Archive for November 24th, 2010

November 24, 2010

Realism

by Neil Rickert

The idea for this post started when I read “Stephen Hawking’s Radical Philosophy of Science“, a post by Michael Shermer over at the Big Questions Online site.  But my thoughts soon drifted, so this post actually says as much about my own ideas of reality as it does of the ideas expressed in the Shermer post.

People reading my posts here and the things that I say elsewhere, sometimes conclude that I have weird ideas, and they wonder whether I think that the world is a creation of the human mind.  However, my position on realism, on what is the nature of the world, is actually quite close to that of naive realism.  When I look at that smooth surface of my desk, I understand that it isn’t really as smooth as it looks, so I can’t say that the world is exactly as it looks to us.  But the way it looks to us is a pretty good approximation.  So if I seem to have weird ideas, that’s for a different reason.  It is because when I see what people say and write, I can see that they are making unstated assumptions, often assumptions that they are not aware of.  So I have been looking at those unstated assumptions, and questioning them.  It seems to me that questioning unstated assumptions is something that philosophy should be doing.  Too often, philosophy seems to be failing us in that regard.

Returning briefly to the cited post, we see Shermer saying:

None of us can ever be completely sure that the world really is as it appears, or if our minds have unconsciously imposed a misleading pattern on the data. I call this belief-dependent realism.

And that’s an example of where my own realism disagrees with Shermer.  For sure, there is much in our world that is socially constructed.  Our monetary system is a social construct.  Our highway system is a social construct.  That the week is 7 days results from a social construct.  There is much that we do in our ordinary lives that is shaped by social constructs.  But, beneath all of that, there is an underlying reality that is not dependent on our beliefs.  The main point of Shermer’s post is to criticize the model dependent realism of Stephen Hawking.

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