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Can natural science give us insight into ontology post-Wittgenstein? Can it show us at least some of the things that fundamentally exist? I would argue it does, but for this we need some philosophy of science.

The major challenge that scientific realists have had to face in modern history is the pessimistic meta-induction. In short, the pessimistic meta-induction argues the following:

In the past, we were as confident in the truth of our scientific theories as we are now, yet now we regard these theories as untrue. Why, given history, do we have reason to believe that our current theories are “privileged” and will not be regarded as false in the future? If anything, given history, we have greater reason to believe that our present theories are false than otherwise.

The only way out of the pessimistic meta-induction that preserves scientific realism (as opposed to conceding to anti-realism, arguing in favor of which is the entire point of the pessimistic meta-induction) is to argue that there actually is some sort of continuity in science, and to bring in the argument from miraculous success.

I argue that there is such a continuity, though the its implications I expect may be disconcerting to conventional methodological naturalists, for it abandons physicalism as traditionally conceived, though I will leave it up to others to decide if my view qualifies a strange sort of physicalism. Certainly it constitutes an abandonment of materialism per se, a development of my own philosophy which I can’t say I anticipated. But first, we shall consider the miraculous success of science in inquiry.

Science clearly must be telling us something about fundamental reality, because science can make successful predictions. Though the entities posited by specific scientific theories are adopted and discarded, the overall A) number of circumstances that we can roughly predict the outcome of and B) the accuracy of such predictions continues to increase. For example, though we have replaced the theory of caloric substance with thermodynamics, we were still able to make some successful predictions with the old theory. Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, just because relativity and quantum mechanics have superseded Newtonian physics as more “ultimate,” we can still make successful predictions about the outcomes of experiments by using Newtonian physics – though there are circumstances where Netwonian physics won’t work, or won’t be as accurate (in which relativity and QM will work), there are many circumstances in which it does work, and in which it is actually more useful by virtue of its more approximate nature.

What is continuous between these theories is, as one might see, not the objects and/or substances posited by the theories. Rather, there is continuity of relational structure – of form. Take, for example, the idea of force in physics. In Newtonian or “classical” physics, force is represented mathematically by:

F = ma

where m is the mass, a is the acceleration, and F is the force. Whereas in quantum mechanics, force is represented by:

gradV([r]) = m(d2/dt2)

As we can see, the mathematical/logical relationship is preserved, while what force “is” has to be reformulated in order to make successful predictions beyond the limited range of situations in which Newtonian physics can. It is the the entity, not the relation, which is discarded in the dustbin of history as “not fundamental.”

If relational structures are what are continuous in science, and science makes successful predictions according to such relations, it is likely that what fundamentally exist are relational structures, for the predictions only change dramatically if the relational structure changes. If we remember from my previous posts about ontology, what it is for something to fundamentally exist is for it to be the sort of thing that all possible worlds are “made of.” It is for it to exist necessarily. Why is it that structures, then, should be what fundamentally exist?Those sorts of “things” that are fundamentally real can be examined through analysis of language. Any true proposition about the states of affairs in the world should be reducible to a proposition about fundamental reality, though said proposition may require significant semantic modification to preserve its truth value. Fiction is very useful in helping to illustrate this idea of semantic reduction, because our “world” of facts about states of affairs in the world of things that exist superficially is very similar to a fictional world. Let us take the proposition “Harry Potter is in the Gryffindor house,” obviously about the fictional world (world so conceived as a totality of facts) of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Is this a true or false proposition? Clearly, if evaluated relative to the world of Harry Potter, the proposition is true. However, what if it is evaluated against our “world?” We can preserve the truth value via semantic modification, by saying that “in the fictional world described in the text of the Harry Potter books, Harry Potter is in the Gryffindor House.” We could continue this reduction by semantically modifying that proposition to reduce the “fictional world described in the text of the Harry Potter books” to a proposition about the sentences of said text.

This reducibility continues all the way down if we consider only individual “objects” (loosely conceived). To provide another example, we can bring back Gilbert Ryle’s “cows in a field” thought experiment. The same truth value is preserved through the following sequence of semantic modifications:

1. There is a pair of cows in a field.
2. There are two cows in a field.
3. There are two collections of x atoms arranged cow-wise in a field.
4. There are 2x atoms arranged two-cow-wise in a field.
5. There are a protons, b neutrons, c electrons arranged 2x atom-wise arranged two-cow-wise in a field.

We could continue this as far as the physics of the day could take us, and if history is any guide, the “fundamental” entities of physics usually end up being more relational structures. However, can we perform such semantic modification of basic structural relations? Let us use the relation “greater than” as an example, from now on represented as “>.” Can we semantically modify the propositions “x > y” and “> exists” to any more “fundamental” relations while preserving the truth value? I cannot find such a way, for we are interested in the formal properties of > independent of its specific instantiation. One objection to this view is that, since “>” is a logical relation, sentences involving it are true or false by definition. In other words, they are true or false necessarily. But, if we remember, what it is for something to exist fundamentally is for it to exist necessarily. How does the interaction of these two ideas relate to my theory?

To understand, we must first understand the unusual proposition “> exists,” which could be re-worded as “the formal structural relation ‘greater than’ exists.” This is a fundamental existence claim – a claim about the sorts of things which possible worlds are “made of.” The fact that it is difficult to describe a possible world without such basic relations as “>” should at least make my idea intuitively plausible. This, coupled with the fact that what is continuous in science is relational structure (or at least complex relational structures that are reducible to simple relations like >), and the actual state of the world predicted by science changes based mainly on changes in such structures present in scientific theories, leads me to conclude that my view – that relational structures are what fundamentally exist – is the best one, if not a perfect one.

This is a view that falls under the umbrella of ontic structural realism (OSR), and as such I can anticipate the primary objection to my view that I have not already addressed – that it does not make sense to speak of relations without relata. I have a one-and-a-half-part response. The first is to quote Plato in Parmenides as saying “You cannot conceive the many without the one.” Second, and more helpfully, I argue that the very notion of relata is in itself a relation. Take the mathematical sentence “x > y.” Critics of OSR would argue that we cannot make sense of > without operands, in this case first-order variables. While x and y do not, in my view, exist, the relation that is “first-order variable” is what exists. “First-order variable,” or more broadly “operand” is a relational structure in itself! Here I encounter a great difficulty of expression, so it might be best to let this dispute lie. To summarize, however, I’m suggesting that OSR doesn’t attempt to conceive of relations without relata, only without specific instantiation of the relation “relata.”

References and works cited:

-Plato. Parmenides

-James Ladyman, Don Ross. Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized (2007)

-Gilbert Ryle. The Concept of Mind (1949)

-Wilfrid Sellars. Naturalism and Ontology (1979)

-Anjan Chakravartty. Scientific Realism (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) (Cited summer 2011) Scientific Realism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
 

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What an interesting post, thank you for sharing. I think you would enjoy reading Godel, Escher, Bach.

The book discusses how self-reference and formal rules allow systems to acquire meaning despite being made of "meaningless" elements..

What I like about Godel's theory is it presupposes the unknowing, but yet formalizes a set of rules to derive meaning.

We might at first believe that 1 + 1 =2, but then we see 1 rain drop and 1 rain drop come together and this does not make 2, we notice the inconsistency and develop a set of rules to accomodate this inconsistency. However when there are no more inconsistencies does it mean we gained an objective view of the world?
 

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BassClef;bt21895 said:
What an interesting post, thank you for sharing. I think you would enjoy reading Godel, Escher, Bach.

The book discusses how self-reference and formal rules allow systems to acquire meaning despite being made of "meaningless" elements..

What I like about Godel's theory is it presupposes the unknowing, but yet formalizes a set of rules to derive meaning.

We might at first believe that 1 + 1 =2, but then we see 1 rain drop and 1 rain drop come together and this does not make 2, we notice the inconsistency and develop a set of rules to accomodate this inconsistency. However when there are no more inconsistencies does it mean we gained an objective view of the world?
First, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to read this. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

As for GEB, I've already read it. It's one of my favorite books :wink:
 
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