Sunday, July 27, 2014

Wittgenstein and Scientific Realism (and the Atom Bomb)
In 2012 I gave a seminar on Wittgenstein’s later philosophy at Tel Aviv University. The following is the text of the second of two powerpoints I used as the basis for lectures in that seminar. For the other powerpoint, see the previous post. Each of these powerpoints covers material I dealt with in a number of meetings.

Scientific Realism: “Terms in a mature science typically refer and theories accepted in a mature science are typically approximately true” [I attribute this to Richard Boyd in my Meaning and the Moral Sciences (1978), 20ff]

Moreover, “ realism is the only philosophy  that doesn’t make the success of science a miracle.” [me, in Meaning and the Moral Sciences and more recently “On Not Writing Off Scientific Realism”; all references to my papers in the following are to articles now collected in Philosophy in an Age of Science]

I maintained [and still maintain in 2014!] an allegiance to scientific realism even during my internal realist period [See “From Quantum Mechanics to Ethics and Back Again”]

In chapter 4 of Reason, Truth and History, I even tried to reconcile a physicalist account of qualia like Ned Block’s with “internal realism” and with Wittgenstein by downgrading it to just one more language game.

In my Royce Lectures (Part II of The Threefold Cord: Mind, Body and World), I had given up “internal realism”, but I also gave up the idea of finding correlations between brainstates and qualia, claiming that there is no well-defined relation of identity between qualia (and hence talk of qualia is a confusion—a “Wittgensteinian” moment in my thinking. This is the publication in which the expression “not fully intelligible” made frequent occurrences. I now think both these developments were misguided - as explained in my “Wittgenstein: A Reappraisal” and “Naïve Realism and Qualia” (the latter is forthcoming in a Festschrift for Ned Block).

Where does this put me in relation to Wittgenstein?

Well, Wittgenstein’s views on the relation of science and philosophy are, to put it mildly, a mess. On the one hand, speaking as a thinker but not in his professional philosopher capacity, he had some very negative-sounding things to say about science. Here is an example:
“The truly apocalyptic view of the world is that things do not repeat themselves. It isn’t absurd, e.g., to believe that the age of science and technology is the beginning of the end for humanity; that the idea of great progress is delusion, along with the idea that the truth will ultimately be known; that there is nothing good or desirable about scientific knowledge and that mankind, in seeking it, is falling into a trap. It is by no means obvious that this is not how things are.” [emphasis added-HP]
And again:
“The hysterical fear over the atom bomb now being experienced, or at any rate expressed, by the public almost suggests that at last something really salutary has been invented. The fright at least gives the impression of a really effective bitter medicine. I can’t help thinking: if this didn’t have something good about it the philistines wouldn’t be making an outcry. But perhaps this too is a childish idea. Because really all I can mean is that the bomb offers a prospect of the end, the destruction, of an evil, our disgusting soapy water science.”

On the other hand, in the Tractatus period, he said both that “what can be said” (i.e. all that is cognitively meaningful) is “propositions of natural science”—what has “nothing to do with philosophy”­—and “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.” (Tractatus 6.52) Of course, even this limited privileging of science (even if it doesn’t “touch the problems of life”) disappears in the later philosophy,
In any case, I believe that we can be sure of two things:
First, that the idea that science can resolve or help to resolve any philosophical problem was anathema to Wittgenstein his whole life long.  Recall, for example, PI 109:
It was true to say that our considerations could not be scientific ones. It was not of any possible interest to us to find out empirically that, contrary to our preconceived ideas, it is possible to think such-and-such -- whatever that may mean. (The conception of thought as a gaseous medium.) And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems, they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.
Second, Wittgenstein would have detested the idea (which I defended at our last meeting) that psychology cum neuroscience can show that talk of qualia does make sense. I believe that the “manometer” passage has that idea as its target.
Here is the passage:
Let us now imagine a use for the entry of the sign "S" in my diary. I discover that whenever I have a particular sensation a manometer shows that my blood -- pressure rises. So I shall be able to say that my blood -- pressure is rising without using any apparatus. This is a useful result. And now it seems quite indifferent whether I have recognized the sensation right or not. Let us suppose I regularly identify it wrong, it does not matter in the least. And that alone shows he turned a knob which looked as if it could be used to turn on some part of the machine; but it was a mere ornament, not connected with the mechanism at all.)
And what is our reason for calling "S" the name of a sensation here? Perhaps the kind of way this sign is employed in this language-game. -- And why a "particular sensation," that is, the same one every time? Well, aren't we supposing that we write "S" every time?
I believe that what Wittgenstein would say about the suggestion that discovering the sort of brain processes (in the “work space”, etc., of the brain), and discovering whatever connections you please between those processes and our behavior, reports, etc., would show nothing about Block’s so-called “qualia”. [I assigned Ned Block, “Consciousness, Accessibility, and the Mesh Between Psychology and Neuroscience,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, (2007), pp. 481-548 in the seminar.]

He would say that the subject  may decide to say that she is having “the same sensation” (in the “qualia sense”) whenever the neuroscientists tell her that a certain process is taking place in her brain, but this is like Wittgenstein’s privateer saying she is have the same sensation whenever the manometer rises. This is just a new (and philosophically irrelevant) language game. And the idea that brain processes may be constitutive of qualia, whereas we know that increases in blood pressure are not, would be dismissed by W. as “language on holiday”.  Of course Block and I don’t think language is on holiday here at all.
Sadly, I am led to conclude that one cannot buy into Wittgenstein’s picture of how philosophy should be done and into scientific realism at the same time. And  I find scientific realism much more persuasive, myself.


  1. Dear Professor Putnam,

    Since you declare your allegiance to scientific realism in this post and you base it on what has come to be known as the No-Miracles Argument (NMA), I would like to take this opportunity to ask you about the NMA. Some have argued that the NMA is a bad Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE), since the explanans (i.e., scientific realism) has none of the theoretical desiderata that make an explanation the best among competing explanations.

    For example, Frost-Arnold ( argues that scientific realism doesn’t make novel predictions and has no unification power. And I argue that scientific realism doesn’t make independently testable predictions that alternative explanations for the success of science do not make (

    I would love to read your thoughts on these objections and on the best way to understand the NMA (if not as an IBE).

    Thank you.

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    helps me to improve the idea that science can resolve or help to resolve any philosophical problem.