Why Realism? from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects
I am hesitant to write this post because I believe that metaphysical and epistemological issues should be grounded in metaphysical and epistemological reasons, rather than normative reasons. Indeed, this was one of my main critiques of Deleuzian scholarship in Difference and Givenness: That it was too often conflating normative considerations based on a particular politics with grounds for endorsing Deleuze’s ontology. [...]
Take, for example, the contemporary debate over evolution. The religious skeptic might concede the correlationist argument, claiming that at the level of phenomena or how things appear for-us, evolution is the only plausible conclusion. Nonetheless– and here I’m indebted to Meillassoux’s analysis in After Finitude –the religious skeptic can still point out that this knowledge is restricted to appearances, and that the level of things-in-themselves the world could be organized in a completely different way, along creationist lines. “Since we cannot know things-in-themselves,” the religious skeptic reasons, “there is no reason to conclude that things are as they appear.” Consequently, the correlationist move still leaves open wiggle room for faith trumping what our experimental investigation of nature tells us. If the religious skeptic is committed to revelation as an article of faith (not knowledge), then he will feel warranted in rejecting the findings of these sciences (not that we would ever convince the religious skeptic anyway, but perhaps those in the audience viewing the debate). We find exactly this line of argument in vulgar form among those who argue (with frightening frequency in the states) that either a) Satan put fossils in the earth to mislead us, or b) that God created the world in such a way so as to appear to work along evolutionary terms so as to test our faith (apparently God is an ego-maniac that needs our faith like a vampire needs our blood, according to those who believe such things). But we also find very sophisticated forms of this argument. It is not a surprise, for example, that the heirs of correlationism have, in many instances, shifted towards a theological discourse: Nancy, Derrida, Marion, even Henry in his own way.
I thus think that lurking in the background of the realist/anti-realist debate is this central issue. The realist move– if possible today –attempts to bite the bullet and argue that occasionally we discover a bit of the real and that this real is not just phenomena for-us, but is how things are in-themselves. That is, these things are as they are regardless of whether we know them or experience them, and regardless of whether or not anyone exists. In making this claim it refuses the conflation of the epistemological (the for-us) with the ontological (the in-itself), arguing that claims about beings (the ontic) cannot be reduced to claims about what things are for-us. In part, I think this is what was at stake in the recent arid debate about the status of mathematical entities and whether or not there are mathematical entities that cannot be constructed in intuition. If it is so important to defend the existence of entities that cannot be constructed in intuition– which is entirely different from the claim that they cannot be known –then this is because what is being defended is the position that these entities aren’t simply what they are for-us, but exist as they are in their own right regardless of whether or not anyone exists to know them.
However, it is important to note that this realism would not be a naive realism. It is not being asserted that things exist in-themselves as we perceive them or that we posses an immediate relation to mind-independent objects as they are in-themselves. Following a line of argument advanced by Nick over at Accursed Share, it could turn out that things such as trees, tables, rocks, etc., do not exist as real objects, but instead exist in a completely different way at the level of real and mind-independent being. That’s an issue for ontology to work out. These real objects, rather, are only arrived at through a laborious and careful process in the development of knowledge where many theories are tried out, many motives for pursuing that knowledge are operative, and many of these theories and concepts turn out over time to be mistaken (as demonstrated experimentally, where the real gets to add its two cents with respect to our constructions or models).
It is also worth noting that this realism does not foreclose the possibility of theology or God as in the case of the correlationist move. It could turn out that God exists or is real. However, if things such as evolution describe the real, if things such as contemporary cosmology, geology, subatomic physics, and psychology, turn out to be true, it would also be the case that this God that exists is very different than the anthropomorphic God we find in the revelation of sacred texts throughout the world religions and that we should side with what our investigations into nature show us to be true, rather than what the revelation of some sacred text shows us to be true. From the correlationist standpoint this assertion cannot but be nonsense, as revelation is a matter of faith, whereas science is a matter of how things appear for-us. Thus, as Galileo put it in a less than heroic moment, his claims about planetary motion were not real but were useful fictions that aided in calculation.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I am hesitant to write all of this. If I am hesitant to write all of this, then this is because the desire to refute the religious skeptic is not a legitimate reason for endorsing a particular ontology, nor a reason for dismissing a particular epistemology. If we are intellectually honest, the reasons for endorsing or dismissing a particular ontology or epistemology must themselves be ontological or epistemological in character. Wishing, desiring, does not make something so, and this is the problem we find among ontological and epistemological arguments that are normatively driven such as in the case of those Deleuzians who seem to think they can dismiss Kant because he is a “state-thinker”. Poppycock! If Kant is to be dismissed, then this can only be on the grounds of 1) there being significant flaws in his position, and 2) through offering an alternative. However, while wishing does not make something so, this does not undermine the fact that these supposedly arid and remote issues have consequences that reverberate far beyond what they’re immediately about. I strongly suspect that both Alexei and I agree on the truth of the maths or the sciences, regardless of the fact that he’s an antirealist or correlationist and I’m a realist. However, the realist and anti-realist positions nonetheless have consequences that go beyond these rarified matters.