Nuomena and phenomena

by Neil Rickert

Kant made a distinction between the world in itself (the nuomenal world) and the world of our experience (the phenomenal world).  This was the topic of discussion between Dan Kaufman (or “DK”) and Crispin Sartwell (or “CS”) in a video presented at Electric Agora.  I found it an interesting discussion.  In this post, I plan to comment on a small portion of what was discussed.

DK and CS disagree, in a friendly way, throughout the discussion.  That’s good, because it brings different viewpoints to our attention.

In earlier posts here, I have argued that there isn’t a way that the world is.  From the linked discussion, DK seems to agree while CS seems to disagree.  My own views don’t coincide with either, though perhaps they are a bit closer to DK.

At around 16:45 in the video, DK says “We shouldn’t think of the object of investigation as the world independent of anyone’s experience.”  I’m inclined to disagree with DK on that point.  It seems to me that we do investigate the nuomenal world.  And, yes, we investigate it by means of our experience.  But we create that experience by means of the ways that we interact with the world.  It doesn’t quite seem right to say that we only investigate the world of our experience, when we generate our own experience in order to investigate the unknown nuomenal world.

In some sense, the goal of our investigation is to find ways of satisfying our biological needs and urges.  But, to achieve that, we investigate the world looking for opportunities to meet those needs and urges.  And our investigation is unavoidably biased by our biology and perhaps by our culture.

Objects

DK goes on to suggest that trees are not nuomenal objects.  And CS disagrees, saying that they are nuomenal objects.  My view is somewhere between the two.  That is to say, I see trees as part of the nuomenal world, but not as nuomenal objects.  I don’t think there is anything in the nuomenal world to decide what is an object.  It is up to us to decide what to count as an object.

In some sense, I think of the nuomenal world as consisting of undifferentiated stuff.  And it is up to us to make distinctions within that stuff and thereby identify what we will take to be objects and categories.

While I see trees as part of the nuomenal world — as part of the undifferentiated stuff, I am not nearly so sure that I would say the same about atoms and electrons.  There isn’t a way that the world is, because the world does not dictate to us what parts we should pick out of that undifferentiated stuff.  So there’s a way that we see and experience the world, but that is not independent of us.

There’s a reason I make that distinction.  In some sense, we are picking out part of the world that we want to think about or talk about.  And that pretty much applies to trees, cats, dogs, house, etc.  That is, it applies to entities in what philosophers call “the manifest image.”  But the way that entities make it into the scientific image is a bit different.  Entities such as atoms and electrons started out as something like ideal objects that we invented to explain observed behaviors.  So the charge of idealism is a somewhat closer fit to how we come to have scientific entities than it is to how we have ordinary entities (such as trees or dogs).

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