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For a general introduction to the series of articles in the Foundations series read Foundations and Foundations2. The article here is an introduction to five others relating to the theme ‘Reality’. This article sets the scene and is best followed by the more general article on world views, followed by the examination of science in reason & science, science being a major metaphysical system second only to the great world religions in the number of people favouring it as an account of existence.
To get us going on this esoteric and strangely-named subject, lets define metaphysics as the study of the ultimate nature of reality and confess, right at the outset, that the complexity and obscurity of its subject-matter has earned it a poor reputation, even among philosophers.

Metaphysics is the knitting together of our intuitions about the world into a whole as we investigate what we can justifiably claim to know (epistemology) and what we think exists (ontology), putting under the microscope all the assumptions that we bring to . . . . . . the sciences, humanities, and . . . everything.

Metaphysics is not an empirical study. As soon as investigations are amenable to an empirical approach, then they become science. Metaphysics is not science: but it sits at the edge of science and can be informed by it. Historically, more and more of metaphysics has been absorbed by science so – the more brilliant our scientists and philosophers, the sooner philosophers will be out of jobs.

Rodin the Thinker
This series of articles devoted to philosophy began with an examination of worldviews. We feel intuitively that we all exist in the same world . . . and yet when we are asked to explain what this world is for, how it works, what it is made of, how it began, what came before it, why we are here, and what we should be doing here . . . then we get many different answers. Will there always be different answers . . . could we ever resolve these differing worldviews? Do we need to resolve them?

One conclusion about our worldviews was that we all make assumptions about the way the world actually is, even if we do not write this down – or even think about it much. The way we think the world is we call ‘reality”. We all, including scientists, struggle with this concept – so most of us just steer clear of it altogether.

The article on Immanuel Kant looked more deeply at worldviews by asking how it is that we can claim to have any knowledge at all. How do we actually acquire knowledge and how secure is that knowledge? What roles are played by our intuitions, reason, and our senses in the claims we make about the world?

Before Kant, philosophers had divided into two camps, those that though knowledge must flow from reason (rationalists) and those that thought is most arise out of experience (empiricists). Kant’s solution to the dilemma was to claim that both are necessary: reason cannot work without the percepts of our sense experience (our perception): and empiricism cannot work without mental structuring processes (our cognition).

Kant claimed that the way we experience the world is partly due to the non-experiential inner structuring of experience by our minds (giving us synthetic a priori, or intuitive, knowledge): today we might call this mental structuring an innate predisposition of the mind as, so-to-speak, pre-conscious enabling processes. Kant included in this knowledge the propositions and judgements of mathematics, science, and metaphysics. Because these characteristics were innate (we cannot remove our innate filters of perception and cognition) he believed that they constituted both necessary and universal knowledge. This is what Kant referred to as ‘transcendental’ (before experience) knowledge. Among these filters (his Categories) Kant included our sense of Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Mode – all played out on our mental stage of Space and Time.

Kant’s arguments are very persuasive, especially his claim that the way we interpret reality (metaphysics) is influenced by our mental predispositions. Science, particularly the science of the mind and brain, have moved on since the 18th century. We might add (there are probably many more) four other mental predispositions that flesh out his Categories a little. These are outlined in the article on representation, which examines the ways that we represent the world to ourselves.

For hard-nosed scientists who believe that science is perfectly adequate to the task of defining reality let’s, before we get too complacent, take a quick look at what scientists have to say about this matter.

Metaphysics & science

A recent compendium of the views of eminent scientists [5] quickly reveals that there is a long way to go in finding a scientific consensus on reality.

In an article published in New Scientist,[6] physicist Roger Penrose summarizes some of the difficulties: the irrationality of matter at small scales (quantum particles in different places at the same time, spread out or wriggling like a wave); the difficulty of the combined notion of space-time and its curvature; the ‘apparent’ solid composition of tables and chairs and their ‘real’ nature as consisting mostly of space; the ‘fundamental’ four forces of electromagnetism (explaining the behaviour of light and the coherence of atoms), the weak nuclear force (explains radioactive beta decay and stellar nuclear fusion), the strong nuclear force (holding together protons and neutrons in the atomic nucleus) and gravity (holding together galaxies, planets, and us on the earth); the overwhelming power of mathematics in describing the world and therefore the possible ‘reality’ of numbers (Platonic mathematics) – numbers that we discover in the world rather than creating them as convenient mental tools.

For Penrose reality is tripartite: the physical, the mental, the Platonic-mathematical and a profoundly mysterious connection between the three. He is a mathematical physicist, so for him the world is ‘mathematics all the way down’.

Always, there is the desire for grounding – for the fundamental, basic, or ultimate – the need to find something on which all else depends: is it mass, energy, time, number, force fields, information . . . ? – it all still remains a (very) open question.


Meta-metaphysics is the discussion of which methods we should use to answer metaphysical questions. This might sound like philosophical gobbledygook – but . . . how would you go about the study of the principles underlying everything?


Before we can even get started on our quest for reality we must acknowledge and confront the problem of skepticism. How can we make confident a statements about anything at all? Right now, you and I could be dreaming. Or, in some strange way we might be characters in the mind of an evil demon. This is an old philosophical chestnut that was given a modern twist in the film ‘The Matrix‘, and also through the philosophical idea of a brain kept artificially alive in a vat while being stimuated in various ways. How can you be sure that you are not a brain in a vat – and that, therefore, any ideas you might have about reality are just conjured up within the matter of the brain . . . just fantasies?

Brain in a vat

‘The Brain That Wouldn’t Die’
Film poster
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Reynold Brown Accessed 11 May 2017

Countering skepticism has proved a philosophical conundrum. René Descartes (1596-1650) attacked systematic doubt with the certainty of experience: ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think therefore I am‘) . . . and moved on from there. But, providing the convinced skeptic with compelling reasons to abandon their skeptical beliefs is a tall order.

Perhaps the best argument simply points out that skepticism is both an extreme and unlikely view of the world that runs counter to the way we all behave. Even so, with no knock-down argument against skepticism we are confronted with the spectre of philosophy as an exercise in futility and the absurd.

Why bother . . . ?

For most of us reality is something implicit: it is simply there, with no need to be backed up by intellectual arguments, complicated explanations, or justifications. There seems no need for what is real and true to be written down in some academic philosophical treatise. But some people (like philosophers, intellectuals, and the occasional scientist) are keen to understand and explain what it is that makes something ‘real’ – what it is that grounds its reality or, indeed, why we should ask such questions at all. science is, itself, a search for reality. Isn’t it? So, lets get started.

But before we begin, please take a moment to consider which of the following objects you think are ‘real’ and then consider the reasons for your decisions:

electrons, trees, God, numbers, money, corporations, time, space, properties, dreams, interest rates, relations between things, material objects, marriage, ghosts, causation, events, unicorns, species, genera, multiple universes, universals (things shared by objects – redness, squareness, treeness etc.), forces and fields (as in physics), order, possibilities, opportunities

Already you will be getting a sense of the problems ahead.

Non-scientific reasoning & certainty

Science deals in facts about the world; it provides us with security as a cumulative body of knowledge of ever-increasing precision whose power is demonstrated through the technology around us.

Studying metaphysics will not provide simple answers . . . perhaps not any answers. Metaphysics is not like science whose conclusions to rest on empirical generalizations. Metaphysics, it seems, can persuade with reason but that is all, it cannot give us any further security. When we provide explanations based on physical evidence then we are not doing metaphysics, we are doing science, and herein lies the frustration.

We can desire certainty, but metaphysics as pure reason alone (hence Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason), though useful in logic and mathematics, simply does not provide us with the necessary tools to answer questions about the world – about ‘matters of fact’.

The problem of philosophical progress

If metaphysics cannot provide evidence, then how can it make progress?

The world of discourse bounded by evidence provides us with testable and improvable means of common understanding. Outside this is the world of faith, the supernatural, and pure (devoid of evidence from the senses) reason.

This world outside science is not necessarily meaningless (logical positivists) nor nonsense (Wittgenstein) but it is certainly treacherous, attracting relativistic ideas, mysticism, superstition, and unjustified dogma.

Part of the difficulty is that for much of history metaphysics has been bound up in grand systems, like the many religious doctrines, each claiming to have found the one and only ‘truth’.

One tool of pure reason that is available to us is logic. So we can picture metaphysics as operating in logical space. Most questions have a restricted range of logical answers. Metaphysics may not provide answers but it can explore, in a systematic and critical way, the range of logical possibilities, making both problems and the possible range of answers more transparent.

The logical possibility space

Just because metaphysics can never give us intellectually justified certainty does not mean that all is futile. A useful mental tool in thinking about complex questions is the ‘possibility space’.[3] It is possible, for example, to populate the logical space we call ‘reality’. Consider the following schema of definitions and you will see what I mean.[1]

1. Skepticismwe can never know what is real and what is not
2. Universalismeverything is real. This view is difficult to sustain – consider merely possible objects like unicorns or my future life in the year 3010
3. Solipsismthe only reality I can posibly know is my own existence, nothing else can be reasonably claimed
4. Anti-solipsismeverything is real except myself. This stands in contradistinction to the solipsistic view that I, as an individual, am the solitary fixed point of reference for everything
5. Irrealismnothing is real, in contrast to nihilism, the view that nothing exists
6. Selective realism – you and some other things are real – but which other things are real depends on your particular theory of reality (your metaphysics)

Though each of these positions can be defended with elaborate arguments, for most of us, philosophers included, it is category 6. that is most worthy of further investigation and within this category there are several major schools of thought:[2]

1. Idealism (and its relatives)real is what appears real to you
2. Collective idealism real is what appears real to a group of people
3. Common-sense realismreal is what we dont make up
4. Apocalyptic realismreal is what is there anyway

To these can be added the two prevailing kinds of scientific realism: smallism, and hierarchical organization.

5. Smallism (the turtle definition)what is real is made from the basic stuff from which everything else is derived
6. Hierarchical organizationwhat is real are explanatory systems arranged into levels according to the size and/or inclusiveness and/or complexity of the objects it considers

A brief look at each of these positions (although there are many variants of each) will therefore give us an idea of the lie of the land:-

1. Idealism

This position is a strange hybrid. It can be interpreted as a form of empiricism in that ‘real’ must be what appears to the senses. But then what are we to make of the people and objects that appear in our dreams or hallucinations, and the scientific objects, like electrons, that we only infer?

2. Collective idealism

Perhaps if we acknowledge as real not just our personal impressions but those shared with other people then this would remove the criticism of individual subjectivity? But we can all think of examples where groups of people are collectively deluded so this does not seem to pass muster either although intersubjective agreement seems more powerful than individual experience.

3. Common-sense realism

Sometimes the wall of words we use to discuss reality just gets in the way of the seemingly obvious – when we kick a football or sit on a chair it seems absurd to then ask if the football or chair are real. We might wish that the world were other than it is – but wishing alone will not change it: there is a brute reality that we cannot override. But dreams can rarely be controlled and might override our desires.

4. Apocalyptic realism

Think of a world without humans and minds. To imagine that the Earth could not or would not exist without us seems extremely arrogant. Mars exists without us and the presence of life anywhere in the universe might be regarded as extremely unlikely – the universe does not need life in order to exist and be real. What is ‘real’ is matter, its interactions and relationships: it is what physics tells us about the world.

5. Smallism

From its very beginnings science has tended to proceed by a process of analysis. We explain communities in terms of individual humans, individual humans in terms of organs and tissues, organs and tissues in terms of cells and biochemistry, biochemistry in terms of molecules, molecules in terms of atoms … and so on down to the smallest known subatomic particles. Just like the ancient Greeks Leucippus and Democritus the hope is to find the smallest possible indivisible unit of matter and therefore the fundamental building blocks of existence. Physicists following this path cotinue to find more fundamental particles, the latest being the Higgs boson. But we cannot stop delving ever deeper into the nature of matter. Distilled from all these things we get near-abstract entities like the ‘wave’, ‘field’, ‘string’, ‘energy’, ‘information’, or ‘number’. If this is what we eventually have found to be ‘real’ then we have been left in a position akin to irrealism. Matter may not be nothing but it boils down to something that is hardly coherent.

6. Hierarchical organization

The special (soft, or intentional) sciences are concerned with intention, purpose, value, and meaning in a way that has little connection with smallism, finding the metaphor of hierarchical organization more satisfactory. Finding smallism We tend to think hierarchically, ranking the objects of our thought from high to low. To this ranking is generally added value such that the highest or lowest have some special significance. In the ancient world it was complexity and humans (overtopped by God) that were of greatest significance in the world of matter. We have overturned this mode of thought, replacing it with the philosophy of smallism so that the edifice of matter does not aspire or tend towards what is at the top, instead being constructed from the foundations that lie at the bottom.

Here it is argued that matter is simply matter: there is no top or bottom. Matter may well be comprised of small (even the smallest) parts, whatever we find them to be. But they are not fundamental or more real than any other physical manifestation. An electron is as real as a rock, is as real as a fish, is as real as a human being. Just as we have the notion of existence and non-existence so there is the real and the unreal. This is not a matter of degree, only interpretation. The contents of the physical world and their relations are equally real – but what we make of that reality depends on our human interpretation. Science attempts to minimize the humanness of our interpretation.

Reality and realism – in what sense?

Perhaps after considering the above list you might think that the whole idea of reality is simply a hodge-podge or schemozzle, such that any attempt to nail it down would be a complete waste of time.


Clearly what is real depends at least in part on what we mean by ‘real’ and reality is ‘tied up’ with language and polysemy (multiple meanings of words) and various linguistic confusions. So,for example, we can distinguish between at least two senses of ‘real’:

(a) as the distinction between real and fake, as in real teeth and false teeth

(b) as the distinction between real and illusory, as in a real friend and an imagined friend. Lack of clarity on this point creates ambiguity. For example, there are real toy guns (a), that are not real guns (b).

Regardless of polysemy, we still have an intuition that some things are real, and others are not, and that this is important for our general outlook on the world – so how are we to express this – can we devise a worthwhile definition?

But, if philosophers have largely tried and failed to give a universally-acceptable account of metaphysics – then how could it be possible to provide a definition?


Attempting to define reality and realism usually involves something being independent of human assessment but we need to be clear about what is independent of what and in what sense.

‘Real’ cannot mean ‘independent of humans’ because there are human artefacts that are real. And it cannot mean ‘mind-independent’ because we know that our thoughts and mental processes are real. One useful definition is that of philosopher Susan Haack, which she describes it as ‘innocent realism’ . . . real is ‘how it is, independently of what anyone makes of it’. This is a definition established in contradistinction to ‘fiction’, ‘figment’, or ‘imaginary’. Objects like money, numbers, marriage, and possibility are thus all real.

For Haack ‘all is physical but not all is physics’. Beliefs are real but they cannot be explained by physics alone, the explanation must incorporate a ‘socio-historical and cultural loop’. This applies to all the ‘intentional sciences’.

Part of this view also concerns a distinction between what exists and what is real. Everything that exists is physical and real but some things are real that are not physical. This is a statement of metaphysical belief that we can use as a helpful baseline for subsequent discussion:

Principle 1 – Real is ‘How it is, independently of what anyone makes of it’.

The problem with this Principle 1 is that such a point of view can never be known.

Principle 2 – Everything that exists is physical and real but there are, in addition, some things that are real and not physical.


After this quick overview let’s delve a bit deeper. Aristotle described metaphysics as ‘first philosophy’ even though the word ‘metaphysics’ means ‘after physics’ (it followed ‘physics’ in the sequence of his writings). To tease out what we mean by ‘metaphysics’ we can look at a few further definitions – not of ‘reality’ but of ‘metaphysics’:

1) the ultimate nature of reality – what there is and what it is like
2) the investigation of the first principles of existence
3) a non-scientific (non-empirical) form of rational enquiry
4) investigation of the human place in the scheme of things

1. The ultimate nature of reality – what there is and what it is like

The question of ultimate reality is a metaphysical and not a scientific question because there can be many different views of reality and no generally-accepted means of deciding between them. We take a position and defend our ground – and that is all. Many people accept these grave consequences, regarding metaphysical questions as therefore being of little value. One key aspect of this dilemma is that any understanding of the universe can only be established from a particular point of view (Principle 3).

Falling back on science as our most secure source of knowledge we find two main contending metaphysical systems available to us: on the one hand there is physics and smallism and, on the other, the biologically popular hierarchical organization.

Physics & smallism

Smallism combines a kind of material fundamentalism with foundationalism. Foundationalism bases the operations of the universe on a number of simple foundational axioms that we call the laws of physics. We explain the world analytically by breaking it up into ever smaller constituents in a regress that ends with the smallest constituents of matter that we can name. These then are regarded as the building blocks of matter, the foundations on which the whole material edifice of the world rests. This can be regarded as The hope is to secure the smallest possible and therefore the most likely fundamental building blocks of existence. Physicists following this path have cotinued to find more fundamental particles, the latest being the Higgs boson. But we want to delve yet deeper into the nature of even this stuff, to be left with near-abstractions like ‘wave’, ‘field’, ‘string’, ‘energy’, ‘information’, or ‘number’. If this is what we eventually have found to be ‘real’ then we are left in a position akin to irrealism.

Hierarchical organization

Smallism is the world as seen through the eyes of physicists: it is about physical laws and fundamental particles. But there are entire scientific disciplines, beginning with biology and moving into social sciences (the soft or intentional sciences) that are completely absent from this characterization of scientific reality. These subjects have adopted adifferent characterization of scientific reality in terms of hierarchical organization – layers of understanding and explanation. So we explain communities in terms of individual humans, individual humans in terms of organs, organs in terms of tissues, tissues in terms of cells, cells in terms of biochemistry, biochemistry in terms of molecules, molecules in terms of atoms and so on down to the smallest known subatomic particles. As an ontology or statement of what is ‘real’ this can be regarded as either a slightly different interpretation of smallism with fundamental particles still the ultimate reality, or it can be regarded as a ‘flat ontology’ in which each ‘layer’, ‘domain’, or ‘discipline’ is of equal explanatory and ontological significance (equally real), not subordinated to something more fundamental and more real.

2. The first principles of existence

Kant asked the question ‘What is necessary for us to have any experience at all?’ His investigation of this question drew attention to necessary ‘predispositions of the mind’. If we treat metaphysics as the study of our mental intuitions as constrained by our mental capacities, and unaided by mental tools – the output of our bare brains (Dennett) – then this provides us with one near-scientific mode of investigation of our metaphysical outlook as a species. That is . . . our metaphysical predisposition as Homo sapiens or, in other words, the ‘reality’ (umwelt) presented to us by the innate properties of our minds.

Subject & object

Categories & objects

In this way descriptive metaphysics can explore the framework of concepts used to conduct thought.

We can take as a starting point Kant’s observation that we categorize everything we think about, do, and experience. Mental categories (concepts) are the building blocks of our mental existence as they relate not only to our own internal world, but also to the world that exists outside our minds.

Kant’s categories of cognition were, following Aristotle, essentially the preconditions of logic, while those of perception, the senses, were set on the stage of space and time.

But there is a wider array of mental structuring necessary for us to survive in the world. So, for example, our mental processing must have the capacity to segregate, focus, classify and rank its mental objects. Without these, life would not be possible.

We combine and arrange mental categories into all sorts of groups that are organized into hierarchies and webs of association that create yet more categories. We are all brilliant taxonomists who organize our experience into manageable mental units that facilitate our existence in the world.

If we think of our mental life as the totality of all the categories and their relations that are available to our minds then we survive in our daily lives by ranking these mental categories in various ways depending on our current, interests, needs, and concerns. That is, we give mental precedence to some categories over others depending on the particular circumstances: whether I am hungry, playing sport, or trying to solve a problem in maths.

Can we rank some categories as more basic to existence than others?

Aristotle devised a system of categories, roughly as follows: the world consists of primary and secondary substances: primary substances were particulars, say one particular human being, and secondary substances as human beings in general. These substances had accidents (properties) of quality, quantity, relation, location, time, position, possession, action (acting on other substances), and passion (being acted on by other substances). We can see what Aristotle is up to here and, as usual, he has provided us with something to take seriously, it is a compelling schema for existence. Enlightenment philosopher Kant went on to systematize the Aristotelian system by suggesting 12 categories in four groups: Quantity: unity, plurality, totality; Quality: reality, negation, limitation; Relation: inherence/subsistence, causality/dependence, reciprocity; Modality: possible/impossible, existence/non-existence, necessity/contingency.

There are of course many ways of framing existence, each particular classification derived for its own particular purpose. Aristotle himself divided his first philosophy (his foundational ‘science’) into the core disciplines of metaphysics (what is the case), ontology (what exists or is real), and epistemology (what we can know). Whether any of these has priority is contentious but philosophers have continued to work with these categories.

So descriptive metaphysics is the way we order the world which, we might presume, depends on the interplay between the structure of the world itself and the structuring capacities of our minds.

Classical science & model-dependant realism

Science places great emphasis on its objectivity. Classical science (scientific realism, or realism – there are various terms for this) holds that there is an external world of objects with properties like speed and mass that exist independently of any observers. Scientific theories attempt to describe these objects and their properties. Since both observers and the objects they observe have an objective existence different observers will make the same observations when examining the same objects.

Modern science presents challenges to this view. So, for example, in quantum physics ‘a particle has neither a definite position nor a definite velocity unless and until those quantities are measured by an observer’.(p. 59) There is also a holographic principle that suggests that contrary to all our assumptions about a four dimensional world we could actually be citizens of a larger five-dimensional space-time.

Famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking has argued that what he calls model-dependant realism avoids all these philosophical concerns about reality by relying only on observation. In the historical quest to find naturalistic explanations for the universe we have formulated a number of theories or models, the ‘… four-element theory (earth, air, fire, water), the Ptolemaic model, the phlogiston theory, the Big Bang theory, and so on‘ … ‘ With each theory or model our concepts of reality and the fundamental constituents of the universe have changed‘.(pp. 72-73) ‘ … it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation‘. When we find that the same phenomenon can be described by different theories using different conceptual frameworks (frames) then ‘we use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration’ (see Reduction). Hawking leaves us with this observation on contemporary science:

… there seems to be no single mathematical model or theory that can describe every aspect of the universe. Instead … there seems to be the network of theories called M-theory. Each theory in the M-theory network is good at describing phenomena within a certain range. Wherever their ranges overlap, the various theories in the network agree, so they can all be said to be part of the same theory. But no single theory within the network can describe every aspect of the universe – all the forces of nature, the particles that feel those forces, and the framework of space and time in which it all plays out. Though this situation does not fulfil the traditional physicists’ dream of a single unified theory, it is acceptable within the framework of model-dependent realism.

Our perception and cognition are moulded by ‘the interpretive structure of our human brains‘, the way, for example, that we build a three-dimensional image of the world from a two-dimensional image on our retinas. We do not actually see quarks since free quarks cannot exist in nature – but, as in quantum physics, the model of the quark over time provided more and more correct predictions until it is no longer contested.(pp. 61-66) Hawking’s criteria for what it is to be a model are that it should be elegant with few arbitrary and adjustable elements, it should agree with and explains all existing observations, and make detailed predictions about the future (p. 68). There is nothing scientifically esoteric about this – it is an application of everyday reason.

Subjective & objective

Discussions of science and reality quickly devolve into ‘what is in the world’ vs ‘what is in our minds’, in other words what is objective and what is subjective. It helps scientists to be aware of the dangers inherent in these words.

Ambiguity arises when we use these words sometimes in an epistemological way (what we know) and sometimes in an ontological (what exists) sense. The former relates on the one hand to truth claims that may be objectively settled as matters of fact like ‘In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue’ or ‘the toe bone’s connected to the ankle bone’ – or they may be subjective as in ‘Rembrandt was the greatest ever painter’. Ontologically mountains, molecules, and mice exist independently of experience, but pains and tickles are ontologically subjective in that they are experience-dependent. If we say that science is objective but consciousness is subjective and cannot be studied then we are making a mistake (the fallacy of ambiguity). In an epistemic sense science is objective because it seeks to find the nature of the world independent from the characteristics of its investigators but, importantly, we can make an epistemically objective study of a domain that is ontologically subjective, such as consciousness or pain.

A further distinction: mountains and molecules are observer-independent but money, banks, and marriage are observer-relative. Observer-relative phenomena all contain an element of ontological subjectivity but, for example, the fact that there is an element of ontological subjectivity in economics does not prevent us from having an epistemically objective study of economics.

Explanations of consciousness that appeal to observer-relative phenomena cannot be correct. Consciousness has an observer-independent ontology, even though it is a subjective ontology. In other words we know beyond question that we are conscious. But all observer-relative phenomena are created by consciousness, so consciousness itself cannot be observer-relative without a regress: you would not be able to explain observer-relative phenomena if the consciousness itself is observer-relative.

Consciousness though ontologically subjective but with an observer-independent existence means that you cannot explain consciousness in observer-relative terms. Two theories attempt to do this – the computational theory, which is observer-relative since computation does not name a natural force like gravity, it exists relative to the interpreter or user. If it is observer-relative then must it be arbitrary? Certainly not, but they only serve their function through their physical structure. So, for example, a comb exhibits ontological subjectivity since it would cease to be a comb if it became an object of religious worship or a paperweight. A pocket calculator is just an electronic circuit. No computational theory of consciousness because consciousness is observer-relative. The same applies to information-theoretic explanations. The syntax of a computer program is not sufficient for the semantics of cognitive states: syntax is not semantics.

Is matter real – appearance & reality?

We may be inclined to dismiss metaphysics as hocus-pocus and intellectual games, pointing out the brute reality of matter: if anything is ‘real’ then it must be matter.

a) ‘Real’ is thus what appears to the senses (real is what appears to me). But you might well believe that electrons, which are unavailable to the senses, are real – and the senses are easily deceived as when I dream – so this is notaltogether satisfactory.
b) Even intersubjective agreement (real is what appears to groups of people) we know can be deluded.
c) Perhaps real things are simply those that cannot be influenced in any way by our wishes, desires, and imaginings (real is what exists independently of minds) – what is real is what would exist in the absence of humans, in a world without conscious minds?
d) Alternatively for some people the world is arranged in a hierarchy of levels from higher to lower – we explain humans in terms of their biology, biology in terms of molecules, molecules in terms of atoms etc. The ‘lowest’ level then becomes the foundation, the reality on which all else rests (real is the most basic level of existence, where analysis runs out (smallism)). On this last view although New York is mind-independent it depends for its reality on the fundamental individual particles of matter out of which everything is composed, these are the true reality, the foundation that grounds all existence.

We must also admit that describing exactly what matter is – what it is like – is not as simple as might at first seem. Apart from the fact that physics has continued to find smaller and smaller particles of matter it is logically difficult to imagine even the smallest particle that does not have any extension and parts. There is the further difficulty that at this scale all we can say about anything relates to its properties not the thing itself.

Faced with these dilemmas we need not deny the reality of material objects as they appear to us but question the validity of c) and d).

In the abstract world of mass and charge, particle and wave, field and force, physicists resort to their mathematics. The world is not like billiard balls, vibrating strings, or even multidimensional space … it is more like a form of computation, collections of space-time points, not a physical thing at all but abstract information consisting of peculiar mathematical objects. This is hard to stomach. Perhaps what is fundamental is not material, certainly not ‘material’ as we tend to think of it – or perhaps nothing is fundamental we simply have things that are interdependent.

Little attention is paid nowadays to this general classification of existence but categories are important in all aspects of life and the awareness of the importance of categories in our mental lives, and the possibility of their improvement, is an important and neglected intellectual tool.

Science, philosophy, & the humanities

What are the barriers to science? Is there really a boundary between science and philosophy and can this be clearly articulated? Are we justified in thinking that it is science that tells us, in broad terms, the nature of reality?
Science can be viewed as the steady elaboration and improvement of the categories we use to understand and explain the natural world although any formal study can be viewed in the same way. So, for example, the work load of studying the category ‘natural world’ has been broken up into simpler unit categories like geography, physics, chemistry, and biology. Biology is then divided into botany and zoology, botany divided into physiology (although botanical physiology has connections to physiology in other disciplines) etc. If you are doing cutting-edge research then you will likely be trying to improve the categories we use to understand and explain some small aspect of a formal academic discipline.

How do we explain in terms of physics …the function of a computer … the claim that empathy is the basis of ethics … the theory of evolution … the idea of a law?

Epistemology cannot be a form of cognitive psychology.

Key points

  • the mind segregates the world into cognitive categories as meaningful representational units, both those of perception (percepts) and those of cognition (concepts)
  • though experience of the world is different for different sentient organisms, their sensory apparatus does not construct the world but interpret the same world in different ways: the external world is not an illusion
  • Human percepts are not objects as they exist in the world outside our minds, they are mental representations of these objects structured by our uniquely evolved and species-specific sensory system. Though different species experience the world (reality) in different ways, these different experiences are nevertheless triggered by the same external world. Humans are privileged in having technologies that can extend their natural sensory range, their perceptual and cognitive capacity and the ability, through symbolic languages, to accumulate, share, and refine a body of stored knowledge referred to as science
  • The mind segregates the world into cognitive categories as meaningful representational units, both those of perception (percepts) and those of cognition (concepts). When verbalized these comprise the approximate 50,000 words that appear in the standard English dictionary
  • The focus of our mind on percepts and concepts is not random but purposive, it is directed towards goals: the focus may be either conscious or unconscious
  • Perceptual and cognitive categories are convenient mental representations that do not necessarily provide an accurate map of the external world
  • Decisions that guide action organize (group or classify) percepts and concepts and ranked according to the purpose of the action
  • Scientific categories are being constantly refined as new evidence emerges that appears to map the external world as accurately and objectively as possible
  • Decisions that guide action organize (group or classify) percepts and concepts and ranked according to the purpose of the action
  • Hierarchical metaphor unnecessarily multiplies the objects and relations under consideration creating misleading paths of logical inference
  • Nested hierarchies can be understood in two ways as being either progressively inclusive or progressively divisive – to understand and describe the objects within the hierarchy we can proceed either by analysis or by synthesis (or both)
  • The analytic process of explanation of large and complex in terms of small and simple persuades us that parts have some ontological privilege (are more real) than wholes – but parts can also be explained synthetically by considering their role within a greater whole
  • The greater difference in size and complexity (causal relations and scale) of the cognitive units under consideration, the greater the difficulties in communication and translation
  • Perceived physical units of matter have no intrinsic (ontological) precedence or priority over one-another
  • The appeal of small objects over large ones lies in their apparent explanatory power (epistemology) not their matter (ontology)
  • Decisions that guide action organize (group or classify) percepts and concepts and ranked according to the purpose of the action


    Philosophers themselves have frequently expressed doubt that anything useful can come of metaphysics.

    Skeptical Scottish philosopher David Hume famously stated ‘If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’

    English philosopher Bradley said that metaphysics was giving ‘Bad reasons for what we believe on instinct’.

    German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant also believed that there were boundaries to justifiable knowledge. If a judgement is necessary and universal (a priori – a pure concept of the understanding, a rational concept not based on experience) then it must be metaphysical. Since it is beyond perception such a concept must be transcendental, an empty concept or, in other words, beyond the limits of understanding. Transcendental ideas like God, freedom, a first cause, and noumena (objects in themselves) are all outside space and time and therefore unknowable. Kant did not perceive this as a shortcoming since it released him to pursue his religious beliefs which he acknowledged could not be intellectually justified.

    Later the logical positivists in the 1930s and 1940s followed Hume by asserting that only analytic and empirical statements are (cognitively) meaningful.

    Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, sometimes associated with the logical positivists, concludes his famous Tractatus Philosophicus (which sets out to establish the limits of language) with an enigmatic reference to metaphysics . . . ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ For Wittgenstein metaphysical propositions were not false but nonsensical – they could not be answered within language.

    If we concur with these sentiments then any interest in metaphysics is doomed to disappointment. Wittgenstein in his later life saw the role of philosophy as therapeutic demystification, a procedure for demonstrating that the philosophical problems that bewitch us are really non-problems that can be exorcised.

    Many philosophers of subsequent generations have been more forgiving, stressing that metaphysics has much less to do with language and concepts, which are diversions, and much more to do with what was always its concern, the nature of the world . . . even though there may never be a compelling answer to the question of what constitutes secure knowledge as we yearn for certainty.

    If the whole field is ‘spooky metaphysics’ then should philosophy be the handmaiden of science? Certainly the world has become less ‘spooky’ as it has become absorbed into the body of evidence-based empirical knowledge, but this ignores several important points. Even ‘Hume’s fork’ (above), it has been pointed out, is itself a metaphysical claim. We have learned to be suspicious of grand metaphysical systems and metaphysicians today seem content with small gains in clarity, simplicity, and explanatory elegance.

    We do have a view on the nature of reality whether we can articulate it or not. My own preference is to acknowledge the power of science, avoiding mind-body dualism and supernaturalism. One contemporary scheme that appeals is the ‘innocent realism’ of Duns Scotus, modified by American pragmatist Sanders Pierce, modified again by Susan Haack. This ontology acknowledges the objects of scientific stuff as existing (including fields and waves), a form of physicalism, while describing as ‘real’ those objects that are independent of the way we might wish them to be. ‘Physical’ equates with ‘stuff’ equates with ‘exists’. Included here would be numbers, universals, the so-called ‘laws’ of nature as patterns in stuff, it also includes the way that humans are ‘minded’ with beliefs and desires that are real but which cannot be explained by physics. Armed with this take on reality it is possible to return to the list of objects at the start of this article and state which you think both exist and are real, and which you think are simply real. Of course, you might think differently . . .

    World-wide philosophy departments are under threat as hard-nosed administrators pull the purse strings of those disciplines that cannot attract revenue or demonstrate practical value.

    I like the neo-Epicurean and Wittgensteinian notion of the the philosopher as a therapist with a medicinal role as physician. But while the psychologist acts as therapist for our emotional lives, the philosopher provides therapy for our intellects as it treats the philosophical neurosis that afflicts a small proportion of the population at all times. This is what, today, we mean by meta-physician.

    At one time the metaphysician would hold your hand as you explored together the supernatural world of gods and spirits, and the unfathomable mysteries of the mind and cosmos. Today the meta-physician acts as an intellectual intermediary between our species-specific umwelt – our commonsense world of everyday human experience – and the vastly different world as interpreted by our best science.

    idealism and its close relative phenomenalism, skepticism, eliminativism instrumentalism, and relativism.

    Materialism (mechanism, reductionism) – all that exists is matter (not materialistic)
    Idealism – the mind, spirit, ideas are the ultimate reality (not idealistic).
    Dualism – both matter and spirit or ideas are real. How are they connected?
    Naturalism – all reality is nature, no God, levels of reality – what physics says it is
    Existentialism – humans do not have an essence – you are what you do

    Philosophical anthropology, human nature. Appearance and reality.
    Doing metaphysics seems to be the fate of intelligent reflective people because it is those people who desire the most efficient and effective categories to explain everything.

    Water reduced to a molecule of H2O.
    Here a distinction must be made between what might be called folk science, the common-sense intuitions about the world that vary from culture to culture and the cumulative findings of institutionalized science. This is discussed elsewhere as the distinction between the manifest image and the scientific image.

    is all very well but science is not some form of ultimate truth, . Its foundations are shakier than many of us scientists would care to admit. Science has its own metaphysics. For example, tell me: does the physical world reduce down to a foundation of fundamental particles, or does it consist of hierarchically organised layers of reality or explanation? Or neither? Or what? The paradigms of scientific metaphysics are open to challenge, but to do that you will need to know something about metaphysics.

    There is a redundancy theory of truth maintaining that to claim that something is true is to say no more than that it is so. If I say ‘The temperature is 260‘ and then add ‘It is true that the temperature is 260‘ the truth claim gives us no more information, though it might give emphasis or psychological reassurance. Perhaps ‘real’ and ‘exists’ are also metalanguage, simply honorifics lacking signification?

    If this is unacceptable then we are left with the world of evidence, effectively the world of science. But things are never simple. Philosophically the emphasis here has been on the exploration of physical reality in schools of thought generally referred to as materialism, physicalism, naturalism, and various shades of scientific realism. But modern physics defies the brute reality of matter with its talk of objects like forces, fields, and waves. These are, however, objects open to investigation and revision. The preferred philosophical term nowadays for those whose reality is based on evidence-based objects (and all their deficiencies) is naturalism.

    Science has become our metaphysics. But now a new philosophical problem has arisen within science itself. When we talk of science do we really mean the foundation of all material being in physics or is science more than this. If it is more than this then in what way. The problem of reductionism is a problem of our times. Do the special sciences have independent validity or are they in some sense extensions of physics?

    Aspect theory

    Is our common-sense world an illusion simply because we can explain things in a scientific way? Is colour an illusion because science tells us that what we see as colour is waves of particular frequencies? Are living organisms an illusion because we can explain them in terms of their underlying physico-chemical constituents? Is money (not the coins and notes) an illusion? Are abstract objects (a promise, information, possibility, my centre of gravity, words) an illusion?

    Part of our biological make-up is to classify the objects of our experience into groups depending on the purpose for which they for which the grouping is needed. In order to act we then rank (prioritize) these objects. In other words the objects that populate our experience relate to the purposes (functions) we desire.

    Benign illusions

    Insofar as these objects have a role to play in our lives we can say that they exist. But are some benign illusions? Is free-will a benign illusion?

    A computer has a visual interface with folders, files, and a background as a user-friendly and simplified representation of what is going on in the computer. Is the manifest image like this, with a complex underlying ‘reality’? This seems undeniable but does this make the interface unreal or an illusion?

    To say that ‘everything’ in the world is what we can speak of and imagine is an anthropocentric viewpoint – because we don’t know what we don’t know. We must conclude that the world contains many things that we have never thought of, spoken about, or imagined. And, given our biology, some of these we may never know.

    Our intuitive physics is populated by Kantian Categories.

    Scientific explanations are more predictive and powerful in some cases. But interdisciplinary the best explanations are ‘aspects’.

    The riddle of non-existence

    The self-assured have no doubts about what exists and what does not exist. Maybe a good place to start looking at this issue is with a list of what does not exist, say, Pegasus and Santa Claus or, more generally, fictional and mythical characters. To this we can add the dead, the past, and the future. Also imaginary things like possible worlds, and maybe numbers.

    Remembering Plato’s idea of the Forms as timeless and eternal non-physical objects, Philosophers have referred to all these abstract things as ‘Plato’s beard of non-existence’ because the list of invisible and causally inert abstract objects seems to get longer and longer the more you think about it. Remember, there are some spooky objects in physics too – forces, fields and speculative objects we have never really seen.

    The riddle is that the sentence ‘X does not exist’ is that its very statement attributes existence, in some sense, to X.

    The hard-nosed minimalist philosophical approach (Russell, Quine) simply denies such entities using clarifying logic like Ǝ (x) (There exists, an x) which manages to eliminate problematic things. Trouble is this can cast out of our world many things that we find extremely useful – in a practical sense we cannot, as it were, expel them from our discourse.

    One way around this is to adopt a more easy-going understanding (Meinong) that of ‘x is a non-existent thing’ – which gives us more flexibility to use non-existent things in logic. (Suki Finn 27:00)

    ‘There are’, and ‘there exist’ maybe applied in different ways – ‘there are three detectives in the novel by Sherlock Holmes’.

    Word, object etc

    Will metaphysics ever tell us about the nature of reality?

    You could be forgiven for concluding that we have no more insight into the nature of reality today than was bequeathed to us by the great philosophers of the classical era and 18th century Enlightenment. But this is to ignore one crucial advantage that we have over all those thinkers and that is Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Since the Enlightenment we have learned that we are more intimately entwined with the fabric of the universe than any of these sages could have imagined. We know, as they did not, that we are made of stardust. More significantly we know that as the living world emerged out of this stardust it did so in harmony with its surroundings. Those living organisms that were not in tune with the universe did not persist. Life is different but not separate from non-life. The living and non-living are continuous – there is an organism-environment continuum.

    What this means is that our biology must, literally, embody the very character of the universe, of ‘reality’. Our bodies, thought, and language must have within them the ingredients of our existence in this universe.

    But how do we access something so seemingly abstract?

    Rather than gazing into the world of ideas we can investigate commonalities that underlie our bodies, thought, and language. Those features that have been engraved into our biology, which are innate, have come to us from the universe. Perhaps we can learn more about the nature of reality from our bodies than from our minds? But we are closest to our inner world, to our self-consciousness, so let’s begin here, with the genetically pre-determined nature of our consciousness and experience.

    Philosophical weasel words:[4] reality, truth.

    1. How does our grounding of perception and cognition in units of perception and cognition – our construction or interpretation of wholes and parts, relate to the scientific image?
    2. What is the ontological relationship between the various scales or perspectives that we recognize: are one or some more basic or fundamental than others?
    3. There is a question about causation. When we describe physical systems with different scales, levels, scopes, or complexities using different language we also recognize different objects as being causally connected to one-another. Is causality operating at all scales simultaneously? Is there just one ‘scale’ at which causality operates? Are there difficulties with the notion of causality itself. Is it possible to improve on the hierarchical mataphor of causality operating ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’.

    Principle – the appeal of small objects over large ones lies in their apparent explanatory power (epistemology) not their matter (ontology)
    We can now combine the derived principles to express a preliminary view on reductionism that takes into account the constraints of our perception, cognition, and mode of communication. This will inform more specific discussion of more specific features of reduction in subsequent articles.

    Science attempts to represent (reflect, copy, map, grasp, mirror – choose your metaphor) or explain as best it can, the external world that lies outside our minds – but it can only do this within the limitations of the biologically evolved human mind itself assisted by the technology that has allowed as to overcome, to some extent, our natural biological capacities and limitations. Our experienced world is a world of appearances passed to us through our perception, cognition, and scientific instruments. This does not necessarily entail deception or illusion but it does require interpretation. Any study of the methods and procedures of science must begin by addressing the character of the information processing that goes on our brains, specifically the constraints placed on scientific interpretation imposed by our perception and cognition.

    Cognitive science shows us that our minds unconsciously (innately) structure the world before we begin the process of conscious rational deliberation. Cognition breaks up our understanding into adaptively meaningful cognitive categories (concepts and percepts) as units of representation. To act we do not think about these categories all at once but arrange or classify them into convenient groups depending on our particular interest or concern – our current frame of reference – what we can call our cognitive focus. Our cognitive focus is mostly directed towards our perception, the physical needs of the moment, and tasks of the day. Science, however, focuses on the categories that map the physical world as accurately as possible through the theories, names, properties, definitions, laws and other categories that we use in the scientific enterprise. We use science to assess how well these categories map the external world of noumena.

    Then there are the various ambiguities and confusions that can arise through the language we use to share scientific information especially in the use of metaphor, anaphor, and polysemy.

    The use of hierarchical language in science today confuses communication by imposing, or at least implying, rank-value to a metaphorical structure: by characterizing reality as a series of interacting layers, some of which are higher or lower than others. It imposes both at least two ways. First, in common usage hierarchies always rank their objects of study. This has been passed on to science which currently values small and simple over large and complex (we speak of fundamental particles). This is an interesting reversal of the perception of the world inherited from antiquity in which humans, in all their complexity, were placed at the top of the ladder of physical objects. Second, hierarchies entail the metaphor of ‘levels’ of various kinds, creating the false impression and mode of explanation that treats these levels as discrete objects in the physical world when they are different expanations of the same physical phenomenon. The point is that whatever significance we give to matter in its various forms, that value is added by our minds, the significance does not lie in the matter itself. Reductionism is therefore about epistemology not ontology. Our use of particular scales of thought does not relate to any intrinsic properties in nature or ontology but to the limits of our cognition in finding cognitive focus. Complexity leads to greater difficulty in prediction.

    Usually explanations are most convincing when applied within their own domain or scale but this is not always so, and as science proceeds so boundaries are crossed and this is more likely when the scales are closely related.

    Hierarchy is pervasive as a mode of thought as a form of prioritisation, classification, and decision-making. Chomsky with colleagues dissected grammar into hierarchical components, hierarchies in the conveyance of meaning. But is the universe hierarchical? “Language is compositional, it is also holistic: sentences are based on the meanings of words, but the meaning of a word depends on the totality of the sentences in which they appear.” Donaldson
    But making decisions without emotion we cannot be motivated to reason, that without emotion we “can’t function at all” because we are not going to know what to want. Emotion prioritises our categories?

    In summary ‘levels of organization’ are not objects that exist independently in the world, they are categories of human cognitive convenience: the phenomena they refer to are equally ‘real’ (see the macro-microscope). To provide a scientific explanation of the physical world we approach the limits of our human mental capacity. It seems that we can explain matters that lie within our biological range of cognition, but scientific technology has taken us beyond this range and here we have difficulty. Put simply, we cannot explain large-scale matters in terms of small scales: we cannot explain economic inflation or a football match in terms of molecules and physicochemical processes. This is partly because we do not have the computing capacity, and partly because we do not need it to provide satisfactory answers. We must reframe hierarchical language in terms of scale and inclusiveness.

    We have one world and many ways of understanding, describing, and explaining it. Some explanations are a matter of curiosity satisfaction: science claims to give causal relationship.

    We can conclude with a major metaphysical assertion to ponder. Today when two players in an international tennis match have differing views on whether the ball hit the line or not, they can refer to ‘Hawkeye’ an electronic recording of the actual events. This tells us what ‘really’ happened. But the universe is not like this.


    Principle of Reality – We cannot step outside ourselves to survey the world ‘as it really is’. This would be like a ‘God’s eye view’ or seeing things ‘from the point of view of the universe’. There is no such vantage point. Science can minimize our human perspective on things but it can never achieve total objectivity: for humans that is simply not possible.

    If this claim has merit then any talk of reality should immediately be met with a raised eyebrow because talk of reality must entail ‘perspective’, ‘aspect’, or ‘interpretation’. For simplicity this assertion will be referred to from now on as the Principle of Reality.

    Subsequent articles on reductionism will consider scientific fundamentalism, the view that ‘physics fixes all the facts’ and the properties and characteristics of the way we divide the world into wholes and parts.

    There is a strong sense in which philosophy is taxonomy – the taxonomy of everything – it is the study of the principles and practices by which we categorize the world and our experience of it. It is therefore about what everything has in common, so it is concerned with the subject matter of all disciplines and how they are related … how we ‘know our way around‘, our ‘reflection on the intellectual landscape as a whole‘.[14]

    Further, we do not have direct access to the physical world ‘as it actually is’ (noumena), we can only experience it through our mental representations, our interpretations of it (phenomena).

    The fact that we can only access the world through our human cognition and perception has spawned many philosophical problems. If this statement is true then perhaps either all I can know is what is in my own mind (solipsism) or what is collectively a product of the minds of humans (idealism). Science, in general, acknowledges that we do not perceive the world directly and completely (naive realism) but that our everyday world is an ‘interpretation’ of what is outside our minds. This may seem to be of little comfort but our cognition and perception are being constantly tested in their interaction with the external world.

    Air and water are transparent, that is, they transmit light without appreciable scattering. Humans and other animals take advantage of this characteristic of matter since, using the faculty we call sight, they have evolved to use light as a medium for perceiving the differentiation of matter according to its various properties (qualities).

    Though humans are part of the universe and continuous with it, it helps to distinguish between perceptions that are to all intents and purposes intrinsic (essential, inherent, arising from within) and those that are mostly extrinsic (arising from without), while acknowledging that this is a problematic distinction. My height is 175 cm and I possess this property independently of others, other properties, like colour, are my uniquely human take on the world. Philosopher John Locke made a distinction between ideas that resemble their causes, which he called primary qualities – texture, number, size, shape, motion – and secondary qualities, the ideas that do not resemble their causes – these being color, sound, taste, and smell. We can add space and time to the list of secondary qualities.

    The two most important features of our perception, those grounding all our experience, are space and time. The scientific image presents us with the fusion concept of spacetime and although in everyday experience we recognize the individual categories space and time this has its analogues in the way they are often conceptually associated as when we spatialize time (‘It took a long time’). Similarly our perception of the temporal flux of the universe is one of abstract continuity, so our segmentation of it into meaningful units of various kinds: minutes, weeks, seasons, events, causes, and effects, are interpreted in terms of spatial change. Whatever the mysterious connection be between space and time its segmentation into discrete temporal units is clearly a division of human convenience. It would seem then that although causes, effects, and events can be circumscribed in terms of spatial change, their temporal boundaries are conveniently added by our minds.

    This, for example, permits the scientific study of perception and cognition in other organisms. Though reasons exist in the world independently of humans only humans represent reasons to one-another symbolically

    investigation of the external world that lies beyond the common-sense world as experienced using our biologically-given sensory apparatus (the Manifest Image), to a less anthropocentric world view (the Scientific Image) as revealed to us using abstract thought, reason, scientific instruments, and symbolic languages.

    This is the genetically determined part of our cognition – innate cognitive faculties which we cannot alter by introspection, they are simply the way we humans experience the world.

    This talk of innate ways of experiencing the world might seem to place us in a realm of inner subjectivity, uncertain of what there is outside our minds. This places us in a world of subjectivity, so how can we say anything at all about our innate cognitive categories? We must assume, however, from our survival as a species that natural selection has given us an effective toolbox to deal with the external world. Science, in its turn, has helped us correct many of our more ‘human’ interpretations of reality. How has it done this?

    Deception & illusion

    There are at least two ways that perception can deceive. Firstly, there are the ways that perception presents the world to us through mental structuring, an internal process: cognitive science may help us unravel this aspect of our mental processing. Secondly, there is the possibility of perceptual illusion, as when a stick appears to bend in water, and the way our senses are deceived in other ways. This can be investigated by routine science.

    Language – Science does this by moving from the individual and specific towards the general. So the language of science minimizes reference to the subject (I, me, we), particular times, and particular places. Consider the many thousands of technical words used to describe the world that were not available a hundred or so years ago. Compare the ‘nominalist’ manifest image definition of gold as a dense, yellow, ductile, and malleable precious metal, with an ‘essentialist’ scientific image definition of gold as the metal with atomic number of 79. Botanically consider the way we once classified plants almost exclusively according to their utility while today we can, in addition, compare in great detail their morphology and genetic constitution to the point where we can describe in simple terms their origin and history on Earth.

    So what can cognitive science and today’s philosophy tell us about the brain and our scientific outlook on the world? In what ways can perception and cognition influence or confuse the scientific endeavour?

    Minds, like bodies, have evolved in many ways in response to historical environmental circumstances. So, when viewed in this way no organisms has a privileged access to reality to the external world ‘as it really is’ to the one true reality: each sentient organism perceives the world in its own way depending on the structure and capacities of its sensory apparatus.

    The point of view of the universe

    We desperately seek an objective perspective from which to survey everything. This is the unspoken charter of science. A god’s-eye view from nowhere, no-place, and no-time.

    We easily assume that beyond our human ‘take’ on reality there must be the way the universe ‘really is’: that science is moving inexorably towards an absolute and final truth. This brings a metaphysical assumption that there is one reality, even though we view it from different aspects. Ideas of truth, correct and false answers, and other habits and conventions of thought. The idea of multiple realities, scientific or other, is an antinomy or paradox. It is taken as axiomatic that reality is a unitary concept. Perhaps we can consider an inversion of reasoning:

    Principle 1 – As a habit of thought we make the metaphysical assumption that there is one absolute reality to which science approximates, and of which we see different aspects. A pragmatist account claims we view the world from different aspects and that science adopts conclusions that offer the best predictions and explanations. It is not that we cannot know ‘reality’ but that this is an incoherent concept.

    Kant was ambiguous about this. He described our perception of an object as the phenomenon and the ‘thing in itself’ as the noumenon. But the ‘thing in itself’ is just a convenient expression, a holding point, but not something that can ever be known. We might call this objective stance the point of view of the universe. It is tempting to say that the Scientific Image takes the point of view of the universe, but this is an anthropomorphism because the universe does not have a point of view. There is no privileged God-like perspective on everything – a way things actually are. There is no position from which it can be said dispassionately that ‘this is reality’. The best we can do is to minimize our human-centred perspective on things.

    Two historical developments have added significance to Kant’s profound insights.

    Secondly, through Darwinian evolution we are aware of the origins of our sense organs and how they relate to those of other organisms.

    The scientific image can improve the categories we use to describe the nature of reality but it does not give is an overall structure. We give structure to reality by applying metaphors that generally work well for us in daily life – by distinguishing between: what is bigger and what is smaller; what is contained in or is a part of something else; what is simple and what is tied to other factors in a complex relationship; and by what can be ranked or valued in relation to something else.

    It was also noted that when we describe the physical world we do so from different perspectives: we can give different accounts and explanations of the same physical state of affairs. So, for example, we can give physical, chemical, biological, psychological, sociological accounts of what is the same physical situation.

    The question than arises as to whether any one particular mode of explanation and description should have priority over others and, if so, for what reason? That is the topic of this article.

    There was at this time open conflict between Newton’s world of appearance, absolute space, determinism, and empiricism, and Liebniz’s world of relational space, free will, and independent reality. Kant at first followed Newton in claiming that we cannot have a priori knowledge of independent reality.

    He conceded the empiricist claim that we cannot have independent necessary and universal a priori knowledge of reality but insisted that this was equally true of empiricism – both reason and the senses are needed to give us knowledge of reality. In a tradition going back to the ancients he cast the debate in terms of the distinction between appearance and reality and asserted the primacy of reason.

    ‘All our understanding begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.’ However, instead of claiming that reason gives us knowledge of reality and sense gives us knowledge of appearance his position was that reason and sensibility together are needed to give us knowledge of appearance and that neither can give us knowledge of independent reality.

    Hume’s view of causality had reduced all science to metaphysics and the 11 years hespent on the Critique was in part an attempt at refutation of Hume’s position.

    but Kant wanted to prove that we can have independent , by what is called the causal maxim, that there is an objective order of events which presupposes something that proceeds according to a rule. By doing this he could overcome both scepticism and subjectivism.

    This, loosely expressed, states that consciousness converts sensory input into meaningful experience and that this must occur in an orderly or rule-based way. Objectivity is necessity of connection and synthesis is a reconstitution of events in the imagination. If consciousness is a unity then states of consciousness have an objective order, there is an objective order of events. Since the form of inner sense is time then all representations must be in temporal order. This must be a rule-determined time-order. Thus any representation follows a temporal rule.)
    (Robert Wolff

    In the course of human history we have created a vast, though finite, number of different categories or concepts – what we might call units of thought. Though the relationship between concepts and the names we give them is opaque, this corresponds loosely to the total number of named objects that are listed in our dictionaries. This equates to about 50,000 objects which represents a vague capacity measure of the human mind. This is our the verbal representation of the world. In what ways can this deceive or confuse us? Thinking of science as a mode of cognition makes us aware that the first step in the scientific process is to examine the way we fragment the world into mental units. How accurate, when viewed from the perspective of the Scientific Image, are the categories that we are using to represent the external world?

    From a scientific perspective, on the one hand our categories may underestimate or overestimate the degree of difference between items placed in the same category. On the other hand the same applies to the degree of difference we attribute to objects placed in different categories. Discrete objects may be better represented as continua, and continua may be beneficially divided into discrete objects.

    Consider the way we divide the colour spectrum (a continuum of wavelength) into individual colours. Conversely our minds may suggest continua for objects that in nature are better regarded as discrete. A botanist may decide, based on DNA evidence, that one species of plant is better regarded as two, and that this will better reflect the structure of the plant world. Aristotle had drawn attention to the distinction between objects in the world as ‘natural kinds‘ on the one hand and subjective categories on the other. Fungi were once placed in the category ‘plant’ but now constitute a separate kingdom altogether. We believe that this is a more accurate way of representing the plant world than by, say, classifying them according to their medicinal properties or flower colour. This way of discriminating between plants is regarded as more closely representing the external world, the objective world, than categories that relate to human interests and needs. Some categories might be relatively clear and distinct (seed), others might be more general and abstract (species). These subtle distinctions are, of course, embedded in language.

    Scientifically we think that we would not be fooled by such obvious things, but it is our everyday intuitions and concepts that need the closest scrutiny – we are easily deceived. The power of the mind to segregate, categorise, and create particular human meaning is demonstrated in the miraculous way that we convert the sound waves of spoken language into meaningful words and sentences, a fact that is brought home when we listed to the garble of a language that we have not heard before.

    So, we are all skilled at both unconscious and conscious taxonomy because our brains constantly organise and prioritize (classify) everything we perceive and understand – this is essential for us to go about our lives.

    Much of this activity is intuitive but we refer to the conscious process of category classification, sorting and prioritisation, as ‘reason’. There are thus four key intuitive (innate, evolutionary adaptations) characteristics that bear on reductionism: the will, purpose or end, categories, and cognitive focus. Cognition and explanation are selective processes, we do not understand and explain everything all at once, and in the process of selection wholes can become parts and vice-versa.

    Can our actual mode of thinking impose an illusory structure on the world and if so then how?

    Hierarchies are about chains of command, about where ordering processes originate and how they proceed through systems. The simple human historical characterization is of divine decree passing from God to kings and queens to senior citizens in law and the priesthood and thence to more lowly citizens. This world-view indicates a pattern of causation flowing from a central intelligent cosmic control-centre to disparate local parts of diminishing moral significance. The scientific world-view sees a world of no moral value built on a foundation of its smallest constituents in causal configurations of increasing complexity until consciousness and moral sentiment emerge. Is there a privileged ‘level’ of causation.

    If something is a ‘part’ then its meaning and reference must relate to the whole.

    Glossary of philosophical terms

    This is a list of philosophical ‘-isms’ that you might encounter. They are, indeed, tiresome but they serve as useful abbreviations of long and often complex arguments. There are no universally agreed definitions: the following are offered as a guide only:

    Analytical reductionism – the world can be explained with a few properties and laws that govern its true nature
    Anti-realism – views that contrast with realism including idealism and its close relatives phenomenalism, skepticism, eliminativism, instrumentalism, and relativism
    Bigism (here defined) – the view that we can only grasp reality by widening the context. This is a synthetic ‘top-down’ view of the world cf. smallism
    Conceptualism – explains universals as conceptualized frameworks situated within the thinking mind. Intermediate between nominalism and realism, conceptualism denies the presence of universals in particulars outside the mind’s perception of them. Universals, like numbers, seem especially curious since they seem abstract but we need them for scientific explanation, prediction,
    Constructivism (constructive empiricism) – scientific theories are semantically literal (semantic component), they aim to be empirically adequate (normative component) and their ecceptance involves, as belief, only that they are empirically adequate (epistmological component. A theory is empirically adequate iff everything it says about observable entities is true. A theory is semantically literal iff the language of the theory is interpreted such that the claims are either true or flse (as opposed to an instrumentalist reading) (see Bas van Frassen in The Scientific Image (1980) which is a defence of anti-realism
    Eliminativism – the object of concern is unnecessary and can be ignored (e.g. there is no referent. This is a view of God often offered by atheists
    Fallibilism – the acknowledgement that scientific claims are subject to further revision and refinement
    Fictionalism – a form of eliminativism where the object to be eliminated (it has no referent) but must be retained for its utility (e.g. numbers, morality, grounding)
    Foundationalism – the belief that explanations proceed by analysis until they find a bedrock of reliable or secure propositions: or conversely that a secure system of thought must proceed from a bedrock of unquestioned assumptions, like an axiomatic system of mathematics. This is also sometimes referred to as ‘grounding’
    Grounding – see foundationalism
    Idealism – the world is constructed by our minds
    Innocent realism – ‘real’ is ‘how it is, independently of what anyone makes of it’ (Philosopher Susan Haack)
    Instrumentalism – theories are just useful instruments not purveyors of truth (instrumentalism denies that theories have truth values) nor do they attempt to depict reality: their merit lies in their explanatory and predictive power. Articulated by John Dewey (1859-1952) and Karl Popper (1902-1994)
    Irrealism – the view that nothing is real, in contrast to nihilism, the view that nothing exists
    Logical positivism (logical empiricism, positivism, neopositivism) – the close association of philosophical discourse with that of the empirical sciences. The view that only analytic and empirical statements are cognitively meaningful. A movement associated with te Vienna Circle of philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians of the late 1920s and ’30s (including Carl Hempel, Ernst Mach, Morris Schlick, Rudolph Carnap, Otto Neurath, Alfred Ayer) and America in the 1940s and 1950s (Ernest Nagel)
    Materialism – matter is the fundamental substance in nature. All phenomena, including mental penomena and consciousness are the consequences of material nteractions. Materialism is often treated as synonymous with physicalism
    Mathematism – the reduction of reality to the eternal truths of mathematics cf. scientism and fallibilism
    Naive Realism – the senses provide us with direct awareness of the natural world as it is
    Naturalism – everything arises from natural properties and causes. Effectively the same as physicalism but tending to define itself by denial of the supernatural. Three flavours a)denies supernatural and purely a priori, b)claims philosophical questions will eventually be absorbed into science, c) claims philosophical questions are misconceptions that require ‘demystification’.
    Nihilism – the view that nothing exists
    Nominalism – denies the existence of universals (things that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things e.g. strength, humanity, being a tree) and abstract objects (objects that do not exist in space and time e.g. numbers), but affirms the existence of general or abstract terms and predicates, that is, the use of these terms in language. One version of nominalism denies the existence of universals (they are just names), the other denies the existence of abstract objects . Most nominalists claim that only physical particulars in space and time are real, and that universals exist only subsequent to particular things, but some versions of nominalism hold that some particulars are abstractions, while others are concrete. Realism about universals claims that universals exist. Platonism (Platonic realism) is the claim that abstract objects are real cf. conceptualism, realism
    Phenomenalism – physical objects only exists as perceptual phenomena or sensory stimuli
    Physicalism – the only things in the world are physical things – essentially the objects of scientific investigation. This includes non-material things like dark energy, space-time, force fields, waves etc.
    Postmodernism – A movement that developed in the mid- to late 20th century across philosophy, the arts, architecture and criticism which marked a departure from modernism. A broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power. Definition is problematic since it violates the postmodernist’s premise that no definite terms, boundaries, or absolute truths exist
    Pragmatism – thought is a tool for prediction, problem solving and action not for describing, representing, or mirroring reality. Philosophical topics concerning the nature of knowledge, language, concepts, meaning, belief, and science — are all best viewed in terms of their practical uses and successes. The meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it. Emphasis on ‘practical consequences’ affects notions of truth, of fallibilism in epistemology
    Realism – the objects under consideration exist independently of our ourselves and our minds. Innocent realism would also designate as real those objects that the mind cannot wilfully change (e.g. numbers, laws, universals, properties & dispositions, relations) cf. antirealism, scientific realism, naive realism
    Reductive Physicalism – the view that all phenomena can be reduced to physico-chemical processes, what is referred to here as ‘smallism’, a form of foundationalism
    Relativism – truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frames of assessment. Authority relates to context cf. postmodernism
    Scepticism – there is no certain knowledge so we should refrain from making truth claims
    Scientific Realism – there is a world independent of our minds as described by science (metaphysical claim) that gives us genuine knowledge corresponding with reality (epistemological claim) that its concepts and theories are more than convenient or useful tools or instruments for achieving practical ends (semantic claim). Scientific realists claim that scientific research produced reliable knowledge even when its phenomena are not observable. Science is a means of testing reality cf. realism, antirealism
    Scientism – the claim that the predictive power, explanatory range, and technological success of science warrants its precedence over all other forms of knowledge, even though it cannot provide eternal truths cf. fallibilism, sometimes referring to the application of a supposed scientific method outside the scientific domain. Often used as a pejorative term implying undue deference to science
    Smallism (here defined) – the view that we can only grasp reality by narrowing the context. For example, that the physical world consists of wholes explained in terms of their parts in a regression that ends with a foundation in the smallest possible parts of matter. This is an analytic or ‘bottom-up’ view of the world cf. bigism, foundationalism
    Solipsism – the only reality that can be known is the reality of my own existence, nothing more can be coherently claimed

    Reality & representation

    There is also a problem that has been at the centre of philosophy from the earliest times, a question concerning the world ‘as it is’ and the world ‘as we experience it’, or ‘how it seems’. This is the distinction between ‘appearance and reality’. This is such an important aspect of metaphysics that a whole article has been dedicated to the question of reality & representation.

    We make a cognitive distinction between what goes on in our minds (as our internal subjective world) and what goes on outside our minds (as the external objective world). This habitual distinction accepted uncritically suggests inner and outer ‘realities’, the external world being a direct and objective brute reality, the inner world one of subjective experience. But, on reflection, the external world can only be the world as I experience it, not the world outside my experience. My experience is different from that of a dog although the external world we both experience is the same external world: we just experience it in different ways. Knowing that there must be an external world independent of our minds, we are prompted to ask ‘Well, what is this external world really like?’ But we cannot step outside ourselves to see things from the point of view of the universe or with a God’s-eye view: we can never have such an ultimate view of reality, we only have our interpretations of it. The nearest we can get to an ‘independent’ view of reality is the world as presented to us using all the resources of science.

    Our human mode of comprehension permits investigation of the external world that lies beyond the common-sense world as experienced using our biologically-given sensory apparatus (the Manifest Image), to a less anthropocentric world view (the Scientific Image) as revealed to us using abstract thought, reason, scientific instruments, and symbolic languages. There is no point in denying the reality of the manifest image, the world of our direct experience, since it is clearly ‘real’ to us. So pointing out that apparently solid objects are ‘really’ mostly space serves little purpose. Folk science works one way, formal science another: the world of the manifest image is simply not what we might suppose it to be.

    Importantly, the fact that we can only ever experience our interpretation of the external world does not mean that the external world is illusory, only that it is our human understanding of it.

    This is such an important issue in relation to science that it is discussed in much more detail in the articles on Immanuel Kant and reality and representation. I mention it here because it needs to be addressed at the outset.

    Principle 3 – Though the world external to our minds is not an illusion, what we make of it is a human interpretation. We can never know an objective reality in an absolute sense (from the point of view of God or the universe) because we cannot step outside our own experience, although science tries to be as objective as possible (the principle of interpretation)

    Science & reality

    Articles on this web site have, by and large, defended a philosophical position that might be described as secular or scientific humanism. This is a view of existence that embraces human reason, secular ethics, and philosophical naturalism while specifically rejecting religious dogma and supernaturalism as the basis for morality and decision making. Humans are capable of being ethical and moral without religion and all ideology must be critically examined by each individual, not accepted on faith. An essential part of secular humanism is the continuous desire to improve our system of knowledge, primarily through science and philosophy.

    Metaphysics & science

    From its earliest days metaphysics has concerned itself with the distinction between what is real and what is merely apparent. We all seek certainty and religion has traditionally provided this reassurance. But the spiritual world has its own puzzles and contradictions from the world of animism (the presence of benign and malevolent spirits of various kinds throughout nature), polytheism (a world of many gods), or monotheism (a world with a single god). Each religion believed in the ‘reality’ of its supernatural base. But how could there be different realities? Were some of these supernatural beliefs mistaken … or were they in some strange way all believing in the same thing?

    Frustrated by competing grand systems of thought and the lack of any direct access to the supernatural, many people have fallen back on a source of knowledge that can be tested and improved. Evidence-based science is such a form of knowledge. Indeed, it might appear that the predictive power, explanatory range, and technological success of science warrants its precedence over all other forms of knowledge. Science does not concern itself with the supernatural because it has no means of accessing it. Science has now become a global metaphysical system akin to systems of thought based on faith (the great world religions).

    Few modern scientists spend time worrying about the relationship between what they are doing and religious belief. When religion and science coexist in their minds then they are rarely perceived as being in conflict. For similar reasons metaphysical questions in general are ignored. You can be an effective and successful scientist without ever questioning or speculating about the reality of the objects you study. Asking such questions is generally regarded as unnecessary and counterproductive. Getting hung up on the philosophical foundations of science can waste an inordinate amount of time for very little reward.

    Avoiding metaphysics makes sense if we can draw a convincing line in the sand which says ‘science’ on one side and ‘metaphysics’ on the other. But the division between science and metaphysics is not as clear-cut as we might like to think, in fact in recent times it has become increasingly blurred. Part of this is the general recognition by scientists themselves that science lacks the certitude it once seemed to provide. It used to be frequently said that science was ‘seeking the truth’. But such phrases now seem unduly ambitious when all scientists acknowledge that new research is constantly changing our impression of the world, that science is a process of constant refinement, not a seeking for a final goal of absolute truth which exists in the world waiting to be discovered like a chest of gold. As science has progressed it has become progressively involved with objects that cannot be seen and experienced directly. More and more scientists depend on speculative reasoning and shadowy physical objects like the multiverse, quantum physics, string theory, M-theory, waves, fields, and much more.

    More important than all this is the fact that science is itself metaphysics. It presents us with a particular interpretation(s) of the world, of the way things are, of ‘reality’.

    One metaphorical way of characterising science is as a web of interrelated ideas. We are inclined to think that scientific research just keeps adding facts to this melting pot but sometimes the ideas themselves must adjust to new evidence. It was once thought that matter consisted of indivisible particles called atoms. Our thoughts on this, and their implications for related ideas, have changed considerably over time and are likely to change further in the future. Every scientist should surely be aware of the philosophical issues and unfounded assumptions underlying their work, including metaphysical assumptions about the world that may be hampering the progress of science. I hope that, after reading this article, you will at least feel that this journey into metaphysics has given you a glimpse into the philosophical landscape of reality.

    This article is intended to provide a background to the metaphysics of science today because science does presents us with its own world view(s). Along the way it looks at scientism, a triumphalist view of science as a panacea for humanity.

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