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Published by: J_Steinberg on Mar 31, 2011
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Science, Worlds, and Reality21

It seems that we humans, specifically scientists and philosophers,
are very concerned that science is conducted by us humans. In science,
we look to something outside ourselves, some higher authority to tell us
what our world is. We want to avoid being the subject of Alison Wylie’s
accusation that "Only the most powerful, the most successful in
achieving control over their world, could imagine that the world can be
constructed as they choose." While this rings of the terrifying
constructivism of Orwell’s 1984, I think we need not worry. We will
never get beyond the fact that there is something out there, and no
science, political regime or raving postmodernist will disprove that.
Nonetheless, we cannot appeal to it. To make sense of this apparent
contradiction, we must turn to thinkers like Elgin and Goodman. If we
do, I think we can make the further step of why we can and should still
appeal to science despite our, and consequently its, inability to appeal to
the indestructible, irrefutable je ne sais qua.
We need not worry about Wylie’s accusation because we simply
cannot construct the world as we choose. But, we can view it as we
choose and in that we can construct it as we choose. However circular
this reformulation sounds, it introduces the important limiting term of
viewing the world. There is something we are all privy to, it exists, and
that is the most we can say about it factually. The only way of being
privy to it is to have a perspective on it, and thus to construct it. We, to
use Elgin’s words, make it into our reality. Elgin makes an important
distinction between making up and making into, that being that the
former is an ex nihilo process while the latter is a constructive one. To
construct something one must have materials, and in this case those
materials are the je ne sais qua.
The depths to which this construction extends is profound, indeed
it is total. It takes place not just with social labels and theoretical
concepts, but with natural kinds and even color. If fact, under this
conception, natural kinds are just more sophisticated colors. Color

21 Written for Philosophy of Science S3551

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designation occurs unconsciously, thus seeming in some way “real.”
Thinking, let us say seeing someone as a politician, a scoundrel, or a
friend is very much more a conscious decision, thus seeming less “real.”
So-called natural kinds straddle the boundaries of consciousness and in
some ways seem real and, in others, seem false. My question is, what
does consciousness matter or impart on the constructive process? It is all
brain constructing that reality. It is all really happening in one’s head.
How then is my designation of someone as a friend fundamentally
different from my designation of him as a human being different from
my designation of his eyes as brown? It is only a matter of degree, of
susceptibility to change. The circuitry of color designation is fairly
hardwired, but could be bungled, as many neurologically damaged
patients can attest. The circuitry of friend designation is much more
malleable, but theoretically no different. From common senses to horses
and dogs to theoretical entities and social categories, our whole world,
our reality is all a construction of one’s brain.
Despite his incoherence, and his failure to actually make the case,
Goodman advances the above with his pluralistic world-making notion
of reality. He articulates, however poorly, the consequences and the
nature of such world making. However, Goodman’s world making is
often subject to the realist objection to nominalism surrounding the
existence of dinosaurs without humans. Elgin formulates a good
rebuttal, showing the critique misconceived. She says, “constructive
nominalism is committed to the counterfactual claim that if there were
no concept of a dinosaur, there would be no dinosaurs. It is not
committed to the historical claim that when there was no concept of a
dinosaur, there were no dinosaurs. For once it is introduced, the concept
of a dinosaur applies to all things, be they past, present, or future, that
satisfy the criteria” (168-69). She makes clear the nominalist claim is that
dinosaurs aren’t just creatures, just things that were “out there,” but that
“dinosaurs” is a category – a natural kind – that necessarily comes with a
definite perspective and much conceptual baggage. Thus, “dinosaurs”
wouldn’t exist without the concept because it is exactly that, a concept.
The referents of this term certainly existed, but it would be impossible to
say what those were without the concept, for how can one say, let alone
conceive of something one has no concept of. This is a specific
instantiation of the more profound fact that linguistically, conceptually,

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fundamentally we cannot consider, conceive, approach that which is not
us, the je ne sais qua.

If this is to be accepted, one might ask, why then should we appeal
to science? While not a stupid or unreasonable question, it is
nonetheless wrong almost in the exact way the realist objection about
dinosaurs is. While science, like anyone or thing, cannot describe reality
without constructing, it still can construct a world more useful than any
individual or other practice can. Science is an attempt and does create
an agreed upon human perspective free of bias (at least, in theory). Bias
arises out of the differences in perspectives, and thus differences
between people. By trying to create some lowest common denominator
of human worlds, science is an attempt to make a world that we can all
agree upon and use, a universal language if you will. Importantly,
science need not be coherent or stable because it is not relative to some
“Truth.” It cannot, as mechanical realism proved, remove the
perspective from the “scientific perspective.” It is, after all, only a
perspective, which themselves have no requirements of coherence,
immutability, durability or homogeneity. We can still appeal to science
because it is an appeal to ourselves and that which we share. Doing
otherwise leads to talking past one another, to existing in separate
worlds. Reality may be mutable, varied and different from one to the
next, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot align ours and thus share

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