Saturday, April 17, 2004

"The Real Worlds" - Semantic Contextualism

This post is built on the idea that we can look at the world in many different ways, using a coaser- or finer-grained focus.

Take the ultimate macrocosm of the ultimate reality, whatever it might be. Let's call it the "Objective World" (henceforth, OW). Now, the OW is of such a depth that we can identify and focus on various microcosms, little worlds in themselves. Each of these microcosms will in turn contain further mini-worlds, ad infinitum. Human reflection has an infinite zoom, and can choose to focus on any particular "world" - we are not restricted to the OW. All of these worlds are (at least in a certain respect) real. They are simply different ways of looking at a single reality. A different frame of reference, if you will.

My central theses are that:
  • truth is relative to the 'world of reference' [It should be noted, however, that all micro-worlds are ultimately reducible to the OW... but such a reduction will often require significant semantic alterations in order to preserve the truth values of attributed propositions.]

  • The 'world of reference' will vary according to context.

That was a rather abstract introduction. So let's consider a simple example: a fictional story. I'm suggesting that the imaginary world communicated by the story is (in a sense) real. One can say things like "Frodo went to Mt Doom to destroy the One Ring", and it is true within the context of Tolkien's world, despite its apparent literal falsity. The method of reduction in this case should be obvious: propositions about Tolkien's world simply need to be 'translated' into propositions about what Tolkien wrote in his famous books. Fictional worlds are reducible to real-world text on real-world pages.

The example I borrowed from Patrick may help you to get an intuitive grasp of this theory:
Suppose I say to you “In my dream last night, I was walking down the street-”, it is clearly inappropriate to respond “Liar! You were lying in bed asleep!”. Instead, we implicitly recognise that the phrase “In my dream last night” alerts the listener to a shift of semantic context: the truth of the subsequent proposition is to be evaluated in terms of the dream world, not the real world.

So that should give you the basic idea. Hopefully this theory of metaphysical contextualism will strike you as intuitively plausible - perhaps even obvious. What really makes it useful, however, is the response it allows us to give to the Skeptic. I discussed this in my post on Skepticism & the Matrix (but note that what I previously referred to as the "Real World (RW)", is what I'm now calling the "OW", since the microcosmic worlds are - in a sense - no less real).

The Skeptic highlights the distinction between the world we commonly assume to be reality (CW), and what is in fact the ultimate OW (which we cannot possibly know). A common scenario is to suggest that you might be a brain in a vat (BIV), being ‘fed’ experiences by a super-computer which electrically stimulates your brain, causing lucid hallucinations which you have mistaken for reality. In this case, our CW is reducible to the rules of the computer program that determines the experiences fed to a BIV in any given situation.

I am suggesting here that even though you are a (handless) BIV in the OW, it is nevertheless true that you have two hands - within the context of the CW. The semantic revision I propose to achieve this is roughly similar to that of Hilary Putnam (in Brains in a Vat) who suggests that a BIV saying “there is a tree in front of me” likely speaks the truth, given what “tree” and “in front of” mean in Vat-English. I suggest that when someone says "I have two hands", what they really mean is "I have two hands in the CW", rather than "I have two hands in the OW". We can know the former proposition to be true, despite our ignorance of the latter.

But enough about Skepticism. My main purpose here was to expand the theory from the mere delineation of CW from OW, to instead allow us to choose from infinitely many reference frames. I can talk about the world of a dream, of a story, of my conscious experiences, of a computer simulation, of interstellar interactions, or of anthills. Some propositions will be true in some of these worlds, but not others. Nevertheless all those worlds are in some sense real, because they can all be 'reduced' to the OW. The microworlds supervene on the macroworld. They just look at reality from different perspectives.

Update: Some helpful folks at Ephilosopher inform me that the name "semantic contextualism" is already used to refer to a certain variant of epistemological contextualism.  To emphasise the idea that there are multiple 'worlds' or perspectives on reality, I'll rename my theory here as "Metaphysical contextualism" instead.


  1. I agree with your views of reality and truth. See my posts on My take on the problem is broader than yours. I equate hierarchical realities with each science, as is current, as well as with a priori systems, and subjective realities. Within each, there is meaning, reference, extention or deduction, and truth.

    Such encompasing philosophic system needs to be built from the ground up, as is already being done by various contextualists and pragmatists.

    Regards, Yada 

    Posted by YadaYada

  2. Firstly, apologies for the length of this comment; but it's not too heavy-going and it's not interrupting anyone.

    Secondly, this post looks very sad and neglected at the moment, but I quite like this metaphor of the “focus”. I’m not sure how seriously you entertain this metaphor, but I think it is a good way of picturing what happens when there is (as there usually is) more than one person adjusting their “focus”; that is, when people have an argument; and, since argumentation is such a popular pastime among philosophers, it would be good to have some idea of what happens during an argument, and how two arguers can come to an agreement. I’m not sure if the following says anything new about truth/argument/reality etc., but it at least gives a kind of picture to work with. Suppose, then, that there are two people, each with their own “microscope”, continuously adjusting their “focuses” to bring into view different “images” of the “OW”, and then making verbal statements about the images. Also suppose that the thing under the microscope is the same for each person, and that each person can view only his own image. Most of the time these two people won’t come into conflict, because they’ll know that they are talking about completely different things; that is, they are aware that their images are quite different. To use the skepticism example, one person might say “my hands are freezing”, and the other might say “the probability of me being a brain in a vat is equal to the probability of me being an actual human”; and there will be no disagreement, because the two participants are aware that they are talking about different things. But suppose that one or both of the participants adjust their “focus” so that they are both viewing roughly the same image. In this case, the two arguers are likely to agree on most things, provided they don’t go into too much detail; that is, provided they either ignore, or are insensitive to, the features of their respective images that make them different from each other. For example, one might say “I know I have two hands”; and the other say “If I am a brain in a vat, then I do not have any hands”; and there might be not disagreement. If they *are* sensitive to these distinguishing details, however, and if they continue to believe that they are both looking at the same image, they will disagree, and have a long and fruitless argument about it. Thus, one will assert, looking at his particular image, that “I do not know that I have two hands”; and the other will assert that “I do know that I have two hands”, and they will go on like that for some time. The disagreement will be particularly stubborn if the two arguers are unwilling to change their focus, because then each person will never see things as the other does. The disagreement will also persist if the arguers are able to change their focuses, but change them so roughly and discontinuously that they can never both settle on the same image, but always skip over important images during the transition.

    Nevertheless, there is always hope: if both of the arguers are willing to adjust their focuses, and both can adjust them smoothly and carefully, then there is a good chance that they will eventually alight on the same image; and further, that they will both be able to identify the details of the roughly similar, but actually different images, that give less accomplished microscopologists the illusion of disagreement. So my point, at last, is that there is not just one kind of “fineness” or “coarseness” at work in an argument, but two: there is the “fineness” of the image that any one person brings into view on their own scope; and there is also the “fineness” with which the two people are able to adjust their images, so that they agree. The first is the power of the scope, and its ability to discern precise details; the second is the sensitivity of the scope’s tuning mechanism, and the ease with which it is able to move from one image to the next, missing out as little as possible in the transition.

    We tend to downplay the latter kind of “fineness”, I think, partly because we know that some people are simply wrong or stupid, and no amount of adjustment will enable us to agree with these people (we want to say their lens is cracked, or something like that); partly because we feel that there is no use adjusting our scopes unless the adjustment gets us closer to the first kind of “fineness”, which we think of as the ultimate end of successful argument; and partly because we are afraid that, by winding our focus back to a misguided person’s image, we will get stuck there, and never get back to the fineness and clarity that we left behind, and which we are inclined to call the “truth.”

    These are reasonable objections, but if they are applied too vigorously, the second kind of fineness is ignored altogether. Thus, rather than thinking of misguided arguments, or misguided arguers, as victims of faulty thought processes, of a cracked lens, perhaps it is sometimes better to think of them as having a stuck lens, of lacking lubrication. Then, the best way of freeing up their mechanism is to bring up their image in your own lens, describe it carefully to them, and change your focus slightly, describing how one image changes into the next, so that they can see how a different view can be gained, until you get back down to the image you want. In this case the metaphor is justified by the observations that, firstly, not many people give up on an idea unless they know that their opponents have first understood their point of view; and, secondly, often the best way to show someone how wrong they are is to point out the sense in which they are right. (Although perhaps this process is more relevant to non-philosophical interactions, such as teaching children or changing the ideas of highly deluded people). To the second objection (regarding “the ultimate end of a successful argument”), the “focus” metaphor suggests this response: there is no use achieving the first kind of fineness if, once we reach that level of very fine discernment, we cannot agree on what we are seeing; that is, if we do not have the delicacy of touch to bring into our own eyepiece the image that is in the eyepiece of the other person. Indeed, it is plausible to think that, the more highly focused (in the first sense) our lenses are, and the more complexity and detail we observe, the more likely we are to see something different from each other, when we adjust our focus slightly.

    So far this “focus” metaphor has implied that the movement from one image to another involves nothing except a blurring or a sharpening of the image; a simple matter of viewing the same shapes and lines and colours in more or less detail. This is probably a good model for some kinds of knowledge, like physics perhaps, but for lots of philosophy I think it is a bit misleading. The metaphor of the “analytic knife” adds in what the “focus” misses, I think. In the case of the “analytic knife”, there are lots of ways of dividing up the sand, analogous to the different images that appear in the scope. In the “analytic knife” case, however, “different” configurations of the handfuls of sand mean not only 1) different degrees of fineness in the divisions but also 2) different arrangements of the sand, where the “fineness” of the divisions is the same (ie. arrangements made up of curves instead of straight lines, or a different style of tessellation, or whatever). The word “analytic” tends to emphasize the former, I think, but by ignoring the latter it leaves open a lot of room for needless disagreement: for, if there are many different ways in which any one person can divide up his or her own piece of sand, then there are many many ways in which two people can disagree on what the sand is, IF they both believe that each different way of dividing up the sand represents a different (and so incompatible) reality. Further, according to this metaphor, most of our disagreements result from differences not about what the sand is before we start knifing it, but about how it appears when we have each made up our individual divisions, which are themselves largely arbitrary. This probably pushes the metaphor further than it's author wanted it to go, but it is not entirely misleading, I think, to push it this far.

    This sounds a bit like relativism, but I think the relativist is inclined to say “lets ignore the differences between the different images, because they are all true anyway”; while I say “lets make every attempt to identify the differences between separate images, so that, as well as deciding whether or not a statement is true, we also pay attention to the sense in which a statement is true; that is, to the kind of “image” that we must bring up into focus in order to agree with the statement.” Obviously this doesn’t apply to everything. There’s not much use in just going round agreeing with everyone, and we could waste a lot of time trying to work out how we can turn implausible statements into “truths”, and if noone disagrees then noone will change their focus at all, or divide up their sand in new and more precise or useful or elegant ways. Nevertheless, I think there is a lot to be gained by investigating the second kind of “fineness”, and the second kind of “analysis”, to give people a better understanding of what exactly it is that people disagree over, how people can arrive at agreement, and how they can do all this without descending into vagueness, complacency, and sloppy relativism.

    So, to start off, here are some ideas about the causes of the hidden differences that can exist between two “images”, and which give two people the “illusion of disagreement” (I think this is the same thing as your “appearance of relativism”). It is tempting to say that there are only two: different empirical data, and different reasoning from given premises. These are probably quite common, but they aren’t especially helpful, because, as far as I can see, most philosophical disputes don’t revolve around empirical data, and most philosophers reason pretty well. The other problem is that they encourage us to make a clear distinction between right statements and wrong ones – we can usually work out when someone is missing out on a piece of data, or when their logic is flawed, and most honest people are willing to be corrected when they make such a mistake; and, as a result, these differences don’t usually give rise to really troublesome arguments (although logicians might think differently). But I’m not sure that this sort of clear distinction always possible, or even possible most of the time, and the two metaphors above certainly don’t make much room for them. So there is some reason to think that there are other, less conspicuous differences, and there is good reason to find out what some of them are. Here’s a few candidates:

    1) Definitions of words. Pretty obvious, but it took philosophers a long time to point out the different possible in the meaning of the word “knowledge”, that help the contextualist to confront the skepticism dilemma. We can all agree, I think, that no word has a fixed and eternal meaning. We are less convinced that the instability of word-meanings is itself enough to create needless disagreement, but the potential for such confusion is always there. Certain disputes are clearly terminological, like Richard points out (somewhere!), but I think it is a bit misleading to make a definite distinction between those disputes that are “terminological” and those that are “substantial.” There is a obviously real and helpful distinction to be made between the two, but this doesn’t rule out the possibility of there being many arguments that are a mixture of both. (See 4)

    2) Comparisons: the strength of a likeness between two objects in a set depends, not only on the nature of the two objects themselves, but also on the other objects in the set. This is also reasonably obvious, but it’s quite easy to forget, and the debate about the respective talents of animals and humans might be slightly less exasperating if it was remembered more often. Also, we make comparisons between two objects every time we use an analogy, so we are unlikely to agree on the significance of an analogy unless we are clear, firstly, on which aspects of the two things we are comparing and, secondly, what the context of the comparison is. Most of the time we are clear on these two things without having to talk about it, but it probably pays to be aware of them.

    3) Metaphors. The point of a metaphor is that it is not the thing that it is supposed to represent, so it’s not very useful to respond to a metaphor by saying “that’s not like the real thing.” Whether or not a metaphor is accurate or not depends on which parts of the metaphor we “focus” on, and on how accurate a representation the metaphor is intended to be.
    4) Dichotomies. Usually when someone divides a set into two types of element, they don’t really mean to say that the distinction is completely clear, and that all of the elements fit easily into one or other of the two groups; so disagreements might arise when people assume that this is what the person really does mean to say. E.g. the analytic/synthetic distinction: I don’t know much about this, but did Kant really mean to say that every statement is either definitely analytic or definitely synthetic?; and if he did not, then does Quine really disagree with him, when he points out that lots of statements can be put in both groups, and that some are hard to place in either group? Most dichotomies are not logical dichotomies, and it can be misleading to treat them as such. E.g. although there is a real and helpful distinction between “substantive” and “non-substantive” freedom, there is an entire spectrum of indeterminate kinds of “freedom” between these two extremes. Same with connotation/denotation, faith/reason etc.

    5) Applying theories to particular cases. I think that this leads to a LOT of needless disagreements, because what we mean by a “theory” (or at least, what I mean!) is “a particularly elegant way of dividing up the sand/a particularly elegant image, that a person has become accustomed to”; so, if two people argue on the basis of two different theories, and refuse to “adjust their focus” to bring up a new image, they are likely to eventually have some sort of disagreement.

    6) ?
    7) ?
    8) ?

  3. A lot of this comes down to the degree of preciseness that we demand
    person 1 says A is part of B person 2 says there is a single example of A not being within set B and they argue but it is just that person 1's origional point was quite general and to them gettng into the detail is distracting they dont want to engage in the detailed argument.

    Some agreement also comes down to defensiveness - ie one side basically turns off their minds in as far as they see themselves or somthing important to them as under attack and the debate becomes an "argument" the other side them abandons logic for the same reasons. This is that you can approach a problem from two perspectives 1) "winning" and 2) "finding the truth".

  4. Thanks Genius.

    Yes, the level of preciseness is a bit of a problem. I guess that this is the first kind of "analysis" suggested above. But, as I say, I think we need to pay attention to the second kind of analysis as well ie. not making the divisions in the sand finer, but arranging them in different ways.

    Yeah, so "defensiveness" (by which I suppose you mean pride, desire to impose oneself on another person, and to recruit the world to the cause of which you are the founder and master) is another way in which the mechanism "gets stuck." I should add that lots of disagreements can't be resolved simply through a careful study of the arguer's context/assumptions etc. eg. "I want the toy/car/land/oil"; "No, I want the car toy/car/land/oil"; "NO, I want it" etc. Also, that often people have arguments simply because arguments are fun; ie. it's fun to use your wit and imagination to find senses in which absurd things are true and commonplaces are false.

    I agree that the point of an argument is not to win or to lose, but to learn from the person who is right. Nevertheless, I'm not sure that I want to place so much emphasis on "finding the truth". I think that the idea of some "single truth", towards which a successful argument must move, can be as much a cause for "getting stuck" as pride or defensiveness is. In fact, in some cases the desire to establish a unique truth can be just another example of pride, defensiveness etc. This is not to say that "2 + 2 = 4" is not *really* true, or that the statement "altruism is possible" it is not *really* true; but it is to say that, in order to call these things true we need to look at them in a certain way, to bring a certain image up on our microscopes.

    I should have aucknowledged David Stove in the above comment, partly because his book ("The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies") is so fun to read, partly because he seems like a good example of a person who is determined not to understand people's statements in the sense in which they they are intended, and partly because he recommends a "nosology of thought", to find and document the maladies of human cognition; I like this idea of an analysis of thought, but instead of analysing "where thinkers go wrong" I think it is more helpful to look at "how thinkers differ, and why" - more an "anatomy" of thought than a "nosology."


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