The Truth is Out There

12 June 2011


The Truth is Out There

It is a demonstration of the perennial character of philosophical thought that one of the fundamental distinctions that has defined Western philosophy — the distinction between realism and idealism — finds itself clearly instantiated in contemporary popular culture. For realism may be adequately summarized as the view that “the truth is out there” while idealism (which admittedly takes many forms) is equally well summarized either by the “new age” idea that you make your own reality, or by the academic parallel to this, which is deconstructivism, in which anything can mean anything. Everything old is new again.

I just finished listening to Timothy Ferris book, Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril. Timothy Ferris is one of my favorite science writers, and indeed his earlier book The Red Limit is one of my favorite books.

While Ferris frequently invokes the kind of anti-philosophy that I have become accustomed to encountering in the writings of scientists, he also cites philosophers has diverse as Hegel and Wittgenstein (the latter of whom he has read thoroughly enough to even know his wartime journal, which is not widely read). Despite these philosophical citations, his philosophical formulations remain true to scientific anti-philosophy in their thoroughly naive spirit. For example, he frequently employs the idiom of the objects of astronomy being “really out there” as a kind of visceral reminder of realism:

“Once the sky was fully dark I had a look at the Triangulum galaxy, which at a distance of less then three million light-years from Earth is a local object by intergalactic standards. Its rangy spiral arms, tangled with glowing clouds of gas, spilled out beyond the field of view. As often happens, I was struck by the fact that all these things, unimaginably big or small or hot or cold as they may be, really are out there. Like giant squid or loaves of French bread — and unlike, say, postmodernism or public opinion polls — they confront us with the regality of the materially real.”

Timothy Ferris, Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril, 2003, p. 64

For Timothy Ferris, the truth is out there, as poignantly palpable as any any visceral sensation. Which leads us to another, better known, visceral assertion of realism, from Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”

James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson

The responses of Samuel Johnson and Timothy Ferris may be charitably characterized as an embodied philosophical doctrine, a practical realism arising from an engagement with the world. This practical realism is better known as scientific realism, which is an ontological doctrine. The corollary of scientific realism as expressed in scientific practice is methodological naturalism.

Acts of practical realism, as engagements with the world, constitute what Bertrand Russell called the enlargement of the self. I previously discussed Russell’s conception of the enlargement of the self in Too see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. It is important to understand that Russell is not talking about the enlargement of the ego, but rather the antithesis of this. Russell also calls this an ethic of impersonal self enlargement: “when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects.”

This is the moral component of science, which makes practical realism not only an intellectual imperative but also a moral imperative, and by way of the moral imperative — being primarily intellectual and intangible — we draw closer to a purely theoretical realism.

It is interesting to note that Russell employed the idiom of “objects” in the Russell quote above, since this point of view shares some similarities with object oriented ontology in its various forms. I have discussed this recent philosophical school in several posts, and I suggested a moral interpretation, an object oriented axiology, in Metaphysical Responsibility.

In Russell’s sense of an impersonal enlargement of the self through scientific understanding we have a concern for objects for their own sake, which “adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects.” Russell felt a metaphysical responsibility to the objects of science. I think that Boswell felt a metaphysical responsibility to the perennial character of stones, as Ferris feels a metaphysical responsibility to the stars and the galaxies.

The astronomer takes responsibility for planets, stars, and galaxies and seeks to give an account of them that gets them right for their own sake. The paleontologist takes responsibility for bones and fossils and seeks to give an account of them that gets them right for their own sake. The physicist takes responsibility for fundamental particles and the mathematician takes responsibility for numbers and each seeks to give an account of their chosen field of endeavor that gets the objects right for their own sake.

All of these are examples from the natural sciences, sometimes also called the “hard” sciences, and although it would be a little more difficult to give the parallel formulations for the social sciences, with certain qualifications I think that the parallel cases hold.

In Object Disoriented Axiology I cited a short quote from Jung, “No one has any obligations to a concept…” as embodying the antithesis of the perspective of object oriented axiology. Jung’s claim was simply a special case of moral nihilism — a moral nihilism directed exclusively at those who employ concepts, which is ultimately and eventually all of us.

The formulations above from the physical sciences, taking as my examples the astronomer, the paleontologist, the physicist, and the mathematician, have their conceptual parallel in the philosopher. The philosopher takes responsibility for concepts and seeks to give an account of them that gets them right for their own sake. In this parallelism of science and philosophy, we can see also a parallelism between practical realism and theoretical realism. The philosopher formulates a pure theoretical realism in light of his responsibilities to concepts. In so doing, the philosopher gives the science of concepts, as scientists give the philosophy of non-conceptual objects.

Thus, despite the fashionable anti-philosophy of many scientists, that often leads them to say unkind things about purely philosophical inquiry, I see the enterprises of science and philosophy as parallel undertakings, and I grant the scientists their due in this endeavor. A complete account of the world cannot be written without the contributions of scientists, who give an account of scientific objects from the point of view of those who feel an obligation to these objects. But a complete view of the world is equally elusive without the contribution of those who give an account of non-scientific objects.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “The Truth is Out There”

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