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24 December 2010

Questioning Realism

Recently, I've been discussing a realist approach in anthropology with one of my professors.  This is in response to a paper I wrote about methods, and how they alter reality - drawing largely from John Law's book After Methods.  It's a topic I've posted on before.  The professor has been challenging me to explain my realist approach further and sent me an email with the following questions (in bold).  The questions are, I imagine, fairly typical of what we should expect from a constructivist practitioner, and I did my best to answer them (the non-bolded sections).  I would be interested to hear what other people think - do you agree with my answers? How would you answer these questions? How could I have answered them better? 
(I may refer to previous discussions in my answers - if anything is left unclear, please ask and I will clarify)
Can you explain, with clarity, what you mean by reality, by answering the following questions?

1. To what does the word "reality" refer?
Reality refers to an existing set of entities and relations that make up the world around us.

2. Is "reality" fixed?  Stable?
Reality is not fixed nor stable - it is continually being produced by our actions and the actions of other (non-human) entities.  For example, when I cut down a tree, this creates a certain reality in which this tree is cut down - is now firewood, or a house, or whatever I end up doing with it.  The existing set of relations have been altered and a new reality has, to a very minor degree, been created. 
Also, there is always a degree of uncertainty about what kind of reality our actions will create.  We cannot account for all of the feedbacks and complexities of reality, so we will never be able to know for sure what reality will emerge from our actions.  Thus reality is ontologically flat - all entities have the same level of ontological existence - and it is not teleological.

3. Is it something that must be shared? 
It would be shared to a degree - I don't know that it must, though.  That's a tough question.  Law talks about reality being heterogeneous, meaning that there are many realities rather than a single reality.  These different realities are simply different sets of associations or relations which exist simultaneously, and may even overlap or merge together to form a single reality at times. 
I would say that in some sense reality would always be shared, because reality is not something that can be created by ourselves.  But the question is, with whom is it shared?  I would argue that, even if an individual lived completely separate from society with absolutely no input from any other human being, s/he would still share her reality with those non-human entities around her.  I imagine a wild person living in the woods - this person would still share reality with the trees, plants, animals, air, sun, etc.  To deny these other entities a place in reality would be to deny their agency - would be anthropocentric in a way.  I think this is a key element of this view of reality, which I didn't discuss too much in my paper since it wasn't completely relevant and is a little difficult for many to accept.

4. Must it be sensed, or perceived?
I think not.  Though sensation and perception certainly alter the conditions of reality - reality exists beyond our (or other) sensations of it.

5. Can it be sensed or perceived?
It can. 

6. Where is reality?  Is it external or internal to the perceiver?
Reality is both internal and external to the perceiver.  We are all inextricably entangled within reality, but the perceiver is not the only or even the most important position.  In fact, no position is privileged within reality - at least not a priori - we can talk about power, influence, etc. as long as we operationalize those terms and describe them in terms of relations and associations.

7. Is it subject to change?
It is subject to change, as I mentioned before.  It is continually changing as we act within it.  This is why we must take account of how our methods affect reality.

8. Must you believe in it for it to exist?
No. It exists whether you believe in it or not, but your belief in it is a part of reality that may alter it as well.

9. What happens when you don't believe in it?
It goes on anyway and will likely carry you along with it.  To believe that reality doesn't exist is to deny other entities the ability to alter and affect you - you can deny it all you like, but that won't make it so.  Whether it's all in your mind or somewhere very far away, there will always be uncertainties that you have to face, things that you can't predict or know for certain.  It's in these spaces where reality makes itself apparent.

10. Can we "know" reality?  If so, how can we know reality?
We can know reality to a degree.  Reality affects and alters us so we can know it through those encounters.  However, we are all situated within it, so we cannot know it fully.  We also cannot know the effects of our actions before hand, as I mentioned above, so there is always a degree of uncertainty about what kind of reality will emerge.

11. Can we know another's reality?
To the degree that we share it, yes, I believe so.  But there may be some aspects that we can never share, and thus never know.

12. Does the act of "knowing" or perceiving reality change it?
It does, but knowing and perceiving are not privileged.  There are other ways of changing reality, and reality changes on its own without the benefit of knowing or perceiving. 

Why is Husserl not relevant here?
Husserl is relevant, but Law and Latour don't draw from the phenomenologist tradition.  The problem, as I understand it, with Husserl and phenomenology is that it's too focused on the creation of reality through perception whereas Law, Latour, et al. are concerned with the creation of reality through action.  Perception is a form of action, and in that sense it does alter reality, but reality can't be reduced to our perception of it (Latour's principle of irreduction: "Nothing can be reduced to anything else.").  Also, Husserl and phenomenologists focus on human perception to the exclusion of other entities - this is anthropocentric according to Latour, Law, et al.

Is Law responding to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (which some take to mean that the act of observing a phenomena changes it)?
I don't think he is.  Heisenberg may be a part of it - certainly complexity theory and aspects of physics come into play (in my view the second law of thermodynamics place a big role, but Law and Latour doesn't mention this).  Now that I think about it, the Uncertainty Principle may be exactly what it's about - methods altering reality - but even Heisenberg wasn't saying that we cannon know reality, he was just saying that we cannot know all of reality simultaneously.  Also, the knowing of reality isn't the point for Law, the point is that we do alter reality, that we have to acknowledge it, that we have to think about how we do and what kind of reality we are creating - also that we can think about using methods strategically to (hopefully, given the inherent uncertainty) create a better reality than that which existed before.


Timothy Morton said...

I hope this dude is no grey vampire. How come all the idealist shaded questions? And that q about quantum theory is highly loaded--for every q theorist who is a Berkleyan I can show you another who's a realist.

Jeremy Trombley said...

It's a Woman, actually, but, yes, some very idealist - almost solipsist - questions. I think it's as difficult for a constructivists to understand this brand of realism as it is for a naive realist to comprehend constructivism... they want to turn it on it's head, and expose it as just another naivete but it doesn't work; it's too subtle.

I'm thinking I should have just referred her to The Speculative Turn. :)

Anonymous said...

So, Jeremy, explain "perception is reality". I have heard this many times in my career. Ithink what you are saying is absolutely true but don't know where the above comment fits in.

Jeremy Trombley said...

Maybe I'm mistaken, but I don't think I said that. In fact, quite the opposite in a way. I said that perception is action, and therefore may play a role in altering reality, but reality cannot be reduced to my or anyone else's perception of it. To do so would be to reduce the agency of the world around us. So to me the statement "perception is reality" is false, but a statement like "perception is part of reality, and may alter reality" is true.

Anonymous said...

I din't think this is what you said. I'm just asking the question to find an answer. I have heard this in my career but never really knew what to think about it. I think you are right on this one.

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