Searle vs Lawson: After the End of Truth - part 2

Has realism failed?

This article was written in response to philosopher of mind and language John Searle's defence of the existence of objective truth. Read John Searle's piece here.

It is time to put behind us the arguments between realism and relativism.  Realism has failed.  Relativism is incoherent.  We must find a new philosophy that is neither realist nor relativist. 

John Searle and I have fundamental differences but let me begin with some common ground.  The relativism that has typically been espoused by generations of students cannot be expressed without relying on an implicit realism, and is at once paradoxical.  At its most elemental, to say ‘there is no truth’ is self-denying when applied to the claim itself.  Some thirty years ago at the outset of my career, in ‘Reflexivity: the post-modern predicament’, I argued that this self-referential puzzle could not be evaded and was central to 20th century philosophy.

The incoherence of relativism does not however validate realism.  As Hilary Putnam cogently argues, realism has failed in the sense that a century on from Russell’s founding of analytic philosophy there is no credible theory about how language hooks onto the world nor is one on the horizon.  Pointing to the evident puzzles inherent in the relativist position does not make realism valid or create a credible realist theory.  Nor does the distinction between epistemological and ontological subjectivity and objectivity aid the debate since it already carries within it the assumption that objectivity is possible. 

Rather than address the lack of a credible realist theory, realists are often tempted by a populist appeal to supposedly obviously true claims such as ‘London is the capital of England’ or ‘Rembrandt was born in 1606’ or ‘these are my thumbs’, as if their mere assertion was sufficient to win the argument. These examples appear persuasive because they are embedded in a complex web of socially agreed closures, or ways of holding the world, and it is not at once immediately apparent that their truth is context dependent and thus challengeable.

As a preliminary indication of the flaws in this approach let us examine John Searle’s example ‘Rembrandt was born in 1606’ a little more carefully. There are many different calendars, amongst them Chinese, Gregorian, Julian, Islamic and so forth, which provide a variety of dates for Rembrandt’s birth.  So the claim is at once dependent on a whole set of other measures, such as days, years, the movement of sun and earth, and the historical figure of Christ. All of these underlying concepts are themselves ways of holding the world and each could be held in a different manner.  Each is under close examination contestable – the birth date of Christ for example. Time is not an ultimate measure but is the consequence of comparisons.  Each of these comparisons could be made differently with different resulting measures.  So the claim ‘Rembrandt was born in 1606’ is not an immediately obvious temporal fact at all, but is the consequence of a complex series of closures which result in this particular way of holding the world. 

Furthermore, the phrase ‘Rembrandt was born’ is also not straightforward.  An art historian might argue ‘the baby that was to become Rembrandt was born in 1606, but the great artist we know as Rembrandt was not born until at least the 1630’s.’  Then again we can imagine a culture theorist beginning a lecture ‘Rembrandt was born along with the first cave paintings some 35000 years ago’. 

So in place of the initial claim ‘Rembrandt was born in 1606’ we now have a range of alternative facts claiming radically divergent dates.  In response to these alternative ‘facts’, realists sometimes resort to a distinction between literal and metaphorical truth.  Thereby retaining a core of factual claims that are privileged.  But there is no reason or foundation for supposing that scientific or material claims are somehow more central or core to our conceptual framework.   And without a means of privileging some ‘facts’ there is no means of determining which context is primary and therefore which can be taken as objective. 

But this is all incidental skirmishing.  The core idea sustaining realism is that behind the different claims, or perspectives, there is a single reality or state of affairs, which validates the perspectives.  According to this version of realism, which John Searle appeared to endorse in our debate, there may be many different alternative accounts but they are not in conflict and are explained by an underlying state of affairs which justifies all of the different claims.  This underlying reality is an ‘x’ which can however never be described directly because all descriptions are from a particular perspective and context.  And it is this transcendental assumption of an ‘x’ which accounts for our different ‘facts’ and perspectives that is at the root of my disagreement with John Searle. 

We can provide no characterisation of the reality ‘x’, nor can we explain the relationship between the ‘x’ and our descriptions of ‘it’.  It is the presumption of a transcendental reality that is a fantasy and for which we can in principle have no evidence.  It is my contention therefore that we should abandon this fantasy.  Just as Christian or Muslim believers claim an unseen and unseeable God as the explanation for our world, so the Enlightenment equivalent is to propose an unseen and inaccessible reality that is an explanation for our beliefs and descriptions.  Since we can give no account of this underlying reality there are good grounds for abandoning the presumption on Occam’s razor grounds alone.

Despite the evident failure of realism, a failure that was called not by myself or Hilary Putnam, but by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus a century ago, it has remained a prevalent view.  One possible explanation for this is that it is often assumed that the only alternative to realism is relativism and such a position is unpalatable because it provides no external constraint on claims and is logically incoherent to boot.

Instead however of debating the weaknesses of realism and relativism we should recognise that they are both flawed and are unable to account for our ability to make sense of and intervene in the world. Instead we require a philosophy that recognises the failure of realism and the incoherence of relativism.  The eighteenth century German philosopher Kant started from the assumption of knowledge and attempted to build a system that would account for how that knowledge was possible.  Our predicament is the reverse.  We have to start from the assumption that there is no knowledge of a transcendental reality and build a theory that accounts for how we are nevertheless able to be so precise and effective in our interventions in the world. 

The theory of Closure that I have put forward is one such account. It is not anti-realist, for that would be self-referentially incoherent.  It is instead a non-realist or postrealist philosophy.  It does not deny the existence of an independent reality but instead proposes an alternative framework that does not rely on realism. It begins from the seemingly unlikely starting point that the world is not a thing or combination of things and instead we should hold it as open. It then proposes that we close the openness of the world and in so doing enable intervention based on our closures.  Centrally the framework of closure provides an account of how we can refine our closures and thereby improve our interventions in the world even though our closures do not refer to or describe an independent reality.  In so doing the theory of closure provides an account of how the theory itself is possible. 

Now of course I do not claim the theory of closure has seen through to the essential character of the world.  It is, like all theories, itself a closure, a way of holding the world, which seeks to make sense of experience and language in a world which is apparently other.  While it may not claim to be objectively true, the framework of closure has value and potential to make our theories and interventions in the world more effective.  I contend for example that we are more likely to be successful building an intelligent machine on the principles of closure and openness than by operating a realist framework.

Nevertheless, there will be other accounts and philosophies with different advantages and strengths.  And there will be no end to alternative frameworks and ways of holding the world.   So while we should pursue our theories and refine them in the light of their ability to enable effective intervention, it is time to say goodbye to the dangerous enlightenment fantasy that we are progressing to the one true theory, which correctly describes an independent and transcendental reality. 

Don't forget to read philosopher of mind and language John Searle's defence of the existence of objective truth here.

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Shobha Pawar 26 January 2017

It is the clash between two views of language; metaphysical, where language is referential and the other, poststructural where language is self-referential.
'Reality' is an ambiguous term which needs to be defined properly. If the 'real is equated with 'truth', whether epistemically or ontologically, it further complicates the matter.

J Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher on Truth:
" Truth is not 'what is', but, the understanding of 'what is' opens the door to truth. If you do not understand 'what is', what you are, with your heart, with your mind, with your brain, with your feelings, you cannot understand what truth is."
Does this quote hint at subjectivity and objectivity at once? I leave it to the scholars to decide.

Jacob Mackey 31 December 2016

Lawson's motivating problem lies here: "realism has failed in the sense that..there is no credible theory about how language hooks onto the world."

Pragmatics and cognitive science show that this is simply a non-problem, but they do nothing to sponsor or support non-realism or post-realism.

blank 30 October 2015

correction, Searle is NOT holding with the 'x'

blank 30 October 2015

Lawson is mistaken. Searle is holding with the 'x' of philosophical materialism. If he were he wouldn't have insisted on Plain Language over and against the logical positivists. What he's saying is as a description, not as a substantive 'x', truth holds.

jairo 10 August 2015

I' m a bit disturbed my her using "transcendental" in place of the correct "transcendent". Yes, realism is wrong and relativism is incoherent. Why not to try a real transcendental approach?

David Morey 2 8 August 2015

Can philosophy be friends with science with absolutely no recognition that experience gives us openness and a plurality of possible closures, and also excludes those closures that are impossible? -this is all we need to make sense of our experience and tell a bigger story of how such a universe could end up with consciousness, science and story telling contextualisation.

David Morey 2 8 August 2015

Lawson is great on openness and undermines scientism well but my challenge to Lawson is whether Closure is always a human decision? Do we not question nature and experience, do we not listen to nature, listen to the data, and thereby allow nature to play a role in where we accept closure? Empirical evidence involves nature as well as self, it is not simply an echo chamber, even if we set the questions and interpret the answers, we press nature for responses or signs to divide the possible from the impossible, and use this to speculate on all the processes that we have to assume go on before, after or elsewhere to human presence to make sense of our incomplete individual and culture related experiences.

Maximilon Baddeley 8 August 2015

I'm sorry but has this not already been put forward through phenomenological roots: we assume that objective reality exists. We assume that you and I both see the same objects in the sky - yet we accept that these assumptions are ultimately inaccessible from each other - inter subjectivity gets around the same issues discussed here. Surely the concept of accessing independent objects, brings in that moment, perspective dependency. The real conflict lies in describing a coherent theory of consciousness.

b561248 7 August 2015

I don't see that you've understood the arguments here. You quote the following:

We can provide no characterization of the reality ‘x’, nor can we explain the relationship between the ‘x’ and our descriptions of ‘it’.

And then you appeal to the predictive power of science as a rebuttal. But that is non sequitur. What is needed is a statement of how our frameworks for understanding reality (e.g. Newtonian mechanics) are able to 'latch on' to reality in a way that makes them true. You give no account of this. Your choice of Newtonian mechanics is ironic, since it has been superseded as a 'fundamental' understanding of reality by special relativity. Here we see that Newtonian mechanics was not any sort of fundamental feature of reality: just a strategy that worked well enough for many of our purposes - and a strategy that fails when we deal with relativistic speeds. Strategies are to be judged by how useful they are. You are right, science is useful. But you have established nothing about truth.

mebigguy 7 August 2015

Moreover, the argument attacking Rembrandt's birth...

Furthermore, the phrase ‘Rembrandt was born’ is also not straightforward. An art historian might argue ‘the baby that was to become Rembrandt was born in 1606, but the great artist we know as Rembrandt was not born until at least the 1630’s.’

Is just deliberately misunderstanding what the sentence was asserting. Substituting in a metaphorical notion of "birth" as an argument against the validity of the statement indicates how far one must go to hold this position. I don't see that changing the meaning of words in a sentence is any argument at all against the truth of the statement.

mebigguy 7 August 2015

we are progressing to the one true theory, which correctly describes an independent and transcendental reality.

This is one problem with many "philosophical" discussions, throwing around expressions like "transcendental reality".

He further complains:

We can provide no characterization of the reality ‘x’, nor can we explain the relationship between the ‘x’ and our descriptions of ‘it’.

Really? And yet science has produced incredible results, flights to the moon, robots on Mars, microwave ovens, NO characterization of reality "x"? There is nothing of reality in Newtonian dynamics? Nothing of reality in the quantum theory that designs the millions of transistors running the computer that this is being viewed on. That's exactly what scientific theories are fantastically successful characterizations of very real features of our world, the "x" as he puts it.

terence williams 6 August 2015

i already answered this claim with my objection to his assertion but see no sign of it here.