“Unlike physical or chemical dissipative structures, in which patterns of dynamic order form spontaneously, but whose stability relies almost completely on externally-imposed boundary conditions, autonomous systems build and actively maintain most of their own boundary conditions, making possible a robust far-from-equilibrium dynamic behavior.”
“A big stone in the river holds water from flowing, and some bacteria ferment milk to produce yoghourt. Although both systems do something, we do not call the stone an agent. The difference between the two cases is not in the degree of change operated by one or the other, but in the consequence of that change: only in the latter case does the change contribute to the maintenance of the performer of the action.”
Ruiz-Mirazo, Kepa & Moreno, Alvaro (2012). “Autonomy in evolution: from minimal to complex life”. Synthese 185 (1), 33-34.
Metaphysical Realism (MR) is not one claim but, Putnam argues, a package of interrelated claims about the mind-world relationship. The key components of MR are 1) the independence thesis; 2) the correspondence thesis; 3) the uniqueness thesis. The independence thesis states that there is a fixed totality of mind independent objects (the world). The correspondence thesis states that there are determinate reference relations between bits of language or mental representations and the bits of the world to which they refer. The uniqueness theory states that there is a theory whose sentences correctly describe the states of all these objects. This implies a singular correspondence between the terms belonging to this theory and the objects and properties that they refer to (Putnam 1981, 49). As a package it is cohesive. One needs mind-independent properties and objects as objects/properties to correspond to. There must be some unique total fact about these objects if there is to be one correct way in which a theory can represent this total fact.
We can imagine this theory being expressed in a language consisting of names like “Fido” and “Shlomo”, property and relation terms like “…is a dog”, “…is a cat” or “…is father of…”, as well as all the quantificational apparatus that we need to make multiple generalizations: e.g. “There is at least one thing that is a cat” or “All dogs hate at least one cat”. Of course, since this is the one true theory we might expect it to contain enough mathematics (e.g. set theory) to express the true laws of physics, the true laws of chemistry, etc. However, for this to be one true theory each true sentence that we can derive from it – e.g. “Shlomo is a cat” – must hook up with the world in the right way. For example, “Shlomo” must determinately refer to a unique object and this object must have the property referred to by “…is a cat” (this property might be the set of all cats or it might be universal property of catness – again, depending on the metaphysical facts). [i]
An assignment of referents to terms along these lines is called an interpretation function. The set of objects, properties, relations, etc. that are matched up to terms by a particular interpretation function is called a model. Putnam’s account of metaphysical realism then, in effect says that metaphysical realism is the claim that there is a unique description of the world hooked up to that world by a single true interpretation function (matching names to objects, property terms to properties, etc.).
The uniqueness of the corresponding interpretation function is crucial here because if there were more than one good way of interpreting the terms of the one true theory, there would be alternative theories, each one corresponding to a different interpretation function for the constituent terms of its language.[ii] In that case, there would not be one correct description of the world. But if realism comes down to a commitment to there being a God’s eye view of the world – a uniquely true theory which picks out the way the world is – then realism would have to be rejected.
What is the virtue that makes the one true theory unique? Well, to count as the one true theory, it would, at minimum, need to satisfy all the “operational constraints” that ideally rational inquirers would impose on such a theory. For example, if one imagines science progressing to an ideal limit at which no improvements can be made in its explanatory power, coherence, elegance or simplicity, then the one true theory would have to be as acceptable to ideally rational enquirers as that theory (Putnam 1981, 30).
Putnam’s argument against realism is that given a theory that satisfies this ideal of operational virtue there would always be a second equally good theory that can be constructed by giving the sentences of the first different interpretations. Further, he argues, that there is nothing beyond operational virtue that might distinguish the first theory from the second because there are no mind-independent semantic facts that specify the right interpretation. If this is right, then there cannot be a one true theory that completely describes the world.
The argument begins with a theorem of model theory.[iii] The model-theoretic notion of a theory is that it is a language L under a given interpretation function I which maps the terms of L onto a universe of objects and properties (properties are treated as sets of objects. For example, the relation of fatherhood would be the set of all ordered pairs, the second member of which is the son of the first member.). The theorem states that for every theory T1 (consisting of a language L under interpretation I) it is possible to gerrymander a function J that interprets each term L “in violently different ways, each of them compatible with the requirement that the truth value of each sentence in each possible world be the one specified” (Putnam 1981, 33, 217-218). The basic idea is that under these “permutated” interpretation functions, the sentences that come out true in T1 in a given possible world would come out true in T2 in that world.[iv] The two theories T1 and T2 would not differ in assignments of truth values to sentences in any possible world and – being expressed in the same words – would have exactly the same structure, so each would be as simple and as elegant as the other.
However, metaphysical realism is committed to the view that even an ideally confirmed and simple theory could be comprehensively false because truth is “radically non-epistemic” – that is truth is a matter of whether a sentence corresponds with the world, not of how well confirmed that sentence is. This is, of course, the position that Descartes is committed to in his Evil Demon thought experiment. The semantic facts that give my beliefs reference to a possible world are unaffected by the existence or nature of the mind-external world. Putnam’s version of this realist conceit is the science fictional notion that we might be brains in vats being fed simulated experiences by a mad neurophysiologist. Thus, according to metaphysical realism, even a theory T1 that is operationally ideal and irrefutable for vat brains could be still be false (Putnam 1978, 125). However, unlike Descartes, Putnam argues that this conceit is incoherent. If T1 is consistent it is possible to find an interpretation function that maps the language of T1 onto a model containing elements of whatever world happens to exist – even if that is vat-world. So under this interpretation T1 comes out true, not false (Putnam 1978, 126).
It can be objected that this would not be the interpretation “intended” by the vat brains (or the ensorcelled Descartes, if one prefers). But T1 would be operationally as good as it gets for the envatted. It would inform their practices of inference and prediction in just the same way that it would were it true. There seems to be nothing beyond these practices of judgment and inference that could fix the meaning of terms like “cat” or “dog” – though these are clearly not sufficient to give uniquely determinate meaning.
Some philosophers have argued that uniquely intended interpretations can be imposed by our contents of our beliefs or ideas. For example, maybe my idea of a cat and actual cats shares a mysterious essence of catness which “exists both in the thing and (minus the latter) in our minds” which, in turn, fixes the reference of property terms like “cat” (Putnam 1983, 206; 1981, 59-61). Putnam argues that this response makes recourse to a magic language of self-interpreting mental-signs: it states, in effect, that there are mental representations that just mean what they mean irrespective of how the world is or of their role in inference. Here Putnam is in agreement with the French deconstructionist, Jacques Derrida. For Derrida, as for Putnam, a sign is a mark that acquires it meaning by being used differently from other signs, whether the mark is spoken, written or occurs in the brain or in some purely mental medium (if such a thing exits). A particular inscription or brain state or sound only counts as a sign insofar as it functions or is used differently from other signs. The obvious candidate for “use” and “function” here are the roles of signs in inferences and in interpretative practices. But these, as has been seen, are unable to fix a unique model for T1.
So it does not matter whether we are talking about mental signs or signs in language: they derive meaning from their differential functioning. For Derrida this has the complicating consequence that any mark must be “iterable”: i.e. can be lifted from its standard contexts and grafted into new ones, thereby acquiring different functions (Derrida 1988, 9-10). However, for our purposes, the important consequence is that appealing to “inner” or mental signs to fix the intended meanings of T1 seems to presents us with exactly the same problem of indeterminacy as we had with T1 itself (Putnam 1978, 127; 1983, 207).
If this is right, then the realist claim that an ideally confirmed theory could be false just comes down to the claim that there are self-standing minds or self-standing languages whose meanings are fixed regardless of how things lie in the world. But if Putnam is right, there are no self-standing meanings in this sense. Descartes thought experiment in either its 17th Century Demonic version or its modern Neuro or Simulationist versions is incoherent.
But, Putnam argues, this means that the idea that truth is non-epistemic is incoherent. To suppose that our beliefs could all be false, no matter how well they conform to experience and canons of enquiry makes no sense (Putnam 1978, 128-130). And (assuming the soundness of Putnam’s model theoretic argument) this also means that the idea of a privileged, God’s eye view of the world – MR -is incoherent. There is no single theory that uniquely corresponds to the nature of a mind-independent world because there are always other interpretation functions with which to generate new theories with the same degree of epistemic virtue. Thus the assumption that the world has an intrinsic nature independently of how it is construed from the standpoint of a particular theory or form of life is as much an ungrounded superstition as the notion of substantial forms.
Rather than aspiring to the idealized God’s eye view of metaphysical realism, Putnam argues that we should recognize that truth, reference and objectivity are properties that our claims and experiences have in virtue of “our” practices of inference, confirmation and observation. To say that the sentence “’Cow’ refers to cows” is true is not to make a claim about some determinate relationship – reference – between word and world but to say something about the situations in which a competent speaker of English should use the term ‘cow’ (Putnam 1978, 128, 136). From within the shared practices of English speaker, this fact just shows up as an a priori truth. But this (as Kant also claimed) does not reflect some impossible insight into the mind-independent nature of things, but simply reflects our acculturated understanding of what is appropriate to say, when (137). Even the metaphysical structure of the world is – according to this view – a perspective that reflects the background understanding and interests of creatures who share the relevant concerns and practices. Reference is, as Putnam puts it elsewhere, a “matter of interpretation” which presupposes “a sophisticated understanding of the way words are used by the community whose words one is interpreting” (Putnam 1995, 119). So, by the same token, there can be no ready-made totality of objects of reference since (again) this presupposes the discredited God’s eye view:
[From] my “internal realist” perspective at least, there is no such totality as All the Objects There are, inside or outside science. “Object” itself has many uses, and as we creatively invent new uses of words, we find that we can speak of “objects that were not “values of any variable” in any language we previous spoke (The invention of “set theory” by Cantor is a good example of this.) (Putnam 1995, 120)
Derrida, Jacques (1988). Limited Inc. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman (trans.),Evanston Ill.:
Northwestern University Press.
Putnam, Hilary (1978). Meaning and the Moral Sciences. Routledge & K. Paul.
Putnam, Hilary (1981). Reason, Truth, and History. Cambridge University Press.
Putnam, Hilary (1983). Realism and Reason: Philosophical Papers Volume 3. Cambridge University Press.
[i] We can summarise this state of affairs as follows:
“Fido” —> the object Fido
“Shlomo” —> the object Shlomo
“…is a cat…” —> property of cattiness
“…is a dog…” —> property of dogginess
“…is the father of…” —> relation of fatherhood
[ii] For example, we can imagine a deviant interpretation function that maps up terms in the “wrong” way:
“Fido” —> the object Fido’s shadow
“Shlomo” —> the object Shlomo’s shadow
“…is a cat…” —> property of being the shadow of a cat
“…is a dog…” —> property of being the shadow of a dog
“…is the father of…” —> relation of fatherhood
[iii] The branch of mathematical logic that examines the formal relationships between languages and the models assigned to them under interpretation functions.
[iv] Suppose T1 has an interpretation function I that includes the first set of assignments given above (“Fido” refers to Fido, “Shlomo” refers to Shlomo, etc.) whereas T2’s interpretation function has the second. Thus the sentence “Shlomo is a cat” says that the object Shlomo is a cat in T1 whereas the same sentence say that a particular shadow is the shadow of a cat, which also happens to be true.
You can hear my recent Anthropotech talk: Beyond Enhancement: Anthropologically Bounded Posthumanism at the Anthropotech Multimedia website here
The PowerPoint presentation is below
According to Hilary Putnam, if we can think that we are brains in vats, we are not brains in vats because we cannot think about things like vats without having discriminating causal relationships with real vats (Reason, Truth and History, p.16) .
How might Putnam’s argument apply to the claim that we could be living in a computer simulation: in other words, that the entire universe – including our brains – is simulated on a computer in some under-universe with which we have no direct contact?
A simulation is (to a first approximation) an implementation of a software object. So if we are implementations of software we will interact somehow with other implementations within the simulation. In fact (on Putnam’s assumption) that’s all we” be able to interact with and thus all we’ll be able to think about.
But this doesn’t entail that we can think that we are in a simulation because understanding that requires that we can think about the other bits of the under-world in which the simulation occurs. And we can’t do that for the same reason that we can’t think about our vats. Yet it seems entirely possible that we are a) in a simulation and b) that we can think about it.
A recent talk by Levi Bryant on Lacan and Posthumanism. Haven’t had a chance to listen to it in full, so I’ll defer any response for now!
Modern philosophical anthropology can trace its genesis to early Enlightenment attempts to reconcile the naturalistic insight that humans are conditioned by history and nature with their status as ‘self-governing’ subjects. Although this project is associated with a post-Kantian idealist and hermeneutic tradition, the problem of reconciling nature with autonomy has not gone unaddressed in the post-war analytic tradition. Anglo-American writers like Sellars, Davidson, Dennett, McDowell and Brandom have made subtle attempts to account for the distinctiveness of human culture and agency while accommodating graded Darwinian commitments to explaining its emergence from pre-linguistic forms of representation or action.
Ray Brassier’s recent talk on Wilfrid Sellars’ account of language games ‘How to Train an Animal that Makes Inferences: Sellars on Rules and Regularities’ illustrates one strain of this Darwinian rationalism. According to this picture, non-rational beings may have adaptive responses to bits of their environments, but cognitively rational agents can have refined and well articulated thoughts about them. Cognitive rationality according to this view supervenes on practical rationality – a capacity to learn and apply public standards of conduct or warranted assertion.
For example, vervet monkeys will emit a distinct alarm call in response to the sighting of a leopard (‘a loud barking’) to the sound elicited by the sight of an eagle. The leopard alarm elicits a scramble to the ‘thinner branches’ of nearby trees (leopards being cats) whereas an eagle alarm causes a scramble under bushes where the vervets are safe from an aerial attack (Deacon 1997, 56).
These signals can be glossed in terms of their function in adaptively salient situations. However, according to the Sellarsian model of functional semantics which Brassier sets out, human sentences and thoughts don’t get their meaning by being coupled with specific environmental inputs and outputs in this way but only via inferential relations to other sentences and a class of rules which connect language to its outside: language entry rules (governing transitions from perceptions to observation statements) and language departure rules (governing transitions from beliefs/sentences to actions). It is our socially transmitted grasp of inferential norms and the rules for getting into and getting out of a language-game which constitute these links and thus meaning and thought itself.
Depending on a speaker’s knowledge state, the English sentence ‘The king is dead’ could license a vast range of inferences from the formal existential generalization ‘Something is dead’ to a range of material inferences such as ‘there is a new King and it is Pete’ or ‘Mission accomplished!’ and could, likewise, occur in response to a vast range of perceptions (seeing an obituary in a newspaper, observing the mistless speculum above the mouth of the expired monarch or a flat line on an oscilloscope, etc.). The dispositions that ground the inferential linkages between sentences and extra-linguistic events are highly complex. Finally, as Brassier emphasizes in his presentation, full linguistic competence includes the capacity to draw metalinguistic inferences about the linguistic utterances and inscriptions of an object language OL in a metalanguage ML (ML being a part of OL in natural languages).
According to Sellars, to ‘grasp’ the meaning of a term in a language is to have understood its position in this inferential economy rather than to stand in some non-natural relation to an abstract entity (Sellars 1974, 430). The capacity for rational thought, is likewise, a capacity for discursive thought insofar as unvocalized thoughts have the same inferential roles as sentences. This is no more problematic than ‘oder’ in German and ‘or’ in English being equifunctional since inferential roles are substrate neutral.
As Brassier says, this model of linguistic understanding is appealing to naturalists so far as it treats discursive thinking as an embodied competence or ‘know how’ rather some mysterious capacity for grasping abstract entities (Sellars 1954).
It also gives formal expression to the difference between animal signaling and human language. The adaptive role of a trait like the vervet alarm depends on its utility in a particular environmental context. The inferential role of a sentence is holistic since it depends on the inferential roles of all other sentences or words in a language. There is thus no way to map the selected function of a detection or signaling system onto an inferential role. Brassier argues that the distinction between evolved functions and rationally articulated inferential affiliations conceptually demarcates the objective order of things and the rational order of concepts.
Pressure can be applied to Sellars’ account without relinquishing its naturalistic insights, however. For example, once we allow that linguistic knowledge consists largely in grasping material inferences – those expressing domain-specific understanding – a principled distinction between semantic knowledge and knowledge of the world is difficult to enforce, as Donald Davidson has argued on independent grounds. A Davidsonian radical interpreter who wishes to interpret an alien language L from scratch might represent the inferential roles of the sentences of L in a recursive truth theory à la Tarksi but getting to this point would require the interpreter to have a large body of true beliefs about the features of the world that the utterances of L describe – e.g. the behaviour of colour predicates or the mechanical properties of liquids. If the knowledge of a successful radical interpreter of L is a model for the understanding of a competent speaker in L, then grasping meanings cannot be a matter of grasping intra-linguistic relationships alone.
Even the possessor of a semantic theory which works reliably over the community of L-speakers will confront refractory utterances in which the speaker might be construed as uttering nonsense, untruths, or, like Joyce and Mrs Malaprop, iterating words in ways not covered in the theory! In those cases she needs to decide whether to revise her theory or treat these cases as degenerate. It should be obvious that there could be no purely linguistic rules which determined how to proceed here since the problem is to determine what language OLj is being spoken by framing one’s metalanguage (the theory T for Lj) to fit the empirical facts. If the predicament of the radical interpreter is a model for the predicament of the ordinary speaker of a language, then we will regularly be in the position of having to figure out meanings that are not prescribed by shared rules.
Slavoj Zizek’s challenge in the Q&A session following Brassier’s talk exemplifies this situation nicely. He cites the following exchange between Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald’s characters in Brassed Off (the two characters are standing outside Fitzgerald’s house at night):
Fitzgerald: “Would you like to come in for a coffee”?
McGregor: “There is a problem. I don’t drink coffee”?
Fitzgerald: “I haven’t got any coffee”
Reading this armed with books of community-wide semantic and pragmatic theory alone would be idiotic. One needs to grasp standard usage sufficiently to know that the conventions are being joked to get the implicature of “I haven’t got any coffee.” But the ‘prior theory’ of English is just an input to interpretation. It does not afford a rule that assures a correct reading. If this kind of situation recurs in human social intercourse then there better be more to our ability to ken than our grasp of a prior set of inferential roles.
Languages as stable systems of conventions or rules shared between interlocutors need not exist for such interpretation to be possible (Davidson 1984, 14). Speakers may use words and different ways without communication being impossible. Even radical differences in usage need not forestall communication as along as they have the wit and luck to arrive at good passing interpretations of each another. It follows that language cannot be a kind of translucent glass which stands between human thinkers and an inhuman world. As Frank Farrell has observed, if the ontologically deflationary theories of thinkers like Davidson or Derrida are on the right track neither thought nor language can have the requisite “hardness” to stand between us and things in this way (Farrell 1996).
If so, Brassier’s conception of thought as an internally related ‘symbolic economy’ distinct from nature is unhelpful. Admittedly it provides an initially bracing way of understanding realism as a commitment to some radical difference between the non-conceptual world of transcendent nature and the immanent space of ‘reasons’. However, such invocations of radical otherness depend on a reification of something that is transcended by the Other and there are independent grounds for holding that this gives us a misleading account of the nature of both.
Davidson, Donald (1984). Communication and convention. Synthese 59 (1):3 – 17.
Davidson, Donald (1986). ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’, in Ernest LePore (ed.) Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson (Oxford: Blackwell).
Farrell, Frank (1996). Subjectivity, Realism and Postmodernism: The Recovery of the World in Recent Philosophy ( Cambridge University Press).
Deacon, T. (1997). The symbolic species: The co-evolution of language and the human brain. London: Penguin
Sellars, Wilfrid (1954). Some reflections on language games. Philosophy of Science 21 (3):204-228.
Sellars, Wilfrid (1974). Meaning as functional classification. Synthese 27 (3-4):417 – 437.