Another quaff of realism

Thu 04 May 2006 01:37 PM

In a recent entry, I discussed the possibilities for realist pluralism. This is the position that there are many real kinds out in nature, not just the priveleged short list of kinds that appears in our fundamental science. I asked how promiscuous this position ought to be: Should we say that silly, toy-example kinds like 'liz' and 'ard' are as real as important-to-us kinds like 'electron', 'gene', and 'seasoning'?

In the comments, Matt suggests a way that a realist pluralist could deny kinds toy-example kinds. Here is what he said:

[R]eal kinds are the ones that we get as a product of actual inquiries. Useless dreams [like liz and ard] may be hypothetical but not real kinds. This still allows for some promiscuity (because biologists, cooks, common sense, etc. may have different purposes/problems and come to different conclusions) without allowing in all the useless stuff.
Something similar was suggested to me by Dick Boyd at the last PSA. I think it faces a dilemma.

Either the kinds must appear in inquiry that we have actually done, or it need only appear in enquiry that we could do. Consider each horn of the dilemma:

Real kinds are ones that appear in inquiry that some person has actually conducted. A consequence of this would be that a kind like 'electron' was not a real kind in 1800; it became a real kind only when electrons were discovered. This is at least an odd way of speaking. The fact that they could be discovered suggests that they were already real. One could say that electrons were real in 1800, but that the kind electron was not real until it was first formulated.

Matt explicitly aligns himself with Dewey, and I suspect that Dewey would just accept this oddity. He says that America changed when Vikings discovered it, just by virtue of being known to the Vikings. So, he might also say, there is a change in electrons when scientists first discover them-- they first constitute a real kind.

Real kinds are ones that appear in inquiry that could be conducted. Suppose there were rich patrons of science who adored the front ends of lizards but loathed their back ends, and imagine the science they would fund. This is a counter-factual inquiry in which 'liz' and 'ard' appear as kinds.

As a philosopher, I have cultivated the talent of imagining bizarre counter-factual scenarios. There is no kind so trivial that I cannot imagine a science in which it appears. So the second horn of the dilemma reduces the criterion to triviality, and every kind counts as real.

So: Oddity or triviality? Which will it be?


from: Greg

Thu 04 May 2006 03:13 PM

I think there may be a more charitable way to make out Matt's suggestion. You wrote: "Real kinds are ones that appear in inquiry that some person has actually conducted/ could be conducted." I thought we could take from Matt's suggestion the notion that we only count inquiries that aim to serve some genuine human purpose -- that is, the crux of the matter is not about actual or possible reaseach programs, but about actual or possible human aims/ goals/ purposes. And I think that might narrow the kinds down some.

Why? I agree that we can imagine a crazy research program like the one you've suggested -- study only front-halves of lizards. But I think we could reasonably ask: "What is the POINT of such research? Is it serving any goal that is humanly valuable?" You could respond: 'It brings simple joy and pleasure to the rich eccentrics who fund the program.' I say: "But that's a crazy, useless, ... thing to derive pleasure from -- those rich eccentrics don't have their priorities straight." Or something like that.

Here's another way of putting the point. Some people have suggested that there is no possible world in which murdering innocent 5-year-old children is morally acceptable. (I don't know whether I agree with them; that's part of the "might" at the end of the first paragraph.) I think this case could be analogous to the one you describe. There may be possible worlds in which a discipline studying liz-es exists, but I'm not sure there's a world in which it is a (rational) human aim or goal to study only the front parts of lizards. We would think someone who made that a life-goal should be committed to a mental institution.

So, in short, my Matt-derived proposal is: Real kinds are all those that appear in inquiries serving sane/ reasonable human purposes that could be conducted.

I recognize, of course, that what counts as a 'reasonable human purpose' is incredibly contested -- but I don't think it's absolutely anything goes, which is what is needed for Liz and Ard-type cases.

from: P.D.

Fri 05 May 2006 08:37 AM

Partly because I've just been teaching existentialism, I am suspicious of reasonable human purposes. Speaking in my best beret-and-black-turtleneck voice: There is no objective standard by which to separate legitimate human projects from illegitimate ones. Nevertheless, I concede that this would be a third-way between the horns of the dilemma if it were tenable.

from: Matt Brown

Sat 13 May 2006 05:40 PM

Here might be a simple (and, again, Deweyan) way of putting some meat on the bones of inquiries that serve reasonable human purposes: they are inquiries that serve to resolve the problems posed by objectively problematic situations. To translate: the (possible/actual) inquiries that matter are ones that solve problems that would actually arise in the course of practical affairs (understood in a sufficiently hairy way), rather than from pathological scepticism and other such senseless behavior.

Maybe this doesn't add much to what Greg is saying, but I think that thinking about the difference between actual and paper problems is helpful, here.