Changing How the World Thinks

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What is Out There?

There is a real world 'out there'.

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What is “out there”? Good reasons prompt the question. Out of my window, there is a world of people walking and cycling; there is Bristo Square with its concert hall, trees, and blades of grass; and the sky and clouds moving fast over Scottish land. Ask the same question to a cosmologist and she will reply that “out there”, there is a world consisting of 4% atoms, 21% dark matter, and 75% dark energy, with atoms consisting of protons, neutrons and electrons, and protons and neutrons consisting, in turn, of up and down quarks. Ask my three-year old son, and he will reply that “out there” is a world of marigolds, and limpets, dogs and dinosaurs. Ask the Azande, and they will reply that “out there” is a world of harvest and famines, witches and spring festivals. What is then “out there”?

Prompted by these considerations, conceptual relativists, such as Hilary Putnam, Nelson Goodman, and Peter J. McCormick, happily forsake the idea of a ready-made world. We make and re-make the world by carving nature’s boundaries in any way we may deem appropriate. We make the Big Dipper, for example, by drawing lines between bright spots on the blue sky as we draw boundaries among lands, cultures, and mental illnesses.

This conclusion chimes with an important trend in philosophy of science, which since the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) has rediscovered the historically and culturally situated nature of scientific knowledge. Kuhn’s famous claim that after scientific revolutions, “scientists live in a new world” has been occasionally interpreted as opening the door to relativist considerations. What is a scientific paradigm, after all, if not a historically situated perspective on the world? And do not paradigms carve nature’s joints by selecting the relevant data, methods of inquiry, and even experimental resources available to a given community at a given time?

Yet there is a world “out there”, our cultural tradition and historically situated scientific perspectives notwithstanding. The conceptual relativist owes us an argument that could conclusively demonstrate how our interest-relative classifications and taxonomic systems “mould” reality and cut its boundaries into the shapes and forms we know and love. Contemporary philosophy of science has long recognised the importance that abstraction and idealisation play in scientific representation and how our scientific models are only rough and ready approximations of the target systems. Science studies have embraced the Kuhnian lesson about the importance of socially and culturally situated knowledge. But neither is per se an argument to the effect that nature’s metaphysics is a by-product of our classificatory practices, as the conceptual relativist would have it.

Stubborn and resilient as metaphysical beliefs can be, there is a world “out there” that science successfully investigates amidst trials and errors, historical contingencies and cultural boundaries. As the scientific realist would insist, scientific success is neither a miracle nor a lucky cosmic coincidence. There are better theories and worse theories; more successful models and less successful ones, depending on how well or badly they track nature. The challenge for the scientific realist is to make sense of science’s success without the naïve thought that we may occupy a unique or absolute God’s eye view on what is “out there”. After relativism, there are still quarks, the Big Dipper, and marigolds “out there”. But we encounter them via a diverse plurality of ways of knowing.

See big ideas like this one debated live at the IAI’s online festival, HowTheLightGetsIn Global between September 19-20. Hundreds of events live-streamed from London, Delhi and New York, featuring the biggest thinkers in philosophy, science, politics, the arts and economics. Find out more here.
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