The Web Site of Science-Philosopher Viv Pope

April 2003

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Normal Realism

Like all knowledge, says Pope, philosophical knowledge has to start somewhere. Some philosophers would say that it should start - or at least that it should be put - on a basis of absolute certainty, the certainty of plain facts of perception or principles of logic and/or mathematics. Others object that from our inescapably human point of view there is nothing of which we can ever be absolutely certain, so that anything and everything can be doubted without contradiction.

What cannot be doubted, however, is that there are appearances. An appearance or impression is both an observation and an implicit statement to the effect that something or other exists or is or is not the case. Philosophy begins, as do the sciences, in the discovery that things are not always the way they seem. Seemings are notoriously deceptive. The fact, for instance, that something may seem completely 'real' on one occasion only to be judged 'illusory' on another (for example, the appearance that the earth is flat, not round; that the sun goes around the earth; that whales are 'fish' not mammals, and so on) makes us reflect on the finitude of all human perception and conception. This gives rise to philosophical doubt regarding the ultimate reality of any claim to knowledge. In Normal Realism (so called to distinguish it from what is called 'realism' in theoretical-physics circles) this commonsense doubt is extended systematically throughout the whole of conventional knowledge on the principle, as already stated, that any particular appearance or perception can be doubted.

Starting, then, with ordinary appearances and impressions and the ordinary everyday language in which these are articulated, Normal Realism proceeds as a method of systematic scepticism, or doubt. The criterion of reality it employs is that of plain commonsense, which is that of the logical consistency of appearances in the context of experience as a whole. Doubt in the reality of appearances is normally assuaged when contradictions and ambivalences in our descriptions of those appearances are removed. By the same token, doubt is invoked only as and when such contradictions or ambivalences arise.

Some philosophers have proposed that everything can be doubted. Normal Realism refutes this. So far as bare unclassified sensation is concerned, no question of its existence can arise. Doubt and contradiction can arise only when language is employed to classify and divide these sensations, to put them into a logical order. Moreover, we are reminded that the root of this word 'logical' is the word the early Greeks used for 'language'. This was logos, which meant something between and including what we now call 'information' and 'communication'. The language which the Greeks called logos did not need to be expressed by any written or spoken word or action. Nor did it need even to be human. What it signified was the logical interrelatedness, in nature, of all things, animal, vegetable and even mineral, from the commonplace to the sublime. (The range of the various -ologies, such as geology, psychology, theology. etc., which stem from the same root, bespeak the breadth of the original meaning of logos.)

Aside from this logos, or language of nature, is human language, which is the device which our species has evolved to cope with the threat to its survival that is posed by human fallibility. To survive we must have truly reliable ways of classifying and dividing our experiences and communicating these to one another. Given that we make mistakes, also that these mistakes can be recognised and logically analysed, it should always be possible to revise and reconstruct that knowledge in favour of a corpus of common language that is ever more in tune with the natural logos. This continual revising and reconstructing of knowledge has been, throughout the ages, the common aim, not only of all true sciences, or -ologies, but also of all true religions. By that age-old standard, our present academic 'apartheid', separating 'Science' from all so-called 'Arts' subjects like theology (note another -ology) is purely artificial.

This restructuring requires, of course, a continued effort towards the systematic rooting-out of error, or illogicality in our dealings with nature. The rational process of the removal of error, so far as classical science and philosophy are concerned, is fourfold. First, it requires the removal of as many gaps in our knowledge as possible by meticulous methods of observation and research. Second, it requires as much coherence as possible between the various sectors or departments of expanding knowledge. Third, it requires the continual reassessing and revising of our linguistic divisions and classifications of observational and experimental experience until the language that is used right across the disciplines is as free from confusion and contradiction as we can make it. Fourth, it seeks to winnow-out speciousness, or surplus and deceptive language ('jargon') which inveigles into thinking that there are things existing where in fact there are not - creating what classical philosophers used to call chimeras.

So far as Normal Realism is concerned, says Pope, these classical criteria, of logical completeness, freedom from contradiction, maximum coherence and economy of language remain philosophically and scientifically valid. Why, then, he asks, have we now reached a level of confusion where our language is so fluid that the meanings of 'true' and 'false', 'real' and 'unreal', 'right' and 'wrong', etc., have become 'no-no' words in scientific parlance. The conventionally, so-called 'educated' laity are now well infected with this scientistic sophistry. As a result, dogmas and priesthoods excluded, there seems to be no source to which we may turn for any really reliable and authoritative knowledge of how, wisely, to live our lives. As more and more individuals come into the world, they are left more and more to their own devices to think and behave as they choose, in compliance or otherwise with the rules of established society.

Faced, then, on all hands with so much conflict and confusion, it is scarcely surprising that so many people nowadays abandon rationality altogether and take refuge in extreme forms of religion and/or substance-induced hallucination - or else, of course, sheer apathy. However, there is always, in such circumstances, one authority to which any intelligent individual may turn when he becomes sceptical of the knowledge and wisdom of his society. This ultimate authority lies in his own logicality. We may recall that it was in this same sort of scepticism that natural science and philosophy began, in the conflicts between thinking individuals and the Authorities of their day. We have, inalienably, our own impressions of things and the native logical ability to sort them out. True, the impressions confronting the modern newcomer on the scene are vastly different from those of his forebears. Nevertheless, the principles of ordinary commonsense logic remain the same as ever, being as codified by Aristotle. With these logical tools and the new observational materials, Normal Realism aims to restore some strength and integrity to our, at present, rapidly failing understanding. This means, dedicatedly and without vested interest - that is, in the classically philosophical manner - seeking out and resolving the logical weaknesses, contradictions and paradoxes that now abound in the current body of knowledge. In this way, says Pope, Normal Realism seeks to maintain the advance towards that true understanding without which a mere greed for purely practical, philosophically uncoordinated knowledge must surely end in total disintegration.