Real life. Objective reality. True fact. We all confront these and similar short phrases in our daily lives. They are powerful because they are meaningful to us. Yet, do we really, objectively, truly know the meaning of these words? Do we understand that it is us who endow them with meaning? If we are ready to contemplate our intuitions about these fundamental concepts and thereby get to know ourselves better, are we also willing to follow through and consider the possible implications? After all, being honest with yourself about what it is you believe to be the ‘true, objective reality’ inevitably leads to recognizing some of your defining values.
Last week I shared a video where two philosophers (Daniel Kaufman and Massimo Pigliucci) talk about the interpretations of objectivity and reality. In philosophy, this is the domain of metaphysics – inquiring about the nature of the world, of reality. These are some truly fundamental questions that lie at the core of what it means to be human. People have been grappling with these questions for thousands of years, long before the first philosophers of Ancient Greece (here is one example I`ve written about). However, ever since the scientific revolution and the steady establishment of science as the new widely accepted form of inquiry into the nature of reality, some have argued that the ‘old’ philosophical metaphysics has ultimately lost its raison d’être. We no longer need to rely on speculations about the world to understand it, we now have the robust empirical methods of natural science. So, does it mean that metaphysics in its entirety should be relegated to the dusty shelves of philosophical history? Not necessarily.
First, a bit of context. For the most part of history, philosophy and what we would today call science were not distinctly separated. In fact, in as late as the second half of the 19th century the famous French novelist Jules Verne referred to the natural scientist character in his book ”Journey to the Center of the Earth” as the natural philosopher. The same is true of Arthur Conan Doyle`s science fiction novel ”The Lost World” that was published even later, in 1912. This attests to the fact that modern science has its roots in the much older intellectual tradition of philosophy, and, perhaps more importantly, it hints to the idea that there is still room for metaphysics even in the age of natural sciences. But this ‘room’ requires a shift of focus if metaphysics is to provide valuable insights in addition to the scientific knowledge, not pretending to compete with it.
This shift of focus was proposed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant at the end of the 18th century. Kant distinguished between ‘things-in-themselves’ (the way they really are, he sometimes used the word noumena to describe this) and the world as experienced by us (phenomenological world). This word – phenomenon – comes from Greek and means a ‘thing appearing to view’. In other words, Kant made a clear distinction between the world as it is and the world as it appears to us. In his “Prolegomena” (1783) he writes:
“In fact, when we regard the objects of sense, as is correct, as mere appearances, we thereby at the same time confess that a thing in itself lies at their foundation although we do not know it as it is constituted in itself, but only its appearance, that is, the manner in which our senses are affected by this unknown something.”kant (1783)
Kant proposed that the efforts of earlier ages` speculative metaphysics to define the world as it is beyond our experiences are fruitless. Not because such ultimate reality does not exist. Rather, for him, this kind of understanding is unattainable for us, as we simply cannot ‘go beyond’ our experiences or, as it were, ‘step out of’ the world as it appears to us. Based on this he proposed that the new, genuine metaphysics should shift its focus away from chasing ultimate reality to trying to understand and describe the nature of how we interpret the world of our experiences.
Kant`s idea leads us to the following conclusions regarding our topic: first, even in the age of natural sciences there still remains a spot for philosophical metaphysics that focuses on inquiring about the mental concepts underlying our interpretation of the experienced world (perhaps we should now call it the philosophy of mind); second, if we indeed cannot step beyond the phenomenological (perceived) world, being limited by the perception ‘apparatus’ of our species, then it makes sense to pay really close attention to the meaning we place into such mental concepts as objectivity, reality, and to some extent – truth. It becomes even more important as we realise that our actions and behaviour are directly influenced by our interpretation of these mental concepts.
Here is one simple example – colour perception. We look at the traffic light and see that it`s red, so we wait. Then it changes to green and we go. This is practical, useful in everyday life. Yet, if we rely entirely on our senses, we may believe that the red and the green of the traffic light are the reality – there really is a green and red colour. In fact, colours are one of our mental concepts. We see colours because of how our visual ‘apparatus’ has evolved to interpret the experience of different light frequencies. In this case, when we think we see ‘objective reality’ of either red or green, what happens is that we see a representation of reality. We experience our mental interpretation of certain light frequencies. These light frequencies, however, have nothing inherently red or green about them (here is a nice video where a physicist explains it much better than I can).
As long as our visual perception functions properly, we cannot ‘step out’ of this colour experience and go beyond it. That is how we interpret our experience of light. Therefore, the popular statement “what you see is what you get” might be more accurately rephrased as “how you interpret what you experience is what you get”. Because making sense of the world is so important to us, it is understandable that we often consider our experienced world to be the real world. This conviction of ours, however, reminds me of the saying that to err is human. But here`s something curious – this statement implies that we know we err sometimes. In other words, even if Kant is right and we cannot break through our phenomenological world, we seem to know that there is something beyond it. This is where another titan of philosophy comes in with his 2,400 years old world-famous story: Plato and his cave allegory. Stay tuned for Part II of this article where I will explore Plato’s and other ideas about what is real, objective and true.