Monday, August 16, 2010

The First Volume of Speculations and a bit more about Science

The first volume of the journal Speculations, dedicated to Speculative Realism, is now available. It can be purchased or downloaded for free here, you should check it out. As noted within the volume, not only is it the first journal dedicated to Speculative Realism it is also the first volume of a journal in which every contributor is a philosophy blogger on top of their academic credentials. It is a very interesting project. It's editor is Paul Ennis whose blog is worth checking out.

While perusing the volume I think I was most struck by Fabio Gironi's "Science-Laden Theory: Outlines of an Unsettled Alliance" which focuses on clarifying the origins and nature of the mixed bag which has come to be known as Speculative Realism as well as on investigating the movement's complex relationship to science. In connection with my previous blog post, it is the issue of the conception of science we find in thinkers like Meillassoux which most attracted my attention to Gironi's paper. The general idea is that, while continental philosophy became more and more correlationist, anti-realist and/or social constructivist in the previous century, science was left to be Reality's one remaining champion. As Gironi puts it:

"A reality in-itself which, having been banned by transcendental idealism and phenomenology first, became the open target of postmodernism and social constructivism later. This historical dismissal allowed science to claim privilege on ‘reality’; and yet, what for science was a reason for pride, to ‘postmodern’ eyes was a weak spot, so that science could be identified as the na├»ve—and yet powerful—cousin to be debunked. This is the attitude against which speculative realism is an internal philosophical reaction."

As my previous blog post should suggest, I think it is highly unlikely that "science" in general is a realist phenomenon or that scientists in general are realists. Einstein tends towards realism, for example, while Neils Bohr tended towards instrumentalism. I take the lesson taught to philosophers such as Duhem, Bachelard, Koyre, Kuhn and Feyerabend by the history of science very seriously, namely that there have been many very differently formulated sciences but nothing that could count as the basic characteristics of Science. This is the case both when we attempt to generalize over extended periods of history and when we generalize over the various individual disciplines out of which science is formed. I am tempted to suggest that when speaking of science we are, at best, dealing with a family resemblance. Certainly throughout history, and in the philosophy of science, realism is far from occupying a position of unquestioned dominance.

But the issue isn't about philosophy of science, and for now we might put the history of science aside. Instead let us look at the words of two fairly well respected scientists on the subject.

First we can look at Richard Feynman. In his paper "What is Science?", following an apology for even giving the talk considering his dislike for "philosophical exposition", he states that science is "the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the race experience from the past." In other words, science is defined for him primarily as a method for evaluating traditionally received wisdom and, through observation, developing new wisdom. In "The Uncertainty of Science" Feynman claims that science is a method of finding things out in which "observation is the ultimate and final judge of the truth of an idea." It is important to observe that Feynman's commitment to the idea of science as primarily a method of discovery and critique prioritizing skepticism and observation is perfectly constructed to deflate the idea that science is based on something like the realist belief in a subject-independent and stable reality. Paul Feyerabend is, at times, just as committed to the idea of prioritizing observation and experience as is Feynman but he believes he can conjoin this priority with his various brands of anti-realism and relativism.

If we really pay attention to Feynman's view we can suggest two possible conclusions. Either the question of realism is an empirical question which observation must be allowed to investigate, in which case it seems pretty clear that no falsification of the various anti-realist positions has yet been produced, or realism is not something which observation can support or falsified, in which case it lacks any scientific status whatsoever. It is interesting to note that Thomas Kuhn DID think that the empirical data which makes up the history of science, for example the structure of paradigm change, suggested conclusions about ontology. Paul Feyerabend, extending and radicalizing Kuhn, thought that those conclusions supported relativism and anti-realism. Certainly both the data and the conclusions of these thinkers have been challenged but their existence should, at the very least, make us hesitate before we speak of science as unquestionably either essentially realist or as having produced discoveries exclusively supporting realism.

The suggestion that realism is a metaphysical position outside the boundaries of scientific inquiry is made, I feel, by Stephen Hawking when he embraces without reserve what he takes to be Popperian positivism. In The Universe in a Nutshell he states:

"Any sound scientific theory, whether of time or of any other concept, should in my opinion be based on the most workable philosophy of science: the positivist approach put forward by Karl Popper and others. According to this way of thinking, a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested. If the predictions agree with the observations, the theory survives that test, though it can never be proved to be correct. On the other hand, if the observations disagree with the predictions, one has to discard or modify the theory. (At least, that is what is supposed to happen. In practice, people often question the accuracy of the observations and the reliability and moral character of those making the observations.) If one takes the positivist position, as I do, one cannot say what time actually is. All one can do is describe what has been found to be a very good mathematical model for time and say what predictions it makes."

Let us say one is concerned with the question of reality as it applies to time. One goes to a physicist such as Dr. Hawking and asks "Is the nature of time stable and independent of human subjectivity?" The answer is likely to be something like the following: "I am not sure what sort of observational consequences either the realist or anti-realist hypotheses will have, and so I can't imagine a test of either hypothesis." But the question is clearly a meaningful and powerful question about the ontology of time. The scientist, as presented by Hawking, is not necessarily attempting to say what time actually (ontologically) is but rather avoids metaphysical claims in preference for claims based on predictive and observational content. One could be a realist, an anti-realist, or an agnostic on the issue and still do science just the way Hawking does. Of course many scientists do speculate beyond the boundaries of their strictly scientific work but their views are varied and not, strictly speaking, the views of "science". It is worth noting, for an example from philosophy of science rather than science proper, that Popper himself was a realist while many have wondered whether his actual philosophy does not rather lead to instrumentalism. At the very least we can say that his realism was methodological, taking the form of a regulative ideal, and seemingly unfalsifiable and thus unscientific by his own standards.

Let me end, then, by stating my concern in a very flatfooted manner. Speculative Realism seems very interested in defining itself as a philosophy, or collection of philosophies, with a specific relationship to science. I worry, however, that it may have too narrow a view of what science is and does. One wonders, for example, what the Speculative Realist champion of Realist Science would say to an instrumentalist or conventionalist scientist?


  1. William,

    I have just finished writing a response to you but after pressing 'preview' by mistake Blogger gave me an error message and my comment vanished.

    I am too much in a rage now to write it from the beginning...

    For the time being, I just began by thanking you for your comments on my paper: it is nice to see you found it of some interest.

    I'll try to rewrite it tomorrow.

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  3. So let’s try again. [I split it in two parts]

    I happen to agree with practically everything that you say.

    Let me clarify some things: the thesis that I put forward in my article is my own interpretation on the origins of SR, not a careful historical reconstruction. As such, I have the feeling that many of those related to SR might disagree with it.

    Now my main idea that SR can be read as an internal philosophical reaction to the increasing epistemic prestige of science is developed with a Latourian ANT-like spirit (seeking the network of actors that made the movement possible) and with the intention of an early ‘intellectual historian’ trying to find a possible answer to the question: why all this realism right now?

    This does not mean that I cannot also agree with you that SR (or certain trends within it) incurs into problems on the strictly epistemological level. The same can be said about the science wars, which were a carnival of misinterpretations (from both sides) motivated by much more than mere epistemological disagreements.

    Indeed, for some time I have had in mind of comparing Meillassoux’s position regarding scientific ‘literal interpretations’ of theories and Van Fraassen’s strongly non-committal stance regarding the reality of the contents of theories beyond observables. I suspect that to Van Fraassen Meillassoux’s work would look like more metaphysical nonsense. (And yet I find amusing that they sort of ‘agree’ on being ‘antirealist’ about the issue of laws of nature, but for completely opposite reasons: Van Fraassen because of his constructive empiricism, Meillassoux for his ‘realism’).

    [by the way: there will soon be a cross-blog event precisely on science and metaphysics run on Nick’s, Pete’s and Reid’s blogs ( I am thinking of writing something for that, why don’t you chime in as well?]

  4. Than again, let me give another reading of the issue. I mentioned Van Fraassen, you mentioned Feynman and Hawking. Now, you very rightly remind me that we should always be wary about talking of ‘Science’ and should keep in mind the heterogeneity of methods, aims and results achieved by different sciences. In the same spirit, should we not also keep in mind that there are different kind of scientists and that Feynman and Hawking are hardly representative of the average one? It is a trivial argument, but go in your Astrophysics department of choice, and ask the first member of staff you bump into: ‘do you believe it being an hard real fact that the planet Earth formed approximately 5 billion years ago by the process of accretion in the Sun’s protoplanetary disk?’ They might be cautious about the details, but, yes, he or she would tell you that it actually happened that way. [Note: this is all that Meillassoux needs. He doesn’t really need strong interpretations about big issues like the origin of the universe or about the real nature of time: *any* event prior to the creation of biological bodies able to ground the possibility for the emergence of a transcendental subjectivity will do]. And this ‘average scientist’ is the same one that (prompted by Sokal or by Gross and Levitt) will mockingly ask the ‘relativist’ or ‘constructionist’ to step out of a 30 story building to check if the pavement down below is ‘real’ or not.

    (For a more refined counter-example to Hawking, take Stephen Weinberg’s claim that [discussing quarks] ‘It seems to me unlikely that the positivist attitude will be of much help in the future’).

  5. So there seem to be a tension between science as done, philosophy of science and speculative realism (and I suspect that Meillassoux’s complete silence about the literature of phil. of science is a hint that he wants to refer to ‘actual’ science). Is that correct? Perhaps it isn’t. And therefore I completely agree with you when you say

    'Speculative Realism seems very interested in defining itself as a philosophy, or collection of philosophies, with a specific relationship to science. I worry, however, that it may have too narrow a view of what science is and does.'

    Much more work must indeed be done, especially (once again referring to Meillassoux) when it comes to squaring the relinquishment of the principle of sufficient reason with any kind of philosophy of science. Again, it seems to me that his (cantorian-based) argument about the ‘reasonable trust on the provisional stability of the laws of nature’ works if we think of ‘science as done’, but is not enough of if confronted with the last 50 years of philosophy of science. I am not saying that it’s wrong, I am saying that it should be probed with some critique by philosophers of science (which of course mostly thrive in the ‘analytic’ world and which probably don’t have a book of a French disciple of Badiou as the first item of their reading list).

    Indeed I believe that the analytic-continental divide is also relevant. You write about my paper that

    'The general idea is that, while continental philosophy became more and more correlationist, anti-realist and/or social constructivist in the previous century, science was left to be Reality's one remaining champion'.
    Modify the last sentence into ‘science *to continental philosophers* was left to…’. Perhaps not to scientists and definitely not to (analytic) philosophers of science, I agree.

    To conclude: I share your skepticism but I am increasingly moving towards a use of philosophy as a tool for intellectual history more than for solving precise epistemological problems (which, I guess, is very continental of me), and my article was meant as an overview more than as an analysis of arguments.

    Anyways, thanks for pushing me to write these clarifications!
    P.S. – ‘Speculative Realism it is also the first volume of a journal in which every contributor is a philosophy blogger on top of their academic credentials’  - I am really flattered, but in my case that is hardly true :)

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  8. Shit I made a mess. Sorry but Blogger now kept telling me that 'Request-URI Too Large' and it seemed like it wasn't posting the last bit... Please erase the two redundant ones. And if I may, consider moving to wordpress! :)

  9. Fabio,

    Thanks for stopping by and reading my brief comments as well as for posting your own clarifications. Sorry Blogger was misbehaving, blogging is a new experiment for me and I started using Blogger just because several friends of mine seemed to have had success with it.

    I suspect my only real concern here is that we recognize that "what (we think) science says" will be different depending on which scientists we talk to. This saves science from being a purely realist phenomenon and that is all I was after.

    You are probably right about the response one would get when asking most astrophysicists about a realist interpretation of theories concerning the formation of the planet but this is due, I suspect, to a lack of care and attention on the part of *some* of the scientists asked and the questioner. If, instead, you asked "What is your view on the literal reality of non-observable theoretical entities?" I suspect you would get a more varied set of answers. It seems to me, however, that both questions can be seen to be asking the same thing.

    If, as you suggest here in the comments, it is science *as seen by Continental Philosophers* (or perhaps "the views of scientists" as assumed by continental philosophers) that is a realist phenomenon then certainly we end up discussing a whole different batch of issues. We could, for example, distinguish between what Foucault thinks about Science, which certainly seems to be a form of anti-realist position, and what Foucault thinks scientists think about science, which is probably much more realist.