"Look Ma, no things!"
Realism is a stubborn habit. A particularly familiar (and
formidable) version of a theory of objects is held by the
scientific realist, who adds that those objects out there, with
which we sometimes collide, and at other times collude, are the
objects described by physical sciencetables, chairs, and
ultimately protons, neutrons, and things of that sort. Yes,
things. It is the belief of the scientific realist that he trips
over these hard, immutable pieces of bed rock in the formulation
of his scientific theories, and that the world is constituted
the way these theories say as a matter of scientific
Science purports to tell us in what objects the universe
ultimately consists, and it is such an account of things that
would be thrown up to the virtual reality theorist, who would
have us believe that we construct infinitely numerous, equally
real worlds out of the sensations or "raw feels" with which the
knowledge process somehow begins.2
However, science knows these objectswhich are inferred
objectsthrough theories having to do with themtheories
that postulate of these objects one sort or another of property.
To be sure, science knows its inferred objects only through
hypothetical properties attributed to them by theories. All of
which is to say, more exactly, that theoretical science does not
know its inferred objects at all, but knows only properties. And
this knowledge of properties is a tentative sort of knowledge at
that. It is only as firm as the least shaky of our theories.
Take astronomical phenomena, for example. What do we know of the
planet Venus apart from its distinctive properties as a planet;
i.e., its relative reflectivity, absorption characteristics,
orbital features, axial inclination, and so forth? What do we
know of this object apart from those properties that are
attributed to it by the theories in which it appears as an
object? What did we know of the planet Neptune before it was
first seen? We knew the properties that a yet-undiscovered
planet would have to have in order that the anomalous behavior
of other, perceptible, scientific objects might be explained. Of
course, the planet Neptune was eventually seen.
What about Quasarsthose as yet unexplained sources of X-rays
located by astronomers at such immense distances from the earth?
Are there objects at the other end of these X-rays? If so, what
could we know of them over and above the properties that we
might come to ascribe to them? Could we ever know anything about
Quasar-objects apart from our Quasar-theories? The best we could
do is say that there exists an X such that X possesses all the
properties presently attributed to Quasars, but this is not to
say that X enjoys any existence independent of our relational
knowledge of it. To the contrary, it is to admit that X may be
nothing over and above what our theories say it is. Xs are not
substances, or substrates, or things.
We come to similar conclusions when the scientific objects under
consideration are not too big or too far away to be seen, but
are too small. The entities of microphysics are in-principle too
small to be seen, and consist more clearly still in those
properties, and only in those properties, that our somewhat
fickle and shifting theories predicate of them. Take electrons,
neutrinos, Psi-mesons, protons, and the like. Fundamental
particles are too small to reflect or diffract a ray of light,
and so we have only indirect evidence for their existencethis
evidence having to do with the behavior of directly observable
physical objects, in so far as these objects are thought
through our theoriesto be affected by the fundamental
particles in question. Electrons, for example, are `seen' in the
form of condensed water droplets in Wilson Cloud Chamberssuch
condensation triggered, according to our theories, by the
passage through a hyper-saturated vapor of a particle having
such and such charge, mass, velocity, and so forth. Similarly,
Alpha-particles are evidenced by the clickings of scintillation
countersnever bumped into or felt. Our factual evidence for
the existence of neutrons includes the success of fission-type
chain reactions. But where, in these cases, is the realist's
hard, cold, object of knowledgeexisting independently of our
knowledge of it? It is nowhere to be found, of course.
Microphysical entities are known only via their properties,
where these properties are never inspectable themselves, but are
predicated of the scientific object by certain
Judging from the evidence that science is able to bring forward,
external objects turn out to be hollow at the corean empty
suit of clothesand so if it was some bed-rock, substantival
"stuff" which we were looking for, which would anchor one view
of the world, and not another, the anchor is absent. There is
no man inside of the suit of clothes we caught.
However, this result is not good enough if we are looking to a
theory of objects to provide a razor able to distinguish real
experiences from unreal or "virtual" ones. When all objects turn
out to be hollowall equally fictitiousthey don't cut one
way or the other. Understood as empty but useful foci of
relations, the existence of objects external to ourselves serves
as well to explain the occurrence of sensations within a reality
chamber, as outside that same chamber. And so we must be
prepared to hear participants in synthetic experiences taking
comfort from the view that there are hard things in relation,
out there, which are the ultimate causes of those experiences
that the world really is the way it would have to be in order to
produce current sensory data, notwithstanding the fact that we
may have made the machines which created those sensory data.
Science works as well within the reality simulator as it does
outside the reality simulator.
"Look Ma, no things."
When the thing goes, the adjective "virtual" loses its meaning.
1 "I refute you thusly!" said
Dr. Samuel Johnson, as he banged
his fist on Bishop Berkeley's table. You just can't argue with
things, goes this commonsensical argument.
2 This view of things is called
critics complain that it may be accurate as far as it goes, but
that it does not go far enough.
3Norwood Russell Hanson, a
highly stylized and entertaining
Yale professor who flew a Bearcat fighter plane to work (and one
day into the side of a mountain, as it transpired) made this
argument in the 1960s, much to the delight of his students.
Professor Hanson quoted widely from the work of Neurath, Popper,
Grunbaum, and from the other members of the so-called Vienna
Circle. See his book The Logic of Scientific Discovery.
© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle.