Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Realism vs. anti-realism

A first attempt to understand the difference between realist and anti-realist claims for knowing X.

From the Dictionary of the Philosophy of Mind:

"Briefly, a realist about x holds that x enjoys mind-independent existence, that is, x exists regardless of whether anyone thinks, hopes or fears that x exists.

It may sound odd to demand of minds and other things mental that they have mind independent existence, but the claim, for instance, that my mind is mind independent just means that I have a mind regardless of whether anyone thinks, hopes, or fears that I do.

As well, a realist insists on there being explanations of the empirical world (including minds) in terms of the real world. Thus, a complete theory of the mind should explain the existence and functioning of minds in terms of the reality lying behind their empirically testable properties."


[Anti-realism] "insists that we can only understand a statement if we understand under what circumstances someone who asserted it would say something true, and that we can only understand this if we could manifest our understanding, at least in principle, by asserting it in the relevant circumstances.

It follows that we could not understand any alleged truths that transcend all possibility, even in principle, of being verified. The view gains plausibility when we ask what sense it makes to talk of understanding something when we could never in any circumstances manifest a knowledge of it.

But realists (of the relevant kind) insist on the contrary that truth must be prior to, and independent of, our means of ascertaining it."

Glossing over the substantial differences within each camp, we can say that the primary difference between realists and anti-realists abides in the answer that each gives to the question: what do we know when we claim to know?

Realists answer: "We know something true about a reality that exists prior to our knowing it."

Anti-realists answer: "We know only our true descriptions of what we believe to be real."

In other words, the difference is the difference between so-called "mind independent reality" and "mind dependent reality." To be clear, anti-realists generally do not argue that what we call reality is non-existent in common sense terms; that is, they do not claim that the real world is a product of individual perception and consciousness. Rather, the anti-realist is making a claim about the ontological status of exactly what it is we know. We know our true descriptions of reality. The realist will counter that we must know something more than our descriptions because those descriptions must be describing something other than themselves.

For realists, descriptions are true if they are empirically verifiable; that is, if our descriptions accurately match a prior reality then we can say that we have truthfully described reality. For anti-realists, descriptions can only be shown to be true within the limits of our descriptive language; in other words, there is no appeal to a reality prior to our description of that reality. What we "know" about reality is our description of it.

As I understand it, critical realism takes the best of both views and claims that we know both descriptions and what these descriptions describe. However, our descriptions are limited by our physical perceptual capabilities (and extensions of them), our language, and our means of verification; so, when we claim to know X, we are really saying, "To the extent that our perceptual capabilities, our language, and our means of verification allow, we describe X in this way and we do so accurately though not absolutely." So, my description of an apple will be accurate in comparison to an apple, but I cannot describe everything about any particular apple, only what is knowable given my limits. As my limits are expanded (though instruments, experimentation, more precise language), I am more and more capable of accurately describing the apple as it is, but my limits are infinite in that there will always be some question unanswerable by perception or experimentation; e.g. which apple produced the seed that produced the tree that produced this apple, ad inf?