Description and reality: a reader asks

One of about 300 papers at Last updated 19/06/2017 19:41


In general, I find your proposal [in the papers at] very interesting

I am tempted by the position that is ultimately endorsed (indeed, I think I endorse a variant of it).

However, several issues need to be developed in a bit more detail.

Here I mention three that seem of central importance to the project

I pepper the comments with references to various aspects of these issues.


(1) What are the prospects of (philosophical) metaphysics?

Are metaphysical ‘questions’ genuine questions? And if they are, do they have answers?

Many contemporary philosophers, ‘molded’ by Kant and Carnap, reject the metaphysical project of “describing reality as it is” as misguided.

And reject the language of metaphysics as devoid of content.

[‘Metametaphysics’ (2009) by Chalmers et al. is an edited book that introduces the contemporary debates in some depth].


The prospects for philosophical metaphysics look poor: I feel no need for it.


In the hands of some philosophers of science, this anti-metaphysical stance is transformed into a form of scientific ‘anti-realism’.

According to these neo-Kantians, science does not aim at providing a literally true story of what the world is like.

On the contrary, scientific theories only aim to be “empirically adequate”

(A much thinner notion that doesn’t involve commitment to the ‘reality’ of such things as fermions and bosons [see the tradition of Duhem and Van Frassen…]).


The terms “realism” and “idealism” are interpreted with many and various meanings.

Certainly, concrete realities and abstract description of them are distinct. 

The descriptions are not absolute or complete truths; they are only adequate for some purpose(s).

This statement is explored in this light paper on "Knowledge and Truth".


The point is general: all that needs to be said about the world can be said in the language of scientific theories.

To ask additional (external) questions - such as “but do quarks really exist?” – is to get embroiled in an unproductive cognitive enterprise.

These external questions, some philosophers argue, are simply meaningless.


All questions are meaningless if we don’t first agree what the words in them mean.

Quarks really exist in so far as we have reason to believe they can be detected in time and space as matching a description of a quark’s structure or behaviorwell enough.

If there is any other definition of “exists” that is meaningful and useful, I don’t know it. (See footnote).


(2) Access to descriptions

Suppose the lesson of Kant/Carnap is that the traditional metaphysical project is misguided.

Then, the “scientific idealism” offered in the paper may have to resemble these anti-realisms a bit more.

It would not simply be the case that our access to ‘reality’ is mediated by descriptions; the very access to the descriptions would be problematic.

Even if descriptions (i.e. descriptive qualities) are created by minds, it doesn’t (immediately) follow that minds have full access to them.

This is an old point, going back at least to Kant, who argued that the Cartesian “I think” is not available in intuition/experience (it is, rather, a ‘transcendental’ assumption).

To put it simply: if metaphysics is in trouble, then so is the debate concerning universals, properties and descriptions.

To accept a conceptualist position about universals is to accept a metaphysical position: but why think that minds have access to the real status of universals?


Access to descriptions comes in two forms - encoding and decoding.

Suppose actor A encodes some meanings in a description (be it mental, documented or other).

There can be no presumption that (later) actor A or B will extract all or exactly the same meanings from that description.

Indeed, they might extract no meaning or different meanings.

My papers on information and description theory explore this.


(3) What exactly ARE descriptions?

A lot hinges on the answer to this question.

For example, some of the problems I limned above can be ironed out by adopting a more thoroughgoing idealism, in the manner of Berkeley and Hegel.

(Indeed, in your treatment of ancestral statements such as “the solar system existed before the origin of life” you seem to flirt with such idealism).


If I say the solar system existed before it was described, then I misspeak for the sake of simple expression.

Strictly, I should say the concrete reality that we label "planets" in "orbits" around "the sun" existed.

But the concept of the "solar system" is only a description imposed by human observers on that concrete reality.


A concrete reality is only a system in so far as it can be tested as matching an abstract system description - well enough.

And note that one concrete system can be infinite systems.


But the price of (say) Hegelianism is high.

To avoid it, we need (a) a theory of descriptions (b) that render ancestral statements like the one above true (c) without falling in the trap of simple, naïve realism.

This is indeed a very difficult task and can probably be developed in many different ways.

As I suggested in the comments, I believe that some variant of neo-Quinian nominalism can do the job better that the conceptualism adopted in the paper.

However, when it comes to these issues, there are no easy solutions.


Again, my papers on information and description theory explore this.

Descriptions are real-world structures and/or behaviors in/from which meanings are encoded/decoded by actors.

To create or find meaning in a description, you need to follow encoding/decoding rules.

Footnote: Do quarks exist?

Questions answered by Murray Gell-Mann


For years many of your colleagues weren’t convinced that quarks really existed. Why not?
You can’t see them directly.

Quarks are permanently trapped inside other particles like neutrons and protons.

You can’t bring them out individually to study them; so they’re a little peculiar in that respect.


How should a nonphysicist visualize quarks? As tiny spheres trapped inside atoms?
Well, in classical physics you could think of a quark as a point.

In quantum mechanics a quark is not exactly a point; it’s quite a flexible object.

Sometimes it behaves like a point, but it can be smeared out a little. Sometimes it behaves like a wave.

[Either description is true to the extent that it is useful.]


These particles are similar to protons and neutrons but don’t normally exist in nature?
They are produced in a particle collision in an accelerator, and they decay after a short time.

After a tiny fraction of a second, they fall apart into other things.

One particle that I predicted, the omega-minus, can decay into a neutral pion and xi-minus, and then the pion decays into photons, and the xi-minus decays into a negative pion and a lambda.

And then the lambda decays into a negative pion and a proton.

The interior of the sun has a very high temperature, but even that very high temperature is not enough to make all of these things.


Do all these exotic particles exist anywhere outside of physics experiments?
They existed right after the Big Bang, when temperatures were incredibly high.

And they occur in cosmic-ray events.

[Cosmic rays themselves are mostly protons, but when they strike atomic nuclei in the earth’s atmosphere, these rare particles can be produced.]



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