John Searle: Seeing Things as they Are


I gave this book 5 stars in my review and possibly I should have left it at 4. Not only is Searle a bit over confident about consciousness in general (this is not the book’s focus but he does review his position because most perception happens in consciousness), and the validity of his somewhat circular argument for the nature of perception. However for other reasons (I am after all a realist philosopher) I do believe that his description of what it is that perception delivers to mind is correct, and he very effectively compares and contrasts that description to most of the other dominant philosophical threads on the subject. Thus even if his own view is not so perfectly supported, his demolition of competing views is effective.

Searle’s work dovetails with that of Maruzio Ferraris just about perfectly. I mention this in the review, but I want to say something more about the connection here. Both philosophers might be called “common sense realists” despite their emerging from radically different backgrounds; Searle from Anglo-analytic realism, and Ferraris from Continental anti-realism. For Ferraris, the evidence that our senses present (Searle’s term) already structured mind-independent reality is its unamendability. In terms of “objective ontology” a tree cannot be wished or for that matter simply pushed out of your path. In relation to subjective ontology (what vision presents to mind) you cannot simply “see it” ten feet to the left. By contrast, if you close your eyes and merely imagine the tree, you can, in your imagination, move it anywhere you wish. Reality (Ferraris again) also provides affordances. With the proper tools, you can cut the tree down and make a shelter from it. In Searle’s terms, mind-independent reality responds to (fits) our acts upon it.

I have two more books from Searle to read, the subject being social reality. I expect to find more parallels with Ferraris. For Ferraris, the ontologically objective basis of social reality is located in documents, from constitutions and laws to parking tickets and restaurant menus. One of the first things Searle mentions among constructed social phenomena is money, one of Ferraris’ recorded documents whether represented in bills, coins, or bits in computer memory. I expect to find these parallels because both Ferraris and Searle are genuine realists as compared to “speculative realists” like Harman and Meillassoux. For genuine realists the bottom line, the philosophical starting or ending (depending on which way you look at it) has to be, well, logically prior and already structured mind-independent “objective reality”. If realism is true, then all realists have to agree on (start or end with) the same mind-independent reality. This is clearly not the case with the “speculative realists” (see my “Problems with Object Oriented Ontology” and its links). Harman and Meillassoux come to different and mutually exclusive conclusions about what constitutes the mind-independent world because they are not fundamentally realists at all.

Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception (Kindle Edition 2015)

A very good book. Searle’s focus is on perception, particularly vision, but he brings the other senses in as well. He begins by reviewing what he calls the “bad argument” which he claims has misled philosophy for the past few hundred years. His review of the “bad argument” is straight forward but its badness springs directly from its opposition to his own view which he calls “direct realism”, a term he prefers to “naive realism” which nevertheless also fits his position. Searle’s view is like a glass of cool water on a hot day. I would call it “common sense realism”, but M. Ferraris has already adopted that phrase for his “new realism”. The two views have much in common, but Ferraris’ focus is not perception as such. I have reviewed a few of Ferraris’ books elsewhere on Amazon.

In an early chapter on consciousness in general Searle burnishes his materialist credentials by declaring (at least as concerns life on Earth) that consciousness is necessarily associated with brains (which is uncontroversial), but he also declares that brains alone are sufficient to produce consciousness, something that no one (on Earth) knows for sure. This precisely why there is a “hard problem of consciousness”. He repeats this claim a few times but his theory of perception does not hang on it. Another quibble is that he is a little sloppy as concerns statements of cosmological fact. In one of his examples he says “I look at the star and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago”. He could only mean “I look at the stellar explosion” (a nova or supernova) and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago.” If he “sees the star” then the light of its demise has not reached us yet and he could not know that it has already ceased to exist.

Searle begins by recognizing that when we experience something visually, what we have is a “subjective ontology”, a phenomenal experience that philosophers for centuries have called a “sense datum”. The “bad argument” comes down to the belief that this sense datum is really all we KNOW and that for all we know there is nothing about “objective ontology”, the structure of the mind-independent world, to which we have access unless the sense datum represents the objective to the subjective. What has confused philosophy for centuries is the matter of how (or if) this representation actually works. Searle’s argument here is very simple. Our senses, particularly vision and touch, do not merely represent the world, but PRESENT it, presentation being a special case of representation. What constitutes presentation specifically is that there are “conditions of satisfaction” for the presentation. If I see a tree, the sense datum is satisfied (and so presented and not merely represented) by there being an actual tree where I see it. This accounts for hallucinations. If the identical sense datum is hallucinated then the satisfaction criteria are not met, no tree is present where I appear to see it.

Presentation is causal with the direction of cause going from world to mind, objective to subjective. Response (what Searle calls “direction of fit”), on the other hand goes from mind to world. Searle also gets a bit into “action” because it happens that its connection between mind and world is the inverse of perception. Cause goes from mind to world and the “direction of fit” from world to mind. This ties in beautifully with Ferraris’ concepts “unamendability” (perception) and affordance (action). Searle recognizes the matter of will, free will, comes up here but he demurs. I would like to see him talk about it somewhere.

Searle goes on to flesh out perception with a distinction between basic presentational properties like shape, color, motion, and so on, and those properties that require background knowledge on the part of the receiver. Perception is hierarchical. This accounts for the distinction between seeing a shape and color (basic perception) and seeing “an automobile”, and further up the hierarchy (additional background), recognizing “my car”. Importantly, “conditions of satisfaction” lie all the way up the hierarchy and they really apply TO THE OBJECT. The base phenomenology is not only a black object of such and such a size, but a car, and furthermore, it really is my car! All of this makes perfect sense to me, but then I am also a realist. It is hard to imagine not living one’s life in a realist mental environment. If you are about to step off a curb into a lane of traffic but have a visual experience of a black object about the size of a car hurtling down the same lane towards you, you likely ASSUME that the object IS a car and that it makes sense not to step into the lane. You take for granted that the object is being presented and not merely represented to you.

Philosophically though, Searle’s perception requires two assumptions. First that your brain and sensory system are operating within normal parameters, and second that the mind-independent world is genuinely structured AS PRESENTED. It is this mind-independent structure (including I believe its causal relations) that constitutes the “conditions of satisfaction” of the presentation which rests also on the causal relations between perception and the perceived object! For Searle to get his theory of perception out, he has to presuppose that the world is real and already structured having causal properties. The apropos structure must be present to be presented. This is the very assumption that anti-realists want desperately to avoid and it makes Searle’s argument circular. Because of the causal properties, the demand that we live AS IF the world is presented breaks the tie in favor of Searle’s position (and against anti-realism), but I do not recall him acknowledging this circularity..

Apart from this omission, the book is a very refreshing departure from all the anti-realism I’ve been reading lately. It is not a long or very technical read. I highly recommend it.

Problems with Object Oriented Ontology

Graham Harman is a popular guy in philosophy circles these days. Sometimes associated with  Maruzio Ferraris, Manuel DeLanda, and Quentin Meillassoux as one of the “New Realists”, he is also, with DeLanda and Meillassoux, known as a “speculative realist”. Although this essay is mostly about Harman (I have written about Meillassoux and Ferraris elsewhere on the blog) I first try to provide some perspective on them as a group.

All four emerged (in their fundamental epistemology and ontology) from late 19th and early 20th century continental anti-realism with its own roots going back to Kant. All four accept that from our inescapable subjective viewpoint we cannot in the end simply assume that, as concerns the appearance of an external world, what we see is what we get, a view called “naive realism”. Even non-continental realist schools recognize this in theory. Some analytic realists agree there is a “representation problem” but discount that it blocks-out as much of the mind-independent world as anti-realists claim. This partly explains their drift in a scientistic direction. John Searle (“Seeing Things As They Are” 2015) by contrast defends naive realism (he calls it “direct realism”) by distinguishing between presentation (what the senses, especially vision and touch, deliver) and representation. Among other things presentations cannot be manipulated at will (connecting up with Ferraris’ concept of “unamendability”) while representations can be manipulated. I will have a review of Searle’s book soon, but for now back to the continentals.

Of the four philosophers named above, only Ferraris has shaken fully loose of the anti-realist cloud (see my article on anti-realism). Ferraris takes a position that what you see is close to what you get. The mind independent world is self-structured (stars, galaxies, primitive life) is all real and already jointed long before mind comes along to recognize and react to the joints. That mind does recognize and react to the joints is a phenomenon fully within the process of world-self-structuring. Mind is a means (not necessarily the only means) of mediating between sensory input (evolved) and behavioral response which partly directs the future of that organism and its community. Ferraris does not think that fish-mind, lion-mind, bird-mind, and human-mind, all mediate the joints in the same way. But the structure of all these forms of consciousness do reflect mind-independent joints, those the animal’s survival depends upon. The evidence for this is the way those world-structures push back at us as well as the manipulative potentials their regularity affords to mind. Ferraris’ ontology is fully real then.

Epistemologically speaking, mind is not merely guessing at what might be “out there”, but knows it at a graining suitable to its daily navigation about the world. Human mind knows the natural world from a far more sophisticated viewpoint yet remains analogous to the viewpoints of higher animals. But humans are in addition able to frame their own abstractions, additional joints, on top of the natural world making recursive use of the affordances (Ferraris’ term) given to us by the regularity of the resistance (we cannot change the past, running into a wall hurts, we cannot fly merely by wishing it), of the world. For Ferraris both the resistance and affordance are epistemological evidence that ontology is “more or less” what epistemology represents.

Meillassoux and Harman are different. I think DeLanda belongs in this group but I have read but little of DeLanda and must limit myself to points he makes in his jointly authored book (“The Rise of Realism” 2017) with Harman. Harman and Meillassoux have not shaken themselves free of the anti-realist fog. In the end, neither can accept that what seems real and jointed about the mind-independent world to consciousness very much likely is real and that the independent joints are close to where we perceive them to be! This is the reason this group are “speculative”, a fitting moniker. If we do not have a good reason to believe the mind-independent world approximates what it appears to be, then in the end the best that can be done by ontology is to speculate about it and hope the speculation serves to enhance insights in some other arena of philosophy or science.

Of the two Meillassoux (from his major work “After Finitude” [2010]) is the more careful analyst. He begins in essence with a traditional anti-realist assumption; the Principle of Sufficient Reason is not necessarily true of the mind-independent world. He concedes that it appears to hold and that it must indeed hold for long periods (essentially an anthropic argument) but in the end he concludes that it need not necessarily hold out beyond what we can perceive in space or in time. That’s fair enough. He starts with an assumption and traces it to a logical conclusion. I think he is wrong because his fundamental assumption is wrong (I’m a realist theologian after all) but I do not fault the quality and professionalism of his reasoning from assumption to conclusion. He reminds me, in style not content, of some modern analytic philosophers like Lowe (recently deceased), Chalmers, Searle, and Deacon among many others.

Harman does not seem (anywhere that I can find) to build his ontology he rather asks us to accept a purely speculative proposal in the hope that it will be useful. Like Ferraris, Harman believes the mind-independent world is already structured as concerns particulars, that is there are particulars along with various relations between them. But Harman asks us to accept for the sake of argument) that “the real” is made up of nothing but individual objects. Further, ‘object’ includes everything from atoms to asteroids, stars, events of all kinds, and thoughts. The last includes both subjective relations (that tree over there as I experience it) and fantasies (the pink elephant I see floating in front of me).

Objects must exist before they can have properties through which they have relations with other objects. Thus Harman introduces an essence or haecceity but it seems to do nothing except stand in for “that which has properties” and grounds its causal potential. The object’s properties, even the complete history and future of its properties (and relations into which they enter) down to the finest detail, does not exhaust the being of the object. This is one place where DeLanda diverges, but for Harman, something is deeper than the object’s complete history and it comes down to the object’s being or essence. Being in his context seems to be a placeholder for “that which must exist but cannot be known”!

From the moment an object exists it has properties that enter relations with other objects through their properties. These relations too are objects as real as their relata, and further, the properties are also objects with their own haecceity, further properties, and so relations. If this looks like the beginning of an infinite regress it is and Harman has no real answer for it. What he offers is the observation that objects do not persist indefinitely. Objects and relations can come and go, sometimes transform into new objects or cause there to become objects that until that time did not exist. But none of this avoids the regress problem. Even considered syncronically (at a point in time), every property and relation in the universe is itself an object related to every other relation and object in multiple ways. This is already a well-neigh infinite number of objects. Physicists estimate there are 10^80 protons in the universe. That makes the number of relations (all objects) between protons alone 10^80^80! But nowhere (in the four books I’ve read) does Harman make a case for the object-hood of properties. The sun is hot and my hallucinated elephant is pink, but hotness and pinkness are not objects in any normal uses of that word. Anything that can be bounded, anything whose joints can be delineated, is an object. But while my pink elephant can be bounded, its pinkness cannot in any way that Harman makes comprehensible. Harman has a problem with universals.

Harman sets this problem aside and moves on however. While all of these objects are equally real (ontology) they are not all “equally important”. Harman knows that importance can be importance to human mind or animal mind but he also suggests a possible mind-independent measure of importance in the form of a “symbiotic object”. Objects of all kinds come and go. Some never persist long enough to express causal relations but most have at least some small effect on their environment. The encounters between properties in their multiple relations, have causal implications for Harman that he calls a species of non-theistic “occasional cause”.

Some few of these object-relations have widespread and long-perduring outcomes. For example (mine, not Harman’s) the iron asteroid that struck Earth 5 billion years ago forming Earth’s core, producing a magnetic field, fueling future tectonic processes, and perhaps even creating our moon with all of its knock-on (hence symbiotic) effects, would be an “important object” that uncontroversially predates mind (on Earth at least). But where to place symbiosis? Start with the asteroid, but then it also has to be the asteroid-Earth-relation, the event (another object) of the impact, and so on. One symbiotic object produces many following object-event-relations. Does the symbiosis apply to all of them? I don’t think Harman would have a problem spreading out the symbiotic credit as it were, but the flatness of his ontology prevents him from drawing any hard lines. Any event, no matter how trivial (like the gravity of any mass) must have some effect on the world-line of any larger event with which it has now, or had in the past a relation. Harman is explicit about all of these objects (not only records in the present) being equally real even if only at some past time.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Even that subset of events with enough world-line effect merely to be recorded such that they appear as present records (physical evidence of their reality, not only formal documents) of past events may or may not be symbiotic in Harman’s view. Surely some recorded events (and by extension their records) were, and perhaps continue to be, more significant than others. There is a continuum of importance. Further, the effect of an event, any event, on a larger world-line spreads out towards the future resulting in an infinitely fine continuum of importance. Ontologically then there is nothing to divide the important from the unimportant (a classic sorites problem). The only relations in which mind-independent objects exhibit a property of importance are mind-dependent objects (see ‘sensual-objects’ below). I do not see how Harman can defend a line between unimportant and important without eventual reference to mind? The asteroid impact predated mind, but its importance stems from its causal impact on the evolution of mind, and in particular human mind, becoming aware of it.

Harman also introduces us to “dormant objects” which are more problematic than symbiotic objects. A “dormant object” emerges from its constituent relations but does not participate in any relations of which it is a constituent. A dormant object “has no effects”. Is such a thing even possible? An object must exist to have properties, but once it exists it immediately has properties and these enter into relations. There are no objects (mental or otherwise as we shall see) that do not immediately have properties and just as immediately (or at least at the speed of light) enter into relations. Perhaps such relations are trivial (analogous to the gravity of a proton) by our lights but they cannot be nonexistent.

In the end there is a top-of-the-chain relation between every particular and every other particular in the universe. This is not an “all is one” view like that of Heidegger or Whitehead because the relation of everything to everything else is no more or less real than the relation between any two atoms or thoughts anywhere in the universe. It is possible, given all the spatially or temporally extended relations, even the most trivial of events will turn out to be symbiotic when viewed over wide enough scales. Again Harman has no way to draw a line other than by “significance to mind”.

Harman also distinguishes between “real objects” and “sensual objects” where ‘real’ here means “mind independent”. The pink elephant floating in front of me is a sensual object as is the relation (resulting in a cognitive acquisition) between my mind and a mind independent tree. Both of these objects are (or might be) causally efficacious; having an influence on a subsequent world-line. If I see the pink elephant while driving I might swerve and cause an accident. If I am driving down a dirt road and see a tree in the middle of it I had better swerve to avoid an accident. I have no problem with this distinction, but it risks un-flattening Harman’s ontology. It at least takes a small step towards an ontological dualism (mind vs everything else) he wants very much to avoid. The move adds epistemology to ontology. The “objects of our minds” are like any other object except that they are ours, belong to an individual subjectivity, while all the other objects are not ours, not a property of a subjectivity! If this is, for Harman, an epistemological distinction without ontological weight, then we cannot possibly know, but only claim by speculative fiat, that all objects, sensual or otherwise, are “equally real”. I do not see how he can have it both ways.

Also problematic is Harman’s claim that “matter doesn’t exist”. I cannot find a way to make sense of this claim in the context of his “Object Oriented Ontology” (OOO). At first I thought perhaps he was suggesting the quantum wave function is the “real real” (some physicists believe this) and matter is merely a second-order by-product. But he doesn’t much talk about the wave function and he cites an example of two tectonic plates opposing each other “rock to rock” which seems material enough to me.

Another possibility is that Harman makes no room for universals. Red doesn’t exist only individual red objects. ‘Animals’ are not an object, only particular animals. But Harman considers sets to be good sensual objects and “classes” or “kinds” are merely another way to refer to sets. Red perhaps doesn’t work here because it is purely sensual, but ‘animals’ does. ‘Animals’ is a concept and so a sensual object. But it is not like the pink elephant because there are mind-independent individual animals tieing the sensual object to the mind-independent realm. Why can’t matter be a property common to some non-sensual objects?

Maybe this claim is about relations? Being (objects existing) entails relation and perhaps in the end relations (mental or entirely mind-independent) are the only objects we can talk about. But that wouldn’t imply that matter didn’t exist only that it might not exist. Relations are not made of matter but some of their relata might be. If existence is logically prior to properties and relations but we cannot grasp all of that in which this existence consists, who is to say that matter is not a part of the essense of some objects? From inside the phenomenal, direct access only to sensual objects, nothing entails or even implies that some non-sensual objects are not matter. OOO must remain ambivilant about this and this is not the end of the problem. Relata, for example non-sensual rocks, are also relations (between atoms) and they in turn are relations (between particles) and so on (infinitely alas) and so in the end there are no relata only relations and Harman is, in effect, defining matter away.

Haecceity seems to be something of a substitute for matter at least as concerns traditionally material objects. OOO here comes down to “there is a mind independent real but in the end we can never experience or embrace the core of it only its effects; manifestations in properties and relations.” But even granting this, the immateriality of properties and relations then cannot stand as evidence for or against the ontological genuineness of matter! If we cannot know “the core of being” then we cannot know that some of it is or is not matter.

I return to the question of what Harman gets out of this? The point of ontology is to be useful at least to other philosophical arenas (epistemology, ethics, aesthetics) and perhaps human endeavor in general whether in the hard or soft sciences, arts, politics, and so on. One thing he might get is univocality of cause. Harman says that cause is fundamentally “agent cause” because an object’s causal potential is some part of its withdrawn essence. But an object’s causal potential expresses through its properties and their relations with other objects. The agent (essence) is the secret of an object’s causality, but what objects manifest to one another are their properties and what mind recognizes of cause is revealed in object-relations.

Physical cause and mental cause are both “occasional” outcomes of relations derived ultimately from properties manifest by being. If this is so then “causal agency” is, ontologically speaking, an assertion of faith, a speculation. All that we know of cause is more suitably described in event or process terms. The ontological (object) status of events or discrete process has no epistemological bearing. Proposing a universal causal manifestation in relations (however grounded in a haecceity we cannot know) tells us nothing new. If everything is a relation, how could cause not express itself in or thru relation? Individual essences, events, and relations are all objects of equal ontological status. Cause therefore belongs to everything equally.

Like the continental tradition generally, Harman takes an interest in the social sciences. In “Immaterialism” (2016) he offers us an example of applied OOO in the form of a corporate history. A corporation is, after all, an object like everything else. It has a historical duration. It has relations to people, events, recordings (documents), and such; the stuff of its daily doings (all objects). Corporations also have relations to later historical events (more objects). The corporation he chooses is the Dutch East India Trading Company, known in Harman’s book by its Dutch initials VOC.

The VOC is an interesting choice because it has a clearly bounded history (1605 to 1795). It illustrates an object’s coming into existence and going from it. At the same time, undergoing many transformations and a participant (not to mention instigator) in many historical events, it shows the ability of objects to transform without thereby ceasing to exist and become new objects at every turn. He also explains here symbiotic objects and dormant objects using the same object, a document (policy statement) introduced by the corporation’s most notorious Governor-General in 1619.

What makes this document symbiotic? It had a far reaching effect on the actions (decisions taken by directors, employees, and so on) of the VOC for the next hundred years as compared (I suppose) to most of the thousands of other documents (minutes of board meetings, policy statements, and so forth) generated during that time; a clear “disproportionate effect”. How then could it also be dormant, an object with “no upward relation”? Harman tries to throw a little too much in here I think. The document was first dormant because it had no particular effect on the actions of the corporation until a few years after its introduction.

But how could Harman possibly know this? He does not know of any immediate effects precipitated by that document, but he cannot claim that there weren’t any. Sitting in the room, when the document was introduced were a pair of investors. One ran home immediately to his wife and said: “The governor general is a monster. We must sell everything we have and divest ourselves of VOC stock now!” The other investor likeways ran home to his wife and said: “that man is brilliant. We must divest of everything elsewhere and double down on VOC!” Now Harman might reply that yes after all there is no absolute but only relative dormancy. That my example is hypothetical and does not come down to us in the historical record (another object) is evidence that relations can be more or less fecund. But such a reply makes importance “importance to human mind”. Only humans care about documents or for that matter “the historical record”. What makes this document important is that it had disproportionate effect, over time, on the decisions of human beings and those, in turn, effected the lives of other humans. Our judgments of relative importance or unimportance are always judgments (themselves always sensual objects) with respect to their effects, ultimately, on other humans.

Immaterialism is given over to much detail on the doings of the VOC and in particular its doings after the introduction of that document. I can only imagine the idea is to show how relations can play themselves out. But in giving us this admittedly interesting history and connecting it up to a particular document Harman does no more than give us a description of decisions (on the part of people) and events (naval battles, enslavement, genocide) that read like a history told by any other historian. Harman neatly divides up traditional objects (cannon, ships, documents), people (decision makers and their decisions), and events (naval battles, invasions) that stand out primarily because they have come down to us in the historical record. Of course Harman ignores many records so he can thread these particulars together in a cohesive story and not write a thousand page book. The problematic part is that in describing all of this, Harman uses the conventional language of objects, relations, and events. Whether all of these are ontologically objects, makes not the slightest difference to the story. Whether or not a particular naval battle or act of genocide had a withdrawn essence that we cannot know simply has no bearing. “Everything is an object and all objects are equally real” doesn’t add anything to our grasp of this history.

Like Meillassoux, Harman is stuck behind the anti-realist wall. There is no hole in the wall for Meillassoux. His conclusions are purely inferences based on an epistemological assumption (the Principle of Sufficient Reason is true only for epistemology and not for ontology) about ontology. This restricts him to a very limited and tentative set of speculative conclusions about the nature of the mind-independent world. Mind independent contingency (for example) entails time and space apart from our mental categories. Beyond this, he cannot say anything about the structure of the extra-mental other than that it appears stable (for now) and is of necessity entirely contingent.

Harman also is not able to say very much about what is mind independent beyond that it is real and divided up into objects having infinite relations. Of course he can distinguish between rocks, rock concerts, and pink elephants because their properties vary, but these distinctions, these joints, are picked out by mind. Harman insists that they are real independent of mind, but his ontology supports this assertion only because every possible object-relation is real. Harman can go a bit further than Meillassoux because, while the mental arena cannot contact the core of any object, it does contact relations, and we are able to explain much using a language of relations as Harman does with the VOC. There is, in effect, a hole in Harman’s wall that lets [some] relations through to mind. The external relation between the tree and me invokes a sensual-object, my perception of the tree, in my mind. This is what allows Harman to say anything at all about the mind-independent world.

Harman’s mind-independent world is therefore a little richer than Meillassoux’s but on the other hand Meillassoux reasons himself to what he concludes about the world from a few assumptions. Harman simply intuits a solution and hopes that other work (like history, political science, art) will demonstrate its usefulness. Only Ferraris manages to get past the wall altogether by connecting up unamendability (a fixed past and the constraints of natural law) and affordance (opportunities, realizable potentials) the world presents to us and so realizes that there is no wall, only a screen, and the screen lets much through to mind which evolved in response to its transparency.

Review: After Finitude

My intuition tells me this will be an important book in the development of my own philosophical thought. It will prove important to my philosophy and theology although like all materialists, Meillassoux rejects theology as nothing more than “speculative metaphysics”. Yet he is brave enough to call what he writes here “speculative realism”, and it is speculative because his starting point is very much antirealist in orientation. Fundamentally an antirealist (he might disagree with me), he cannot know that he is correct. Like my theology (I cannot know that God exists), the evidence that Meillassoux is correct, is the result; his grounding of the insight that scientific discovery is about the world.

In my essay “Realism and Antirealism” here on the blog I note that “…one of the possibilities for explanations of experience in antirealism is realism.” This comment, made in a marginal note to Zizek’s “Less than Nothing” was made in the context of Zizek’s discussion of Meillassoux, and Meillassoux himself does not disappoint. The point of this little book is to recover realism, that is the genuineness of scientific insight into the nature of a world independent of experience, that there is a world independent of experience and that we can reliably have knowledge of it. Meillassoux achieves this with a very clever argument concerning the relation between necessity (there isn’t any except…), contingency (the only necessary thing about the world is that everything is contingent), and consistency — the reliability of the world’s regularities present to experience really is in the world itself and not merely in the “categories of our experience” a la Kant.

Meillassoux here is after nothing less than establishing a warrant for “scientific realism” on an antirealist foundation. As I note in my review below he doesn’t quite finish the job. He does manage to lay out all the elements of the argument and provide reasons for the validity of the assumption that science discovers truth about the world “as it is” in the absence of our experience of it even as he denies the validity of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, a principle “scientific realism” implicitly embraces. This is a singular achievement on his part. I’m glad I decided to read him.

Besides Meillassoux, there are two other philosophers who comprise the “New Realist” school Maurizio Ferraris and Graham Harman. I have reviews of both of them now with commentary comparing the three.

Quentin Meillassoux, “After Finitude” (Kindle edition 2013) Reviewed for Amazon

Meillassoux’s writing reminds me much of other top tier philosophers of the present day like E. J. Lowe (recently passed away), David Chalmers and a few others. Not in what he says of course his starting points and subject are different, but stylistically, carefully crafting his arguments and at each point stopping to describe and evaluate alternatives advanced by his contemporaries and historical predecessors. In “After Finitude” he begins, conceptually, with Hume and Kant, accepting with the latter that the proper starting point for philosophy is the world experienced by humans; what can be thought, but rejecting in both the idea that we cannot come to “know”, in the sense of rely-on experience, to deliver genuine insight into the world in itself.

Meillassoux rejects speculative metaphysics (mostly coming down these days to religion) and accepts the generally anti-realist notion that the Principle of Sufficient Reason, need not apply to the world apart from human experience of it, but holds that the principle of non-contradiction should not be abandoned. Even if we cannot conceptually embrace infinite possibility (totalize the world), it cannot be that the world contradicts itself. All of this comes down to there being no absolutes, no “necessary being” and no “thinkable totality of all possibility” except for the fact of contingency. The only absolute for Meillossoux is that everything is contingent and might have been other than it is.

But all of this leaves historical and present day (postmodern) anti-realists in the position of claiming that we cannot know anything beyond our experience at all, and it is this mistake that he aims to rectify. Despite his general acceptance of the Kantian starting point, he insists that the achievements of science over the last two centuries well demonstrate that we can discover (through an objectivity emerging from shared experience, the results of repeated observations and experiments) much that is true about the world of the past and the present even if such truth lacks the a priori assurance of mathematics.

That problem comes down to why, if it is correct to reject the Principle of Sufficient Reason for the world apart from human experience, the world, that is the laws of physics, seem to be so stable? If the history of the universe comes out to its not-necessary “facticity”, that it is the way it is merely by chance, why aren’t the laws and regularities constantly changing rendering our ability to comprehend anything, even to be conscious at all, impossible? Kant’s answer to Hume was that the stability is only the effect of the categories of our consciousness, and if the in-itself (Kant’s noumenon) were not stable there couldn’t be any consciousness in the first place. But Kant accepted the Principle of Sufficient Reason which Meillassoux rejects. Instead he points out than an unstable in-itself might appear stable for long periods (essentially an anthropic argument). Instability need not mean moment-by-moment instability.

Meillassoux argument rests itself on our ability to “mathematize” our shared experience. That we can describe phenomena in-the-world in mathematical terms and discover not only that 2+2=4 (a priori) but also that E=mc^2 (a posteriori) speaks to us of the world’s stability. But he never quite gets around to telling us how mathematics grounds the stability. Indeed I do not see how it can because if it did, that would render the world necessary.

But there is a further problem here. If instability were really a quality of the in-itself and the universe was infinitely (or trillions of years) old, a few tens of billions of years of stability would not be problematic. But if he is right about the meaningfulness of scientific discoveries, then the universe is only 13.8 billion years old and yet the laws have been stable at least since the moment of nucleosynthisis a second or so after the big bang. That means the laws have been the same for 13.8 billion years minus 1 second! Extraordinary stability indeed!

To sum up, a beautifully written book, well argued, a delight to read, with many insights into the relation between human experience (the for-us) and the antecedent (the for-itself) world. But it doesn’t quite finish the job, something Meillassoux says he must let go of (for now I presume) at the end of the book. A fantastic example of how good philosophy is done even if, in my humble opinion of course, he begins from the wrong starting point and never quite finishes.

Realism and Antirealism

It has occurred to me that something theologians (of my sort) and philosopher-scientists (typically of the athiest/materialist sort) have in common is that we are philosophical realists (there is an exception concerning quantum mechanics in which realism has a technical connection to what are called “hidden variable theories”). What we both take to be true, is (1) there is a material world having a structure and history (facticity) with positive qualities preceding and having nothing to do with human consciousness, and (2) that in or with mind, we can come to know, that is accurately represent to ourselves, the structure and history of that independent world. This is not to say that we represent it perfectly or even at all when it comes to some of its more extreme phenomena. The bottom line for realists is that as concerns the bric-a-brac of day-to-day experience, what we see (experience though mediating senses) is pretty much what there is that is independent of our mental representations.

I’ve recently read two books (“Living in the End Times” [2010] and “Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism” [2013]) by Slavoj Zizek, and two from Arthur Schopenhauer (“The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason” [1813] and the first two books of “The World as Will and Representation” [1819]). It’s been 40 years since I’ve read any Hegel, Neitzsche, Heidegger, Husserl, Wittgenstein, or Marx. I have also explored modern antirealists like Quentin Meillassoux (“After Finitude” 2016), an antirealist seeking a justification for realism and the “new realist” Graham Harman who offers an ad hoc view of what is mind-independently real. The antirealist viewpoint, not the examination of the structure and nature of consciousness (their only program), but the ad hoc rejection of that structure being representative of a world radically independent of and prior to consciousness, is alien to me.

Having stumbled onto this point of view in recent reading, represented to me mostly by Zizek (who is an acknowledged heavyweight in this domain) this essay compares some consequences of the fundamental ontological stance of Realism and Antirealism. This is not an exhaustive review of either side (see the SEP entry on Antirealism here for a great introduction). My goal is to highlight what I take to be the fundamental antirealist problem and argue that it is a much bigger problem than the fundamental realist one.


Modern realists, the “New Realists” like Maurizio Ferraris (Harman mentioned above is another of these but he never quite gets past antirealism), understand that “what we experience” are “mental representations”. What exactly constitutes “the mental” (consciousness) is hotly debated among realists, a debate I won’t get into here (see “PHYSICS AND THE EVIDENCE FOR NON-MATERIAL CONSCIOUSNESS”). But there isn’t much debate about the subjective perspective (and language) from which we are all forced to communicate both what we experience and our ideas about that seeming, including its correspondence with the external (connected up to its truth; see “TRUTH AND TRUTHMAKING”). All of these are ingredients of “the subjective” within which the external world (including the bodies containing the sensory organs on which that world impinges) is somehow or in some sense modeled. The realist’s realism consists precisely in taking this modeling to be accurate, properly representational of “what is out there” at suitable scales or graining.

This last part, the graining, is important. Modern realists believe there is “independent reality” at scales both too large and too small for human senses to probe directly; roughly anything smaller than a dust mote or larger than a mountain. Below and above these sizes, instruments enhance our senses allowing us to probe the very small and very large. We build the instruments at familiar scales, but they work to map the larger or smaller onto scales which we can sense directly. The broad assumption of realism is the map, our mental modeling emerging from instruments through our senses, is accurate. This means not only that the content of consciousness represents a real-external, but also that the structure of subjective content reflects the structure of the external.

We extend what we know (internal experience) to phenomena outside our minds by trusting the map. Modern realists even approach antirealism in recognizing that there are phenomena whose positive properties will always remain unknowable because they cannot, even in principle, be probed by macroscopic instruments. This is the quantum-real on the smallest scales and the cosmos beyond our visible horizon at the largest. But while there is no “trustable map” potentially available here, realists do not doubt there is something real and independent of mind at these extreme scales. Further they have a faith in our eventual ability to explain the emergence of the bric-a-brac world from those unknowable phenomena. Achieving this would be tacit evidence that our theoretical speculations concerning the unknowable reflects more rather than less of structure beyond the range of our instruments.

A few scientists and philosophers argue there is no independent real except for the extremely small (or even the Wave Function) which cannot be known. This “scientific antirealism” is not the same [metaphysical] antirealism I address here. Even these antirealist scientists admit that anything we elect to “call real” (for practical purposes) in the intermediate scales, is “faithfully modeled” in the mental experience of the scientist. To most realist scientists, the mental ability to conceptualize different scales itself also represents the structure of reality independent of the mind doing the conceptualizing. Unaided by instruments, phenomena on scales to which we are sensitive are real. What eyes see, ears hear, noses smell, and our bodies physically feel in their encounter with the world is all real and ordered (structured) as we perceive them even as we have also learned that at different scales reality’s structure lies beyond what senses can detect and even (possibly) what mind can conceptualize.

So what exactly is the problem with realism? Pre-philosophically realism seems, well, obvious. Early modern scientists were religious men. They grasped that God, if real, had to be consistent; changeless. They reasoned the regularities observed in the universe were a reflection of God’s constancy. That assumption grounded the idea that the “laws of nature”, the physical laws of God, were discoverable and mathematically qualifiable.

Later, early empiricist philosophers (Locke, Hume) dared to suggest that the regularities of nature were the constituents of “material stuff”. The closure of physics on itself is taken to be a sign that the properties of the physical come from nothing other than the physical; self-generating brute fact. God’s constancy, even his presence, becomes redundant. Being could be self-sustaining! Antirealism began as an attempt to save God, more precisely the doctrines of the Church about man. There is some irony in that today’s antirealism is even more radically atheistic than most realism. Materialist-realists mostly admit that God, as a source, an origin, is not incompatible with physics, merely redundant. Antirealists, by contrast have come to assert that God is impossible.

Realism today, among scientists, has little connection with theology. But on becoming atheist, realism faced a philosophical problem. What guarantees the veracity of the map, the connection between our singular individual internal experience and the external world? We know the brain is a warm, wet, electrochemical environment, obviously a material object constrained to regular behavior consistent with natural law. Most scientists suppose not only that this brain, by itself, is sufficient to produce consciousness, but that this subjectivity properly models the world as our senses relate it to us. How exactly does that work? Without God, in this case a bridge between the internal and the external, what justifies the internal conviction that experience reflects reality?

We know that brains fail and that in failing they can produce all sorts of deceptive maps. The problem, called the “representation problem” is explaining how it is they produce truthful models most of the time? Truth, means there is some one-to-one correspondence between something in the world and its representation in subjective experience such that we (at least humans) can claim knowledge of the external world as represented in internal experience. If one has God of course the explanation is available. God (via some mechanism he uses to add mind to brains) sets the world up that way. Mind evoked on brains, functions, by design, to represent the external-real to the subjective; to produce veracious maps. This explanation tells us nothing about the mechanism of the relating. It removes not the mystery of the mechanism, but only the mystery of the facticity of its result. If God is real, then we would expect that mind (however produced) models the world because the same self-consistent God produced that world; the purpose (among them) of mind is to model the world to the subjective viewpoint. The mystery of how mind does this remains, but that it happens is not a mystery given theism.

So what arguments do realists who are not theists advance to explain or justify the veracity of the map? Mostly the problem doesn’t trouble them because the origin and nature of consciousness itself presents a bigger and encompassing problem. Realist-materialists mostly assume that, when we get a genuine reductive explanation for consciousness, the representation problem will take care of itself. We will know why consciousness produces an accurate modeling because (1) modeling is intrinsic to consciousness, and (2) we will know how it is that consciousness comes about. Notice that (1) has the same structure as the argument that God is redundant because the material world and its regularities are self-constituted; material being is a brute fact.

Materialists point to our survival as a species, and the progressive evolution of consciousness not only as evidence the map is accurate, but also is the reason for it. Suppose as consciousness evolved from the lower animals there were cases of both true and false (corresponding and non-corresponding) modeling not just as concerns individual sensory events but in the consciousness of the creature over-all. Those creatures having inaccurate maps are more likely to die early (perhaps because they fail to avoid some predator) and not reproduce. Those whose maps are more accurate, more corresponding, survive to reproduce. This doesn’t explain how it is that any accuracy is achieved in the first place. It doesn’t explain how a connection between the model and the world is possible, but it is a plausible account of the Darwinian ground of its achievement. Realists (without God) have not reduced the representation problem to physics, but this failure does not mean realism is wrong.


Modern antirealism began with Kant, with his idea that the right way to do philosophy is to begin from within the subject. Antirealists and realists alike admit that, after all, all experience occurs within a “subjective arena”. Moreover, they agree that this subjective is a phenomenon “in the world”, that is in the broader context we might loosely conceive as the “totality of the universe”. That last notion, that there is, conceptually some total, that the idea is coherent, comes mostly from the realist side.

Antirealists today will mostly claim that not only can we not directly experience such a total (most realists agree) but conceptualizing a totality is meaningless (perhaps incoherent like a square circle), amounting to “begging the realist question”. There is some irony here in that most antirealists today are also materialists. They have to say that the subjective arena is simply “another component in the world” while remaining metaphysically non-committal about the nature and even existence of “a world”. Realism is first a metaphysics having epistemological consequences. Antirealists mostly abandon metaphysics (being unknowable) and fold what is left of it into epistemology. Since we cannot have knowledge of an outside, we cannot know if there is a total, an all of it.

The first historical result of that irony for antirealism was radical idealism. In the 18th century George Berkeley, “Bishop Berkeley” of Cloyne, took the antirealist idea and ran with it. Being a theist Berkeley was free to make an extreme claim; there is no “external world” at all. Not only must all experience be inherently subjective, but that was all there was to being in his ontology. The subjective is all there is and anything that seems as though it is external to the subject is put there, that is into the subjective, by God. God makes multiple simultaneous subjective experiences consistent. If I see a tree and you, standing next to me, also see the tree, it is because God put the tree into both our minds in just the way that it appears to us individually.

Obviously materialists cannot take this seriously, and even theists no longer give it much thought. The latter might acknowledge that it remains a theoretical possibility, but it seems far too improvized, even compared to the theistic solution to the reference problem. In today’s terms, radical idealism collapses into a variation of the computer simulation hypothesis in which God plays the role of the computer. This, in turn, collapses into solipsism. Perhaps everything I take to be another is only placed there for me.

By dropping God, antirealists face a philosophical problem far greater than the realist’s inability to explain representation; they find themselves with a well neigh infinite set of possibilities with no intersubjective mechanism to separate the sublime from the ridiculous. There might, hypothetically, be an infinite number of realist theories explaining our experience. But those theories, to be counted at all, must not only account for what appear to be external constraints, the behavior of the seemingly external universe, but also assume its metaphysical primacy.

By contrast, antirealist theories are constrained only by what is possible subjectively and this includes not only what appears to be external, but also such internal experiences as imagination, fantasy, fiction, and psychosis! Further, all the set of antirealist possibilities can be applied to anything. Not only might such analysis be fruitful in subjective-centered disciplines like art or psychotherapy, but also in inter-subjective phenomena like history, economics, and politics as these too exist to-the-subject only in the form of what makes itself known across the boundary of the subjective.

Antirealists since Berkeley claim there is an objective world independent of the subject and the subject (and subjectivity) is a part of this world. They also claim however that we cannot know in what this objectivity consists. All we can know is what it is experienced like from the inside, the subjective. Not only does this idea that “experience alone is knowable” apply to the external world (whatever it might be) but to the subject itself. We cannot strictly know our own subjectivity in any complete way either. Specifically, our experience, being what it is, we cannot get behind experience to find the subject of experience. In modern antirealist writing this comes out to everything, the seeming-world and the seeming subject of experience, emerging only from boundaries or horizons (the fact and content of consciousness) beyond which lies we know not what!

This (in a painful inverse of radical idealism) leads antirealists to suggest the possibility that behind the boundary there is nothing at all, that even the boundary is nothing and that behind it is less than nothing! Truth is like a rainbow, a phenomenon that has no ontological presence but rather emerges in consciousness from that which we do not see directly; in realist terms water molecules diffracting light. Not that antirealists can claim “there is nothing there” because after all they cannot know this, but what they can know (they suppose) is that “nothing at all” is a possibility, and if not nothing, then undifferentiated chaos, a universe of meaningless multiplicity about which we can say nothing. Structure comes only when the chaotic crosses the horizon of experience.

Homologous to the realist assumption that physics is self-constituting, consciousness, “whatever it is” is also self-constituting (tensions or torsions in, or exceptions to, the “unknowable multiplicity of (non-totalizable) universality (Zizek)). In another ironic twist having no homologue in realist circles, one of the possibilities for the explanation of experience in antirealism is realism (see Quentin Meillossoux “After Finitude” [2009])! To be sure antirealists cannot assert that realism is true, but they must accept that it is a possibility! Today’s Postmodernism is a direct consequence of these antirealist contortions. If truth can emerge from anything, even nothing, if truth’s foundation is entirely subjective, then perhaps there is no truth to be had at all, no ground for morality and so on.

But Postmodernism goes too far. Zizek points out that reality can be so chaotic (the universe at all levels of graining taken at the same time) or horrible (the holocaust) that subjective mind is overwhelmed by everything and cannot grasp anything. “Fiction has the structure of truth” (Almost the opening line of Zizek’s “Less than Nothing”) means that by fictionalizing “the real”, meaningful patterns invisible in the swarm of facts stand out. We experience their presence. This can happen also with “mistaken interpretations” of philosophical arguments or viewpoints, and also with art. These can unexpectedly reveal otherwise hidden insights or issues in what was intended by the author or artist.

Zizek is quite correct in that the “truths” revealed in this way arise purely in mind, but realists recognize that truth as such is a mental object, a part of the content of consciousness. The issue is whether or not what is experienced in the subjective, the pattern, “the truth” is represented by something identifiable in the external-real event to which it corresponds; of which it is a recognition, not an invention.

But what then is the antirealist response to this inverse of the representation problem? If realists cannot explain how it happens that our mental models are representative, how do antirealists explain, since we cannot know that our models are representative, why it is that airplanes fly? Realists point to such artifactual objects as airplanes (classical physics), and modern computers (quantum mechanics) as evidence sine qua non of the correspondence between model and independent reality. How, if we do not know in mind something of the structure of reality outside mind, do we explain our technology?

Antirealists here rely on what, in my opinion, is a pseudo distinction, one that only applies in mind, but cannot apply to a mind independent world, a distinction that amounts to “begging the antirealist question”; that between “working for-us” and “corresponding”. Our technology seems to work because it does successfully manipulate the horizon (qualia and such) that confines our subjectivity. To antirealists technological prowess does not mean that we know what is going on beyond the boundary only that what we experience is in line with our purposes (our intent for the technology) from our viewpoint on the inside.

Antirealism is to philosophy a little like String Theory is to physics. String theory has not brought relativity and quantum mechanics together despite 30+ years of trying. But it has resulted in many useful mathematical discoveries. By abstaining from talk of the external world (whose existence they nevertheless grant) antirealists have discovered much about the internal one.

Realist-materialists often have a difficult time with the idea that there are fundamental limits to what we can know, limits to mind’s ability fully to interpret material reality or mind itself. On the physical side, quantum mechanics is the quintessential example these days. Here it seems reasonable to believe that we can narrow the domain of that which we cannot interpret. But as concerns mind, there must be positive fundamental limits. Why? The antirealists understand this better than the realists. Mind is something in the world, but it is precisely that in the world in which we, the experiencing subject, are locked. We are inside a box. The box interacts with what is outside the box with sensory apparatus, but inside the box we experience qualia, an interpretive effect of sensory operation. We know the qualia conveyed to us, and in addition our purposes, emotions and so on, but not directly what lies beyond the boundary nor what exactly, on the inside, is having the experience.

Qualia are a boundary. Qualia are not the thing-in-itself outside the box. But they are what (to a realist) permit interpretation, knowledge, of that which lies outside the box while to an antirealist they are the only phenomena which we can know. For both realists and antirealists it is this interpretave experience that distinguishes the inside from the outside, but neither realist nor antirealist has any direct access to the “I” which experiences.

The I has nothing analogous to qualia by which it can interpret itself, that is distinguish itself from the content of consciousness. The “us”, our “I” is a horizon of the inside, the slippery object which we are fundamentally unable to analyze. To be consistent we have to say that, as with the “external world”, we cannot know anything about the “I”. Like the external world, the “I” might even be nothing at all. To all intents and purposes it might as well be nothing because, as with our senses, we experience not the thing-in-itself but only its boundary, the place where its illusion emerges into subjectivity.

Realist-materialists make the same invalid deduction with respect to the person that they do concerning the independent world. “There is nothing other than physics (the material world) because we can (a) explain all of physics and (b) not find anything other than physics with physics!” When we “look for” our center, our “I”, we do not find it. Since, from a realist viewpoint, we should find anything there is on the inside, there is therefore nothing there, no I. Antirealist-materialists are more sanguine about the external world because they “cannot say anything positive (meaning assign it positive, knowable properties) about it”. But with regard to personality, which if it is a positive reality must nevertheless be non-material, they make the same mistake as realists. Because we cannot find it (the person) there must be nothing there.

Realist-materialists might be mistaken about the completeness of physics, but at least their philosophical contortions stop there. Antirealists are not so lucky. Mind is an illusion (not material), and the person, the interior “I”, is also an illusion, a “hallucination halucinating a hallucination”. Zizek quotes this approvingly from Metzinger but goes on to say that Metzinger makes a mistake by not recognizing that a hallucination redoubled sublates itself, and from that dialectical process a reality (something positive — consciousness and self?) emerges.

From a realist perspective this is absurd. Zero “0” is a placeholder in mathematics. As a sign in the world it stands for nothing. Nothing plus nothing (0+0) or nothing times anything, even infinity, is precisely nothing. Everything that is real in the universe is either positive (atoms, chairs, “the universe”) or emerges from something positive: the rainbow from water vapor plus light, cold from a relative absence of [molecular motion] heat, and even evil from an intentional choice to commit error; an act positive not in the sense of “being good” but in the sense of being “a physical cause”. We need negative numbers for the consistency of mathematics, but they aren’t real. They don’t represent anything “in the universe”. If I add a negative three apples to a positive one apple (-3+1) I do not have negative two apples, I have precisely zero real apples.

In the human case, minds are directed by something intrinsically central to subjectivity. No we cannot find that center when we examine our own minds, but that we can examine (even partially) our own mind proves that the person is real, positive. Something exists that [partly] stands outside mind. The antirealist insight that there is subjective experience we cannot encompass because we do not and cannot stand “outside it” is genuine, but it does not mean that what we cannot reach is therefore nothing.

Purposeful intention is both real and positive. All of what is real, material and non-material alike, must have positive properties even if we cannot always say what, exactly, they are. Only in antirealism does something apparently come from nothing. The quantum vacuum (cited as counterexample by realists and antirealists alike) is not a metaphysical nothing. To realists, minds, be they the minds of lions chasing zebras or humans building airplanes, make a difference in the world, they cannot be nothing.

Mind is only the first step. Self-consciousness is possible only if something positive exists, at least partially differentiated from mind itself; within the box yet distinct from its purely mental content. Something positive is differentiated from the content of consciousness yet remains entirely dependent on the subjective arena for its expression. It is responsible for the recognition by that subjectivity that there is something both within and apart in it simultaneously. But the person is the end of the line. We cannot find personality directly because nothing stands outside it.

Personality transcends mind, views it as it were from an outside. But its difference or distinctness is not complete; partial. Partial is important because whatever personality is it experiences and expresses itself through mind. It is a pattern of some sort made of mind. This is why we cannot find a clean joint between mind and personality, but only a fuzzy one. Mind and the “I” together seamlessly constitute subjective experience! See my WHY PERSONALITY for a more detailed discussion of this.

Materialists of either realist or antirealist persuation both assert that free will is an illusion. The incoherence of this view is demonstrated by the impossibility of asserting its truth if it were true. Such assertion, given the subjective appearance of freedom must devolve into a Postmodernist rejection of all truth. If there is no free will then “there is no truth” that we can assert, because we are trapped in the role of “mouthpiece of the universe” having no idea whether what we [determinately] say is true or not. We might say that “it seems true to me”, but the me is an illusion, a hallucination, and after all we were deterministically impelled to say that too (see WHY FREE WILL and ARGUING WITH AUTOMATONS for more discussion).

If the Respresentation Problem is realism’s biggest challenge, antirealism’s seems much bigger. In theory the representation problem has a solution, but there is no end to the recursive possibilities possible in antirealism. Given the latter’s conviction that truth is only about the inside, within the arena of experience, the possibility of uncheckable recursion is fatal to the antirealist program. Realist-materialists might mistakenly reason there is no God, but the honest ones know that God remains a logical possibility. By contrast antirealist materialists (at least this is my interpretation of them) are ultimately forced to the conclusion that God, a real God independent of human experience not only does not exist, but cannot possibly exist.

In Realism universals (Realism does not deny universals) have particular instances. “Color” has Red, Blue, Green, and so on while particular modes (the redness of a particular apple) instantiate in particulars (the apple that has that shade of red — I follow here E.J. Lowe’s “Four Category Ontology” for example because Lowe was a Realist-materialist). In Antirealism universals can’t have individual instances. Particulars can exemplify universals for realists but there are no particularized universals in antirealism except the subject who is universal, whose experience is the only universal, for herself.

This “logic of the inside” reaches its apex for the subject, and subjectivity, itself. From every individual’s viewpoint, their own subjectivity, my universal for-myself is at the same time the ultimate particular. There is only one of that viewpoint in all the universe. There cannot, therefore, be an external “universal subject”, “a God”. A real, positively existing, God would occupy all separate individuality simultaneously. If God is “the universal person” then individual persons, that is an individual point-of-view, multiple in the universe yet universal for itself, would be impossible.

The person and her experience faces the outside which is nothing. She cannot find herself on the inside either, another nothing. From the gaps (horizons) between the nothings emerges our particular viewpoint which is also nothing and so comes from “Less Than Nothing” (the title of a Zizek book). Everything, because our experience after all makes up the all-there-is for each of us, is subject to this endless recursive descent of meaning. There is no stable social relationship because the outside is incomplete and the inside never fully known. Any evolving socio-political world, any particular example of it, has to crash against what cannot be known even on the inside and must inevitably conflict it.

Hegelian antirealists (my interpretation of Zizek) view history as an endless repetition, doubling down, sublation, and re-emerging with what was always there. History’s expression only seems new but is really nothing but a shift in perspective by the subject, herself emerging from the internal void as history emerges from voids both internal and external. Art of all kinds is subject to endless reinterpretation not merely (and sensibly) in historical context but intrinsically. There is no end to what art “can mean”. Nothing is necessary (everything contingent) yet the unfolding (and remember we are in consciousness) follows its own inexorable logic. The unqualified “real world” is unstructured, chaotic, actual-in-itself, potential-for-us. It is only the inside that structures it.

Capitalism is unique in the history of economic systems not because it is different and happens to be dominant in the present, but because it is the first of the economic systems whose “seed of destruction” lies not in its relation to an external environment but is built-in to it. Capitalism must grow forever (obviously unsustainable) and yet will not work at all without this excess at its core. The inconsistency in capitalism isn’t merely between it and its non-economic (political, social, ecological) environment (although it is that too) but is a fundamental part of how it works. Without that part of itself, its demand for endless growth and capital (self) accumulation it wouldn’t work at all. Remember though that all of this process takes place in and to experience, subjectively. In this realm, capital itself “comes alive” as it were and becomes “self serving”. Mind that produced it cannot fix the destructive ambiguities at its core.

There does seem to be something insightful in this, but only if its life is represented also in an intersubjective independent world. It is not capital’s “life within the mind” that makes it hard to correct imbalances or mitigate evil (gaming the system) but the fact (however it came about) that this subjective construct is mapped into independent-world effects that correspond to what we experience of them, often times economic disasters that bring misery to billions. All this is true of history more generally speaking. But it is a mistake to move from this insight to the assumption that the ambiguities and inconsistencies, both negatives in the sense that no ontological object exists for them, no positive qualities, are the core itself; that there is “nothing more” to the core than this negativity. Applied to history this comes out to there being only contingency; no such a thing as progress. Antirealist “intuitive logic” forces them to these conclusions, but they don’t seem so obviously true to most realists.

To be sure notions like progress in a moral sense are often rejected by realists as well and for the same reasons. Only as concerns the representations of physics do realists believe there is a, more or less, “immutable standard”; intersubjective agreement on theoretical implications coupled with experimental agreement.

Not surprisingly, sex gets some of the most convoluted analysis. Not the sex-act (though that too gets its share) but sexuality in general. Not-man is woman, but not-woman is an impossible universal and so not man. There are not two sexes but “one and a little more”, and so on. One is reminded of Freud’s quip (which Zizek quotes) “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. The antirealist mistake is a failure to recognize that most of the time a cigar is just a cigar. In stereotypical Freudian fashion, sex gets tied into everything from itself, the sweep of history (it is not enough to note that there would be no human history without it), the entire edifice of art, and the very ontological foundation of being!

Language is the intersubjective expressive instrument of all that goes on in experience. Language is finite and imperfectly expressive. Fiction can reveal truth but also obscure it. In their examination of language (something after all we all experience subjectively), antirealists have subjected it to  more recursive convolutions than sex. Even the materialism of antirealist-materialism emerges, in experience, from the inability of lauguage to encompass the “out there” void itself merely a reflection (sublation) of the “in here” void. Chairs, or stars, exist, for example, because we can name (signify) them and what we cannot name can only be chaotic void. Mind is not recognizing patterns emerging onto its horizon, but generating those patterns which are otherwise “only void”. To be sure not all antirealist philosophers go all the way down with this recursive process, but the problem is there is no natural stopping point, no standard against which its theories can be compared. Nothing can be rejected. Any hypothesis we imagine is possible.


Realist physics has its own problems with indefinite speculation because, after all, the representation of the senses, even enhanced by instruments, doesn’t go “all the way down”. The string theory M-Brane universe of 11 dimentions is a fitting example. But there is a check on realism, at least in its dealings with the external. Speculation has to make predictions that are, at least in principle, testable. If it does not, it is never taken quite seriously. Antirealists can always say “the turning stops here”, but the next philosopher comes along and says “no there is one more turn” and this “one more” can go on endlessly. No check exists because whatever mind imagines can be taken seriously.

Antirealism has genuine insights. That there are limits to what we can know both inside and outside (and the latter for reasons more profound than merely scaling) comes naturally to antirealists. They understand why such limits are inevitable; a necessary (at least) core of consciousness. Modern realist thought (David Deutch, “The Beginning of Infinity” [2011] perhaps the present poster child) too often mistakenly elides this truth. Limits apply on the outside because the fundamental structure of the external-in-itself includes that which is genuinely indeterminite, irregular (and not merely beyond the possibility of measurement), and on the inside for the reason well understood by antirealists; we cannot get out of the box.