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Anti-realism and the idea that 'reality' is our own invention


To: Mary J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anti-realism and the idea that 'reality' is our own invention
Date: 25 March 2003 11:17

Dear Mary,

Thank you for your e-mail of 8 March, with your fifth and final essay for the Pathways Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'Anti-realism about truth entails that 'reality' is our own invention. When it comes to deciding what to believe, anything goes, for according to the anti-realist there are no objectively right or wrong answers to our questions. It follows that there is no difference between reality and a mere dream.' - Comment on this attack on the anti-realist theory of truth.

This is a fine essay, which I enjoyed reading. You have expressed the main points - about the practical 'realism' of the anti-realist, the fundamental difference between belief and desire, and the authority of others clearly and cogently. You have thought a lot about this. I was left wondering whether, in fact, you would be happy to be described as an 'anti-realist about truth' or whether this is merely a superb display of 'playing devil's advocate'.

I am going to pick on one issue which I did find problematic. This is your treatment of radical scepticism. I will quote your paragraph in full:

'It may be true of course, that we are all deluded in our beliefs, that some evil demon is perpetuating mass deception on us, but all we have is the testimony of our communal experience, so for all practical intents and purposes, the evil demon drops out of the picture; we would live as we do in any case.'

*Who* is saying, 'It may be true...that we are all deluded in our beliefs...'? This is something that a realist might assert. According to the realist critic of radical scepticism, it may be *true* (and if so, a 'truth' which, ex hypothesi, we have no possible means of knowing) that we are being deceived by an evil demon, but such a supposition does not lead to any practical result. There is no action I can perform, nor any difference in the way I conduct my life, that would result from 'taking account of the possibility of an evil demon'. Here we have an argument against radical scepticism which consists in a challenge to the radical sceptic to justify the use of the concept of 'doubt', to explain how the attitude of 'doubt' differs from merely imagining a possibility. (As when, for example, I imagine the chair I am sitting on collapsing under my weight, but at the same time do not entertain the slightest doubt about the reliability of its construction.)

But what about the anti-realist? The anti-realist can happily say things like, 'It is possible that X even though there is no way we could ever come to know whether X or not-X.' In the mouth of the anti-realist, however, we have seen that this statement carries no implication that there is an unknowable 'fact' in virtue of which the X possibility or the not-X possibility is actually realized. According to the anti-realist, we are merely dealing with two alternative 'worlds'. So when the anti-realist says, 'It may be true...that we are all deluded in our beliefs...' the anti-realist does not *mean* the same thing as the realist. The realist is saying, in effect, 'There is a target out there which we might be missing' while the anti-realist is saying, 'Here are two alternative realities, both of which are equally 'real'.'

That is quite a claim, if you think about it: the evil demon possibility, given its unverifiability, is 'no less real' than the non-evil demon possibility.

In the mouth of this kind of anti-realist, the claim that 'for all practical intents and purposes the evil demon drops out of the picture' has a different meaning - arguably, no less cogent - than it has for the realist.

However, there is a caveat. Some philosophers who defend a version of anti-realism, notably Crispin Wright, would reject this version of the anti-realist's argument for rejecting radical scepticism, on the grounds that it concedes *too much*. Wright argues (and you may have some sympathy with this, given other things you say in your essay) that the 'evil demon possibility' is simply not intelligible as a possibility, given that the meanings of our words are anchored in publicly applicable 'criteria' (in Wittgenstein's sense). In that case, far from being merely a hypothesis which we can dispense with 'for all practical intents and purposes', the evil demon hypothesis is, in anti-realist terms, strictly unintelligible. It might as well be meaningless babble.

All the best,