Sunday, October 20, 2013

On Culturalized Pragmatism

I have been reading much philosophy of late, mostly philosophy of science and of history, in addition, some philosophy of archaeology. All offer great insights to archaeology (my profession).  However, one of the disappointing things about such literature is that after thousands of years of debate there are not any conclusions to basic questions, such as the difference between right and wrong or what it means to be human.  I am stuck with concluding that such answers are likely contextual, cultural and perhaps idiosyncratic.  If such things had universal and/or absolute answers, why would anyone continue debating them after such a long time?

With regard to observable and unobservable phenomena, at best, the philosophy of science gives archaeologists a simple partisan choice: choose between realism and anti-realism.  Apparently, they are incompatible.

From the Random House Webster's College Dictionary, 2010 we get:

1. interest in or concern for the actual or real, as distinguished from the abstract, speculative, etc.
2. the tendency to view or represent things as they really are.
3. a style of painting and sculpture developed about the mid-19th century in which figures and scenes are depicted as they are or might be experienced in everyday life.
4. a style or theory of literature in which familiar aspects of life are represented in a straightforward or plain manner.
5. Philosophy: a. the doctrine that universals have a real objective existence. Compare conceptualism (def. 1), nominalism. b. the doctrine that objects of sense perception have an existence independent of the act of perception. Compare idealism (def. 5).

In other places, we are told that materialism and naturalism are types of realism.  Both are common in archaeology.

And, of course, it is hard to find a dictionary that defines anti-realism.  So, from we get:
“In analytic philosophy, the term anti-realism is used to describe any position involving either the denial of an objective reality of entities of a certain type or the denial that verification-transcendent statements about a type of entity are either true or false.”  Thus, conceptualism, idealism, and nominalism are types of anti-realism.

I also like the concept of pragmatism because I consider myself practical and well grounded. One formulation is “An approach to philosophy, primarily held by American philosophers, which holds that the truth or meaning of a statement is to be measured by its practical (i.e., pragmatic) consequences. “  ("pragmatism." The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. 20 Oct. 2013.).  

Most people consider pragmatism to be a version of realism but I am not very friendly to that notion because realism/anti-realism is a horrible fiction. If the realism/anti-realism debate has been around since the ancient Greeks then we are all insane for perpetuating it (remembering Einstein’s definition of insanity).  The solution must be contextual and cultural.  In other words, I refuse to play with this contrived choice.

It is very likely that both positions are true for inverse reasons.  I am certain that grizzly bears exist because I have seen them and been scarred of them.  It is a visceral thing.  Is the fear innate? I have no idea. Thinking about grizz in other ways sparks no fear.  The visceral creature is one thing but what about the unobservable grizz?  I know that the mascot for the University of Montana is the Grizz.  Do I also imagine a bear hovering over campus protecting it? No, it is a metaphor enshrined in public discourse and behavior.

If there is a “bear raid” on Wall Street, do I envision grizzlies slashing stockbrokers? If the value of my portfolio goes down then I know the raid happened. When it comes to my portfolio, I am a realist because it is easy to verify the existence of a bear raid. When unobservables are close in time and space to us, especially if they are personal to us, then realism is appropriate.  Our ability to verify and judge is strong, or is at least self convincing.

Likewise, no one has ever seen an atom or the process of evolution.  We infer their existence by analyzing data.  To me they are remote and, honestly, uninteresting.  I am anti-realist towards them because they have little meaning in my life.  Anything that I have no good knowledge of I will remain skeptical of. 

Thus, I believe in some but not all unobservables, and, I refuse to play the absolutist’s game of “choose one or the other”.

I understand that physicists need to believe in atoms; it would likely be difficult for them to be productive if they were non-believers.

Biologists, especially in America, basically are required to believe in evolution.  To be a biologist and not believe in evolution is a sin.  Evolution is the sacred cow of (American) biology. As a theory, it also seems useful.

God is an unobservable.  True believers can provide all the evidence they want. I will remain a anti-realist.

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