Thoughts on a Fractured Reality

There is some discussion going on in the blogosphere (and youtube) about whether the world we live in is pluralistic or monistic.  Critical Animal’s blog (click here) contains a list of some of these blog posts.  As with most ideas, I am of many minds about the issue.  While I think I would prefer a world that is as envisioned by the zeitgeist of the Enlightenment, axiomatically and formally structured from the bottom up, it is becoming very difficult to see how the world could be anything other than pluralistic.  What I will do in the following is lay out why it seems to me that the world is pluralist, and then lay out why I think the human mind has such a natural bias toward mosism.  On the latter point, I think most readers will agree with me that the commonsense disposition —the disposition of any ole jane or joe on the street— is one inclined toward a single truth, possibly slightly more nuanced, in the axiomatic manner I described; and so I will spend some time explaining why this is probably the case.

My first run-in with pluralism was through the pragmatists.  They were not the first, and they certainly don’t seem to have in mind the same kind of ontological pluralism that I do, but, nonetheless, their work seems to be a very reasonable starting point.  In “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Charles Sanders Peirce presents an idea in which two situations, objects, what have you, look like two different, incompatible situations, objects, what have you.  I am going to skip a synopsis of the article, because, as his diagrams illustrate in that article (and as Edward C. Moore points out[1]), Peirce’s view is perspectival pluralism situated upon a monistic world.  It is good to have the article in mind, as I move on, because having the plurality of perspectives is the step prior to saying that the perspectives are ontological islands within a larger, fractured ontology.

Bas C. van Fraassen’s book, The Scientific Image, or rather a chapter in that book, “The Pragmatics of Explanation,” brings into the fold the multifarious nature of explanations of a singular set of occurrences.  The sort of scenario that van Fraassen presents is an everyday type.  Consider a car that turns a corner, ultimately wrecking into a telephone pole, the driver dying.  When we seek an explanation for what has happened, the explanation is wholly contingent upon who we ask, as the interest-dependence of any particular individual will draw out different salient features.  The city planner will say that the hedges were two high, so the driver could not see around the bend, how sharp the curve was, and that the curve, itself, was too sharp.  This led to the death of the driver.  The forensic meteorologist will say that the temperature was at a unique point that morning, that water, consequently, was at its triple point (given the pressure), and the traction of the tires may have, with high probability, been slightly marginalized; that the sun was possibly making the driver avert his vision.  The physicist would say that the Hamiltonian of the system suggests that there was a large dissipation of energy, a collision, and that the friction of the brakes on the wheels caused the (approximately) static friction to become kinetic friction in the tires against the road, and this impulse (i.e., change in momentum) killed the individual.  Finally, a medical examiner says that, whatever physically happened, the driver suffered a burst aorta from blunt force trauma, as in the sternum being struck by the steering wheel.  Even as I write this, I am sure that some readers will be restructuring the events in their mind, so as to develop one single narrative of what occurred.  However, what will become clear is that this simply cannot be the case, insofar as the explanations are concerned, and this, I shall argue, suggests something about the makeup of the world, ontologically speaking.  I add this last point about ontology, because it is natural for one to attempt to respond by saying that epistemology does not dictate to ontology, and I think that there is a response buried in van Fraassen thinking.[2]  The key is causes in explanation, and that’s where the ontology comes in.

What makes a physical explanation not merely epistemological is its appeal to causation out there, in the world, not merely existing in the mind.  Van Fraassen has a clever little story he tells in the mentioned chapter.  He takes the, at this point, trite flagpole pole shadow argument in philosophy and, to use another cliché, turns it on its head.  In the story of the tower, he provides a narrative that gives, not a reason for the length of the shadow’s tower, but a reason that the tower is of a particular height, namely, so that it can cast a shadow of a particular length at a particular time of day.  He demonstrates that reasons (i.e., causes) for any element of an explanation can be employed to explain the other elements.  I haven’t read all of van Fraassen’s corpus, so I don’t know whether he is aware of it, but he has effectively flattened the ontology, wherein any salient feature may explain other features on the same level, in which ever explanatory order, but also other levels.  If I remember correctly, Carl F. Craver introduces a similar flat ontology, explicated in a very similar fashion to that of van Fraassen, in his introduction of causal units in the brain, in his Explaining the Brain.  This is where, in my view, the kind of pluralistic world described by Peirce, and so on, is no longer tenable.  That bacteria can effect a military army, causing death by operating between typically considered levels of reduction, or that an army of scientists, at the sociological level, can cause bacteria to produce insulin, places all of these objects at the same, flat ontological level, as objects.[3]  Combining a multi-level scenario involving an army that is afflicted by disease and is overrun by another army, one can see how difficult it would be to generate a single, unanimous decision about why the army lost.  The historian’s job, in this case, is to hammer out the kinks as much as possible, creating a single narrative arc; but all such arcs are, invariably, corrugated, no matter how much the scholar tries.  So it goes with science (and everyday matters), too, but one must be nuanced in the intricacies and subtleties of the particular scientific discipline to see the corrugation, unlike somewhat less technical disciplines, such as history.[4]

What has not been touched upon in van Fraassen’s pragmatics of explanation is contradictory, yet coexisting, aspect of the explanandum: the explanans are not, strictly speaking, compatible.  For instance, when we want to know what the cause of death of the driver was, each of these experts provide a different explanation, and each correct within the ambit of the respective discipline’s interests.  In seeking an explanation of death, we simply want a causal account of what led to the driver’s death.  Not only does each expert provide such an explanation, they differ in what it was that caused death, making them incompatible.  At the same time, it is commonsense that they are all true, but we dismiss the incompatibility.  Here is where I think the rub is, the all-too-natural dismissal of the notion that these views are incompatible.  “Yes,” the layperson might say, “the burst aorta was at the root, as the cause of death,” while, at the same time, saying, “yes, I do not deny that the treacherous turn was the cause of death.”  “The cause” is a particular, and so supplying two particulars necessitates that we either submit to a mode of explanation that is altogether without utility, wherein temporally prior causation must be acknowledged as the cause, in which case the beginning of the universe is the drivers cause of death —and, for this account, hopefully there was one—, thus possibly saving monism (maybe); or we embrace pluralism, in which the world is a patchwork of incompatible, yet coexisting, realities.  This is unpalatable to the uncritical mind, and I think there is a reason for naturally wanting to dismiss the option of ontological pluralism, or not even being able to fathom, to any extent, what a pluralistic universe would be like.  However, as laid out, the collection of interest-dependent causes, c1, c2, c3, …, c∞[?!], may be simplified for a moment from the standpoint of basic truth-functional logic: either c1 was the cause or c1 was not the cause, but not both.  The supposing that universal causation holds, ‘¬c1’ would implicate some other cn.  Being faced with the matter in this way, it seems difficult to dispute that, as van Fraassen’s account suggests, it is the case that ‘c1 & ¬c1’, which is problematic, given the heritage of deductive logic.  The pragmatists paved the way for this result —see any one of them on logic, particularly, Dewey, James, and Peirce—, and I think it can be understood, if we consider the structure of the mind.

Kant’s account of the mind, I think, supplies the reasoning necessary for us to see why the mind might revolt against pluralist accounts.  In fact, some people seem to have a very, very difficult time understanding what the construction of a pluralistic universe —and maybe some of those sympathetic to such a world do, too—, and, by my lights, this corroborates to some small degree what I am trying to say.  For Kant, the “mineness” (jemeinigkeit) of experience, to use Heidegger’s terminology, is possible only through the unity of apperception.  Cutting out some of the more technical details of the Kantian account, what is important to know about this idea is that concepts are applied to sensations, as organized and formatted in the intuitions.  Most important is the fact that we have one internal intuition, called “time,” and all events must be fit into it so as to have an indisputable ordering.[5]  Kant’s account of cognition, generally, requires that there be a reflective component in synthesizing cognitions and that the succession be linear.  By linear, I mean to stress the business Kant brings up about “drawing lines in thought,” which is to say, in part, that time is marked by changes in the arrangement of things.  At first glance, the reader may wonder whether Kant is necessary to the discussion.  I think he is, because I think his systematic understanding of cognition resolves why pluralism seems so unnatural to the mind, yet crops up.  I think it goes without saying that Kant’s account of causation has missed a deeply psychological element in observation.  He was right to acknowledge there is some activity of mind involved with observation, but maybe it wasn’t the application of concepts to intuition.  Instead, one of the activities of mind is interest-dependence, in the sense that cognition brings to salience features which is sets out to see (or suspects it will see) prior to experience.  Therefore, in rational reconstruction of experience, such as was the case with the forensic meteorologist or medical examiner, the mind does the same thing.  One side of the coin, this process, is seen in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Philosophy, in which pursuits grounded in mathematics allow for objectivity to manifest in the form of intersubjectivity.[6]  However, what is the case when rational reconstruction is not constrained by a socio-scientifically stipulated ground of mathematics?  Without such stipulated grounds to guide the rational reconstruction of experience, I think interest-dependence provides a way into different ontological islands, fragments of Being.

Given the above, it should be clear that it is natural for the mind to attempt to squeeze a multifarious existence into an artificial singular story, an arch-narrative.  Additionally, being of such painful finitude, the mind can only glean so many aspects of the infinitude of the plurality of reality, and so the mind samples reality in constructing these inevitably narrow-minded accounts of reality, which are, themselves, artificially formatted —a fact that will make for some inconsistencies among individual narratives, especially in comparison among between narratives devised by various individuals.[7]

Before closing, it should be noted that narratives have only really been discussed.  Plurality extends beyond this.  That propositions, more generally, may entail inconsistencies, has not been considered.  For instance, if one considers the quantum mechanical wave function, ψ, specifically Born’s interpretation of │ψ│2 as an ontological account of where a particle is, then we arrive at the probability density not being merely some statistical structure for the chances where a particle will be found (and the wave collapsing), based on empirical data; rather, the particle is literally in numerous spatial locations at once —maybe not even smeared out as a wave, as in the story physics currently tells.  The wave-collapse interpretation would be correct to an extent, but some qualification would be needed, namely, that the collapse might not be real in any sense, because the mind (via instrumentation) might require discretization of experience, in a manner of speaking.  Cognition may require, for the most part, though not exclusively, that non-contradiction dictate what can be experience and what cannot.  In a limited sense, such would vindicate Kant, albeit in an ironic manner, on grounds that there is at least on principle that governs possible experiences.  The rational reconstruction of what experience would be like, in the view from nowhere, allows the ontological plurality to seep into our monistic worldview, just as comparison between narratives in an intersubjective platform of discourse does.


[1] Moore notes this monism in Peirce, contrasting it with a possible, but unclear, ontological pluralism in James.  Not having read the entire corpus of James, I don’t think James would have gone the extra metaphysical step of subscribing to ontological pluralism unless it made some difference with respect to a world that was monistic.

[2] Whether his own or whether I am projecting it onto van Fraassen, I leave it to the reader to judge.  I would be more than happy to claim credit for creation, rather than mere exfoliation of someone else’s idea.

[3] It is easy to misunderstand statements in such short pieces, as it is with blog posts, so I would like to make a clarificatory remark: I do see in the pragmatists’ work the notion of a flat ontology, to some extent, so what I am saying at this point in my text is that the dual directional nature of cause is something that we don’t find in those writings.  Therefore, it is my view that van Fraassen’s introduction of this idea of multi-directional causal accounts among salient features causes something special to happen, which was not possible within the pragmatists’ views

[4] In saying this, I am not diminishing the technicality of historianship, but simply drawing attention to the opacity of scientific fact, methodology, and so forth, so far as the uninitiated is concerned.

[5] Though this comes before the Special Theory of Relativity, it would be erroneous to think that Kant’s account falls apart in light of the modern physical theory.  For Kant’s account is of phenomenal experience, and no such incongruity in simultaneity has been experienced, firsthand.  Moreover, such cannot be experienced, as there is only one internal intuition, and observing two different chronological orderings, phenomenally, is not conceivable.

[6] As with Meillssoux and Badiou, I am, to some extent, willing to acknowledge an underlying mathematical ontology that acts like a skeleton for the rest of what is, at least tentatively.  This skeleton need not, itself, be monistic either.  Consider Feynman’s “Babylonian method,” in The Character of Physical Law, and simply imagine it as an ontological fact about inquiry, from which mathematics spring.

[7] I am willing to get polemical here, and suggest that any single, streamline, and smoothly-stitched together narrative account with exceeding uniformity can be taken as a lie.  Perhaps incongruous accounts of a single set of events, such as in the Gospels or the opening chapter of the Tanakh, are more reliable than uniform accounts.

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1 Comment

Filed under Cognitive Science, Kantian Philosophy, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Physics, Philosophy of Science, Pure Philosophy

One response to “Thoughts on a Fractured Reality

  1. Pingback: A Response to “The Brain on Trial” | milliern

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