The way the world is

by Neil Rickert

Right now it is a cloudy, rainy April day.  And if that’s the kind of thing one means by “the way the world is” then I have no problem with that.  However, people often use that expression in a different sense.  Typically, they are talking about some metaphysical point, and they say “there’s a certain way that the world is”.  And they go on to ask questions such as whether our current science agrees with “that certain way that the world is” (whatever that is supposed to mean).

I’ll use the expression “the metaphysical way the world is” for that usage, though I’ll mostly abbreviate that as MWWI.

It seems that MWWI is supposed to refer to some presumed linguistic description of the world which is independent of personal and cultural viewpoints and is language independent.

I’m inclined to think that MWWI is incoherent.  I don’t think that there can be such a thing.  And that’s what this post is about.

Reality

Let’s start with reality.  When I deny that there could be a MWWI, some people take me as being something of an idealist.  That is, they take me to be denying that there is a human independent reality — that what we call reality is something that we make up in our heads.

But, no, that’s not right.

I have no doubt that there is a human independent reality.  My point is about the limitations of description, not about whether there is a reality.  I see our descriptions as pragmatic devices that serve our purposes.  And, as such, they cannot avoid being oriented toward serving our human purposes.

Viewpoint free language

There actually can be a viewpoint free language.  A formal language (such as first order predicate calculus) would seem to satisfy that requirement.  But there’s a problem with a formal language.  It seems that the formal language can only refer to abstract objects.  It cannot say anything about ordinary things in the world.  So it gets to have no viewpoint about the world because it cannot say anything at all about that world.

We can actually extend such a formal language, to allow it to refer to ordinary things.  That’s about what Tarski’s theory of truth does.  But, in doing that, we impose our own viewpoint on that extended formal language.  So we haven’t really solved the problem at all.

That should not be a surprise.  We ordinarily see “meaning” as closely related to “purpose”.  To allow meanings into a language is to allow purpose, and thus to allow particular viewpoints (as biased by those purposes).

A thought experiment

Let’s pretend, for the moment, that at least our fundamental physics is viewpoint independent.  I say “pretend” because the viewpoints of physics have changed over time.   There’s no reason to assume that they won’t change again.  But, for the moment, let’s pretend.

It seems, then, that if we could come up with a complete list of the location and velocity of every elementary particle in the universe, we would have a complete specification of the universe that is viewpoint independent (at least under our pretense).  We could not actually have such a list.  The Heisenberg uncertainty principle says that it is not possible even in principle.  But let’s ignore that difficulty for the moment.

So we now have, in our pretense, a complete viewpoint free specification of the way the world is.  However, it does not tell us anything about flowers or birds or trees.  It tells us everything, but we cannot recognize the flowers, birds or trees in what it tells us.

Yet we want our MWWI to tell us about flowers, birds and trees.  They are part of what makes the world meaningful to us.

The though experiment thus illustrates how what is meaningful to us cannot be viewpoint independent.

We come into the world, and we divide it up for our purposes.  The flowers, birds and trees emerge as some of the parts into which we divide it.  But our ability to divide comes from our biology, and cannot but help depend on the kind of beings that we are.

Summary

I have explained why I see the idea of a viewpoint independent account of the world — sometimes called a “god’s eye view” — doesn’t really make sense.  We can only see and describe what we make of the world.  We cannot do this is a way that is independent of our own perspective.

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