What is it like to be a bat blind brain?

On September 5, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1


Roden, David. 2015a. “Aliens Under the Skin: Serial Killing and the Seduction of Our Common Inhumanity”, in Serial Killing: A Philosophical Anthology, Edia Connole & Gary J. Shipley (eds). Schism Press.


Phenomenology is, as I have argued elsewhere, striated with “darkness” – experiencing it only affords a partial and very fallible insight into its nature.[1]  We are not normally aware of this darkness because, as Scott Bakker writes, it “provides no information about the absence of information.”[2] However, this opacity can be exhibited from a third-person perspective in cases of “anosognosia” – conditions where patients are unable to access the fact that they have some sensorimotor deficit, such as blindness, deafness or the inability to move a limb. Sufferers from Anton’s syndrome or “blindness denial,” for example, are blind as a result of damage to visual areas in the brain. But, when questioned they deny that they are blind and attempt to act as if they were not. [3] This shows not only that the people can be radically mistaken about the contents of their conscious experience but that a standard Cartesian impossibility claim – that we cannot make a perceptual judgment without having a corresponding perception – is false. Minds assumed impossible on the basis of armchair reasoning turn out to be quite possible

The blindness of the mind to its true nature is also exhibited among unimpaired agents. We regularly assume that we are authoritative about the reasons for our choices. Yet studies into the phenomenon of “choice blindness” by Petter Johansson and Lars Hall suggest that humans can be gulled into attributing reasons to themselves that they did not have. In one case, subjects in a supermarket were asked to rate jams and teas, following which they were apparently presented with samples of the tea or jam they had chosen earlier and asked to explain their choice. In manipulated trials the samples were sneakily switched with samples of different products. Remarkably, less than a half the experimental participants noticed the switch, despite striking differences between the substituted pairs of flavours. The remainder sought retrospective justifications for choices they had not made.

Lars and Hall have been able to exhibit choice blindness in moral reasoning. In another experiment, subjects were asked to rate their agreement with controversial moral claims in a survey form. Unbeknownst to the experimental subjects, the pages with the original rated statements were switched for subtly altered sentences expressing contrary moral claims. However, when asked to review and discuss their rating, a majority of experimental subjects confabulated reasons for moral positions opposing the ones that had earlier embraced.[4]

Phenomena such as choice blindness and anosognosia suggest that our insight into subjectivity depends on a fallible process of self-interpretation that is subjectively “transparent” and immediate only because we are not aware that it is a process at all. Thomas Metzinger calls this constraint “autoepistemic closure.” By virtue of it, the vivid world “out there” and our vital, rich “inner” life appear not to be models or interpretations only because we are not aware of concocting them.[5]

Metzinger argues that phenomenology is systematically misleading about what phenomenology really is because it needs to be. A system that modeled itself and attempted to model that modeling process in turn (and so on) would require infinite representational resources. Phenomenological darkness thus prevents the self-interpreter from becoming entangled “in endless internal loops of higher-order self-modeling.”[6] It is thus reasonable to argue that the anti-reductionist intuition that subjective experience is inexplicable in terms of non-subjective physical or computational processes is an artifact of this phenomenological darkness.[7]

[1] David Roden, “Nature’s Dark Domain: an Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology.” Royal Institute Of Philosophy Supplement 72 (2013), 169-188.

[2] R. Scott Bakker. “Back to Square One: Towards a Post-Intentional Future”. http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/back-to-square-one-toward-a-post-intentional-future (accessed January 8, 2015).

[3].Thomas Metzinger, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2004), 429-436.

[4] Lars Hall, Petter Johansson, and David de Léon. “Recomposing the will: Distributed motivation and computer-mediated Extrospection,” in Decomposing the Will, 298-324 (New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press, 2013), 303-4.

[5] Metzinger, Being-No-One, 57.

[6] Metzinger, Being-No-One, 338.

[7] Metzinger, Being-No-One, 436.

British School, Ruins in Moonlight, 19th cent.

From an insomniac moment re-reading my notes for Elie During‘s challenging and thought provoking keynote paper: “Weird Coexistence or What Speculative Aesthetics Could Be” [Hotel air conditioning in England has its not-so-speculative noise aesthetic btw] at the 10th SEP-FEP conference, Regents University, London.

Speculative Realism [SR] expresses a somewhat elusive taste for estrangement and the “weird”. Deleuze: philosophy is part detective novel part science fiction (a propos Hume). But this was intended as a preliminary step in a method rather than an end – that is defining new and more interesting problems regarding this world. Rather than raising the stakes in weirdness, During wants to bring the debate down to Earth by considering a prototype of weirdness – the Thing in Itself (TIS)

Between two TIS coexistence is not straightforward. Jacobi: “Without the TIS one cannot even penetrate Kant’s doctrine.” But once encountered we can escape from it.

Contention: The TIS in its Kantian formulation was weird enough.

The TIS is not an object. It is not even a thing.

The TIS entirely lacks individual unity (In this it is similar to space which is not a concept or a thing, but a form). The TIS is the empty form of externality, or the real. The function of the TIS for Kant is to act as a safeguard against subjective idealism a la Berkley. The real qua TIS is not a thing – it can be anything. This is why it is not a placeholder for substance. It is not individuated. For example, if there are two or more TIS they are already forming coming under the category of the understanding.

The problem that TIS underscores is that of the paradox of coexistence of everything (us included). The coexistence at issue is not phenomenological or about hidden, inaccessible realities. It is the co-existence of everything with everything else in a whole. The whole thus understood is no “superobject” but the medium of coexistence as such and not totality (ether as pure medium of coexistence in the Opus Postumum – a material expression of the inner reality of phenomenal co-presence, such as dynamic space-time). It is important that however characterised, this co-presence is not collapsed in an eternal four-dimensional structure. Co-existence the proper access to totality rather than totality being the entry point to co-existence (as in set-theory).

The co-existence at issue is as much temporal as spatial. In Bergson’s parlance it is a contemporaneous unfolding. It is not just a matter of collection or juxtaposition of things in space. In set theory the totality does not exist. However, before Russell, Badiou or Marcus, Kant already anticipated this. For surely, the set of all objects cannot exist as an object. The Kantian antinomies of the infinite already anticipate the idea of that the world conceived as a quantitative aggregation of objects is metaphysically useless. Co-existence is not temporal but spatio-temporal (Something Bergson missed due to his methodological privileging of time).

All this is already weird enough! The fact of co-existence that is not merely spatial. It is so weird that the sort of defamiliarisation sought by SR is already broached.

What the different strands of SR have in common is a concern with thinking of things apart from their relationship to us. Things in and by themselves. SR attempts to think of the way “things attend to their own business” by the sheer power of concepts. But this results in an an “uncomfortable phenomenology of the ungiven” [Thinks, is there any other kind]. If you take this seriously, then “you should reject any privilege of the human access to the world.” Hence the withdrawal of the object into itself.

In Immaterialism Harman says that the real problem with Kant is that TIS haunt humans alone so that a single species “shoulders the burden of finitude”. This is very different from the Kantian understanding of the TIS as form.

So what follows is an attempt to unfold the speculative potential of the Kantian TIS.

The traces of the TIS in different media:

What is the paradoxical mode of presence of the TIS on the phenomenological plane according to Kant? Co-existence takes the form of ubiquity or nonlocality. The TIS names the same reality as the phenomenon – it is the unappearing side of the phenomenon.

The second medium is in the plane of nature, space and time itself.

(Simultaneity incorporates an element of non-simultaneity). One of the key implications of Einstein is an enlargement of the notion of simultaneity. There are however non-standard forms of simultaneity – envelopes and sheathes of simultaneity (in the Twin Paradox).

Although there is no way of establishing simultaneity for the two twins, they remain co-present during their journey, an idea that can be captured by a topological sheath. In Heidegger’s discussion of the lizard in FCM, there is a subterranean problem of how one relates to being without relation to world (even if it has a relation to an environment or umwelt).

In SR the intuition is that what we need to make sense of is the interference effect between two perspectives (e.g. naturalist explanations in a Lovecraft and an ineffable non-perspective). This maps onto Todorov’s perspective on the fantastic, as the co-existence between these perspectives.

[Anthropological digression via Eduardo Viveiros de Castro – multinaturalism {cannibal metaphysics}. In Amerindian ontology everything has a perspective and there is a fundamental homogeneity between creatures (e.g. the jaguar is is as human as we). How does one connect the perspectives? There are different kinds of things but see the same things differently. De Castro: the rationale for this is that different kinds of being see different things in the same way (but how can we justify this claim?). What happens when two worlds or two points of view meets, there is a shamanic transformation of shifting perspectives (relates to the Amerindian concept of the world as a co-incidence of perspectives).}

Kant in the “Transcendental Aesthetic”: since space and time are continuous, a sensible quality or trait given to us by the TIS is always continuous. As a result of this, any sensible quality is diffused or scattered around and thus inherently related to the whole continuum. Entities in space and time are thus diffused or scattered rather than completely localise (See Merleau-Ponty on the sensuous qualities on the surface of a pool in Mind and World). MP – I do not see the water in space. I see it as inhabiting it, with the water visiting these other entities the field of cypresses. In Kant, by the same token, any sensible quantity is diffused across the space-time field. In Bachelard’s “Numenology”, science yields strange quasi-objects (particle/wave, etc.). He concludes that we should work with a concept of relational identity, with entities emerging from their reciprocal encounter.

The TIS then is a radical outside that manifests in the phenomenal world, not as a hidden substance supporting sensuous qualities, but a ubiquity behind the phenomenal world – Whitehead – everything is everywhere at any time. In Kant’s analogy of experience, Kant is attempting to account for the fact that things are not merely presented as a flow, but as simultaneous (category of “community”). He understands this in terms of a model of reciprocal causality. In Einstein, this idea of community is complicated with the insight that connection takes time – it does not happen instantly. There is a finite speed at which information or influence is imparted. This allows for events that could not be causally connected to one another (outside our light cone). Such events, according to Whitehead, can be said to be simultaneous even if they do not interact. To co-exist is to be able to be separate within contemporaneity. There must be disconnection within co-existence.

The impact of the TIS in contemporary physics is by renewing our conception of co-existence to take into account co-existence but also an idea of disconnection.

Interesting point about the space-time differentiation of physics as opposed to the trace in Derrida.

So what is that “speculative aesthetics”? what we need to make sense of an intersubjective community, centring not on the experience of beauty but of co-existence.

Made some half-hearted attempt to ask how rodents co-exist with public transport networks – but John Ó Maoilearca quite understandably missed my feeble gesture. Probably for the best, since need to think some more. Preliminary conclusion, This guy is good!

Angelic abstract for Tuning Speculation IV

On August 18, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1



Abstract (accepted) for the forthcoming Tuning Speculations in Toronto this November
Angel Spike -The Politics of Advanced Noncompliance
The modernist and Promethean projects are self-undermining. The systematic complexity of modern technique precludes binding it to norms or projects. The methods of compliance are noncompliant, disseminative, mutable. Since it rejects givens, purposes and identities there are no constraints on reordering nature. It becomes maximally manipulable and thus “hyperplastic”. Accordingly, it terminates the very normativity we hoped might inure us against the real. At the threshold of the dark posthuman, it seems we are condemned to be improvisers and febrile self-killers – whoever, whatever “we” are – as overkill tech dissipates informational structure into Crash space; as “divaricating agencies rip into the substrate of the real” This is the Red Tower burn.
AS-PANC proposes to explore this post-human, post-normative prospectus by interleaving theory and metafiction in the manner of my earlier piece for Dis Mag “Letters from the Ocean Terminus”. The ghosts of Antonioni, Marker, Ballard, Ligotti and others will be co-opted as a modulation source for a virtual noise generator, shattering and escaping the virtual Terrarium.
For a while, we dreamed of death and thought ourselves our own screw ups. As if either is an option when the music of the Angel Spike abreacts melanomas beneath our skins. These auditory cancers are its notational variants.
You call them an “argument”.
We concealed our condition at first. But something in you felt compelled to shout it with a bloody vehemence. “This”, you tell us, “is the truth of the Cthulhoid inversion; of damned Prometheus”.

Bakker on Malabou on Life

On December 2, 2015, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1
Scott Bakker has written a fascinating and extremely timely interrogation of a recent article by Catherine Malabou on the implications of recent biology for biopolitics in Critical Enquiry “One Life Only: Biological Resistance, Political Resistance” Malabou’s piece castigates biopolitical theorists such as Foucault and Agamben for infusing their accounts of embodiment and life with symbolic and vitalistic conceptions whose relationship to biology is inadequately theorised. In response she argues that recent biological work on epigenetics and stem cell therapies supports a decentered, textualist account of biological systems. Or as Malabou puts it: “The living being does not simply perform a program. If the structure of the living being is an intersection between a given and a construction, it becomes difficult to establish a strict border between natural necessity and self-invention.”
Otherwise put, biological mechanisms don’t have determinate functions, but are functionally indeterminate, like Derrida’s iterable marks. This, for Malabou, seems to offer hope for an insurgent biopolitics that will provide a new way of questioning the unity of the political subject:


And how might the return of these possibilities offer a power of resistance? The resistance of biology to biopolitics? It would take the development of a new materialism to answer these questions, a new materialism asserting the coincidence of the symbolic and the biological. There is but one life, one life only.

Biological potentials reveal unprecedented modes of transformation: reprograming genomes without modifying the genetic program; replacing all or part of the body without a transplant or prosthesis; a conception of the self as a source of reproduction. These operations achieve a veritable deconstruction of program, family, and identity that threatens to fracture the presumed unity of the political subject, to reveal the impregnable nature of its “biological life” due to its plurality. The articulation of political discourse on bodies is always partial, for it cannot absorb everything that the structure of the living being is able to burst open by showing the possibilities of a reversal in the order of generations, a complexification in the notion of heritage, a calling into question of filiation, a new relation to death and the irreversibility of time, through which emerges a new experience of finitude.

As Scott argues, it is not clear where Malabou is going with the closing oracle: “There is but one life, one life only.” The call for a new materialism here does suggest a dialectically uneasy cocktail of anti-reductionism and its contrary. It’s as if the question of life and embodiment is being framed only to be pre-emptively closed by deferring to a future theory that no one has a clue about. That said, there seems to be a useful point of exposure to the outer dark of posthuman possibility space here.
Even if one can make a case for a kind of Derridean textual ontology of life, that doesn’t buy us continuity. It buys us something like a condition of possibility claim – i.e. living things have the structure of the iterable mark in virtue of the functional indeterminacy of their component mechanisms. But even if some functional indeterminacy is a condition for contentfulness (As Dennett argues in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) it isn’t the same. And it doesn’t tell us whether or not amping up functional indeterminacy won’t lead us to the lip of the semantic apocalypse, which is why the transcendental model is misleading and why Malabou’s closing remarks are so in need of their own deconstruction.

Putnam and Speculative Realism

On January 16, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Stephen Shakespeare has an interesting post over at An und für sich discussing Hilary Putnam’s argument against Metaphysical Realism and the positions of contemporary speculative realists like Meillassoux and Harman. Putnam (circa Reason Truth and History) treats Metaphysical Realism (MR) a package deal with three components: Independence (there is a fixed totality of mind-independent objects); Correspondence (there are word-world relations between bits of theories and the things to which they refer); Uniqueness (there is one true theory that correctly describes the state of these objects).

He then uses his model-theoretic argument to undermine Uniqueness. Given an epistemologically ideal theory and an interpretation function which maps that theory onto one of some totality of possible worlds, you can always come up with another mapping and hence another theory that is equally true of that world, elegant, simple, well-confirmed, etc. Unless, there is some other property that picks out a single theory as God’s Own other than its epistemic and semantic virtues, Uniqueness fails and with it MR.

Shakespeare argues that speculative realists reject the form of the independence thesis, denying that there is a fixed totality of mind-independent objects:

[Contemporary Realism] need not entail a conviction that objects in the world are a ‘fixed totality’. Objects can change or join to form new, irreducibly real objects. The lists of objects which are part of the rhetorical style of OOO encompass radically diverse things, including physical assemblages, social groups and fictional works. Each of these ‘objects’ consists of other irreducible objects and so on. There is not simply one stratum of object.

For Meillassoux, the picture is different. In one respect, the absolute consists of the fact that anything can be different for no reason: there is no founding ontological or transcendental necessity for the order of things. And this is what we can know. So his realism also does not entail that there is one fixed totality, or one complete and true description of things.

I demur partly from this analysis of where SR diverges from MR – though I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise. By “fixed” Putnam just means determinate. If there are fictional objects or sensa, then these must be part of God’s Own Theory (given MR). If there are assemblages with emergent properties, they too might click into God’s Own Ontology. Moreover, the Harmiverse has to consist of discrete, encodable objects, so it’s quite susceptible to a model-theoretic analysis of the kind that Putnam offers (See my Harman on Patterns and Harms).

Shakespeare may be right about Meillassoux’s ontology. One could argue that hyperchaos is not a thing and thus cannot be part of a model.

If we read Hyperchaos as the absolute contingency of any thinkable possibility then representing hyperchaos might seem pretty easy. Meillassoux is just saying that any non-contradictory event could occur (I will not consider whether he is justified in saying this).

So perhaps his ontology just comes down to the claim that any arbitrary, non-contradictory sentence is true in at least one possible world.

I suspect (but cannot show) that the real problem with reconciling Meillassoux’s SR with MR is in how one interprets this  modality. Saying that any arbitrary, non-contradictory sentence is true in at least possible world, is not what Meillassoux has in mind since this resembles a standard definition of de dicto contingency in possible world semantics. Moreover, Meillassoux (2010) denies we have warrant to believe that the thinkable can be totalized a priori on the grounds that set theory shows that there are always more things than can be contained in any totality. If this is right, then it is precipitate to assume a totality of all objects or a totality of all models under which God’s Own Theory could be interpreted. MR cannot even get started.

However, there are other ways in which contemporary realists (and not just speculative realists) could diverge from MR. For example, Devitt denies that realism is really committed to Uniqueness – the view that there is exactly “one true and complete description of the world” (Devitt 1984: 229). We might also demur from the assumption that the world consists of objects or only objects that enter into semantic relationships with bits of language or mind. Structural realists, for example, argue that reality is structure and that this is precisely what approximately similar theories capture – regardless of their official ontological divergences (Ladyman and Ross 2007: 94-5). Some speculative ontologies deny the Correspondence assumption, holding that the world contains entities that cannot be fully represented in any theory: e.g. powers, Deleuzean intensities.

Perhaps the Correspondence assumption just replicates the Kantian view that entities must conform to our modes of representation – in which case a robust realist should reject it in any case. This, interestingly, is where the issue of realism segues into the issues addressed in my forthcoming book Posthuman Life. For, analogously to Meillassoux’s claim about totalizing the thinkable, one can also reject the claim that we have any advance, future-proof knowledge of the forms in which reality must be “thought” If we have no access to the space of possible minds, then we can have no a priori conception of what a world must be as such.

Devitt, M. 1984. Realism and Truth. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Meillassoux, Q. 2010. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, R. Brassier (trans). London: Continuum.

Putnam, H 1981. Reason, Truth and History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Ladyman James, Ross Don, (2007), Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Epic Object-Oriented Flame War!

On March 15, 2013, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1



There’s an epic flame war over at Three Pound Brain in response to Scott Bakker’s discussion of Levi Bryant’s Object Oriented Ontology. I’m sitting this one out like my hero Custard the Cat. In part because, I’m just too busy and in part cos’ I don’t want to distract Scott from the trudge to Golgotterath and the moral necessity of euthanizing our immortal souls.

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.