October 26, 2012

On diverse notebooks, with some history and realism & truth


1.  On NOTEBOOK and my Notebooks + a little history
2.  Realism and Truth
PS. My eye problems


Yesterday I revealed that I am trying to write a book - but it should be clear this is not a plan that will be realized "real soon now".  Today I write about the difference between NOTEBOOK and my Notebooks, and reproduce a note on realism and truth from the latter.

1. On NOTEBOOK and my Notebooks + a little history

Some days ago there was a nice explanation in NB (aka NOTEBOOK aka NOTITIEBOEK) of How to write and think like a real psychiatrist (psychologist, psychotherapist) and indeed also about how how you may become rich and admired and about how you can to get away with most anything.

Today I just have a note on philosophy - in fact, it is from the same file and from the same month as the notes I  gave in September under the title From the Notebooks of MM
: From March 1989. It is about realism and truth, and makes a few simple but fairly fundamental points.

Before doing so, I should mention that there aren in fact at least three kinds of reasons to quote the note - and I also should add a fourth point to clarify my terminology:

  1. I have promised - or at least said - there would be more philosophy in NOTEBOOK then there is in Nederlog. This is in part because I really have a lot of knowledge about that subject or those subjects - let's say: analytic philosophy, philosophy of science and mathematical logic, especially but not only from 1900-1980 - and because I think these subjects are interesting, and also because I hold that any intelligent person must have some interest in philosophical questions and answers.

  2. In fact, I have a great lot of such notes in my Notebooks: Presently sitting on my harddisk, the notes I made on philosophical and logical subjects (mostly) from the years 1989-2012, with some years missing or incompete, total nearly 29 MB of simple html - which comes to 50 fair sized Penguins when printed. (Part of that would be repetitive, I guess, but I am fairminded or arrogant enough to insist that it is a lot better and more interesting than Wittgenstein II - and here I am not being unduly unfair, because this is not saying much: Read Gellner's "Words and things" if you want to know why, indeed quite regardless of the qualities of my notes.)

  3. I do want to say some more about my kind of philosophy - scientific realism (<- Wikipedia, with which I do not quite agree - often, about philosophy, for example), i.e. the thesis that there is an independently existing reality in which human beings all are parts, and this reality is best known by means of scientific theories and methods - and perhaps I also will want to write about some relevant books concerned with it, like Mario Bunge's "Treatise on Basic Philosophy" (in fact a series of 8 books, by an Argentinian theoretical physicist), and like Michael Devitt's "Realism and Truth" (2nd edition).

  4. I do intend to quote more from those Notebooks I mentioned, in this NOTEBOOK - and there you have a relevant difference:

    My Notebooks consist of notes I wrote, by hand, by typewriter, or by computer, since 1970, when I started. They are
    mostly about problems and ideas in formal philosophy or logic, and nearly all are written as they were written originally, in English, which I did mostly to save myself the trouble of two sets of technical terms, one in English and one in Dutch, and because most I did read on the subject (a mountain of books and papers, in fact) was in English anyway.

    Notebooks are not at all the same as the NOTEBOOK | NOTITIEBOEK I write the present text in: That is just a named part of my site where I more or less continue Nederlog, in a format that is kinder to my often sore eyes.
Having clarified these details, let me just add a little about scientific realism, Wittgenstein II and linguistic philosophy, the student revolts of the 1960ies, and postmodernism, for there is a tale of deep tragedy there, which - very briefly - amounts to this:

In the 1920ies, in the aftermath of World War I and in part caused by recent advantagees in mathematical logic, notably Whitehead and Russell's Principia Mathematica, there arose a movement, mostly among philosophers, physicists and mathematicians, who wanted philosophy and a philosophical outlook that was much more in line with science and scientificmethods, and also more in line with the recent advantages in mathematics and logic, than all hitherto existing philosophy.

This got fairly popular, and indeed was picked up in German universities (Göttingen and Berlin, especially: Hilbert, Weyl, Reichenbach); Polish universities (Warsaw and Lvov: Ajdukiewicz, Kotarbinski, Lesniewski, Tarski); the university of Vienna (Schlick, Hahn, Carnap, Popper); and also elsewhere, to some extent (England:
Russell, Broad, Ramsey, Ayer; Holland: Mannoury and Brouwer; USA, C.I. Lewis, Post, Church, Kleene); and indeed also got fairly well known in the press and with scientists from quite a few different sciences.

Then much of this got destroyed first by the rise of Hitler, which made many of its proponents political refugees, and then by WW II.

The original movement of the 1920ies and 1930ies, mostly associated with the term "Neo-positivism" (best explained by a book by R. von Mises - the mathematician, indeed, with the title "Positivism", in English, or else, from a more distant point of view, by
Weyl's  "Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science") never got resurrected, though quite a few of its members or sympathizers eventually ended up at US universities.

This then blossomed there mostly in an upsurge of philosophy of science, probability theory and mathematical logic, by many of these scholars, such as Weyl, Reichenbach, Tarski, Carnap, Kleene) or their students, that lasted from 1930-1980, and again gave hope to many scientists that, at long last, something like a scientific philosophy - a philosophy based on mathematics and logic, and compatible with real science, while being enlightened in attitudes and values - would and could arise, at least in Academia.

There was a fairly sick counterforce, called linguistic philosophy, that was fairly popular in the 1950ies and early 1960ies, because it required no mathematical interest or talent, and indeed no philosophical talent: It consisted mostly of insisting that Wittgenstein had shown that there were no real philosophical problems whatsoever, as long as one spoke the King's English, in a civilized way, and reduced each and every question or problem to "a language game".

Then again, on its own very slight merits this would not have defeated sound philosophy of science and good mathematical logic, but then something else arose and defeated all hope for rational scientific realistic philosophy:

All got skewered and destroyed by the leveling of almost all of the Western universities, in the period between 1970-1995, combined with the take over of the market of ideas - the press, mostly, especially weeklies and monthlies addressed to the academically qualified - by postmodernists, and "scholars" nurtured in that tradition of relativistic falsehoods, fashionable propaganda, abuse of language,  and the cultivation of general bullshit - see Morningstar - as replacement for all intelligent and informed discourse (see Allan Bloom), and indeed as a new kind of academic yahoo: The postmodern pseudo-intellectual.

In brief: Just as the chances for a decent high civilization in the 20th Century - that
would have been possible on the basis of the realized technological potentials implicit in physics, chemistry and biology - were repeatedly destroyed by two world wars and also by two great revolutions, in Russian and China, that transformed world politics and economics, the chances for a decent scientific philosophy in the 20th Century - that would have been possible on the basis of the realized advances in mathematics, logic and the foundations of physics and mathematics - were repeatedly destroyed, in part by politics, in part by developments in the universities, that effectively changed most of the universities from institutions offering academic teaching to the brightest 1 - 5%, to what are in fact colleges calling themselves "universities", that hand out nominal "academic degrees", to those in the highest 50% of intellectual attainments.

Much was done and achieved in the ways, foundations and potentials of high civilization and real science in the 20th Century, but most of the real good that could have been done was destroyed by what may be fairly described as political yahoos that achieved governmental powers and and by quasi-academic yahoos that eventually succeeded in taking over most of the universities, if not in person, than in terms of a leveling ideology of political correctness, and the replacement of science and fact by politics and morals.

Also, this was very much a potted history, that is explicitly partial, i.e. I take sides, that and can be properly understood only if you know most of what is in the links that I have supplied, to Wikipedia lemmas mostly.

Now for something that relates to this, that I wrote in March 1989, and lifted from my Notebooks, where in fact there is a lot more on this and related themes, but usually with formalities (from mathematical logic, as a rule) that I want to avoid here and now.

Before starting upon this, the philosophically naive reader should realize that there are virtually no real scientists (physicists, (bio-)chemists, engineers) who are not realists of some kind: Non-realists tend to be nearly exclusively philosophical types, and among those especially the ones that have no talents for either science or mathematics. (*)

2. Realism and Truth

The correspondence theory of truth and realism are related but not completely interdependent. Also, the fact that they are not is very instructive:

Whatever is true (in whatever sense) metaphysically, we can imagine independently existing worlds about which claims are made. For example, consider chess: We may assume that there are a board and pieces, and that the pieces are moved by the appropriate rules. It will follow that, in that reality, it is true that queens can reach all squares on the board, but bishops can't.

Here it doesn't matter (i) whether the board, the pieces and the rules do really exist: All that matters is that we imagine them to exist independently (ii) nor does it matter how we imagine them, as long as the minimal demands to speak of chess are satisfies:

What matters is that we assumed something to exist and to have definite properties. As long as our claims are adequate to these assumptions we can test them. Realism in any pictorial sense need not be guaranteed: There are very many possible adequate versions and visions of the same - possible - facts, all of which may be adequate, as can be seen by the very many different boards and pieces [in chess] (varying from Staunton to ugly).

What does matter is (i) that our subject (the idea we have of the board etc.) is and remains (largely) independent from our claims, either because we keep these ideas apart from our claims, or because we have them in a non-linguistic format, and (ii) that our subject has or is assumed to have stable and testable properties - where the former means that these properties do not arbitrarily change and are in the period considered unaltered, and the latter means that the supposed properties are, insofar as we make claims about them, more or less understood and entail consequences that may be checked in experience.

All of this also applies to e.g. the Greek gods: We have canonical texts, statues, pictures a.s.o. which makes it possible to discuss claims like "In standard Greek mythology, Zeus is married to Hera".

Now to shift to metaphysics: It therefore makes sense to presuppose a correspondence theory of truth whatever metaphysical assumptions one makes. If one is a realist, the correspondence theory is the bridge to reality; if one is not a realist, the correspondence theory is the bridge to a fantasy of reality.

What scientific realism adds to the correspondence theory is the claim: What is supposed to exist when we make claims about physical reality does exist. (**) Note that the adjective "scientific" makes sense: For example, the divine reality supposed by the Greeks does not exist. And note also that if it exists it exists independently, for that is what the correspondence theory entails.

By contrast, idealism must claim that what is supposed to exist when we make claims about physical reality does not exist. NB that otherwise idealism is pretty safe, from the p.o.v. of science, for all we need for science is that there appears to be an independent physical reality.

The problem with idealism is, rather, that it makes the appearance of physical reality and what reality really is if it does not exist independently as science describes it, highly problematic. Scientific realism gives a simple and plausible answer: What really is so is what science says there is. (***) Idealism must accept science, but with the qualifier that what science says is not really so, though it must appear to be so. What is really so according to idealism becomes hard to explain: We can explain perception and phantasy on the basis of realism - there is a real world, and people perceive it and phantasize about what might be in terms derived from their perceptions - but we can't explain perception and phantasy on the basis of idealism, for that should run more or less thus: There are fantasy and perception (somehow, in limbo), and what appears as the real world (somehow) is generated by them.

NB that the problem is - in my sense - abductive: We can explain to some extent, and anyway in principle, how a physically existing system can perceive and think. After all, we know many physically relevant conditions, both necessary and sufficient , and varying from being alive and not drugged nor asleep to being healthy and curious. But we cannot explain at all, neither to some extent nor in principle, how perceiving and phantasizing can produce our versions of reality. All the idealists provide is a claim that, somehow, this is evidently possible, as we do have versions of reality. (****)

Note also that this problem is to a considerable extent the problem of embodiment: What people perceive and think is evidently tied up with the states of their body; all people we ever meet are in some sense embodied (even hallucinations are - mere disembodied spirits, e.g. talking from the whirlwind, are pretty rare, even in religious psychotics); and all people eventually die, which also is a bodily event. Now it is much easier to explain that a body thinks than that a thought bodies - and one important reason is that we know thinking depends on bodily states (drinking alcohol, for example) but bodily states do not depend on thought: We can imagine what we please, but not thereby alter our bodies; and whereas the relation body->mind is constrained in all sorts of ways we are familiar with, the relation mind->body is not - we can, after all, imagine what we please.

--- 8.III.1989

All of the above (including the title) was written, precisely as rendered here, on March 8, 1989, but I have added the links today, to help clarify things.
(*) Those who want to direct me to Jeans or Eddington or Wheeler or Bohr (all physicists with some philosophical pretensions, that mostly tended towards idealism) should know that I am aware of them, but that I am not impressed by their philosophies, however impressive they were
as physicists.

(**) For the philosophically naive I should probably add that the claim "What is supposed to exist when we make claims about physical reality does exist" is not claimed for dogmatic reasons but for testing purposes: If what is supposed to exist is, then what it logically implies are facts, should be found in fact. And therefore - speaking broadly - if what it logically implies are facts cannot be found, it is less likely to be true, and if what it logically implies are facts can be found, it is more likely to be true.

(***) For the philosophically naive I should probably add that the claim "Scientific realism gives a simple and plausible answer: What really is so is what science says there is" is meant in the sense of the previous note, and as most real scientists understand it, that is, with the tacitly understood "to the best of our present knowledge, that certainly is neither certain nor cormplete".

(****) In case you care to see what one of the best human minds ever, namely Leibniz, found necessary to maintain his idealism, you might consider my - copiously and clearly annotated - editions of his "Monadology" and "Nouveaux Essais".


Maarten Maartensz

P.S. My eye problems

                  PS: Any necessary corrections have to be made later.