12 July 2010

Loose Onto-Scientific Ends

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:34 pm

Rather than either writing separate posts here or comments elsewhere, I’m making a few brief observations about issues that arose in our extended recent engagement with Pete here at Ktismatics and in his ongoing debate with Levi. Most of my issues are scientific rather than metaphysical.

1.  I agree with Pete that science, considered as a collective endeavor of discovery, progresses incrementally toward increasing objectivity, continually (and sometimes radically) purifying its methods of investigation and thereby its findings from subjective and intersubjective biases. Nevertheless, the topics subjected to objectifying purification of science aren’t always selected based on the greatest potential for increasing objective knowledge. Money and power often decide what is going to be studied, how it will be studied, and to whom the results will be made known. Often these “impure” forces are intentionally hidden from view or unintentionally ignored, even by the scientists themselves.

2.  Levi asserts that every object exceeds the actual state it happens to manifest at any given time and place. I can’t believe that for Levi the “real water” inside a closed container is solid and liquid and gas at the same time, and the “real me” isn’t only here or there but everywhere at once. Levi doesn’t typically equate the object’s excess with all the potential other states in the object’s repertoire that it isn’t currently manifesting. Rather, he says the object has a “virtual proper being,” a dynamic capacity that generates its potential and actual states. I agree. Levi insists, though, that no object ever directly encounters the virtual proper being of another object; rather, an object only encounters the qualities made manifest in the states the other object assumes. I don’t believe this is true. Science doesn’t just document the states that water occupies and the conditions under which it occupies them. Rather, science investigates the “virtual proper being” of water — its molecular structure, covalent bonds, potential energy, vibrations, and so on that cause it to manifest itself in various states.

3.  Almost always the states which an object assumes or the properties it manifests are a joint function of the object’s virtual proper being, its interactions with other objects, and the energy forces operating on them. The solid/liquid/gaseous state of the water in the container is a function of the molecular structure of water, the pressure inside the container, and the heat inside the container. To me this suggests that reality isn’t composed exclusively of objects, but of objects and the energy forces and fields in which they’re embedded.

4.  As others have observed, it seems bizarre to contend that objects never directly encounter each other. It’s argued that objects encounter one another only inside some composite object that includes both objects. So when two billiard balls collide, they form a two-ball system in which the two balls affect one another’s movements. A simpler explanation — one you might find in a middle-school science text — is that the two objects directly interact, affecting each other by a transfer of energy. The trajectories and speeds of the two balls are changed, but the energy is conserved, as are the sums of the angular momenta of the two balls. In all sorts of inter-object “translations,” science goes about its business of clarifying what stays the same, what changes, how, and why.

5.  On the conflation of epistemology and ontology, if you’re going to make a statement about what things are, you’re still making a statement. What claims are you making in this statement, and on what grounds do you justify them? Of course not all objects are subjects, and not all interactions between objects involve one of them trying to understand the other. But ontological claims are produced by subjects claiming to understand other objects. An ontologist’s stated understandings are specific manifestations of his/her virtual proper being interacting with the objects and energy forces to be understood. What is it about the ontologist that generates his/her particular ontological understandings of the world? What is the relationship between the ontologist’s statements about the world and the aspects of the world referenced in those statements? Answering this sort of question is a kind of epistemological investigation that can’t be waived off.

6.  Scientific knowledge is “produced” in the sense that scientists perform work to produce their systematic observations of the world, the analyses of their observations, and the statements in which they embed the knowledge they’ve discovered. But scientific statements refer to features in the world that aren’t created by the scientist. “The water in the jar is frozen” is a statement produced by the speaker; the jar, the water, and the frozen state already existed prior to the production of the statement. A microscope produces a magnified image of an object, but it’s still an image of the object. A yardstick might be used to produce a quantitative measurement of an object, but it’s still etc. etc. Granted, knowledge about an object isn’t identical to the object itself. And the cumulative body of knowledge is increased and refined and preserved over time, and that takes work. But not all work produces things; some kinds of work disassemble things, sort things, discover things, describe things. To insist that scientific investigation produces knowledge is to conflate ontology with epistemology, creation with discovery. It’s also a strong form of correlationism, denying the existence of real objects independent of the observer, such that observation creates the things it observes.

There are probably other loose ends I’d like to lay out on the table, even if I can’t tie them up into neat little bows. Maybe I’ll add new ones to the list as I think of them. But I think I’m going to stop writing new posts for awhile. I feel like I’ve been blogging my ass off for the past 2+ months, generally to excellent effect as far as I’m concerned. I’ve put on my empirical hat for the first time in years and it still fits pretty well, and it’s been oddly satisfying to be among the few who wear this sort of hat around these parts. I could surely keep up the blogging pace, since my interest hasn’t really flagged. But I’ve got a novel to write, and I want to immerse myself in that mindset, that alternate reality, for awhile.



  1. But I think I’m going to stop writing new posts for awhile. I feel like I’ve been blogging my ass off for the past 2+ months, generally to excellent effect

    Too bad for me. You and Reid have been my only connection to what’s going on in OOOland. Since I can’t bear to read them myself, I need mediation. Also really been digging the education posts. But good for you, and enjoy your alt-immersion.

    Comment by Eric — 19 July 2010 @ 10:38 am

  2. We need Reid to step up his blogging pace, although recently he performed some excellent mediation in the Pete-Levi “conversation” at Deontologistics. I’m glad you liked the education posts, Eric. For awhile I was wondering what it would take to start up a good but cheap university staffed and run by all the underpaid and underutilized scholars who populate blogspace. I soon recognized this fantasizing as evidence that I was taking myself too seriously. I’ll keep checking in on Recording Surface during my hiatus.

    Comment by ktismatics — 19 July 2010 @ 2:21 pm

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