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Hilary Putnam (1926 – ) is an American philosopher at Harvard, of analytic philosophy, mind, language, mathematics, and science. The ‘real world’ depends upon our values (and, again, vice versa).
Hilary Putnam, American philosopher
Quotations from Hilary Putnam
Science is wonderful at destroying metaphysical answers, but incapable of providing substitute ones. Science takes away foundations without providing a replacement. Whether we want to be there or not, science has put us in the position of having to live without foundations. It was shocking when Nietzsche said this, but today it is commonplace; our historical position—and no end to it is in sight—is that of having to philosophise without ‘foundations’.
It was Rudolf Carnap’s dream for the last three decades of his life to show that science proceeds by a formal syntactic method; today no one to my knowledge holds out any hope for that project.
The physicist who states a law of nature with the aid of a mathematical formula is abstracting a real feature of a real material world, even if he has to speak of numbers, vectors, tensors, state-functions, or whatever to make the abstraction.
When I claim that the murder and suffering of innocent people is wrong, I do not, I think, really care about the question whether this judgment would be valid for a being of a totally alien constitution and psychology. If there are beings on, say, Alpha Centauri, who cannot feel pain and who do not mind individual death, then very likely our fuss about ‘murder and suffering’ will seem to them to be much ado about nothing. But the very alienness of such a life form means that they cannot understand the moral issues involved. If our ‘objectivity’ is objectivity humanly speaking, it is still objectivity enough.
Talk of moral ‘perception’, like talk of mathematical intuition, or of reference and understanding, is not reducible to the language or the world-picture of physics. That does not mean physics is ‘incomplete’. Physics can be ‘complete’–that is, complete for physical purposes. The completeness physics lacks is a completeness all particular theories, pictures, and discourses lack. For no theory or picture is complete for all purposes. If the irreducibility of ethics to physics shows that values are projections, then colors are also projections. So are the natural numbers. So, for that matter, is ‘the physical world’. But being a projection in this sense is not the same thing as being subjective.
Of course, if metaphysical realism were right, and one could view the aim of science simply as trying to get our notional world to ‘match’ the world in itself, then one could contend that we are interested in coherence, comprehensiveness, functional simplicity, and instrumental efficacy only because they are instruments to the end of bringing about this ‘match’. But the notion of a transcendental match between our representation and the world in itself is nonsense. To deny that we want this kind of metaphysical match with a noumenal world is not to deny that we want the usual sort of empirical fit (as judged by our criteria of rational acceptability) with an empirical world. But the empirical world, as opposed to the noumenal world, depends upon our criteria of rational acceptability (and, of course, vice versa). We use our criteria of rational acceptability to build up a theoretical picture of the ’empirical world’ and then as that picture develops we revise our very criteria of rational acceptability in the light of that picture and so on and so on forever. The dependence of our methods on our picture of the world is something I have stressed in my other books; what I wish to stress here is the other side of the dependence, the dependence of the empirical world on our criteria of rational acceptability. What I am saying is that we must have criteria of rational acceptability to even have an empirical world, that these reveal part of our notion of an optimal speculative intelligence. In short, I am saying that the ‘real world’ depends upon our values (and, again, vice versa).
No sane person should believe that something is subjective merely because it cannot be settled beyond controversy.
Why should we expend our mental energy in convincing ourselves that we aren’t thinkers, that our thoughts aren’t really about anything, noumenal or phenomenal, that there is no sense in which any thought is right or wrong (including the thought that no thought is right or wrong) beyond being the verdict of the moment, and so on? This is a self-refuting enterprise if there ever was one! Let us recognize that one of our fundamental self-conceptualizations … is that we are thinkers, and that as thinkers we are committed to there being some kind of truth, some kind of correctness which is substantial…. That means that there is no eliminating the normative.
COMMENTS on Hilary Putnam
We must have criteria of rational acceptability to even have an empirical world, that these reveal part of our notion of an optimal speculative intelligence. In short, I am saying that the ‘real world’ depends upon our values (and, again, vice versa). Everything is mixed with everything else, and to fully understand anything you must understand everything, but as that is impossible it is necessary to observe what we can and choose what we think is most relevant, apply our thoughts to our actions and observe what works.
Let us recognize that one of our fundamental self-conceptualizations … is that we are thinkers, and that as thinkers we are committed to there being some kind of truth, some kind of correctness which is substantial…. That means that there is no eliminating the normative. We are forced by our relationship with our world to act, and to do so requires of us that we think, and that we must operate on the assumption that we are correct in our thoughts and actions. Subsequently we repeat the procedure and make adjustments with our new understanding of what is a considered to be a valid reality. At every moment we are embroiled in a multidimensional reality from which we choose with a multidimensional brain what seems right for the moment.