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15 May 2010

Correlationism, Anti-Correlationism, & the Empirical/Epistemological Limits of Knowledge

I said I wasn't going to delve into philosophy and metaphysics, but I just can't get this out of my mind. So I'm going to write out some thoughts so I can get back to writing my paper for class. See here, here and here for the discussions that inspired this rant.

It seems to me that there is a conflation in both the anti-correlationist and the correlationist arguments of, on the one hand, the notion that there are empirical and epistemological limits to our ability to know the world, and, on the other hand, the idea that we can create the world by the simple act of perceiving or thinking it. This is, I think, why I've never been wholly satisfied with constructivism though I'm sympathetic to it, and also why I simply can't wholly accept the emerging ontological arguments as well. Both take the first point, extend it to the second and then make claims based on the second that are distasteful to me. The constructivist will say that because there are limits, we can perceive the world how we want and, as a result, every way of seeing the world is equally valid (extreme relativism). The ontologist says (rightly so) that this is just silly, leaving us in a meaningless stew of equally valid perspectives, and that it also limits us to a purely subjective world. They then go on to completely ignore the very tangible limits proposed by the first point and talk about reality as if their talk isn't just talk.

To me, there is a real world out there (not really "out there" since we are embedded within it) - the claim that there isn't is solipsistic, tautological and ultimately a waste of time. However, there are, as I said, empirical and epsitemological limits to our ability to know that world. Empirical because we can never really see inside of an atom, we can never really see inside of a black hole, we can really only see in a limited spectrum of light waves, etc. In other words, the interface between ourselves and that world is limited. Epistemological because our words influence our way of thinking about the world, and our categories shape the way we define objects around us. A chair is a "chair" and not a "unicorn" because of certain qualities that it possesses that we associate with chairs. That doesn't mean, though, that we can perceive the world however we like. There is a certain recalcitrance to the world around us. I can't simply say that a chair is a "unicorn" and have it be so, because, empirically, a chair is not a unicorn. If I do choose to refer to a chair as a "unicorn," then I have to radically alter my definition of "unicorn" to fit the empirical reality of the chair.*

There is some degree of relativism allowed by these empirical/epistemological limits. Every position is finite, while the world around us is (for all intents and purposes, at least) infinite. As a result, a person's view of the world may change depending on their epmirical/epistemological point of view. I can say that a chair is a "chair" if my experience and my knowledge allow me to fit the object to that category (i.e. I can sit on it). The same object may be viewed as "firewood" by someone with a different perspective, but it will never be a unicorn unless, again, the definition of "unicorn" is radically altered to fit the empirical reality of the object.

Metaphysics is fine, for what it is. I don't have anything against trying to understand the world beyond our ability to know it directly. We've been doing it for tens of thousands of years, and I see no reason to stop now. Indeed, there are very practical reasons for doing so (as Michael has pointed out). But until someone can demonstrate empirically that the world is really made up of objects or process-relations, this metaphysical talk is, empirically speaking, just talk. In other words it is epistemology.

Does this mean that we have to limit ourselves to our empirical/epistemological positions? That we can only ever talk about the world of subjects? I think not. My argument is not too sophisticated on this point, but I think the universe is a vast place - lots of things happen without our knowing about them. In fact, since the universe did not spontaneously emerge when we started perceiving/talking it, a great deal had to happen outside of our knowledge in order to make us able to perceive/talk. We can talk about empirical realities, we can speculate about metaphysics, as long as we don't presume to be proving anything that isn't provable. I also take the subjective positions of animals, plants, even objects to be different from, but equally valid to our own. I doubt I've made my case, and I'm not sure that I've added anything new to the discussion, but I got my thoughts out at least. Now I've really got to get back to writing that paper!

*This is why I think of epistemology and ontology as being entangled, but, again, I'm not prepared to go that far down the metaphysical path at this point.

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