Continuing conversation based on this starting point is documented here. To join the conversation, email your thoughts.
Kyle Stanford to Paul Grobstein - 7 September 2006
I thought I would pass along a part of my reply to a message from another colleague who asked what I think about the final issue Tim raises in the review. I think it is connected to the point you are making in your letter, but please let me know if I have misunderstood you. Here is the relevant chunk of that message:
Paul Grobstein to Kyle Stanford - 17 September 2006
Let me amplify a bit. "Getting It Less Wrong: The Brain's Way" argues that the existence, at any given time, of multiple different viable interpretations of a given set of observations is not only an historically demonstrable feature of scientific practice but "is an inevitable and inescapable characteristic of all human inquiry into material things - because it is a fundamental aspect of the organization of the brain, which is itself the "inquirer." That organization consists of an information gathering process and a "story telling" process that has the capability to conceive multiple "theories" to account for any given set of observations. The relation between observations and theories (or stories) has always been and, for a variety of reasons, is always likely to be one to many instead of one to one. To put it differently,
I think, though, that this doesn't quite get to Tim's point, and its here where the brain argument more than the historical argument may encourage one (productively, I think) to "embrace such a sweeping conclusion." I would, I think, be inclined to argue that if the problem WERE a "blind spot" we would eventually discover and transcend it (as both science and the brain have repeatedly done in the past). In fact the brain argument provides a more direct reply to the "realist" position. There is not only no "reality" by which one can decide how close the "theory/story" actually is to it nor which would allow us to characterize all conceivable "blind spots," there is no "reality" at all except as an ingredient of some forms of theory/story. And so I would be inclined to accept without concern Tim's conclusion that science "cannot generate a theoretical knowledge" effectively, if by "theoretical knowledge" one means "foundational understandings that are not themselves subject to challenge and change at some future time."
Along either track, of course, the question is how to achieve a "(revised) positive picture of scientific inquiry", what can one can use, other than a correspondence theory of truth, to motivate, evaluate, and explicate scientific "progress"? Along these lines, I look forward very much to hearing (and reading) more about your "instrumentalist" alternative. And to exploring its similarities and differences to what I have started calling "empirical non-foundationalism". There are sketches along these lines in several of the links I sent you.
And that's why I am perfectly happy to embrace Tim's "sweeping conclusion", perhaps more so than you?. If one starts with an empirical perspective, "theoretical knowledge" has no better claim to permanence than any other kind of knowledge (there is no metaphysics independent of epistemology). And so a scientific community reflecting a thorough going empirical/skeptical perspective can be no more (and no less) "effective" at generating theoretical knowledge than knowledge of any other kind. Is this a direction your historical argument would take you, or am I here off on my own?
Kyle Stanford to Paul Grobstein - 22 September 2006
It sounds to me like you are worried about realism both as a metaphysical and an epistemological issue--that is, you are worried both about the nature/character/existence of an external world and about whether science puts us in a position to know anything about such a world (and/or what else it puts us in a position to know). The argument of my book is much more about the second of these questions than the first, but let me say at least a little something about each.
On the metaphysical side, I think you might be giving up a little too easily on the idea of an "external world". Philosophers have always been worried about how we acquire knowledge, but at least since Kant one line of thinking about this issue has been that when we talk about the external world we really mean something like the-external-world-as-we-experience-it (or our experiences of it as we organize and systematize them into a coherent unified framework, or something in this ballpark)--after all, it is sometimes asked, what sense of "the external world" beyond this could we coherently grasp, refer to, or be worried about? More recently, Pragmatist philosophers argued that the truth about the external world was simply constituted by whatever we will (or would) come to believe about our surroundings in the fullness of time or in the limit of inquiry. (Note that this is far removed from idealism, which holds instead that mental items are all that exist in the first place.) Your brain argument may make this kind of metaphysical picture attractive to you, in which case I'm tempted to say that you are sympathetic to a Pragmatic conception of truth, or a Kantian conception of the external world, even if you think that this process of revision and replacement of our fundamental pictures of the world really will go on forever (perhaps this is what you mean in suggesting that there can be no metaphysics independent of epistemology).
Now it so happens that I am sympathetic to both a Pragmatic conception of truth and a (broadly!) Kantian conception of the external world, but this turns out not to matter to the argument I make in the book. One of the points I make there is that retreating to a weaker conception of external reality or the truth about it that science seeks won't help avoid the problem of unconceived alternatives: as long as we have reason to believe that we are neglecting well-confirmed and serious alternatives to even our best scientific theories, we have reason to think that we will continue to find future scientific communities embracing beliefs that are among those alternatives, even if we (and they) reconceive the object of their inquiry to be reality-as-we-experience-it, or the beliefs that would meet all further experience in a fully satisfying way, or some other alternative to the more robust and reassuring kind of external world envisioned by the metaphysical realist.
Also, you are right that I am arguing from "blind spots" in a certain sense, but an important part of the argument is that we have no reason to think that we will or can ever "transcend" (as you describe it above) the having of such blind spots (as opposed to any particular blind spot). Perhaps more carefully, even if our inference procedures do lead us to the true theory of the external world (in whatever sense), the process and history of our inquiry itself ensures that we will not be in a position to justifiably believe that it is indeed the true theory (as it leaves us with every reason to believe in the existence of serious and well-confirmed unconceived alternatives to that theory). Thus, the realism I am suggesting we abandon is an epistemological position, regarding what we can take ourselves to know about the world around us, not a metaphysical position, regarding what the world around us is or isn't like. And this epistemological conclusion follows, I think, no matter what picture you have of the external world or what you would like to put in place of the metaphysical realist's conception of the matter--this issue is simply bracketed for the purposes of the argument I pursue.
Paul Grobstein to Kyle Stanford - 7 October 2006
I understand and share your interest in challenging "epistemological" realism, and agree that an argument for doing so can be made on historical grounds while leaving the issue of "metaphysical" realism open. But I am indeed, as you suggest, concerned about realism "both as a metaphysical and an epistemological issue" or, more accurately, as an issue that arises from and needs to be dealt with in the absence of any clear distinction between epistemology and metaphysics. That distinction, useful as it has been for several hundred years of scientific inquiry, is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain as science probes a variety of subjects where the act of inquiry itself produces significant changes in what is being inquired into, such as the brain itself. In such circumstances, it becomes steadily more obvious that there is in general no "fact of the matter" that exists independently of the particular form of inquiry being used, and hence of the perspective and approach of the inquirer. That, in turn, highlights what has (and continues to be) sometimes convenient to ignore but has always been and will always be so: the products of scientific inquiry are integrally related to the methods of inquiry.
This, I would argue, is not a "blind spot" but rather is of the very essence of scientific inquiry (and of inquiry in general). One makes observations, creates "stories" about them (which are always one of many ways of accounting for those observations, and necessarily involve a "subjective" element), and then makes new observations in an effort to falsify the story, again and again and again. What emerges from this is not only all past and current understandings (both practical and theoretical) about things being inquired into but also understandings of the nature of inquiry itself, including the concept of their being a world independent of our stories about it, ie metaphysics. One may study the comparative strengths and limitations of various known ways of inquiring and call that "epistemology". Alternatively, one may look for commonalities among the products of various ways of inquiring and term that "metaphysics", but the two cannot and should not be regarded as parallel and independent studies. There can be no meaningful metaphysics without multiple forms of inquiring. The upshot is that metaphysics grows out of epistemology. Moreover, it is always subject to change as forms of inquiry evolve, and so can't be used as a standard against which to measure forms of inquiry. In particular, there is no way to use metaphysics itself (or a description of "reality" associated with it) to say that an inquirer has a "blind spot". A "blind spot" exists if and only if there exists some alternate form of inquiry that reveals it.
Given that one can, as you do, make a strong argument against epistemological realism while leaving the issue of metaphysical realism "bracketed", why force the issue as I'm inclined to try and do? Yes, I am indeed, like you, inclined to "a Pragmatic conception of truth" and so the question boils down to "Are there practical differences between the narrower rejection of epistemological realism and the broader rejection of realism in its entirety?" I think there are, and that among them are differing implications of the two positions for trying to characterize a "(revised) positive picture of scientific inquiry."
On the route to that, let me gloss a little bit what you characterize as the Kantian understanding of the "external world" as "the-external-world-as-we-conceive-it." I hadn't run across that particular move and am indeed comfortable with it, as you suggested I might be. It does, though, differ from the more standard realist position in ways that are important in the present context.
The standard realist position, as I understand it, is something along the lines of "There is out there a reality with a uniquely appropriate description that I may not yet have achieved but have a reasonable aspiration of achieving using familiar procedures in which I have confidence." Denying epistemological realism would then require a modification along the lines of "There is a reality out there with a uniquely appropriate description but I am unable to provide it now or ever because of inherent limitations in procedures for uncovering it." And a reasonable "more positive picture of scientific inquiry" might have it that what matters isn't in fact achieving the final description but instead continuing improvements in the picture one has at any given time.
The "external-world-as-we-conceive-it" position is a little different. Because one is always working with the external world as conceived, the possibility is opened that there is no "uniquely appropriate description", that there have been and always will multiple "external worlds", ie different worlds conceived by the brains of different individuals or different groups of individuals. Notice that this too isn't "idealism" in the sense that "mental items are all that exist". Other things exist (probably) but because "worlds" are "mental" there need be no "uniquely appropriate description." In this case too one might promote a "more positive picture of scientific inquiry" that focuses on continuing improvements but one has the problem of disagreements about which "external world" to take as the basis for moving forward. Moreover, one is, I think, missing an opportunity to develop a still more "positive picture of scientific inquiry".
The potential for pluralism inherent in the "external-world-as-we-conceive-it" position puts it very close to a rejection of not only epistemological but also metaphysical realism, so why not just go all the way? Everything we know about the brain says the existence of multiple different worlds is not only a potential but an actuality. Might one perhaps develop a "more positive picture of scientific inquiry" starting from there? By taking the existence of multiple "external-worlds-as-we-conceive-them" not as a problem (as it is for a "realist") but rather as a virtue? Perhaps along the following lines ...