Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reply to Elder-Vass, Hartwig, and Groff on critical realism

Critical realism is a hot topic now in sociological theory and philosophy of social science. It turns out that there are some pretty strong disagreements about the foundations of the theory. Recent posts here have highlighted my own (admittedly non-expert) reading of Bhaskar’s assumptions about ontology (link), my discussion of the limited and friendly critique of Bhaskar’s assumptions offered by Justin Cruickshank (link, link), and a preliminary view of the “naturalized critical realism” advocated by Tuukka Kaidesoja (link). (There is more to come on Kaidesoja’s work.) These posts — particularly those highlighting Cruickshank — have elicited strong rebuttals from Ruth Groff, Dave Elder-Vass, and Mervyn Hartwig (link, link). Here I would like to respond to some of the views advanced in the rebuttals by these experts from within critical realism.

Elder-Vass and Hartwig reject the core claims that I have attributed to Cruickshank in his critique of Bhaskar's philosophical method: that Bhaskar pursues an aprioristic philosophical method in arriving at the fundamental ideas of critical realism, and that he regards these ideas as having been established with  some kind of certainty by this method. (I should make it clear, of course, that this is my interpretation of Cruickshank; I hope I have not mis-represented him.) Against this aprioristic and infallibilist reading, Elder-Vass and Hartwig argue that Bhaskar's reasoning is not aprioristic and that he regards his conclusions as being fallible and historically conditioned.

Elder-Vass believes there are ample places in Bhaskar's work where he asserts the fallibilism of his conclusions. But the particular passage that E-V quotes from Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation seems to prove less than E-V supposes. Moreover, it seems to detract from intellectual virtues that Bhaskar himself wanted to assert: that there are good philosophical (i.e. non-empirical) reasons for accepting certain ontological statements. Does Bhaskar attribute rational credibility to philosophical arguments in arriving at substantive claims about the world? Unmistakably he does; his whole method is philosophical! And he seems to have quite a bit of confidence in the conclusions that he reaches when it comes to the fundamentals of ontology. Or in other words: he assigns a high level of justificatory weight to the philosophical arguments he offers for specific conclusions about ontology.

In fact, general statements about the fallibility of human knowledge don't help very much with the problem Cruickshank is raising. How fallible and for what reasons? For example, if the claims of critical-realist ontology are only "as fallible as" the claims of mathematics and logic, that is indeed to attribute a high degree of certainty to those ontological claims. On the other hand, if they are "as fallible as" statements about the virtues of the gods, then they are highly fallible indeed. So the general statement "all assertions are fallible" is too general to help very much. We want to know what the conditions of knowledge are for different kinds of assertions, and how confident we can be, give available reasons and evidence, that the given assertion is true. "Wood is made mostly of carbon and water," "electrons have negative charge of 1.6 * 10^-19 coulombs," "physical objects are located in three-dimensional space," and "a triangle encloses 180 degrees" are all statements that are in some sense fallible; but the ways in which they might go wrong are quite different from one to the next. Some are more empirical, some more theoretical, and some are metaphysical or mathematical. And the kind of justification or proof that is given for each is different. As a non-committed reader of Bhaskar, it does appear to me that Bhaskar relies on abstract philosophical arguments to reach ontological conclusions, and that he attributes a fairly high degree of confidence to those lines of reasoning.

So how fallible does Bhaskar think his theory of ontology is, and for what reasons, according to E-V and Hartwig? Does Bhaskar believe, for example, that perhaps experimentation could after all be coherently understood against a background of Humean regularity assumptions? Plainly not; that is the whole point of his argument, to rule out that possibility. And he seeks to rule it out by offering philosophical arguments to establish the point. To take a fairly random example from RTS:
However if deducibility is the only criterion for explanation and the source of the surplus-element is its explanation there will be an infinite number of surplus-elements for any statement. Hence any statement can be said to be law-like on an infinite number of grounds. Deducibility alone cannot explicate the distinction between necessary and accidental or nomic and non-nomic universals. (kl 3018)
This is plainly a purely philosophical (logical) argument; it is reductio ad adsurdum. And Bhaskar plainly believes it presents an insurmountable barrier to the Humean; or in other words, it establishes the necessity of the anti-Humean position on this particular point. So the idea that Bhaskar applies a warning label at various points (“knowledge is fallible”) doesn’t resolve the issue of whether he attributes too much weight to the power of philosophical arguments to resolve ontological issues.

Hartwig provides useful clarification by summarizing the logic of a transcendental argument. The argument form itself is deductively valid and trivial, essentially modus ponens.  So we can be completely certain that if the premises are true then the conclusion is true. That is not where the philosophy comes in. Rather, the heavy lifting for the transcendental argument is in establishing the major premise. What kind of argument is needed in order to establish an "only-if" statement? Take the Kantian version: [only if the world is spatio-temporally-causally structured] then [empirical experience is possible]. We can offer strong philosophical reasons for believing that empirical experience is possible. But how do we get the "only-if" assertion? How do we know that there is no other form of structure that could give unity to empirical experience? How do we know that a degraded spatio-temporal-causal ordering would not nonetheless admit of empirical experience? (Things sometimes result from anomaly and show up discontinuously in unexpected places; how do we know that such a slightly disorderly world could not support empirical experience?) In other words, why should we have confidence in Kant's (or Bhaskar's) assertion of the major premise: [only if X] then Y?

In fact, Strawson's critique of Kant's argument in The Bounds of Sense is precisely that Kant errs in maintaining that spatiotemporal order is necessary for the possibility of empirical experience; he constructs a hypothetical world in which experience is ordered auditorially but not spatially ordered and argues that this is a perfectly coherent basis for ordinary empirical experience.

And this is where the Cruickshank-like argument comes in strongly: Bhaskar’s arguments for the “only-if” statements upon which critical realism depends are: interesting, skillful, determined — and far short of deductively or rationally conclusive.

If Bhaskar is thought to embrace fallibilism to this extent: that his whole construction of the ontological prerequisites of experimentation may be in error; then indeed he is a fallibilist theorist. Ruth Groff indicates that in her opinion this is a possibility: "Bhaskar may or may not be correct, either about what the implicit ontology of the activity of experimentation is, or about whether or not it is consistent with the explicit ontology of Humeanism and Kantianism." But nothing in RTS makes me think that Bhaskar believes this particular form of corrigibility. E-V raises that possibility above ("What is necessary is that IF science occurs THEN the world must be such that science is possible and/or intelligible"). But this is virtually vacuous; it only becomes an ontological statement when one gives arguments about how the world must be. E-V, Hartwig, and Groff are the experts; but when I pick up the thread of A Realist Theory of Science at almost any point, I find Bhaskar making very confident statements about how the world must be, based on the philosophical arguments that he constructs.

Groff seems to slide over the place where some would say that Bhaskar does in fact over-reach philosophically: the complicated reasoning he provides to go from "we acknowledge the overall rationality of the enterprise of science" to "the world must have certain fairly abstract attributes". We don't have to say that "science is irrational" or "experimentation is unintelligible" in order to question Bhaskar's conclusions about ontology; rather, we can question the sequence of inferences he makes from the one "fact" to the other. These inferential steps take place within a philosophical argument, and they are questionable.

This shouldn't be thought to imply that I (or Cruickshank or Kaidesoja, for that matter) doubt that philosophical arguments have any justificatory or clarificatory weight; philosophy is simply careful reasoning and clear analytical thinking, and of course good philosophy can help illuminate how science works. What I do think some of us want to maintain is pretty much what Kant held as well: we can't derive substantive conclusions about the structure of the real world from purely philosophical reasoning. There are no rabbits in that hat!

So it still seems to me -- and now it's me speaking, not Cruickshank -- that Bhaskar relies too heavily and confidently on philosophical methods to arrive at ontological conclusions. Perhaps it is true, as E-V and Hartwig assert, that he also duct-tapes onto his construction some warnings about the overall fallibility of all human knowledge. But I'm still not seeing that this corrigibility extends very deeply when he is actually trying to reach conclusions about ontology. And yet this is precisely where the corrigibility/fallibility warning is most needed: the philosophical arguments offered for the “only-if” statements (the heart and substance of critical realism) fall far short of any kind of certainty. They are suggestive, but they are not rationally compelling. And Bhaskar does not appear to highlight this fact.

In short, Bhaskar does appear to believe that we can arrive at philosophically compelling conclusions about ontology; and those conclusions are drawn through recourse to philosophical arguments. And this does seem to distinguish his general theory of knowledge from coherence theorists (Goodman and Quine) and naturalists (Kaidesoja), who believe that ultimately there is only one kind of knowledge: scientific knowledge at various levels of abstraction.

But it also seems to me that this debate is in some ways missing the most important point: how good is critical realism as a meta-theory of the situation of material human beings acquiring knowledge of the world?  Putting aside the question of whether philosophical theory can shed light by itself on the structure of the world, what should we actually think about the latter topic? Is realism a good way of thinking about the knowledge enterprise? Is the kind of back-and-forth that Bhaskar is so good at, from existing scientific practice to apparent presuppositions about how things work, a good way of leveraging some new thinking about the way the world works? The most interesting thing about critical realism is surely not its philosophical method; it is the set of ideas it brings forward about how science and knowledge progress in giving material human beings a better notion of how the world works. Philosophy is a part of that process, but only a part. And the realist ontology is an important construction no matter what its argumentative origins are.

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