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The World as it is in Itself Revisited

Michael Philips thinks that intelligent aliens could help us sort out the problem of what we can know, by providing a useful new point of view.

Metaphysical realists are people who believe that the world exists independently of us and is what it is however we happen to experience it or to theorize about it. Epistemic optimists believe that our theories are, in principle, capable of accurately describing the world. Both views are now under attack from several armies of critics. The common theme of these critiques is that our theories about the world bear the marks of their origins. They are human artifacts created by beings who are constructed in a certain way, and who are operating within a certain historical setting. This means they are pictures of the world from a special and limited point of view. In principle, at least, there are other points of view that could produce vastly different pictures. In any case, all we have are our pictures. Some critics go on to say that the idea of a world that exists outside our pictures, in relation to which we can assess the accuracy of our pictures, makes no sense. All there are, are pictures from various points of view. Others concede that there might be an independently existing world but insist that there might as well not be, since we can’t have access to that world anyway. Because we can’t have access, we can’t compare our pictures of the world to the world itself to assess their resemblance. Accordingly, we have no basis for saying that our theories accurately describe that world. If we are to evaluate our pictures at all, we must evaluate them in other ways (for example, by how well they ‘work’, by how well they promote ‘solidarity’, or by how well they satisfy certain institutional criteria).

The metaphysical realists and the epistemic optimists, of course, have their responses. The critics have rejoinders to these responses, the realists and optimists have responses to these rejoinders and before long the trail leads deep into the thickets of the technical philosophical underbrush. The discussion has also become quite partisan. Neither side seems interested in accommodating the legitimate concerns of the other. But I think there is a way to think about this conflict that incorporates the strong side of each position and does so without a lot of technical complexities.

The divergent points of view of which the critics talk are, generally speaking, human points of view – different cultural worldviews, for example. But we can get surprisingly interesting results by straying from this beaten path and comparing the human point of view to an hypothetical alien standpoint. So let’s begin with the idea that there may (in principle) be an intelligent alien point of view on the universe that generates a set of theories significantly different from our own. Citing the arguments of the American thinker Donald Davidson, some philosophers will deny that we can make sense of this possibility. But we can finesse their arguments by showing how we can make enough sense of it to illuminate the question of metaphysical realism. The proof is in the eating.

How might we understand a radically alien point of view? Let’s begin at the level of experience. Most of us have five sense organs. Some of us have four. Those with four (the blind, for instance) have a difficult time understanding some of the things those of us with five say. Obviously, this is because they don’t have immediate access to the world as we encounter and describe it. Now imagine beings that stand to us as we stand to blind people. That is, imagine beings with sense organs we don’t have. There are such creatures right here on earth. Certain electric fish generate electric fields and sense the presence of objects that intersect these fields. What exactly is that like for the electric fish? There is no reason to believe that it is like a tactile sensation, especially since different areas of the brain are activated when the fish is touched. With respect to this field-related sense capacity, the electric fish stands to us as we stand to blind people. Now imagine that there are alien beings whose sense organs – or sense organs plus ‘brains’ – produce sensations entirely different from our own. That is, with respect to each of their sense organs they stand to us as we stand to blind people. And with respect to each of ours, we stand to them that way too (since we have five organs that they don’t have).

Let’s suppose that these aliens have a sophisticated form of social organization, a language and a set of theories about how the universe works. Suppose these aliens send signals into space hoping to contact other intelligent life forms. Could we decode or translate their signals? Could they decode or translate ours? Our signals include pictures and music but they can’t see or hear. Their signals include elements comparable to pictures and music. We can’t experience these as they do. These differences in how we experience the world affect at least many of the ways we describe it. So it might appear that we could never understand their descriptions and they could never understand ours.

But this conclusion is too hasty. There are two ways in which the sensations of the aliens could be related to ours. In one case, our sense organs are ‘tuned’ to the same features of the world that theirs are. We just experience those features differently. We experience light of certain wavelengths as color. They sense light at these wavelengths in a different way, but in a way isomorphic with ours; in other words for every distinct color sensation we have, they have some corresponding sensation. We experience vibrations in the air as sounds of a certain pitch, they have distinct sensations for these same vibrations but of another kind. The same might hold for taste and fragrance and for tactile sensations of pressure, texture and shape. In this case, although we might not be able to understand the other’s signals through space, we might learn to communicate with each other were we in sufficiently close proximity (or capable of a prolonged, multimedia long-distance exchange). For if our experiences are keyed to the same features of the world, we can manipulate each other’s experiences in patterned ways. They send us what we experience as three flashes of blue light. We return the same (causing them to have whatever experiences they have when we experience blue light). Contact! We are on the same page. The next step is to create common linguistic units. We could begin by trying to make sensations of a certain kind – say, those we experience as sounds – as a medium for symbols. Every time we flash a blue light, we accompany it with the sound “blue”; every time we warm the air, we accompany it with the sound “warm” and so forth. Of course, they will experience these pairings in their own way, but they will experience them as pairings. And if everything else we send is paired with some sound there is a good chance that they will understand these sounds as names. That’s obviously what we would do if we were on the receiving end (e.g., we see a blue triangle and hear ‘mmmmm’, we see a blue square and hear ‘mmmmm’, we feel warmth and hear ‘shhhhhh’, we smell a rose fragrance and hear ‘jas’, and so on). If we get this far, we could with just a little ingenuity go on to numbers and other mathematical concepts (we produce a variety of seven-membered sets accompanied by the sound “seven” etc.).

This is the easy case. The situation would be much more complicated if our sensations didn’t match up with those of the aliens in these ways. For example, they might have just two sensations corresponding to our entire range of visible light. Or they may not sense light in this range at all. Perhaps they sense magnetic polarities, radio waves, x-rays and elements like nitrogen and hydrogen. This would make it more difficult for us to get our communications started. But if we had instruments to detect the things they directly sense and they had instruments to detect what we directly sense, we could in principle establish communication by the same method of pairings. It would be more difficult; for example, what we intend to be two distinct transmissions might (at the beginning) be indistinguishable to them. Thus, we might flash a red light and a blue light, but if their senses are not isomorphic with ours there may be no difference in how they experience these. Also, if they don’t experience light in these ranges at all and they need to rely on instruments to detect our transmissions, they may not know at what point the difference in wavelengths between the two transmissions indicates that there are two transmissions instead of a single, repeated transmission. But this is not an insuperable obstacle. In fact, it’s just the sort of challenge of which great cryptographers dream.

We are now in a position to think about the metaphysical and epistemic implications of the claim that our pictures of the world bear the marks of their origins. At the level of sensation, we live in a different world than the aliens. Nonetheless, our story seems to support realism. After all, if our sensations can be related to those of an alien in the manner suggested, we must share an external world with the alien. We experience or detect (by instruments) the features of this world in one way and they experience or detect in another, systematically related way. Since this possibility makes sense, realism makes sense and the many fashionable philosophical arguments advanced to show that realism is meaningless or logically incoherent must be unsound.

On the other hand, at the level of sense experience at least, it makes no sense to ask which form of sense experience better resembles ‘the original’, the world-as-it-is-in-itself. All sense experience necessarily comes to us via sense organs. Sense organs are ‘tuned’ to respond to features of the world-as-it-isin itself. In conscious beings, these responses produce changes in the brain (or some physical structure) and these changes give rise to experience. All sense experiences, as opposed to hallucinations, are systematically related to features of the world-as-it-is-in-itself in this way. But it is pointless to think of this relationship as one of resemblance. That is, it is pointless to ask to what degree an experience resembles the property or properties of the world-as-it-is-in-itself to which the relevant sense organs are tuned. Accordingly, we can’t ask which of two sensation-based pictures of the world more resembles the way the world is in itself. This is rather like asking whether a digital bathroom scale readout better resembles weight than a buoyancy tank readout. Of course, the question of resemblance is not the same as the question of accuracy. But we will get to that later.

Sense experience is one thing, theories and concepts are another. How does this play out at the level of theories and concepts? If we are empiricists, these differences in sense capacities entail thoroughgoing differences with respect to the meanings of our concepts. The Logical Positivists, for example, held that all of our ‘theoretical terms’ like ‘atom’ and ‘gene’ are ultimately defined in relation to our ‘observational terms’ like ‘green’ and ‘smooth’; this means that beings with different sense capacities could not have theoretical terms that mean the same as our terms ‘light wave’, ‘quark’, ‘DNA’, and so forth. In that case, the question of resemblance at the theoretical level reduces to the question of resemblance at the level of sense experience.

There are only a few serious empiricists these days, but even nonempiricists must acknowledge that there may be important connections between how we sense the world and how we can conceive it. It seems likely that the fact that we are visual beings expands the range of theoretical models we can generate and comprehend. The addition of some other sense might expand that range further. The shape and depth of these connections are open questions (and questions few people are keen to address these days). But to the extent that there are important connections – to the extent that the meanings of our terms are tied to our sensory capacities – it will make no sense to speak of resemblance at the level of concepts either. This seems to be a point in favor of the epistemic pessimist.

But this is not the end of the story. In the first place, we have been considering the question of resemblance, not the question of accuracy. We have been doing this because the disagreement between realists and antirealists is almost always discussed with the help of visual metaphors (perspectives, points of view, pictures, and so on). The antirealist and the epistemic pessimist portray the realist as holding that our theories can stand to the world-as-it-is-in-itself as a portrait stands to its subject. They are right to deny this. It makes no sense to ask whether the world-as-it-is-in-itself includes something more like color or whether it includes something more like the alien’s corresponding experience. To the extent that the meanings of our theories and concepts are tied to our range of sense experience, the corresponding point may hold for livers, kidneys, pollens, stamens, DNA and quarks as well.

On the other hand, we can ask to what extent our sense organs accurately detect features of the world. More specifically, we can ask how well tuned they are to the features of the world that they detect. At the level of sensation, we experience a continuum in which green shades off into cyan and cyan shades off into blue. It makes sense to ask whether these experienced visual relationships of ‘closer to’ and ‘further from’ also hold at the level of photons. Our brains could conceivably be configured such that they don’t. The frequency of light we experience as green could be closer to the frequency of light we experience as red than it is to the frequency of light we experience as cyan. That would be a mark against the accuracy of our perceptions. The fact that we can make sense of such questions is a point on the side of the realist. This scenario makes no sense without a world-asit- is-in-itself.

It might be objected that photons are not features of the world-as-it-is-in-itself, but are artifacts of our science. If the empiricists are right about the sensation/meaning relation, this is a fair comment. But even if they are right, this artifact of our science could bear a systematic structural relationship to a feature of the world-as-it-is-in-itself. If our theory of light accurately predicts our experience in a way that stands the test of time, our theories are accurate. And since our experiences are a response to features of the world-as-it-is-initself, this means that our concepts and theories must stand in the right relation to features of the world-as-it-is-in-itself. Furthermore, to the extent our theories are successful they stand in the right relation to features of that world that predict the experiences of our hypothetical aliens as well (once we know how their sense experiences are related to our own). Consider the easy case in which our sense experience is isomorphic with theirs. If they experience ‘mmmmm’ whenever we see blue, we can infer that (other things being equal) they are having an experience caused by photons of the relevant frequency. If they don’t know this, if they have nothing that corresponds to ‘photon’ in their science that enables them to successfully predict their own cases of ‘mmmmm’ we can justly say that our science is (in this respect) more advanced than theirs. This, of course, is a point for the realist and the optimist.

To sum up, there is a sense in which we live in a different experiential world than the hypothetical alien. But it makes no sense to ask whose experiential world better resembles the world-as-it-is-in-itself. To the extent that the meanings of our scientific terms are tied to our sense experience, we can’t ask whose theoretical descriptions better resemble the worldas- it-is-in-itself either. These are points for the antirealist. Still, we can assess the accuracy of these theoretical descriptions. Since our sense organs are tuned to events in the world-as-it-is-in-itself, our experiences are caused by events in that world. To the extent that our theories and concepts enable us to predict our experiences, they must bear some relation to that world as well. At very least, there is a mapping relationship. That is, for every relationship between phenomena postulated by one of our theories whose predictions survive the test of time, there is some corresponding relationship between corresponding features of the world-asit- is-in-itself. To the extent that the meanings of our scientific descriptions are tied to our sense experiences, we won’t be able to describe those features or the relationship between them in a direct, standpoint-independent way. But even if the empiricist is right about this, the better our theories are for predicting experience, the closer they will be to isomorphism with those features. The same, of course, holds for the successful sciences of all imaginable aliens. Despite the differences in the meanings of our terms for these features, all of these sciences will be isomorphic with each other.

This does not settle the disputes in question in all of their many incarnations. In particular, it does not address issues that arise in relation to historical or culturally-based differences. But if realism and optimism can survive the greater differences we’ve been considering, perhaps they can survive these differences as well.

© Michael Philips 2001

Michael Philips is a professor of philosophy at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. In his spare time he is a photographer and performance artist.

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