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Does an objective reality exist?


To: Ross M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does an Objective Reality Exist?
Date: 6 February 2004 11:48

Dear Ross,

Thank you for your e-mail of 28 January, with your 'starting point for an essay' for the Metaphysics program, 'Does an Objective Reality exist?'

I am intrigued by the way you have approached this. Rather than waste time with preliminaries, I am going to jump straight in.

We are both agreed that the investigation has to start somewhere. We begin, then continue. I think we are agreed that the Cartesian idea that there are absolutely indubitable starting points and infallible principles of inference is a non starter. The only alternative is a pragmatic approach, understanding 'pragmatic' in the widest sense.

Right away, however, one is faced with a choice between two fundamentally different methodological approaches. I am keenly aware that I did not say much, or anything about this in the text.

Approach 1. Start with a theory you know/suspect is false. Refute the theory and derive provisional conclusions from that refutation. Use those conclusions to construct another theory which you know/suspect is false and so on until you reach a theory which after the closest examination does not *appear* to have any flaws.

Approach 2. Start with principles which, while not indubitable, are the best and most convincing you can come up with. Construct your theory. Then proceed to test the theory against all the objections you can think of (with the help of the thought of the great philosophers).

As a student, I cut my teeth on Wittgenstein's 'Philosophical Investigations'. Though Wittgenstein did not appear to have much sympathy for metaphysics, he would, I think, grant that the philosopher as intellectual therapist regards metaphysical views (e.g. naive idealism) as raw material. (Where I depart from Wittgenstein, is that I believe that the final result can be a metaphysical theory, rather than simply getting rid of the inclination to do metaphysics, as Wittgenstein hoped.)

If, instead, I had taken my BA in a Department devoted to Process Philosophy (none in the UK, but quite a few in the USA), I would have cut my teeth on A.N. Whitehead's 'Process and Reality'. That book is an excellent example of Approach 2. Whitehead's strategy, which he sets out clearly in his Introduction, is to frame the 'best set of Categories we can' and see whether the attempt to construct a workable metaphysic succeeds or fails. (In that introduction, Whitehead also makes the famous remark that all philosophy consists of 'footnotes to Plato'. It is interesting that you chose Plato as your 'Expert'.)

In this light, let's look at your 'First Reality Model'.

My first impression is that this model would be appropriate for a Kantian metaphysic of phenomenal and noumenal worlds, or equally a Platonic metaphysic of the world of forms and the world of phenomena.

Not really surprising - Kant owed a great debt to Plato.

Kant's 'Refutation of Idealism' demonstrates that knowledge of an 'external world' is a necessary condition for self-knowledge. However this external world is only a phenomenal reality, empirically real but transcendentally ideal. The wider context, the larger box, is the world of noumena where both the subject and the external objects of its perception exist as 'things in themselves'.

Plato is less explicit about the self, but he clearly believed that the body belongs to the world of phenomena, while the soul belongs to the world of Forms. The lines between the two worlds are drawn quite differently. Phenomenal are also less real than Forms, a mere distracting show of sights and sounds. This table on which I rest my hands exists merely as phenomenon. It is nothing 'in itself'. However, it exists only because the form of a table exists.

So here we have to classic two-world theories. Maybe, I've missed something here, but if we are looking for experts, there are none greater than Kant and Plato and both agree with your 'straw man'!

Something I do need to explain:

If you've looked at 'Naive Metaphysics' then you'll know that I also hold a 'two world' theory - the theory of subjective and objective worlds - but one that *doesn't* fit your 'First Reality Model'.

In the Metaphysics program, I talk about idealism as a 'definition of existence' and anti-realism as a 'definition of truth'. Both investigations can be conducted without directly addressing the question which leads to the theory of subjective and objective worlds. You may be interested to know that this program was originally delivered as a course of lectures over two terms to final year undergraduates, in the year following the publication of my book. My concern was to find a different approach, rather than go over the same arguments again.

I will be very interested to see how your essay goes forward from this point.

All the best,