1 October 2009


Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:57 am

There are things about the real world that humans do not and cannot know. Purportedly the continental antirealist strain of philosophy has restricted itself to what humans can know and how they know it, turning philosophy into epistemology and hermeneutics and phenomenology. The new breed of continental realists speculate about what the real world might be like outside of human awareness.

Scientific realists explore the real by means of human knowledge. They assume that humans can know something about the real, even if that knowledge is distorted and incomplete. In the absence of knowledge, speculation is the only recourse. The scientist values speculation because it opens up new possibilities for seeking knowledge. The scientist wants to put speculation to the test, incrementally replacing imagination and ignorance with knowledge. For a scientist to ask “but how do you know?” isn’t to substitute epistemology for ontology. The scientist isn’t asking how humans acquire knowledge; the scientist wants to know that your speculation has some basis in the real.

There will always be aspects of the real that are beyond the reach of human knowledge. The more we know, the more we realize that we don’t know, and so the future of speculation is assured. From a scientific realist perspective, the first big mistake is to regard some aspect of the real as permanently insulated from human knowledge and thus permanently consigned to the realm of speculation. An even bigger mistake is to substitute speculation for knowledge as the basis for engaging reality in general: that’s the way of the rationalist, the idealist, the mystic, the fideist.

The scientist’s question is a refined version of what any curious child wants to know. “The kitty will find a good home,” the father asssures the crying child as they leave the stray at the pound. “But how do you know?” Well, you don’t know really:  you hope, you count on the odds, you speculate. The only way you can know is to come back to the pound in a month, find out what happened to the kitty, go interview the kitty’s new owners, inspect the kitty visually. Of course even then you aren’t 100% certain that the kitty has found a good home. But at least you’ve replaced some of your speculations with knowledge.



  1. You’ve articulated something here that’s been weighing pretty heavily on my mind these days. I find myself frustrated with people who accuse scientific speculation of tending toward “closure” while they seem to assume that philosophical speculation alone is capable of “opening up”. They claim that scientific realism is based on the faulty assumption that the real is entirely knowable, then they make themselves a strawman scientist with a wild look in his eye and messy hair who says that if we only collect enough data, eventually we’ll know all there is to know about the omniverse (which will presumably be patented by Google or Microsoft in the form of an algorithm). Easy to build up, easy to tear down.

    You’ve nailed why they’re wrong in this post.

    Come to think of it, these folks I’ve described also remind me of the types who are quick to accuse atheists/skeptics of “worshiping” Darwin or Dawkins. It’s telling that some people cannot help but frame our epistemological limitations as humans in terms of worship— in their minds, if one doesn’t worship a god, one *must* worship something else. There’s no opting out. In reality, though, some people don’t worship anything in the absence of absolute certainty about origins or ends or meanings. For some people, there is no supreme being, no ultimate authority. Scientists will throw Darwin’s theories out the window (in fact, they already have thrown lots of Darwin’s theories out) as soon as the evidence leads them to speculate in new directions and away from Darwin’s theories. Scientists don’t even worship their own knowledge; they know it is incomplete, disposable and subject to change at a moment’s notice. That is, in fact, the impetus for science, and what keeps scientists motivated— they’re happy like Sisyphus is happy.

    It’s obviously difficult for people in general, scientists included, to get past their own teleological, Big Other-directed thinking. Scientists are the first to admit this. And, as you’d expect, there are some interesting theories about why we think like this coming out of neurology and evolutionary biology. If you haven’t read it yet, you may find the piece by Scott Bakker interesting in the blog post below:



    Comment by anodyne lite — 2 October 2009 @ 6:25 pm

  2. Thanks for the link to the post about Neuropath, al, which I hadn’t read previously but which I’ll get back to. Have you read the novel? I’m feeling like I ought to read more antiphilosophy and eliminative materialism, so I just added Deontologistics to my blogroll as a stimulus to do so. But I guess “ought” is an artifice, so now I’m stuck in ambiguity. I’ve also got Brassier’s books online, which might draw my attention some day.

    It seems that, in the name of opening up, some philosophical schemes attempt to insulate themselves from outside criticism. The idea it seems is to let the new speculation expand to fill the universe rather than attempting to transform the old philosophies from within. Now I can understand that desire: it’s not unlike what speculative fiction writers do in fantasy and scifi, as in Neuropath presumably.

    “What if the universe consists entirely of objects?” ask some. “What if every object retain some essence of itself that resists interaction?” Cool, that’s a fun game to play. But is this speculative reality “real”? Maybe it’s my training, maybe my natural inclination, but at that point I can’t help but invoke scientific criteria. I try to think of counter-examples to objects in the universe: forces, patterns, abstractions, and so on. “Yes, but each of these can be redefined as an object.” And suppose we attempt to seek out and expose the secret hidden essence of some object? “Ah, but since you’ve discovered it, that means you’ve interacted with it: by definition that cannot be the hermetically isolated essence of the object.” At that point the object-oriented universe has placed itself beyond falsification. “Falsification is just a human way of knowing; you’re confusing epistemology with ontology.” At which point speculation has insulated itself as something somehow beyond human thought. Purportedly it precedes or disregards the uniquely human, getting to the real itself. Why then does it seem like a move toward transcendence, toward a gods’-eye view of the universe.

    Is Dawkins an arrogant hegemonic bastard? Probably. So what? His ideas should be engaged directly, not his personality or attitude. I personally find both Dawkins and Sam Harris pretty insufferable when they talk about religion. It’s because they’ve gone beyond critique to polemic, and their knowledge of religion is pretty spotty. Harris was going to study neuroscience, wasn’t he? I wonder how that’s coming along.


    Comment by john doyle — 3 October 2009 @ 9:02 am

  3. “To be a rationalist it is not necessary to believe that science will be completely mastered in the near future. It is enough to recognize that there is no precise point at which the domain of the mysterious, of the irrational, begins, a definite point at which scientific thought is impotent and cannot pass.” Emile Durkheim, Moral Education (lectures, published 1925)


    Comment by Carl — 8 October 2009 @ 9:04 pm

  4. Nice. I’m an enthusiast for the mysterious and irrational as much as for the rational and empirical. At the unstable juxtaposition stand the artist, the scientist, the metaphysician, the mystic, the analyst, the revolutionary; and also the adman, the spy, the televangelist, the sociopath…


    Comment by john doyle — 9 October 2009 @ 4:31 am

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