vrijdag 5 april 2013

Does reality exist? A debate with Graham Harman

In 2010 I completed my master thesis in philosophy (see here for an addendum to it). In this thesis I develop a theory of knowledge that comes very close to what the French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux calls 'strong correlationism' (without me knowing this term at that time; I didn't even know who Meillassoux was). Yesterday I entered into a debate at Felix & Sofie with the American philosopher Graham Harman (who, like Meillassoux, rejects strong correlationism). My opening statement to the debat is available below.

"First of all I would like to thank Felix & Sofie for the invitation to participate in tonight’s debate. The question of tonight’s debate is one of the most fundamental questions of philosophy: Does reality exist? Well, in my master thesis I make a distinction between the-world-for-us and the-world-in-itself. The-world-for-us is the world as implied by the human point of view. It is the world as it is thought and perceived by us humans. The-world-in-itself is ultimate reality. The-world-in-itself is the world as it exists on and for itself in an absolute sense. It is the absolute.

Now, the-world-in-itself is inaccessible for us. It is impossible for us to get outside ourselves in order to compare the world as it is ‘in itself’ to the world as it is ‘for us’. We do not have access to such an absolute stance. After all, we are trapped in our human condition. We can only access the world from our human viewpoint. It is impossible for us to step outside our relation to the in-itself. Therefore we cannot know anything that is beyond this relationship. To put it differently, we cannot think or perceive something while abstracting from the fact that it is still us who are thinking or perceiving it. Indeed, if we think or perceive anything as true about the in-itself, then what we think or perceive is still a human thought or human experience. All our knowledge is qualified as human knowledge. This is inevitable. We can’t get rid of this qualification of our knowledge. Absolute knowledge is unreachable.

So the-world-in-itself is unknowable because our knowledge is always relative to the human conditions of knowledge. We cannot have access to the-world-in-itself since we cannot have knowledge of anything independent of our human way of thinking and perceiving.

Is this Kantianism? No, for contrary to Kantianism, even the claim that there exist objects outside us that ground or produce our experiences, is only justified as a claim about how the world is for us. So Kant’s claim that there are Dinge-an-sich is only warranted as a world-for-us-claim. In fact, even the distinction between the-world-for-us and the-world-in-itself is only justified as a claim about how the world is for us. For again, everything we think applies to the-world-for-us. So, the-world-for-us is the ultimate unsurpassable horizon of all our understanding. It is for us the holistic all-inclusive. We are always already in it. Hence, it is the subject of all our predications. Is this idealism? No. Idealism claims to know the in-itself. According to idealism the in-itself is consciousness or mind and nothing exists outside it. But this claim is not warranted because we cannot know the in-itself. Is it than realism? No, for idealism might be true. Again, we know nothing at all about the in-itself; so also not whether idealism is false.

Should this all worry us? Not at all! For within the context of the world-for-us we can justify many, many claims. Examples include, but are not limited to, logical propositions such as the principle of non-contradiction, mathematical statements such as the theorems of set theory, ordinary claims (such that I exist, that you exist and are not merely a product of my thought, that the glass of water in front of me exists extra-mentally as well, that Paris is the capital of France, etc.), and moral claims, such as that it is wrong to torture the innocent. In fact the whole project of metaphysics can still be carried out within the context of the world-for-us, as long as we realize that all our claims, metaphysical and non-metaphysical, are about the for-us and cannot be justified as claims about the in-itself. And this is fine. For what else could we as human beings wish for than to justify claims about how the world is for us? Indeed, what else could we as human beings wish for than to be justified as human beings? After all, we are human beings, not gods. The in-itself is inaccessible. That is what we should concede to the skeptic. But we can still find truth: objective universal human truth within the-world-for-us. And for us humans, that should be sufficient."

Note: On 6 April I translated the Dutch parts of this post into English

6 opmerkingen:

A. Atsou-Pier zei

“such as that it is wrong to torture the innocent.”

Hopelijk kwam niemand op het idee te vragen of het martelen van schuldigen dus niet verkeerd is ?

Emanuel Rutten zei

Beste Atsou-Pier,

Aha! Scherp gezien. Ik bedoelde hier natuurlijk dat martelen sowieso verkeerd is. De formulering in mijn voordracht is dus niet correct.


Moslim zei
Deze reactie is verwijderd door de auteur.
Anoniem zei

"Does reality exist? is de meest fundamentele vraag van de filosofie?"

Dat zou iig de nuttelooosheid van de ilosofie verklaren. Maar kom op: het os n self defeating question, ergens naar vragen impliceert realiteit, existentie. Dat is één van de vele punten van Sein und Zeit. Misschien toch maar s lezen...

Bert Morrien zei

It seems possible to arrive at a similar conclusion in the following way.

1. All information Iw from the world enters the human organism via basic sensory organs.
This information is e.g. available in electromagnetic, acoustic, mechanical and chemical forms.

2. The sensory organs present a function of the information Iw as F(Iw) to the brain, mainly in the form of electrical action potentials (firings), the same as utilised by neurons in the brain.
Examples: electromagnetic energy of specific wavelengths result in firings of light-sensitive cells in the eye, other via heat-sensitive cells in the skin. Acoustic energy result in firings of hair-cells in the inner ear.

3. The brain is able to detect patterns in F(Iw). This occurs by a mechanism that is characterised as ``cells that fire together wire together''. For example, a visual line pattern is detected when a row of adjacent light-sensitive cells in the eye are exited at the same time, when a single line pattern is projected on the retina.

4. The brain is also able to detect patterns in patterns. For example, a visual triangle pattern can be detected when a triangle of three lines is projected on the retina. Other examples are faces, the smell of a rose, the taste of a pear, the roughness of sandpaper.
There seems hardly a limit in the pattern recognition capability of the brain, these are not limited to spatial patterns, but in particular time functions in streams of firings are rich in possible patterns. Exampes are: the bark of a dog, a top-hit, a play.

5. Via the ``cells that fire together wire together'' principle, the brain can also learn all kinds of abilities, such as the control of motor functions and abilities required to keep itself alive.

6. In principle, all detected patterns and learned abilities are remembered via the wiring mechanism. However, connections associated with patterns that are inconsistent or irrelevant are weakened or removed. Still, the brain becomes filled with a vast number of patterns, which is no problem, because the brain operates in a massive parallel way.

7. Initially, the set of patterns is nothing else as an enumeration without meaning. However, the patterns that corresponds to to parts of the own body must become very conspicuous. This set of patterns form the, still unconscious, perception of the self. A very peculiar pattern must be the perception of the mind by introspection.
Once this happens, the brain becomes self-conscious because it identifies itself with the own body. Because this identification is always confirmed, it, the ''I', becomes self-evident.
This is also when patterns start to get meanings.
other people.

Bert Morrien zei

8. The conscious mind is rational, but limited, because it can only pay attention to a few patterns at a time. It perceives the unconscious mind as intuition, which easily leads to the conclusion that there is more than meets the eye. It can deliberately learn new abilities to the unconscious mind by training, such as reading and writing. It can also train the unconscious mind to unlearn unwanted behaviour, e.g. eating snacks whenever available.

9. The unconscious mind is irrational but virtually unlimited, because it operates in a massive parallel mode without the need to pay attention, which is impossible anyway. It is not able to decide that patterns have no relation with the world. When catching a ball, throwing darts and playing a piano, the unconscious mind can be trusted, but, for tasks that require rationality, such as visually landing a plane under difficult circumstances, rational, counter intuitive actions could be required to prevent disaster.

10. Initially, the conscious mind considers all patterns as real, but it can decide, after an effort, that a pattern has no relation with the world, especially if it realises that patterns are based upon F(Iw) and not on Iw.
Examples: telepathy, ghosts, 9/11 conspiracy theory, god.
The set of patterns, that are considered as real, forms the only reality that the mind experiences. Note that this set includes all kinds of patterns that are taken for granted such as a pair of shoes, language, humor, pain, the self.
As a result, each person perceives his own personal reality.
The conscious mind can also decide that a pattern has a relation with the world, i.e. it can decide that this pattern independent. Examples: a planet, an atom, general relativity, quantum mechanics.

11. Via communication with other people, personal realities can be altered. In this way not only valuable knowledge can be exchanged, but, via coercion, a personal reality can be deformed in such a way that it is not questioned any more.

12. If a person dies, his personal reality dies with him; this may be counter intuitive, but it cannot be denied on rational grounds. Maybe a part of his reality is left behind in other people.