Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Truth, Reality, and the Location of Properties

I've been thinking a bit about philosophy lately.  In everyday life, we draw sharp distinctions between ourselves and the world, and we judge the truth of our thoughts and statements by how closely they align with what is "out there."  But I don't know how well those distinctions hold up, and how well our theory of truth fares, when we really drill down.

I recognize that a lot of what I am about to say is not original, and I may very well be making a hash of it.  But here goes.

You might think that it's straightforward to say of an object that it has a property p, such as color, temperature, and so on.  But how do you attach property p to the object?  In general, you do so by observing the object and then drawing conclusions.  But this means that properties you attribute to the object are, at most, hybrid properties that are generated by an interaction between your mind and the object.  Of course that's inevitable; it's hard to think of a property that can be attributed to an object without being observed by a person.

So there's a very real sense in which the object's p-ness is in you, not in the object (or not only in the object).  Another way of thinking about it is that your p-ness is in the object, because you put it there.  (There was no p-ness in the object until you came along.)  Either way, the object's p-ness does not stand on its own, it requires some interaction with you before the p-ness emerges.

Now there are some properties that might seem to be more objective.  For instance, you could use a thermometer to take a measure of an object's temperature, and the reported temperature might seem to be a kind of p-ness that is in the object but isn't in you.  (It doesn't matter how the object feels to you, you are simply taking a reading off the thermometer's display.  In a way, instead of putting your p-ness in the object, you are putting a thermometer in it.)  But that's hard to swallow:  the whole concept of measured temperature had to be created and formalized by people before it could be used to measure an object's p-ness.  So once again it appears that the object's p-ness belongs at least partly to us.  Temperature as a concept is a kind of p-ness that belongs to us, and we collectively put this p-ness into the objects around us whenever it suits us.

I'll have a lot more to say about this.  Sometimes I have an idea that seems really insightful, and then later I realize it's all just word games.  That may be what is going on here.


Blogger Sarang said...

I am surprised that p-ness envy does not rear its ugly head.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

One way to think of this is, to what degree can our judgments about the world be objective? To what extent do they remain subjective?

I think this sort of argument tends to show that you can't force out all the elements of subjectivity. Here we can note that external-world skepticism is always on the table, can never be dismissed completely for principled reasons.

But, for many purposes, a "one drop rule" for subjectivity is just too stringent. So in science, we can regiment our external-world impressions into carefully defined measurements, like temperature, so that we can confidently share (certain of) our external world judgments.

I think something like "confident shareability" is a good conception of objectivity about the external world. On this view, we can achieve a reasonably high degree of objectivity even though we can't expunge subjectivity.

I think I agree that p-ness is projected into the world -- or anyway, our p-ness, the p-ness of any properties we can talk about. There may be p-ness in the world, but it's not our p-ness. Nothing we've learned about the world permits us to conclude that we have direct access to the underlying metaphysics (whatever that would mean).

4:07 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

I like this sort of semi-social account of objectivity but I'm not sure how widely it's held. I once told Tarun I was less worried about inductive than moral inference because it is so much easier to make uncontroversial inductive arguments, but Tarun did not seem to think that interpersonal agreement was a relevant criterion.

5:11 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

Yes, I'm not sure. Part of my motivation for giving this kind of account is a feeling that it's not really possible to give a stronger account -- many people don't agree.

I very much sympathize with the desire to separate out the moral case, too, which could be considered a weakness of the account.

5:15 PM  
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9:31 PM  

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