Thursday, November 13, 2014

Model-Dependent Realism revisited

Awhile back I wrote a post on Model-Dependent Realism—the view that we form models of the world through our sense datum, but that these models cannot be said to be real or true—attempting to demonstrate why I found it to be untenable. Mike D over at The A-unicornist—my favorite atheist blog to frequent--has since written his own post devoted to demonstrating 1) how I have supposedly misunderstood MDR and 2) how nothing I said actually refutes it. I do in fact disagree (surprise!) with Mike’s assessment of my comprehension and my arguments, and thus this post has manifest. Let’s see what Mike has to say:

MDR does not claim that models "conform to reality" at all; it summarily rejects the idea of an absolute reality to which we have unfettered access — this means we cannot, in principle, know whether a model "conforms to reality". Rather, it claims that our very concept of what reality is is contingent upon our ability to construct models and test them against observation. We assign the term "real" to concepts that allow us to successfully model and predict the world around us.

First, I never claimed that MDR stated that models conform to reality—in fact this is my point of contention with MDR! I agree that MDR states that our models are only interpretive structures, so to speak.

Yet this is, as I demonstrated in the first post, where MDR runs into problems. For unless one is a solipsist then one does have to admit of an objective reality (for even the sense datum that help form our models must come from somewhere outside of ourselves); and sure enough this is what Mike does: “Of course most philosophers and scientists (including Hawking) operate on the provisional, inductively-derived assumption that an absolute reality does exist.” So, since an objective reality must exist, yet on MDR we cannot have direct access to this reality, then the only warranted claim MDR can make is that we simply cannot determine which model conforms to reality—not that no models conform to reality, or that conformation with reality is meaningless. For if objective reality exists, then certain things can be predicated of it, and certain things cannot. But for MDR to state that nothing at all can conform to reality, or that talk of models conforming to reality is meaningless, is to refute oneself, since this assertion itself is a claim about the nature of reality. And this is one fact that Mike never addressed. The point is that MDR essentially claims the following: No model or theory is real, except, you know, the theory of MDR.

Mike continues:

Steven has fundamentally misunderstood what MDR means in saying that no model can be said to be more 'real' than any other; it is simply saying that different 'frames of reference', such as the neural and cognitive models of the mind, overlap and converge to form our picture of reality, even though they may in some ways be semantically or theoretically incompatible (that is, no one frame of reference can fully explain all phenomena).

On the contrary, I maintain that Mike has misunderstood MDR here. For when Hawking was discussing his theory that one model cannot be more real than another, he uses a very specific and revealing example—namely, that of creationism and the Big Bang theory. Examine this quote straight from the horse’s mouth: “this model—the big bang theory—is more useful than [creationism]. Still, neither model can be said to be more real than the other.” Did you catch that? The big bang cannot be said to be more real than creationism! Herein lies the absurdity of MDR. Again, remember that Hawking is not claiming that we can’t determine which theory accurately conforms to reality, rather neither theory conforms to reality at all, since conformity with reality is meaningless.

To demonstrate the absurdity of this line of thought in my first post, I contrasted, as an example, two theories (“models”) of reality: realism and solipsism. I argued that on MDR “neither is true.” Here’s what Mike said regarding my illustration:

MDR would say that both classical realism and solipsism (specifically, ontological solipsism) make fundamentally untenable assumptions. We do not have unfettered access to an ultimate absolute reality, and we have ample reason to assume, based on evidence arrived at through induction, that a reality external to our minds does in fact exist. MDR does not summarily declare either position false, as Steven asserts; rather, neither can be said to be true or false.

Mike has misunderstood me. I never said that on MDR both theories must be false, rather I said neither is true. And this is exactly what Mike is saying here. So Mike and I are in agreement here, he just didn’t know it. So to return to my intended point, on MDR neither realism nor solipsism is true, or false. In fact, such talk is, on MDR, superfluous. But this, again, is where the absurdity lies. For either a reality exists apart from subjective observers, or it doesn’t. This pure logic: either A or not-A. What we cannot say is “neither.”

To press this point further, let’s imagine two exclusive theories (different than the ones utilized above): Either you (the reader) exist, or you do not. It seems purely common sense to say that only one of these can be true and one at least must be true—the law of non-contradiction necessitates this. But on MDR we cannot say this, rather we must say neither is true or false—talk of truth is meaningless here. Yeah…good luck with that. If this is not enough to demonstrate the nonsense and absurdity of MDR then I do not know what is.

But the point can be pressed even further than this. For the main point of Mike’s post is an attempt to demonstrate that I have misunderstood MDR, and that my attacks against it are invalid. But wait. How, on MDR can Mike say that any “model” one espouses, whether mine or anyone else’s, is incorrect? He can’t. Remember Hawking: “it is pointless to ask whether a model is real[.]” Talk of real, unreal, true, or false, is meaningless here. So, why then is Mike so determined to show that my own model is wrong? Is he perhaps convinced that his model is correct, and that therefore it accurately describes an actual state of affairs? Of course he is. And thus, although he claims to adhere to MDR, his actions betray his beliefs.
Mike then wraps up his post by stating the “most important point” of MDR:


MDR renders meaningless the distinction between "reality accessible to us" and "reality in itself". Of course most philosophers and scientists (including Hawking) operate on the provisional, inductively-derived assumption that an absolute reality does exist. But we do not have an unfettered, privileged access to such a reality in which one level of explanation (or one 'frame of reference') successfully describes all phenomena.

Mike, again, seems to miss the blatant contradictory nature of MDR here. He, and Hawking, claim that we do not have a model-independent concept of reality, and that we can only find utility in models, not truth or reality in them. But this itself is a claim about the nature of reality. Just ask the question “Is it really the case that we have no model-independent picture of reality?” The answer will commit one to make an objective claim about reality. You see, MDR attempts to bypass the metaphysical debate about the nature of reality—it’s trying to say that the whole debate itself is superfluous and meaningless. But by doing this MDR is throwing itself into the debate, whether one likes it or not!

Hitherto I don’t believe Mike has accomplished what he set out to do. First, He didn’t really show that I misunderstood MDR. In fact he seems to have misunderstood me, and at times our understanding was exactly the same, even though he failed to recognize such. Second, Mike has failed to salvage, in my opinion, any remains of a coherent and respectable theory in MDR. It remains an incoherent, absurd, and self-refuting philosophic position. As Hume would say, let us commit it to the flames.

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