Philosophy Filter: We act as if there is an objective reality, so why not assume that there is?
December 6, 2010 8:58 AM   Subscribe

We act as if there is an objective reality, so why not assume that there is? I am looking for the philosophical theory that basically states "yah, I know everyone has different perceptions of reality and that our perceptions can deceive us, but most of us believe and act as if there is a shared objective reality (so there probably is one.) Can anyone recommend a simple text/author that might describe this?
posted by turtlefu to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You'll want to start off with G E Moore's proof for the external world. Another good starting place for you would be pragmatism.

Also relevant is ordinary language philosophy. For instance, Austin's paper on other minds supports the general approach you're suggesting.

That's only a partial list, but those links will lead you to more resources.
posted by meese at 9:07 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Part of what you're looking for is the Correspondence Theory of Truth, as well as Realism more broadly. ("There are two general aspects to realism, illustrated by looking at realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties. First, there is a claim about existence. Tables, rocks, the moon, and so on, all exist, as do the following facts: the table's being square, the rock's being made of granite, and the moon's being spherical and yellow. The second aspect of realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties concerns independence. The fact that the moon exists and is spherical is independent of anything anyone happens to say or think about the matter.")

There's thousands of pages of philosophical ink spilled over these (still very open, to philosophers, anyway) issues, and there are dozens of aspects of these ideas to cover, from a span of at least 400 years (depending on when you think relativism gets interesting/useful to your modern thoughts about it).

Someone may have a specific beginner-readable text that they like, but I always like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for an overview. (And you can make copious use of their bibliographies, as well as the texts mentioned in-article.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:11 AM on December 6, 2010

Are you looking for an abductive argument against skepticism (i.e. a shared reality is the best explanation of our experience), or a sort of pragmatist or defeatist one (i.e. we should believe in a shared reality because most of us believe it and it's too difficult not to act that way)? The "there probably is one" clause in your question makes me think you're after an adductive defense, but the "why not assume" part makes me think that you're pushing that we can't have evidence for the external world hypothesis, so let's just keep going with whatever we've been doing.

For a paper giving an abductive defense, try Jonathan Vogel's "Cartesian Skepticism and Inference to the Best Explanation." It's not easy going though. Mid-career Bertrand Russell offers something like the 'defeatist' position above. Get his little book The Problems of Philosophy. It's easy to read and fun! (But the arguments and positions are mostly outdated by contemporary standards.)
posted by painquale at 9:21 AM on December 6, 2010

There are a ton of different responses to external world skepticism, by the way. Moore is a classic one, but I don't think his argument is entirely in keeping with the argument you're trying to give. (You take the skeptical hypothesis a little seriously, it seems, whereas Moore literally hand-waves it away.)

The correspondence theory of truth is a theory about a semantic, or linguistic, concept: truth. It's not especially related to skepticism, which is an epistemological worry. You could be a correspondence theorist and an external world skeptic.
posted by painquale at 9:26 AM on December 6, 2010

Seconding American pragmatism and in particular recommending William James' formulations of it.
posted by foursentences at 9:40 AM on December 6, 2010

Yeah, I was going to say Moore, Peirce, William James, Santayana, et al pragmatists. This issue, however, traverses epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, perception, and many more fields.

All of these aforementioned philosophers (and a grip more...who continue to debate this to this day in the academy) have their own nuanced arguments and thoughts about how all of this works out. Even within this question, there is a whole subset of study that chiefly examines perception itself. For e.g., Christopher Peacocke, for example, is a philosopher who does a lot of work in this field.

Philosophy of language is also a major player here. Wittgenstein in particular, who was himself very inspired by G.E. Moore, thought a lot about how language reflects the world and our shared perceptions of it (as when we enter into language games, or state facts). He famously asserted that it's impossible to have a private language, implying that the usefulness of language, which for Wittgenstein is what language is, depends on a modicum of shared perception or experience. He also famously asserted that, for example, when someone else has a pain, you can understand that person having that pain without actually having it yourself (this gets really complicated, and, Wittgenstein perhaps above all others, has been interpreted a zillion different ways).

But yeah, as others above have said, this has been a huge focus of philosophy since the whole thing got started. But the idea to just sort of 'assume' that of course there is this outside world we're all sharing, as a sort of starting point, was definitely one of the main emerging themes from the early 20th century pragmatists, and is largely an important assumption when it comes to science.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:47 AM on December 6, 2010

You might enjoy Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy.
posted by kestrel251 at 9:49 AM on December 6, 2010

Of special relevance might be James' famous little story about the squirrel and the man running around a tree.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:50 AM on December 6, 2010

We act as if there is an objective reality, so why not assume that there is?

This strikes me a sort of a red-herring. The difficult question isn't whether there is an objective reality or not, but what is possible to know of things-in-themselves as vs. things-as-they-appear.

There is an objective world in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason but there is very little that you can know about it. If you read the first part of the Critique, the "Transcendental Aesthetic," he lays this out: our knowledge derives almost entirely from "transcendental" deductions, or subjective experiences, or logical deductions.

In any case, you should read the Transcendental Aesthetic just to know what "positivists" like Bertrand Russel and "pragmatists" like William James were so up-in-arms about.
posted by at 10:49 AM on December 6, 2010

Response by poster: This is all very helpful. Let me say first that I realize that there is a lot of literature on this and that philosophical careers can be devoted to this. I like the distinction between abductive arguments against skepticism vs. pragmatic defeatists - this to me is simple and easily approachable. Reading the Kant and the Transcendental Aesthetic is not going to happen anytime soon. So more ideas like the former would be great.
posted by turtlefu at 11:40 AM on December 6, 2010

I'm going to echo and point out that your question has some built-in epistemological assumptions. What it would mean to act "as if" there is an objective reality is basically what the argument is about.

I'd suggest Richard Rorty on the subject as an entry point into pragmatism and as a good writer on this point. Rorty's a very divisive figure; I think he does a good job of articulating the two basic sides, and offers a very cleanly expressed pragmatist view on the subject. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is a good starting point. His basic argument is that most discourse breaks down into realists and pragmatists, the former arguing that true statements correspond to facts about the world, and the latter arguing that that could only be verified through a sort of God's-eye-view where we can compare our language against the language of reality, and that they misapprehend the function of language. I had typed a summary of his views, and then realized it would muddy the waters to introduce it here; it's really best to let him speak for himself.

Simon Blackburn's "Truth: A Guide" does a very good job of articulating the discussion from the other side of the divide. You may actually want to start with Blackburn, as his book is intended for a more general audience; Rorty's an excellent writer, but his books are intended for an academic audience, and assume a greater depth of familiarity with the subject matter.
posted by Lifeson at 12:44 PM on December 6, 2010

What you want is G.E. Moore, followed by Ludwig Wittgenstein's On Certainty.
posted by phrontist at 4:53 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Intersubjectivity might be a useful concept here.
posted by at at 6:13 PM on December 6, 2010

As far as philosophical theory goes, it's a bit outdated now, but John Locke's "An Essay concerning Human Understanding" (especially Books 2 and 4). Lays out a metaphysical system that meets your needs: it argues for an objective world that can be distorted by subjective impressions, but is still knowable to a large degree. Many of his ideas were so powerful that they have become standard background assumptions in contemporary philosophy.

Reading Locke is moderately easy, certainly nothing like as hard as Kant or Wittgenstein.
posted by oddman at 9:19 AM on December 12, 2010

Check out Allan Watts, "The Wisdom of Uncertainty" as well as other titles by Watts.

Ontology is another place to look. Essentially states that we are constrained by the limitations of language. What ever objective reality exists we as human beings frame it with language. Therefore, whatever perception we have are not only inherently limited to our perspective will also be restricted by the limited capacity of language to describe it.

Nietzsche and other existentialists also hit on similar ideas about language, perception, and objective reality.

You can also for go the entire notion of any reality and do some digging around Taoism.
posted by empty vessel at 10:44 PM on December 17, 2010

yah, I know everyone has different perceptions of reality and that our perceptions can deceive us, but most of us believe and act as if there is a shared objective reality (so there probably is one.)

Recommended reading: John Hospers, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis.

So much philosophy boils down to misunderstandings about what is actually being claimed. Hospers is, for the most part, a thorough and careful introduction to the kind of precision hair-splitting made necessary if one is to discuss these issues without simply giving up and deciding that the guy arguing the other side is just a dill.

Also recommended: Stuart Chase, The Tyranny of Words.

Neither of these works specifically addresses the specific issue you raise, but after reading both of them, I expect your perspective on it will have shifted quite satisfactorily.
posted by flabdablet at 3:33 AM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older Interesting Google Timeline   |   Beer Me! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.