Friday, April 24, 2015

Embodied Realism Part III: Is this realism?

Let us continue our survey of the philosophy of embodied realism as expounded in Philosophy of the Flesh (first two posts here and here). We now turn our attention to probably one of the biggest topics in philosophy, with which embodied realism actively comments on, namely that of metaphysical realism. Metaphysical realism is the position that an external reality exists apart from our consciousness, and that our apprehensions of this reality are determined mostly by the actual properties inherent in it. The opposite of realism is anti-realism, which states either that an external reality does not exist, or that we cannot know this reality in itself.

So, where does embodied realism stand in this dichotomy? Well, embodied realism is called realism, and thus it would seem to fit neatly in this category. And indeed this would be prima facie correct, since the authors explicitly state their belief that an external world exists. So then, are we finished here? Well, not exactly. For while the authors will admit the existence of an objective reality, they deny that there is any neutral vantage point from which we can know anything about this objective reality apart from our embodiment:

[C]lassical metaphysical realism cannot be right, since the properties of categories are mediated by the body rather than determined directly by a mind-independent reality. (p. 28)

[Embodied realism] gives up on being able to know things-in-themselves, but, through embodiment, explains how we can have knowledge that, although it is not absolute, is nonetheless sufficient to allow us to function and flourish. (p. 95)

[Embodied realism] denies that we can have objective and absolute knowledge of the world-in-itself…[E]mbodied realism denies on empirical grounds, that there exists one and only one correct description of the world[.] (p. 96)

We will deal with the inherent problems with these claims in just a moment. Primarily, we need to observe why they are being made. This is to ask why the authors are claiming that we cannot have objective knowledge of reality-in-itself, and why does our embodiment keep us from predicating properties of reality from a neutral vantage point? The main reason is due to the levels of embodiment (neural, phenomenological, and cognitive unconscious) that we surveyed in the first post of this series. Remember that embodied realism claims that, based on our embodiment, we don’t have a neutral vantage point to say “X is or isn’t the case,” because things are or are not “the case” (i.e. real or unreal) relative to our understanding at a certain level of embodiment. Therefore, we can only say “X is or isn’t the case, at a certain level of embodiment.” So, what we mean by something being “true” and “real”, on embodied realism, depends upon the perspective and level of embodiment being considered. To take the example the authors utilize—and which we saw was false in the first post—color isn’t “actually” real, if we are attempting to promulgate this statement from a neutral standpoint. Rather, color is “real” only when considered from the level of phenomenology, but is it “unreal” when considered from the neural level. That is, the existence of color is “real” only relative to the perspective, here the phenomenological level of embodiment, being considered.
Now, remember that in the aforementioned post we saw these arguments to be false. Not only can we make absolute predications of reality from a privileged perspective, but we must do so. In fact, the author’s own theses contradict their very claims. When they say, for instance, that we cannot know “things-in-themselves”, or that we cannot have objective and absolute knowledge of the world, the authors are predicating these propositions as objective predications of reality from their own privileged vantage point! That is, they’re saying that it is an objective fact that we cannot know things in themselves, and it is objectively true that we cannot have objective knowledge. This is, to say the least, self-refuting. For the embodied realist’s claim that reality cannot be known is not simply made at the neural level, or the phenomenological level, or the cognitive unconscious level. No, it’s made from a unique perspective that says “reality is this way, period,” even though this is what the embodied realist says cannot be done.

The embodied realist, thus, is blind to the absurd implications of their philosophy. If one level of embodiment cannot be privileged over and above another, then no single proposition can be seen as an adequate predication of reality in any domain whatsoever—since any single proposition can only represent one level of embodiment at a time. But if no single proposition can be an adequate predication of reality in any domain, then the embodied realist’s very claims about objectivity, knowledge, reality, and ontology cannot be adequate predications of reality either, and thus we should pay them no heed.

Furthermore, if we truly cannot know reality-in-itself, and can have no objective or absolute knowledge of this reality, then we cannot make those very same claims—i.e. that we cannot know reality-in-itself and that we cannot have objective knowledge of the world. That is to say, if we can’t know objective reality, then the statement “we can’t know objective reality” is also false, since it is predicated on a knowledge claim about the nature of reality. Everywhere we turn embodied realism shoots itself in the foot. This is why, as I said in the last post, embodied realism is junkyard of poor philosophy.
So, is embodied realism a misnomer? Should it even be labeled a form of realism? Not really. While it admits the existence of an external reality, it discards the proposition that we can have any real knowledge of the objective properties of this reality, and thus it belongs in the camp of anti-realism.

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