Words and meanings

Winston Churchill was a naive realist: The sun is real, and it is hot—in fact as hot as Hell, and if the metaphysicians doubt it they should go there and see. This is the position of practical folk, and of most people most of the time: there is reality independent of my observation of it, and my observations show what it is like.

I am a critical realist. There is a real world, in which I move, but I can never know it fully because my perceptions may be in error, affected by my culture or history. However, we may know in part and a commitment to truth helps us make our understandings more accurate. This matters intensely to me- I have a right to express myself female, but if I can say that is truthful my desire makes sense or is even objectively justified. One might choose a metaphysical stance based on personality, such as Myers-Briggs’ Judging/Perceiving spectrum.

I work towards understanding non-realist positions, that no “real world” may be known. One such is that there is only language, not direct perception.

Language affects how we see the world. It is not that things in the world and ideas in the mind fit, and language merely labels them. In biology and physics, the way of identifying an individual thing may differ: there are ten electrons in a water molecule, but locating an individual electron is difficult, as it can be in more than one place at one time. Charles Taylor argues that a word only has meaning within a lexicon and a context of language practices, which are ultimately embedded in a form of life. I can have no understanding of the world, except through the distorting lens of my culture; perhaps no-one can understand what I say, who is not part of that culture.

Words move, music moves, only in time

Words liberate or constrain: a man is liberated if he changes from seeing himself as a Sodomite, wicked and disgusting, to as a gay man, doing what is natural and normal. Had I not heard of the possibility of transition, I would not have done it, and Mayans had no wheels. Something becomes possible when it is imagined.

We can think in pictures- where shall I go, now? A vision of where I might be, what I might do, crosses my mind. We can be more than we know: we behave morally, even if we cannot understand where morality came from. If we know the ninth planet exists but have not yet located it, why should we imagine we could explain ourselves? And morality can develop: “Love thy neighbour as thyself” co-existed with slavery, until people realised there was a contradiction.

Simone Weil said I will, therefore I am– I know I exist because of my desires, rather than because of rational thought. I know God though I cannot describe God.

Much of this is lifted from Julian Baggini. The belief and understanding is my own.

Giorgione, Ceres

11 thoughts on “Words and meanings

  1. Clare, you say I work towards understanding non-realist positions, that no “real world” may be known. One such is that there is only language, not direct perception and then go on to talk about language affecting perception.

    My issue is with the idea that seems to be presented here, namely, that because perception is required, the real world cannot be known. The assumption that is in error with this thesis is that reality can only be known through perception.

    This is not true.

    This is why scientists and clear thinkers the world over are not metaphysicians. They understand something that seems rather elusive to those who are sympathetic to the metaphysician’s claim to have ‘other ways of knowing’: independent verification. The metaphysician has no means using this method to verify and so this is why religious belief favours such a method… even though it never has, does not, and probably will never yield one bit of knowledge. That’s the small cost of relying on metaphysics as a method of inquiry into reality: it doesn’t work to produce knowledge and so it cannot yield models that can be tested by reality. This is very handy for some people who wish to substantiate their beliefs without needing to independently verify them.

    Yes, we can know about reality without relying only on our perceptions and we do this by applying our models to reality and then – this is the key – allowing it to arbitrate them. This is how we develop technologies, applications, and therapies that work for everyone everywhere all the time no matter what someone’s perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, opinions, biases, prejudices, cultural norms, language, age, gender, sexual preference may be. Reality in this way tells us which of our models is most likely correct and ones that meet all challenges become ‘theories’. And you can bet your house and life on them being the same today as yesterday and hold the highest confidence they will remain so tomorrow… not because I say so, not because of some metaphysical opining, but because reality itself has independently demonstrated these models to be correct… every time. That’s what we call ‘knowledge’ and it is independent of our perceptions.

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      • Your cell phone cares not one whit about atavistic logical positivism. The phone works. And it works because we have knowledge about reality independent of thee and me that can be successfully applied. That knowledge is arbitrated by reality to be a really good – meaning functional – explanatory model.

        Philosophical dismissals relying on such spiffy terms don’t matter a tinker’s damn: the phone still works. The understanding is demonstrated and that demonstration reveals the knowledge to be independent of your perceptions. That’s fatal to that part of the thesis I quoted above. Your phone is the proof.

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        • Thank you. That is helpful. It is not far from my critical realism: a group of people works out how to make a mobile phone, and we all benefit. So with building techniques or the theory of evolution by natural selection: they make life considerably easier.

          Yet we address other questions, eg by qualitative rather than quantitative research, and other thought about how we might know, or how we might be wrong, is useful. What am I missing? is always my most important question.

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          • My comment was aimed entirely at the suggestion that no real world may be known, to challenge the idea that we cannot have an understanding of the world independent of culture and the language related to it. Both assertions are incorrect. And I have more than my opinion to draw upon to support my challenge: it’s called the method of science and its working products are the verification we seek of a real world, and a demonstration that we can indeed have a correct understanding of it.

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            • Like Peter Atkins, you seem to be assuming that science is our only reliable guide to reality and truth. Peter Atkins tried that with William Lane Craig in their debate and was left sputtering and shifting in his seat.

              Atkins: “What can’t science account for?”

              Craig: “There are a good number of things that cannot be scientifically proven but that we’re all rational to accept. Let me list five: [1] Logic and mathematical truths cannot be proven by science. Science presupposes science and math, so that to try to prove them by science would be arguing in a circle. [2] Metaphysical truths like there are other minds other than my own, or that the external world is real, or that the past was not created five minutes ago with the appearance of age are rational beliefs that cannot be scientifically proven. [3] Ethical beliefs about statements of value are not accessible by the scientific method […] [4] Aesthetic judgments … cannot be accessed by the scientific method, because the beautiful like the good cannot be scientifically proven. And finally [5] most remarkably, would be science itself. Science cannot be justified by the scientific method. Science is permeated with unprovable assumptions.”

              There’s nothing wrong with science per se, but there’s something very wrong with assuming that it’s the sole arbiter of reality and truth. Yes, tildeb, atavistic logical positivism.

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            • Well, Jim, if you can’t think yourself out of the paper bag arguments Craig uses to such an effect in his debates, then it would take too long for me to help you out. Suffice to say, if one is going to make claims about describing reality, then one had better let reality hold the arbitrating role about them. This is the Great Failing that so many sophisticated believers simply fail to grasp. And once you allow that there really should be a connection between reality and descriptive claims made about it, then you’ll see why Craig’s ongoing tactics and debating maneuvers are quite stupid and patently so.

              That your cell phone works is a testament that links scientific claims about how reality works to the effects you hold in your hand. That’s pretty evidence that reality can be known independent of perspectives. Now imagine if religious claims could demonstrate the same; I suspect you be championing science to the heavens! But alas…no amount of appeals to popularity or metaphysical masturbatory mental maneuvers is going to link religious claims to the reality it purports to describe. And that’s why nothing in reality is available to be evidence for them. Too bad for you.

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    • We only know scraps of verifiable facts about existence and experience. You make it sound like “ta-ra! science knows everything!”.

      If I have a fever of 41 degrees we can independently verify the temperature, we can look at data on how this affects the brain, read accounts of people with similar experiences, but we are nowhere near being able to say what each individual experiences on each occasion.

      I may call something blue that you call green. Depending on what country we are in, most people may agree with me or you. We can independently verify it’s unique composition, but that doesn’t change the individual perception each person has, or the label they use.

      Our knowledge is infinitely limited and in any case all our perceptions are uniquely skewed.

      Independent methods of measuring and generally accepted labels hardly make a dent. I’m surprised you don’t know that… oh, it’s you Tildeb! 😀

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    • Thank you, Megha. I hope so too; but right now, with Kiri whom you have read, Tildeb’s dismissal of the religion which I find addresses far more important questions than how my phone works, and another blog called “A Philosopher’s Take” on the nature of consciousness, my head is full.

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