Realism vs. Anti-Realism

The reason this whole seminar makes “the rubber meet the road,” so to speak, is that we are ultimately doing metaphysics. We are ultimately talking about knowing about what there really is in the universe. We want reality! We want truth (which must be grounded in reality)!

Some aspects of “reality” matter more to us than others. But what we need to learn, if anything, through this seminar is that metaphysics itself matters. The method matters!

For example, scientists tell us that “in reality,” as a proportion, there is far more space between sub-atomic particles than is taken up by the particles themselves. So, we are told, the appearance of “solids” is really not accurate. What we call “solid” is really more “full of holes” and empty space than mass-laden material!

Most of us might say, “Okay, so what? Big deal. That ‘truth’ has no effect upon how I live my life.”

However, science correspondingly, using the exact same methods, makes claims about “the reality” that comes apart from how other things appear to you, and these claims do have effects on how you live your life. For Christians (and other theists), science says that the “way things appear to you” in terms of your relationship with God are just as mistaken (and in exactly the same way) as is your mistake about “solids.” Science tells you that the appearances often come apart from “the reality” of the universe and that your everyday, common sense notions are not “strictly accurate” or even accurate at all.

This “appearance vs. reality” divide is as old as human thought! However, now we can rigorously differentiate between good metaphysics and bad metaphysics. We will continue to develop those notions as we go forward in this seminar. But for now, let’s focus on just one aspect of the “appearance vs. reality” divide.


Appearances vs. Reality

We have countless everyday experiences of this divide. We do not think that all of the ways things appear to us is the way things really are “in reality.” We see things from a distance that appear very different to us when we are up close. We know that colors can vary based upon the type of light shining on things. We perceive people’s intentions in one way and later discover that their intentions were very different. The list goes on and on. And this endless list makes it deeply intuitive for us to recognize that “things are not always (or even often) as they seem.” This last sentence, however, is just an everyday way of casting the appearance/reality divide.

So we recognize that there “is a reality” that may or may not correspond with how things “appear” to us. In a very fundamental way we do not think that reality depends upon us! Reality just is what it is, and our goal is to know and understand that extra-human reality as best we can.

* When we think that some aspect of reality is what it is completely apart from us, then we are realists about that aspect of reality.

* When we think that some aspect of reality is what it is because of our interpretation or perception of it, then we are anti-realists about that aspect of reality.


Discourses in Metaphysics

We will use the term “discourse” to refer to a limited aspect of reality about which we wish to talk. Thus, we can limit our discussion about reality and do “bite-sized” pieces of it. We will find that we can be anti-realists about some pieces and realists about other pieces. Here are some examples.

Mathematics — Mathematicians are realists about their discourse. They don’t just “talk as if” the mathematical entities are real and apart from us; their theories don’t work unless they are talking about real entities whose existence is not dependent upon us. Thus, there is an “objectivity” to mathematics. And mathematicians think that the “furniture of the universe” really does contain the abstract objects to which mathematics refers.

Humor — It would be odd to assert that some joke “really is” funny completely apart from anybody perceiving the joke and interpreting it in light of their own personal experiences. No, instead, humor depends so heavily upon a joke “resonating” within us to produce the “funniness” that it defies imagination how you can separate “the humor” from the perception of the listener. For a joke to be funny (to you), you must understand it, you must resonate with it and connect with it. There is no humor apart from how it is received, interpreted, and connected with. Thus, humor is “in us” rather than “in the non-us world.” Humor is a product of us rather than a product of the non-us world. It inheres “in us” rather than “in the world apart from us.”

Propositions — Alonzo Church demonstrated that propositions really exist completely apart from we humans who employ them in our sentences. Church was a realist about propositions. Just as we use the real-world facts of mathematics, but mathematics is not “in us,” we use propositions in our sentences, but propositions are not “in us.”

Color — All of the components “in the world” that we interpret as “color” are “beyond us” and do not rely upon us. But these components are only necessary rather than sufficient conditions for what we perceive as color. If scientists are correct, then all of these components are without color both individually and collectively. We perceive color only by adding to these “objective” components our own subjective, perceptual aspects of ourselves. Thus, colors are not “real.” They emerge for us as just one of the ways the world appears to us because of us. Scientists (and most of us if we think about it) are anti-realists about color.

The Entities of Physics — Most physicists think that they are doing genuine, realist metaphysics when they describe how the universe “really is” according to their theories. In fact, take the realism out of physics and it becomes much, much less interesting (both to physicists and to the public). Science fiction even depends upon the idea that physicists are really “discovering” the realities of the universe, so that one day we might actually have transporters and warp speed and so on. Physicists are realists about the entities their theories describe.

This last discourse of realism vs. anti-realism, however, is most pressing for our purposes. When scientists “discover the Higgs boson,” they are not saying, “We’ve seen tracks and readings on our gauges consistent with what the Higgs boson would produce. So, this label, ‘Higgs boson,’ that we’ve employed for decades really refers to our readings, and we now have readings that we call the ‘Higgs boson.'” No, and they don’t actually mean anything like that when they say, “We have found the Higgs boson.” When they say that they have found “it,” they literally mean that there is this entity that they call the Higgs boson, and that entity really does exist! Physicists are realists about the Higgs boson and a host of other sub-atomic particles.

However, one could just as well be an anti-realist about sub-atomic particles! One could just as well say something like, “We are seeing all sorts of evidences that were predicted by a model that has a theoretical entity called the ‘Higgs boson,’ but, of course, we have no idea if there is any such thing. For our purposes, the ‘Higgs boson’ is really just the predicted evidence, and there ‘is’ nothing more than the readings we’re getting… whatever may be really causing those readings. So, we’ll shorthand all those readings with a label, call all of it ‘the Higgs boson.'”

Again, notice that physicists are not employing “shorthand talk” like in that previous paragraph. They have discovered the Higgs boson, and there is a really-existing entity as a fundamental part of what reality itself actually consists of, and that entity is what “Higgs boson” actually refers to.

So, the big question facing us now is: What justification is there for being a physical realist, otherwise known as a “physicalist” or “materialist,” and what justification is there for being a physical anti-realist (at least in the realm of, say, sub-atomic particles)?

We will further investigate these justifications going forward.