we analyze the world; and if they refer to unobservable entities, they are unavoidably hypothetical constructs. As “knowing beings”, it has been necessary for human beings to use their imaginations to come up with concepts in terms of which to analyze the world. Some conceptual systems are defective because they lead to expectations about the world that are not born out; other systems are more complex than necessary; yet others postulate entities or processes that we may have reason to want to avoid: magical forces, divine intervention, action-at-a-distance. And when we arrive at a conceptual scheme that appears to serve well as a durable basis for a range of scientific theories, we may want to conclude that the world actually has the properties attributed to it by the scheme.
Nelson Goodman takes a fairly radical view on this question in Ways of Worldmaking. He takes the example of two apparently inconsistent statements about the world: “The sun always moves” and “The sun never moves.” And he points out that the statements must be framed within one or another frame of reference; they are not absolutely true or false, but rather true or false with respect to a frame.
Frames of reference, though, belong less to what is described than to systems of description; and each of the two statements relates what is described to such a system. If I ask about the world, you can offer to tell me how it is under one or more frames of reference; but if I insist that you tell me how it is apart from all frames, what can you say? We are confined to ways of describing whatever is described. Our universe, so to speak, consists of these ways rather than of a world or of worlds. (58)
Here is the conclusion that Goodman reaches that is most relevant to the topic of realism:
Many different world-versions are of independent interest and importance, without any requirement or presumption of reducibility to a single base. The pluralist, far from being anti-scientific, accepts the sciences at full value. His typical adversary is the monopolistic materialist or physicalist who maintains that one system, physics, is preeminent and all-inclusive, such that every other version must eventually be reduced to it or rejected as false or meaningless. If all right versions could somehow be reduced to one and only one, that one might with some semblance of plausibility be regarded as the only truth about the only world. But the evidence for such reducibility is negligible, and even the claim is nebulous since physics itself is fragmentary and unstable and the kind and consequences of reduction envisaged are vague. (59-60)
The philosophical position I am invoking here is also a key part of W.V.O. Quine’s approach to empirical knowledge in Word and Object. His phrase, the “web of belief”, captures the idea well. All real knowledge falls within that web, and it is held together only by observation (when statements have implications for outcomes that can be observed) and logic. The premises of quantum mechanics are some distance from the observational and experimental sentences that can be examined in the lab; and the premises of metaphysical theory are even more distant. But they are all dependent on the same kinds of requirements: simplicity, coherence, and (when possible), empirical observation. Quine referred to “Neurath’s boat” as a way of describing the state of our knowledge of the world — from the observable properties of coal to the fundamentals of time and space:
Neurath has likened science to a boat which, if we are to rebuild it, we must rebuild plank by plank while staying afloat in it. The philosopher and the scientist are in the same boat. If we improve our understanding of ordinary talk of physical things, it will not be by reducing that talk to a more familiar idiom; there is none. It will be by clarifying the connections, causal or otherwise, between ordinary talk of physical things and various further matters which in turn we grasp with help of ordinary talk of physical things. (3)
Analyze theory-building how we will, we all must start in the middle. Our conceptual firsts are middle-sized, middle-distanced objects, and our introduction to them and to everything comes midway in the cultural evolution of the race…. We cannot strip away the conceptual trappings sentence by sentence and leave a description of the objective world; but we can investigate the world, and man as a part of it, and thus find out what cues he could have of what goes on around him. (4-5)
(Quine’s participation in the Boolos panel above is a very good exposure to some of his thinking about meaning and concepts.)
It is perhaps surprising to invoke Goodman and Quine in the context of reflections on critical realism, since their philosophies are anti-realistic (or at least agnostic between realism and anti-realism), and the logical-positivist background of much their thinking is anathema to the critical realists. Moreover, both lend support to a certain kind of conceptual relativism: Quine through his arguments about the indeterminacy of translation and ontological relativity (Ontological Relativity), and Goodman through his view of “many worlds” in Ways of Worldmaking. This perspective doesn’t necessarily commit one to anti-realism; in fact, Hilary Putnam’s effort to create a defensible formulation of “internal realism” indicates one possible direction of argument towards realism from these premises. (Maria Baghramian’s discussion in “From Realism Back to Realism” of Putnam’s various positions on realism is very good; link.) But it is difficult to see how one could arrive at a strong philosophical realism within these epistemic constraints.
However, if these arguments on the limits of metaphysical reasoning are valid, then we need to acknowledge these limits and move forward. Fundamentally, the core of their position seems unassailable: there is no epistemic foundation possible outside the loose constraints of empirical observation and logic that can justify a set of beliefs about the fundamental structure of the world. There is no secret recipe for arriving at metaphysical knowledge through purely philosophical pathways.
The statement of realism in which I have the greatest confidence is this: we are justified in acknowledging the reality in the world of the things, processes, structures, and forces that are postulated or implied by the best scientific theories we have to date. And we acknowledge that these beliefs, like all scientific and empirical beliefs, are fallible and correctable.
(An upcoming post will discuss Tuukka Kaidesoja’s very interesting critique of critical realism and his advocacy of “naturalized critical realism” in Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology.)