We had a rousing discussion the other day here at Vole Central about emergence and reduction. The perennial topic of the justification of ontological theories came up, clothed in the distinction between strong and weak theories of emergence.
For the purposes of our discussion, strong emergence was defined as an “ontological” stance in which emergent properties are seen as a part of the actual, really-real world. Weak emergence, on the other hand, was defined as a more “epistemological” stance in which emergent properties are seen as necessary to our explanations of the real world, but not necessarily existent in the real world.
A lot of people think that we are pretty much doomed to a weak stance, essentially because we have no way of grounding ontology in the real, “noumenal” world. But even if we accept this rather Kantian limitation, the questions don’t go away.
Even if we can’t know the world as it really is, can we know something about the world? Our theories about how things are appear to have some relation to things rather than none at all. And if they do, we’re still stuck with the problem of justifying how we know those things. And it’s probably just as complicated as justifying a “strong” theory, because we still have to explain what our relationship is to things such that we can say stuff about them.
This justification can be called many things. I’ve been calling it a “theory of theories”, because it attempts to explain what makes our theories work. But it could also be called an epistemological theory, since it tries to explain how we know things. And it could be called an ontological theory, because it tries to explain how things are such that we know them. If you’re ever accused of conflating epistemology with ontology (or are accusing someone else of it), this is a good thing to keep in mind. When it comes to justifying theories, the two are conflated, at least to some degree. And I think we need to conflate them some more.
The burning question is: How are things such that our knowledge of them comes about? What access do we have to reality? Is it direct or indirect?
As a thought experiment, pour some Drano on your hand. The Drano is external reality, and your now smoking and sizzling hand is knowing about it. When I say “knowing” here, I do not mean you feeling the pain of being seriously burned by Drano. I mean that your hand is affected by the Drano in the exact manner of human flesh when it comes into contact with Sodium Hydroxide. Your hand does not have to know anything in particular about causticity, molecular structure, or anything else to be so affected. Your hand does not have to have a model of the hand-Drano interaction in order to be severely damaged. The “knowing” of the Drano is not “direct” in an absolute sense (your hand doesn’t, for example, “become” the Drano or “inhabit” the Drano, or even occupy a sensuous bubble of intentionality with the Drano — its “knowing” is just the damage and disfigurement), but we’re tempted to call this knowing “about as direct as it gets”.
Okay, you can wash your hand off now. Wasn’t that instructive?
It’s possible that we know the world in the same way as the hand knows the Drano. In the case of mental knowing, the process by which the world “damages” our conceptual apparatus is far less immediate and way more complicated, but ontologically, there may be no essential difference between the two processes.
Assuming that’s the case, what form does a theory of theories take?
[UPDATE: Apparently John at Ktismatics was already musing upon the selfsame subject of direct access to the world. It’s more evocatively put than this post *and* it doesn’t require a trip to the emergency room!]