Realism at a Price?

I mentioned Huw Price in a footnote to my first recent post about Lee Smolin’s “Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution”, having mentioned Lee Smolin as an aside in blogging about a 2016 Huw Price article, where I’d noticed that quantum mechanics errors remaining unresolved post-Einstein was the key topic of both with time and causation being a common focus. Someone I ought to read more, I commented. So having bought and read Smolin’s latest, I had also ordered and now received Huw Price’s “Expressivism, Pragmatism and Representationalism”, it being the book referred to in his bio against the Aeon article.


No, thought not. With a title comprising a mouthful of isms it’s clearly a technical text for professional philosophers rather than a popular text, like the Aeon article, for amateurs such as myself.

As ever, at this stage I’ve only read the introduction and earlier sections so far, but I’m already glad I did.

As well as being right smack in the middle of the age-old realism <> idealism debate that’s been concerning me and my writings for some time in the last year or so, it leads on some of the problems I have with isms generally.

Firstly that, except by agreement between experts using such terms in current genuine, constructive dialogue(*), it is all too easy to flip between narrow basic conceptions – almost tautological definitions – and broader conceptions – working definitions intended to be of practical value, and find yourself talking at cross-purposes. (* Obviously in critical adversarial debate as opposed to collaborative dialogue, it’s a standard deplorable tactic to misrepresent your “opponent’s” understanding, a kinda deliberately ad-hominem but plausibly-deniable-accidental strawman. “You know that’s not what I meant, but who cares, now that you’ve said it publicly?” style of political gamesmanship designed to confound and defeat. Think populism, think multiculuralism, say in today’s Trump / Putin exchanges! But I digress.)

Secondly, sticking with the meta topic, the rules of discourse, this is one of the reason’s for Dan Dennett’s “hold your definitions!” advice. Sure, declare your understanding of key terms at the outset, but don’t pretend, or accidentally presume, that these are hard and fast definitions throughout the dialogue. There’s always more than one way to skin a cat. The primary purpose of any dialogue is to increase knowledge, to permit definitions at the start to evolve into better understandings at the end – more useful knowledge. And, since all discourse has to fit in the available gaps of real life, rather than “agreeing to disagree” at inevitable pauses, instead “agree where we’ve got to with whatever it is we do understand” – mutual steelmen if you will.

I do like Huw Price’s writing. (And the other treat I’ve not reached yet is that this book involves four other thinkers / writers as well as Price, and one of those is Simon Blackburn another favourite of mine.)

OK, so we’ve not got to the Expressivism and Representationalism yet, but we’re right in the ontological reality of science space and its proper relationship to/with philosophy both ontolological and epistemological. Again, as ever, I’m finding myself jumping straight to my kind of naturalism: All of reality is natural, there is no supernatural. The objective “out there” physical and the subjective “in here” psychological are equally real and natural. The “problem” described here is resolved by accepting that science is not the only kind of knowledge, and it’s the true relationship between science and other knowledge that is at issue. Our ontology includes “places” for epistemology – in fact in my model the ontology is epistemological, even physics is about information (knowable, even when there’s no subjective knower involved).

This is the exact same sense I came to after Smolin, so it’s clearly no coincidence these two sources became linked for me. I wonder where Price and the rest end up in resolving the problems he’s set out so far. It’s great to be dealing with science-friendly philosophers and philosophy-friendly scientists. Reading on with interest.

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