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Monday, January 25, 2010

On the Relativity of 'Reallys'--A Critique of Strawson on Science and Perception: Part 2

4. Critique of Relativization

4.1 Is this relativity compatible with realism? I think not. For if realism is true, in cases of veridical perception we perceive things just as they really are. But if Strawson is right, we cannot speak of “the way things really are” independently of some standpoint. What then can it mean to say that there are cases of veridical perception? It can only mean that we perceive things as they really are in a certain standpoint. The question now becomes, “What is it for things to be a certain way in a certain standpoint?”

4.2 Let us elaborate on this a bit. To make things clearer, suppose that instead of saying, e.g., “That mountain is really blue”, we turn ‘really’ into a sentential operator and say: “It is really the case that that mountain is blue.” Now we can ask, for all sentences P, does “It is really the case that P” entail P? If it does—and it certainly seems to—how can divergent property ascriptions in different standpoints not be inconsistent? For then the sentence “It is really the case that that mountain is blue”, asserted in whatever standpoint you please, entails “That mountain is blue.” Thus, if someone asserts “It is not the case that it is really the case that that mountain is blue” in any standpoint, this entails “It is not the case that that mountain is blue”, and that clearly contradicts “That mountain is blue.” And this is problematic for Strawson’s view, for according to his view these seemingly inconsistent sentences could be truly asserted in different standpoints.

4.3 Strawson could reply that there is no trouble here, for we have failed to index our sentences to the different standpoints. Since on his view sentences are only true in a certain standpoint, we should add in indexes to standpoints to make this fact explicit. Thus, instead of plain old “P” we have “P-in-standpoint-S”. So what we can say is that “It is really the case that P-in-standpoint-S” entails “P-in-standpoint-S”, and Strawson would say there is nothing wrong with the latter sentence. For him “P-in-standpoint-S” and “not-P-in-standpoint-R” are not genuinely inconsistent, because P and not-P are indexed to different standpoints. But I think such indexing makes sense only if the indexes make sense. Can we make any sense of a sentence’s being true only in a certain standpoint? I think the answer is “no”, as I will now argue.

4.4 As we have seen, Strawson thinks that divergent ascriptions of properties, when relativized to different standpoints, are not genuinely inconsistent with each other: “The appearance of both volatility and conflict vanishes when we acknowledge the relativity of our reallys” (Strawson p. 107). If that is so, why do ascriptions of properties need to be relativized? For there are statements in different standpoints that do not even seem to contradict each other. I can say, concerning the very same chair, both “That chair is wooden” and “That chair is made of quarks.” These sentences, though they may be relativized to different standpoints, could also be truly asserted in a single standpoint. Yet, if Strawson is right, the sentence “That chair is brown” can be truly asserted in the human perceptual standpoint and the sentence “That chair has no color” can be truly asserted in the scientific standpoint, though presumably they could not be truly asserted in a single standpoint. While Strawson does say (p. 108) that we can combine two standpoints in a single sentence, I think he means that different aspects of the sentence belong to different standpoints, not that the whole sentence does. As I understand Strawson, one can say something like: “Considered from the scientific standpoint, that chair has no color, but considered from the human perceptual standpoint, that chair is brown.” This combines two standpoints in a single sentence. But surely one could not say something like: “Considered from the scientific standpoint, that chair has no color, but considered from the scientific standpoint, that chair is also brown.” So the fact—if it is a fact—that we can combine two standpoints in a single sentence does not entail that we can truly assert inconsistent sentences in a single standpoint.

4.5 Now, suppose someone utters the sentence “That chair is brown” in a common-sense perceptual context and then utters the sentence “That chair is brown” again, this time in a scientific context. That sentence either has the same meaning in both contexts or a different one, assuming that it is not meaningless in either of them. If it has the same meaning, in cannot be true in one context and false in the other, on pain of contradiction. Thus if “That chair is brown” is true in the human perceptual standpoint it is also true in the scientific standpoint, and so it cannot also be the case that “That chair has no color” is true in the scientific standpoint. Conversely, if “That chair has no color” is true in the scientific standpoint, it is also true in the human perceptual standpoint, assuming it is uttered with the same meaning in a common-sense perceptual context. And if that is so it cannot also be the case that “That chair is brown” is true in the human perceptual standpoint. So if these sentences have the same meaning in both standpoints, they must have the same truth value in each of them, and Strawson’s view falls apart. If they have different meanings in the different standpoints, it is no surprise that each could have a different truth value in different standpoints; for the fact that the same sentence can have different truth values if it is assigned different meanings is a truism, and is something that can hardly resolve the conflict between the standpoints of human perception and science. And that means that Strawson’s account cannot do what it was meant to do.

5. Conclusion

5.1 In conclusion, Strawson’s account simply will not work. If one finds it appealing, I think it is because the notion of relativization to a standpoint has a certain charm, for it gives one the thrill of flirting with a contradiction. But we have seen that ascriptions of properties are either consistent or inconsistent: If they are consistent there is no need to relativize to a standpoint, and if they are not consistent, no relativization can reconcile them. Thus Strawson’s view is contradictory, and for that reason it is consistent neither with realism nor with anything else. Its aim to reconcile science and the common-sense view of perception is certainly praiseworthy, but it remains a noble attempt to do the impossible.

References

Strawson, P.F., “Perception and Its Objects”, in Vision and Mind: Selected Readings in the Philosophy of Perception. Alva Noe and Evan Thompson (eds.). The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts / London, England 2002.

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