Anti-realism – what’s at stake? An interview with Jonathan Rée
There is a certain caricature of philosophers which has it that they spend
their time arguing about whether things like tables and chairs exist. This is
just a caricature, but nevertheless there is an element of truth in it when
it comes to the debate about realism and anti-realism. Put crudely, realists
– or, more precisely, external realists – think both that the world exists
independently of our perceptions of it and thoughts about it, and that we can
reliably know about the world. Anti-realists, for a variety of reasons, doubt
both these propositions.
The philosophical debate about realism and anti-realism – which involves arguments
about, for example, sense experience, language, and the nature of knowledge
– is complex and esoteric. However, in recent times, as Jonathan Rée
points out, it has found more public expression in the concern that scientists
have about the way that their endeavours are treated by the humanities.
In fact, this is a long-standing concern. It was in 1959 that C. P. Snow gave
his famous lecture on ‘The Two Cultures’, in which he expressed dismay at the
division between the arts and the sciences, and the hostility with which the
practitioners of each viewed the other. It appeared to him that ‘the intellectual
life of the whole of western society… [was] increasingly being split into two
polar groups.’ This he considered both culturally and politically damaging.
More than forty years on, the divide and hostility remain. These came to the
fore a few years ago in l’affaire Sokal. Inspired
by what he saw as the obscurity and ambiguity of much post-modernist writing,
the physicist Alan Sokal hoaxed the journal Social Text into publishing
an ostensibly serious article on ‘postmodern physics’ that was in fact a clever
parody. He followed this up with the book Intellectual Impostures, jointly
authored with Jean Bricmont, which was sharply critical of the work of some
of the most fashionable names in the humanities. His motivation, he said in
The Philosophers’ Magazine, had to do with challenging the rise in a
‘sloppily thought-out relativism’ and with exposing ‘the gross abuse of terminology
from the natural sciences in the writings of French, American and British authors.’
Sokal is not the only scientist to rail against the shortcomings of the humanities.
Twenty-eight years earlier, Peter Medawar had warned in Science and Literature
that he ‘could quote evidence of the beginnings of a whispering campaign against
the virtues of clarity. A writer on structuralism in the Times Literary Supplement
has suggested that thoughts which are confused and tortuous by reason of their
profundity are most appropriately expressed in prose that is deliberately unclear.
What a preposterously silly idea!’ And Richard Dawkins, in a review of Intellectual
Impostures in the journal Nature, encourages people to ‘Visit the
Postmodernism Generator [http://www.cs.monash.edu.au/cgi-bin/postmodern]. It
is a literally infinite source of randomly generated, syntactically correct
nonsense, distinguishable from the real thing only in being more fun to read…Manuscripts
should be submitted to the "Editorial Collective" of Social Text,
double-spaced and in triplicate.’
It is in the context of these vituperative exchanges that Rée, over
the last few years, has published a number of essays and articles, which argue
that the ‘Science Wars’ are based more on misunderstanding than on real disagreements
about the status of scientific knowledge. Why, I ask him, is he relatively unmoved
by the clash between the purported ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ of science?
"One reason that I am unmoved by the melodrama," he replies, "is
that historically people have had absolutely no problem with the idea that science
is a social phenomenon. Scientists such as J. G. Crowther and J. B. S. Haldane
were very keen on the idea that science was the product of various kinds of
social relations and that these were the social relations that made it possible
to produce knowledge that was testable and reliable. They celebrated historical
studies of science as ways of explaining the heroic progress of science towards
truth. Now if you imagine yourself back in that situation, then you are reminded
that there is not necessarily a conflict between social studies of science and
a belief in the truth content of science."
However, Rée has one caveat. "It seems to me that these scientists,
who thought there was no conflict between science and history, had a notion
of scientific progress that I think was superficial – one that nobody really
ought to believe anymore. Their model suggested that there was a pre-ordained
destination which scientific enquiry was going to end up at. But I think that
one can have a very strong idea of scientific progress, without supposing that
it is predetermined what is going to be the better form of knowledge that emerges.
So my notion is that there are lots of possible ways in which science could
progress in the next century, all of them would be progress, but none of them
would be the only possible way in which progress could be made."
The importance of this caveat is that it is suggestive of an anti-realist strand
in Rée’s thought. Particularly, it seems that in his conception, the
progress of science is not governed by the nature of the objects of scientific
enquiry. However, a critic might respond that whilst indeed it is impossible
to predict how science will progress, it is nevertheless the case that its progression
will be constrained by the nature of the objects it investigates. And moreover,
that there are certain ways of looking at the world, certain theories, that
are effectively dead, for example, Lamarckism – the belief that it is possible
to inherit acquired characteristics. I asked Rée whether this was a point
that he would accept and if so whether he felt there was, therefore, no contradiction
at all between the objectivity of scientific truth claims and the fact that
science is a social and historical phenomenon.
"Yes, I think that I would accept these points," he replies. "But
one of my proposals for advancing this debate is that there should be an embargo
both on the word ‘objective’ and on the word ‘relativism’. I mean it’s ludicrous
to think that adding the word ‘objective’ makes a truth any more true. There
is a very important distinction between propositions that are true and propositions
that are false. But I don’t know what further distinction is intended by adding
the word ‘objective’. It is simply a rhetorical move that does mischief to the
whole debate. What people need to understand is that the only truths that are
available to us are those of specific historical contexts, but that they are
no less true for that."
In a sociological sense, the claim that truths are necessarily historical is
unproblematic. However, it does raise the question as to the criteria for assessing
truth-claims. I ask Rée whether he has any settled thoughts on what these
"I don’t think," Rée says, "that there is a useful general
answer to that. I mean there are textbook distinctions between correspondence,
coherence, and pragmatism, that kind of thing,
but it doesn’t seem to me that these add up to very much. I think you need to
ask in more detail about how particular communities work out methods for attaining
the kinds of true propositions that they want to get agreement on."
The problem with this kind of answer is that the absence of general criteria
for assessing truth-claims does seem to suggest the kinds of relativism that
scientists find so infuriating. If the claim is that both truths and the criteria
for truth are constituted in particular discourses, then, without adding in
some extra ingredient, how is it possible to distinguish true propositions from
"Well," responds Rée, "I suppose I should first say that
one should always be cautious before deciding that something is false. It is
necessary to establish conversations with people who believe seemingly false
propositions to determine exactly what it is they believe, then, once you’ve
understood it, you may well find that there is something true in their belief.
I think one of the side-effects of getting worked up about the idea of objective
truth is that people do tend to get too impatient to investigate the possibility
that there may be something they can learn from things that they are at first
appalled by. But, of course, that is not to say that there are not some beliefs
that are completely false."
But again, if the criteria for truth are themselves constituted within discourse,
what is it that enables us to privilege certain of these criteria so that we
can meaningfully say that some beliefs are completely false?
"I think this is why Rorty, who is quite wise about this matter, says
that you should talk about intersubjectivity rather than objectivity,"
replies Rée. "The question is not about different realities and
how they connect up, but different conceptions, different vocabularies, and
how they connect up. What you need to do is to experiment with trying to have
conversations with people and to see whether you can negotiate some kind of
linkage between the way that you’re talking about things and the way that they
do. To the extent that this strategy is unsatisfactory, it is because our epistemological
condition is unsatisfactory. I mean the fact is that it can always turn out
that the things that we are convinced are unrevisably true might in fact be
problematic in completely unexpected ways.
""I said that there are two terms that should be embargoed,"
continues Rée, "the second one being ‘relativism’. It does seem
to me that people who put themselves forward as friends of science, use the
word ‘relativism’ to describe a position that they regard as being totally opposed
to the notion that there can be such a thing as scientific progress. But if
that is what relativism is, then I don’t know anyone that believes in it. An
alternative tactic is to say ‘Sure, we should all be relativists’, because it
seems to me that when we actually think about what the term relativism means,
then it is a theory about how you get truth and how you know you’ve got it.
And it is simply an unfair debating point to suggest that to be a relativist
is to be someone who does not believe there is such a thing as truth. It is
just that a relativist is someone who tries to be explicit about the various
standards by which truth is measured in different contexts."
All this seems perfectly reasonable. It is, of course, important that people
who make conflicting truth-claims should attempt to establish points of connection
in order to examine their respective beliefs and belief systems more closely.
It is also at least arguable that scientific truths are by their very nature
provisional. And further, it is the case that truths are constructed within
particular discourses, and, in that sense at least, they are contextual. But
a nagging doubt remains. And it is the same point as before. If the validity
of truth-claims can only be established in terms of criteria that are
themselves internal to particular discourses, what happens when a person inhabiting
a non-scientific discourse refuses to accept, despite all attempts at persuasion,
some of the established truths of science – for example, that the earth is more
than 6000 years old or that it is not flat? It seems that the logic of the kind
of position outlined by Rée means that it is not possible to privilege
the scientific version of truth over the non-scientific version. But surely
he cannot be happy with that outcome?
"Well, the truth is," Rée admits, pausing, "that I’m
not really able to give an interesting answer to the question, as you pose it.
But I wonder why you put it in terms of beliefs that are so barmy that they
are scarcely intelligible? What if it were in terms of something like Holocaust
denial, where there is a genuine disagreement and it’s not really a disagreement
over criteria. It seems to me that whilst it is undeniably exasperating to find
people who stubbornly refuse to accept what you take to be pretty conclusive
evidence, it is not fair to be asked ‘What are you going to do about the fact
that you can’t change their minds?’ – at some point you just have to shrug your
shoulders and simply say ‘Well, I can’t.’"
But there are reasons for posing the question in terms of ‘barmy’ beliefs.
Firstly, plenty of people believe things which in scientific terms are very
bizarre – for example, opinion poll data suggests that about a third of Americans
reject the idea of human evolution, and another third are undecided. And secondly,
the more bizarre the beliefs, the more it becomes clear what is at stake in
committing oneself to a conception which holds that the criteria for truth are
only internal to particular discourses. Specifically, it brings into sharp focus
the fact that this conception allows no definitive grounds for rejecting propositions
that we nevertheless are certain are false. So I ask Rée what exactly
he would say to someone who insisted that the earth was flat or that mermaids
lived under the sea?
"What you have to say is that, as far as I can see – and I may always
be wrong – these beliefs are barmy. I think that the phenomenon that you are
pointing to is just the fact that people can get into disagreements where it
is extremely difficult to make any progress. But I think that that is just our
shared epistemological condition, and I don’t see that claiming that what you’ve
got is absolute truth and what they have got is not, is going to help. I would
use the example of barmy beliefs as a way to bring you round to my slogan, which
is ‘Neither a realist nor an anti-realist be.’
"Listen," Rée goes on, "everything that the ‘friends
of science’ want to say about the extraordinary achievements and progress of
the natural sciences, both in terms of knowledge and in terms of technique,
all of these things can be said by someone who describes themselves as a ‘relativist’
and there is no intelligible sense of relativism that would lead you to deny
the reality of scientific progress."
So what then about the ultimate structure of the external world? Does the contextual
nature of all truth-claims mean that this structure is always beyond our reach?
"Well," says Rée, "I don’t think there is anything more
satisfactory than invoking the Rorty move that I have already mentioned. This
consists in saying that there is no real difference between talking in an upbeat
way about getting to know more about the ultimate structure of the world, and
talking in a more depressed kind of way about the possibilities of including
more people in a conversation. It seems to me that they really come to the same
thing. So the question becomes: how do the particular discourses of specialised
sciences relate to other scientific discourses and to discourses outside science?
"If you’re in a conversation with someone who is worried about having
the ultimate structure of the world taken away from them, then you need to make
them see that what they’re asking for is beyond what any possible agreement
in the future about how to look at the world can deliver. They keep saying that
they want objectivity, but they don’t actually need it, so the point is to close
the gap and to say ‘You’re worried about being deprived of something that actually
you haven’t got, and you wouldn’t know if you had.’ It’s a chimera, this thing
that they’re worried about having taken away from them.
"Imagine that we’re talking with a scientist," Rée continues,
"worried about his work not being taken seriously – I think that we’re
paying all the respect that a scientist could dream that we’d pay to the scientific
enterprise if we say that relative to human discourses, science improves the
knowledge and control we have over things that matter to us. Of course, you
can say ‘Well, it does that because it tells us the truth about the objective
structure of the world’ – and that’s fine, you can say that, but it’s hardly
an ontological big deal."
But if that is what Rée thinks is going on in scientific discourses,
that they are telling us truths about the objective structure of the world,
then surely that is a realist position, it is not some kind of half-way house
"Yes," admits Rée, "that is what I’m saying, except that
I think the word objective is a waste of space. Or are you trying to contrast
the objective structure of the world with its subjective structure? I wouldn’t
if I were you. But rather than ‘Neither a realist nor an anti-realist be’, perhaps
I should say, ‘Neither an anti-realist nor an anti anti-realist be!’"
‘Rorty’s Nation’, Radical Philosophy, No. 87, Jan/Feb 1998.