Mulling about some puzzles on ‘objective reality’

By | April 17, 2013

Juan Bernal

We occasionally hear what sound like daffy ideas from theoretical physicists when they unwisely encroach on hard philosophical problems: e.g., the notion that consciousness creates the universe, sometimes called  “biocentrism.”   Another is the  assertion that space-time is not an objective feature of the universe (world), but is something dependent on the cognitive faculties of the creatures like us.  This strikes some as being a bizarre claim.


It seems that one could offer the following rebuttal:  It does not follow that that the spatial-temporal dimensions arise from the subject’s cognitive processing because we must presuppose the spatial-temporal dimensions to make sense of experience of the physical world.


The starting point of our epistemological theories should not be a conscious subject isolated from the social, physical world. Ultimately this notion is an incoherent one.  The starting point should be a mindful, social and corporeal subject (a conscious animal), in a natural, social world, interacting with other like creatures and engaging in cause-effect interaction with the natural, social world.


The epistemological tradition from Descartes through the classical empiricists — Locke, Berkeley, Hume — to Immanuel Kant is based on an erroneous idea that the possibility of knowledge of the external world (external to the subject) needs to be proven.


There’s something terribly wrong with the claim that, for any ‘X’, we can say what ‘X’ really is only in terms of

  • a possible experience of ‘X’ (i.e., ‘X’ must be an object of phenomenal experience);  or
  • a description of ‘X’ in terms of (Kantian) categories of the understanding.

There something terribly wrong with the assertion that any question of the form [What is a real ‘X’?] has to be answered in terms of the notion of ‘X-in-itself, i.e., ‘X’ as other than an object of phenomenal experience.

Recall that for Kantian thought, ‘X as an object of possible phenomenal experience is an object describable in terms of

  •  the intuitions of space and time, and
  •  the categories of the understanding.


Ordinarily when we try to say what ‘X’ really is we do not do so in terms of Kantian noumena, i.e., thing-in-itself.  Rather we state things carefully, after additional reflection, study, and investigation (after we carry on with empirical inquiry).


The world of physical phenomena (objects, forces, energy) is a spatio-temporal world.


According to Kant, our experience of the physical world is temporally and spatially ordered. The cognitive mind provides this spatial-temporal template by which our phenomenal world is ordered. The world independent of this ‘subjective’ ordering (i.e., noumena, world-in-itself) falls outside the scope of our knowledge.


But there is nothing we can say about this putative world-in-itself. We cannot legitimately say it is the world-as-it-really-is.

At best, this notion of a noumenal world is a limiting concept.

To see noumena as the way things-really-are is to erroneously interpret a limiting concept as having metaphysical import.


Insofar as we can coherently think or talk about it, the so called “phenomenal world” is the real world, i.e., the reality of human existence and human experience. We should not be confused by the fact that his notion of reality can be analyzed and refined.  Physicists, for example, can apply their theories and mathematical models to give us a refined, abstract picture of this world.  But that resulting picture (the scientific picture that science achieves) is a picture  (a model) of the world of experience.  It is not a picture of the world-in-itself.


The world existed long before humans arrived on the scene. Can this be seen as the legitimate idea of the world-in-itself?

There is a world that humans inhabit and experience. When humans think about or conceptualize this world, they do so in terms of spatial extension, temporal dimension, and basic categories (concepts) like object, force, causal relations, etc. . .  (and in terms of transactions between the subject and the world).  We apply those basic intuitions and concepts to the world of experience in our conceptualization of that world.

That this is an appropriate application is something that flows from the nature of the real world, a nature characterized as a spatial, temporal, physical world.


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