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How far can the concept of realism be extended?

“Metaphysically, realism is committed to the mind-independent existence of the world investigated by the sciences” A more compact definition would be to say that “the real world exists independent of our consciousness”

We then note that the - constantly evolving - theories about the world are disqualified as reality by their dependence of our consciousness.

We may accept that a theory or a description of the world would be independent of or consciousness if it was absolutely correct, such as we might imagine a theory from a thousand - or a million - years into the future to be resented, perhaps with a proof that the theory could not be improved in any way. Our definition might perhaps not exclude such an accompanying theory.

Today however we see that philosophical realists go far beyond the definition above, and indeed not only include the study of theories but also seem to include this practice in the concept reality.

I believe that the first, true-to-the-letter interpretation can be valuable in its own right. The example I want to give, at the expense of some text volume, is the following:

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In the field of nuclear activities, in particular nuclear high level waste disposal (my area or work) the polarization implies that people call for not only correct answers but often absolute correctness, the experts don’t have that, and most often do not understand the theory around the matter.

In 1995 the US National Academy of Science, NAS, issued a report called “Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standard”, in which the answered several question from Congress (with a history we must leave out). One was related to calculation of probability of (distant) future inadvertent human intrusion into a closed repository. It was a leading question and NAS held, as expected, that it was not possible. This led to a full stop in a series of international studies because of the weight of the US in this area. (It was a bit like saying to the military: since you cannot predict scientifically the probability of an attack, we must stop all funding for defense contracts.)

The US Congress understood that a (human-) disturbed nuclear repository defies calculation, and Congress then assumed the opposite was the case for an undisturbed (by intrusion) repository, i.e. its future performance could be calculated which resulted in the tern “The repository’s probable behavior”. It was assessed in a process called the “Total System Performance Assessment” TSPA. This was in itself assessed by a panel led by Chris Whipple, former head of an internal group in NAS studying waste management. I quote from the panel’s report

“With the benefit of hindsight, the Panel finds that, at the present time, an assessment of the future probable behavior of the proposed repository may be beyond the analytical capabilities of any scientific and engineering team. This is due to the complexity of the system and the nature of the data that now exist or that could be obtained within a reasonable time and cost.”

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I cite this example to show that (at least in extreme cases) reality cannot be described using theories and models, and I claim that this result is independent of theories and models used by others in the example. I present it as a result of the value of the use of the narrow definition of scientific realism.

According to Wikipedia Entity realism is “(also selective realism), sometimes equated with referential realism, is a philosophical position within the debate about scientific realism”.
My question here is do you agree that most philosophers such as Cartwright and her critics and many others include more than realism in the concept while the discussion is still said to be about scientific realism?

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  • "mind-independence" of the world is realism, not "mind-independence" of the theories about the world. Nov 6, 2023 at 15:42
  • "people call for not only correct answers but often absolute correctness"... but science cannot attain "absolute"... precision, certainty, correctness, etc. So, there is no conflict between a mature understanding of science (that relies on the existence of external reality and facts that we can objectively inquiry and understand) and the limits of human knowledge (in particular regarding future events) Nov 6, 2023 at 15:46
  • Whether reality can be described by our theories and models is beside the point of the philosophical realism thesis. It is just that it is there, mind-independently. As for theories, they are "disqualified as reality" regardless of their dependence on our consciousness and even if "absolutely correct", reality is not a theory of itself. What we are going for are representations of reality, and the ambition of capturing it all with absolute precision is unfeasible regardless of one's take on realism. But philosophical discussions surely must go beyond what our theories might capture.
    – Conifold
    Nov 7, 2023 at 1:31
  • @Conifold Perhaps they must, but even if they didn't, they would still be overstepping my boundary. They would be engaged in an activity in my verbiage called "studies of theories and models with scientific realism as a point of departure. I take it that both you and Allegranza - in addition to most others - accept the extended nomenclature of realism. Nov 7, 2023 at 14:23
  • Why would philosophical discussions of realism necessarily take it as a point of departure even when they go beyond current theories? There are plenty of anti-realists who believe that theories are merely convenient shells for organizing empirical data and making predictions. I also do not follow how this extends the concept of realism itself, as opposed to what is discussed in connection with it. The concept that reality is there, mind-independently, is already broader than any theories, current or future. What is prudent in policy discussions is a different matter.
    – Conifold
    Nov 7, 2023 at 21:00

3 Answers 3

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My philosophy of what exists in reality has the acronyms MAD AIR. MAD refers to Mystery; Awareness; Distinctions. AIR refers to Awareness of Items of Recognition.

The stream of experience has in it many items of recognition associated with the words "reality" and "mind". When items of recognition arise in the stream of experience there is no trace of their coming and when they pass away there is no trace of their going.

Realism is a belief that persists in the mind which holds that models of reality arising in the mind are attributes of reality independent of the mind. This extends only to concepts in the mind of what exists in reality and no further.

I do not deny that we recognize persistent objects in the stream of experience and that we map those items of recognition to attributes of reality that seem to exist independent of the mind. But if the field of awareness becomes empty there are no attributes of reality or mind.

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Suppose reality is independent of mind, then any theory which explains the reality must be able to explain not just consciousness but also feelings , physical forms , perceptions and choices. How can any theory explain choices ? I can make choices unpredictability, that is , no known probability value can be ascribed to my choices. For example - if I am given a choice between tea and coffee then I can choose tea because I have seen square tyres. Or I can choose coffee because coffee has two f’s. There are infinite number of reasons for me to choose tea and coffee. In this causal infinite space , we can choose tea or coffee based upon infinite number of reasons including both random and causal.

We see that reality can not always be mind independent. Although sometimes reality is mind independent. For example - if we hit a ball, then it is bound to fly away.

Therefore sometimes reality is mind independent and sometimes mind dependent. There are few facts about existence which are absolute if you are knowledge driven. For example - all conditioned and unconditioned phenomena are not self. You have the choice to ignore the above truth and say that this was my question or this is my house, or the house belongs to me. But a knowledgeable person knows that this is not true.

Reality is dependent on mind to such an extent that sometimes reality is fueled by lies. Lies which originate in mind.

Realism says that reality exists independent of mind but as we have seen that is not always true.

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  • It is kind of like the saying, "Talk is cheap, until you talk to a Lawyer." Reality is mind- (your choice here) until you talk to a Philosopher.
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 31, 2023 at 13:03
  • The idea that we can think is a model, and the thought that certain actions constitute a choice is a submodel in this, non of which constitute reality which harbors no models. Causality is in our models and theories, not part of reality. Jan 1 at 10:12
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I think that the concept of realism has to change in the context of panpsychism. If the fundamental stuff of the universe is matter-consciousness, then reality is by definition dependent on consciousness. Realism continues in the sense that there is a reality independent of particular minds or thoughts. Also, if matter-consciousness is fundamental, then metaphysics is redundant. Nothing stands behind matter-consciousness. Panpsychist philosophy spans the ages from Thales to Goff.

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    My main question is simply related to the definition of realism. I now see (from David B. Resnik, Hacking's Experimental Realism) that “…. ‘realism’ is one of the more abused words in the philosophical lexicon,”. I fully agree. Dec 2, 2023 at 9:48

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