The Realistic View of Knowledge

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Introduction

Every philosophy presupposes a certain theory of knowledge.
Such a theory asks, and tries to answer the following questions :
  1. Whether there is something like REALITY, independent of, and outside the knowing subject.
  2. When it says there is, then it is asked whether this reality is in principle accessible for a knowing subject.
  3. Whether there are fundamental preconditions for the possibility of knowledge, and when it says yes, what these preconditions are.
  4. What is the the status and validity of knowledge about this Reality? I.e. is it objective or subjective? Or is it relative to (i.e. dependent on) prevailing cultural and historical conditions?
  5. If we can indeed objectively know things, and if the nature of this knowledge is absolute (i.e. not dependent on culture or historical situation), WHAT in things causes them to be knowable? Is this something concrete or abstract? What exactly is " abstract"? Is being abstract equivalent to being immaterial?
  6. Does knowledge come entirely from sense-observation, or does the intellect play the major or exclusive role in gaining knowledge? Does the intellect necessarily impose something onto reality-as-known? Does the intellect create reality?
  7. What, if any, is the difference between scientific and metaphysical knowledge? And what is the difference between them and mathematical and/or logical knowledge?
  8. What is the ontological status (= status concerning the beingness of things) of mathematical structures, and in what way are they known? And what about other abstract features?
  9. What is the exact difference between subject and object? Does an experimental set-up, in order to observe things and states of affairs, belong to the domain of the (knowing) subject?
  10. What about the knowing of mental representations, beings of reason? Are they object or subject?
From all this it is clear that a theory of knowledge concerns about everything and could easily be the subject of a complete book or website.
It is also clear that a theory of knowledge (an epistemology) must be based on some ontological presuppositions, and in some way also the other way around.

It is not the intention of this website to fully elaborate and defend a Theory of Knowledge. I just explain what I think is the most plausible theory.
We still do not know enough about our own minds and our perceptual apparatus to settle the matter completely. Moreover there are weird and intricate problems about the role of the observer in quantum mechanical experiments.
Whatever the exact nature of our knowledge, when it is to be published, I demand that it be communicable, otherwise it would not make sense to even offer this website.
The most plausible view of knowledge, for the time being, is the REALISTIC VIEW, which means that it is presupposed that there is a reality, that is independent of a knowing subject and independent of being known. Of course our knowledge will be colored by our way of knowing, but this can in principle be accounted for. Accordingly we can in principle know this reality (and the things belonging to it) how it is in itself. The question whether we can know this Reality completely is irrelevant in the present context. The vastness of reality could of course be such that a complete knowledge is beyond our capacity (the capacity of our brains).
In the following we shall describe this realistic view of (human) knowledge.



The Realistic View of Knowledge

The Substance-Accident Metaphysics is an ontological theory, and as such it is only feasible in the context of a realistic view of human knowledge.
In accepting this view we must keep on distinguishing between those items to which our knowledge is directed, and those items belonging exclusively to our way of knowing. Therefore it is important to be conscious of those items which only enter our knowledge from our condition as human knower, in order to avoid ascribing something to things that did not come from them. So we must distinguish between ' first intentions ' and ' second intentions'.

FIRST INTENTIONS are meanings or concepts derived from, or at least verifiable in, extramental, i.e. real, things, for example the meaning we derive from those things which are human beings, and which (meaning) we denote with the word HUMAN BEING, namely the meaning RATIONAL ANIMAL. The concept HUMAN BEING is an intentional natural sign (denoted with the conventional sign HUMAN BEING -- i.e. with the word HUMAN BEING) of which the content is directly situated in the things themselves (things, existing outside the thinking subject as thinking subject) according to the Realistic View of Knowledge. This extramental content accordingly is what the concept means, and this we denote by RATIONAL ANIMAL. The concepts HUMAN BEING and RATIONAL ANIMAL have the same content, but the latter is the former in an analysed fashion, it is an explanation of the former.
First intentions intend one or another abstract feature in the extramental reality, on the basis of a sensory perception, and this perception is a perception OF (i.e. concerning) extramental reality [and not the ' reality ' of, say, mathematical patterns, because in this case an abstraction process is not needed (See NOTE 1 )].
By the ability to directly intend features of the extramental reality we can in principle going to know things as they are in themselves.
First intentions also can intend individuals existing in this extramental reality. In this case we do not have to do with conceps, but names, like SOCRATES.

SECOND INTENTIONS are meanings, derived from, or verified in, first intentions (or second intentions).
Thus the first intention ANIMAL is a part of the first intention HUMAN BEING (because RATIONAL ANIMAL = HUMAN BEING), and likewise is this first intention ANIMAL also a part of the first intention DOG (because a dog is, just like a human being, also an ANIMAL, although not a rational animal). This relation, found by the intellect, between (first) intentions (in this case the finding that ANIMAL is common in HUMAN BEING and DOG) can be expressed by stating that ANIMAL is a genus of HUMAN BEING and DOG.
GENUS (in the sense of something being a genus, i.e. a genus AS genus) thus is a second intention. So those intentions concerning other intentions (first or second intentions) are second intentions. And these are the logical intentions. Logical intentions are relations the intellect can detect among the many different ways the intellect apprehends extramental things. With the notion of EXTRAMENTAL THINGS I mean things-as-things, in opposition to things-as-known. And the mind can sometimes handle mental things AS IF they are extramental things. In that case the intention of such a mental thing (which is now not an intention itself, but an object) is a first intention.
Second intentions, i.e. logical intentions, only exist in the mind (the intellect). They are characterizations which belong to things-as-known, not to things-as-things.

This cognition-theoretic ' realistic ' view presupposes the presence of abstract features (within things -- of course as such they are not yet abstract[ed]) which can be intended in a direct fashion by first intentions, and because of this direct ' contact ' of the knower (in the sense of the knowing intellect) genuine knowledge is in principle possible.
By pondering about all possible first intentions (the assessment of types of first intentions) like ANIMAL, HUMAN BEING, RATIONAL, their functioning and mutual relations, we will gain insight in the process of knowledge itself, and those findings, we record, as has been said, in second intentions.



The Nominalistic View of Knowledge

A totally different view about knowledge is found in Nominalism.
Because Nominalism does NOT accept the existence of abstract[able] (general) features in the extramental reality, but only individuals -- meaning that all features are individual, and that besides these there is nothing in the extramental world -- knowledge and Science cannot, just like that, be about extramental things, because Science is only working with generalities, and these are -- according to that view -- not present in the extramental world. Thus Science is just about propositions and their terms, and these propositions and terms are just signs, referring to extramental individuals. And these latter are observed (by the senses). The assignation is done at the occasion of such observations. These propositions and their terms are -- within Nominalism -- no intentional signs, their content cannot directly and exclusively exist in the extramental world, because propositions and terms (as used in Science) are of a general nature, while the extramental world is not of a general nature (i.e. it does not consist of generalities), it is just a collection of actually existing individuals. With this also vanishes a fundamental difference between Logic and Science : Because both concern propositions and terms, with the only difference that in Science these propositions and terms are about (i.e. signify) extramental things, while in Logic they signify (other) propositions and terms. This corresponds with the modern ideal of Science : The setting up of an abstract formal (often written in mathematical language) system that is a model for a piece of reality (the model imitates a piece of reality).
With the aid of such an abstract (but now interpreted, i.e. supplied with some meaning) system one can make predictions, which can be verified or falsified by observations or experiments.

This nominalistic view about the nature of knowledge, a view that continues to be held even in our days, contains, according to me, a number of weak points :

  1. Mathematical patterns must, according to me, enjoy some sort of ' objective ' existence. Nowadays one indeed investigates many mathematical structures in an ' empirical ' manner with the aid of a computer. One then finds details which were not predictable from the underlying algorithm (= a set of rules to compute something). One has to await the unfolding calculations and see what happens [ The workings of such mathematical algorithms rests on the nature of numbers, and this in turn rests on counting, and this latter is not an artificial mental construction ]. Mathematical patterns thus seem to be independent of our thinking, i.e. their content and quality is independent of the content and quality of our thinking, and in this sense they are extramental, but they are NOT individual : We cannot for instance distinguish between several individual Mandelbrot sets (corresponding to the same formula) [ The Mandelbrot set is a specific complicated set of points generated by a (simple) mathematical formula ]. Thus there are indeed non-individual and consequently abstract patterns (features) which exist outside the mind. Cognitive contact with such structures is accomplished by mentally (re)constructing those structures.
  2. Nominalism holds that Science is about propositions and terms, i.e. that propositions and terms are the ' things ' known. Science then is about extramental things only in the sense insofar as these propositions and terms stand for extramental things. In what way this ' standing for ' is accomplished remains a mystery (for Nominalism) [See NOTE 2 ]. What is certain is that with this view objective knowledge of extramental things is NOT in any way founded. Knowledge -- in this view -- must focus itself on its (logical) instruments -- the (mental equivalents of) propositions and terms -- and this is supposed to be the (type of) knowledge that Science produces. But how do we proceed from the knowledge of the instruments (of knowledge) to knowledge of things? To say that the former stand for the latter is far from a satisfying answer.
    Nominalism shifts that what is known, FROM the extramental things, where it should belong, TO the mental (logical) instruments of knowledge, and this leads inevitably to either an idealistic view of knowledge (like we see well-elaborated in the works of KANT), or a positivistic view of knowledge (in this latter view it is held that Science consists solely of a set of empirically verifiable propositions, without thereby imposing (as done by KANT) a priori structures onto Reality. Within Positivism we accordingly see much emphasis on logical analysis).
But IF we can legitimately assume the PRESENCE of mathematical structures -- which we can interpret as extramentally existing -- as well as (the presence of) possible other abstract features, IN the extramental world, as such residing in concrete things, THEN Science is able, with the aid of its general conceps (now in the form and function of first intentions), to directly ' reach ' (intend) the extramental world, and consequently know.

That the assumption of the presence, in the extramental material world, BOTH of potentially abstract, i.e. general, features (which consequently can be abstracted from a multitude of individual things), AND (the presence of) concrete things in that same world, is a legitimate assumption, can be illustrated by a consideration of the interdependence of MOTIF and BACKGROUND in whatever world. Let me expound this in NOTE 3 .

So the motif "presence of abstract(able) entities" demands its background "the presence of concrete entities".
And because of this, direct cognitive contact (by means of concepts) with the things to be known is possible.
But one could, while admitting the presence of both mentioned types of entities, assert or assume, that each type resides in a separate domain. Our cognitive mental instruments, the manipulation of concepts and propositions, and the results of these manipulations knowledge could then exclusively reside in one domain, while the things to be known reside in the other domain.
Seen in this way, we arrive at a nominalistic view of knowledge, despite the application of the Principle of the Coexistence of Motif and Background.
This, however, is only seemingly so. If we apply the just mentioned Principle, then we must admit that we are talking about one and the same world after all, because "presence of both Motif and Background" implies one world in which they are present. This means that the "extramental world" is not ontologically different from the "mental world". We only distinguish between the two when knowledge is involved, in the sense that (we can say that) "we have knowledge of things other than ourselves".



Analysis of the Realistic View of Knowledge

A Realistic View of Knowledge can be summarized in two statements :
  1. Extramental things do indeed happen to EXIST. They exist independently with respect of being thought about, and independently of being known.
    This we can conclude from the way we experience (things) : We experience effects, coming in from outside, effects on our senses. These actions-from-outside DO something with our senses, they AFFECT our sensory organs. These actions can even be such that they are threatening our individual existence. Direct sunlight, for example, will destroy our eyes. Because of these phenomena we are convinced of the existence of an objective outside world independent of us.
  2. In principle we are able to KNOW these objective things AS THEY ARE IN THEMSELVES, be it difficult sometimes, and accompanied with errors. But the very possibility of making errors and the ability to restore them, is a strong indication of the existence of things independent of our thinking (See 1.) and our ability to know these things objectively.
Let us analyse these two statements together.
Things, --- considered as beings (Totalities or Aggregates) which are directly GIVEN to us (for example in observations) or becoming to be given (derived) from those things which are themselves directly given (a derivation done with the aid of theories, provided these theories are correct), for example (such abstract things as) quantum fields, --- exist independently of us (the observer or investigator), and are as they are, independent of our observing and investigating them.
There are, it is true, ' things ' (or state of affairs) -- like electrons and other subatomic entities -- which cannot objectively be observed. In such cases the experimental set-up must be included in the observational results. So these results are partially dependent on the (chosen) instruments of observation, and this dependence cannot, according to Quantum Mechanics, precisely be accounted for (i.e. one cannot ' subtract ' this dependence, in the sense of making full corrections for it). But this impossibility of objective observation should not be interpreted as a subjective existence of the things or features concerned, because that would imply the smuggling-in of a non-proven philosophical assertion which reads :

" That which is not objectively observable does not (objectively) exist, and consequently only exists in dependence on the observer, i.e. only exists subjectively. "

[ Something that is not (objectively) observable could nevertheless exist, because the existence of whatever thing (or state of affairs) does NOT necessarily imply its observability [See NOTE 4 ]. But if something is observable then it must exist. So observability and existence are not equivalent.]

The philosophical assertion, given above, expresses a tendency to involve the observer in the EXISTENCE of things or states of affairs (for example the existence of a certain velocity -- belonging to a certain electron), or a tendency to make the existence of some things, which really are outside the observer, nevertheless dependent on the observer. Of course such a non-(direct or indirect)-observable entity or feature does not as such enjoy existence (and also does not enjoy meaning) WITHIN (the practice of) NATURAL SCIENCE -- so for example the exact position of a subatomic particle within one or another experimental set-up -- because verification of theories of Natural Science must always proceed according to a direct or indirect sensory observation (which often means doing an experiment) [ NOTE 5 ].
But within METAPHYSICS, which is a contemplation in an absolute context, the existence of such a non-(direct ot indirect)-observable thing cannot be denied just on the basis of the fact that it is non-(direct or indirect)-observable (i.e. not objectively observable), because this is an epistemological argument (thus based on observability and knowability), and such an argument cannot, just like that, be valid within Metaphysics, because Metaphysics is an ontological consideration of things (i.e. a consideration within a theory of Being). Arguments within Metaphysics must be of an ontological nature.

Let us summarize all this :
This discussion does not concern the question whether electrons are particles or waves (or a complementary ' marriage ' of these aspects). It concerns the fact that they, whatever else they may be, exist independently of us (independently of our thinking and observing). The subjective aspect, supposed by Quantum Mechanics (better : the interpretation of its experimental results) is an effect of the inadequacy of the models used, models for a more or less complete description of these (submicroscopical) entities [NOTE 6].
The argument -- expressed on the basis of the supposed necessary connection with the observing subject -- that objective knowledge would be impossible, is, when it is based on the quantum mechanical experiment, in any case invalid because of the following reason :
The disturbance, which is, it is true, not completely restorable, and which always pops up in such experiments, or, said differently, the disturbance, produced by that very observation, is NOT a disturbance of the nature of the relevant material entities and does not mean any change of the prevailing lawfulness. These remain as they were, whether they are (by means of an experiment) observed or not. The disturbance only relates to the state in which the (quantum)system happened to be in. Quantum Mechanics teaches us about the general properties, for example those that are present in every Hydrogen atom, it thereby teaches us about the different characteristic energy states of the Hydrogen atom, characteristic for the nature of Hydrogen (i.e. for the nature of every Hydrogen atom). The possibility of knowing this objectively is not denied by Quantum Mechanics. But what Quantum Mechanics also teaches us is that as soon as we try to know something about a certain (determined) state of this or that individual Hydrogen atom, this state (for example its position + momentum) will be changed by the fact of the experiment (the activity of measurement).

REMARK :That a measurement of a state of a quantum particle (like an electron) disturbs that state (for example the position-momentum state), and results in a fundamental uncertainty, is an interpretation of the quantum measurement experiment. Another interpretation (the Copenhagen interpretation) holds that the particle cannot be considered apart from the measurement device, which means that we cannot speak of a disturbance of the particle by the measurement device. So when a position measurement is done on a quantum particle (with a device that is appropriate for and geared to a position measurement) the momentum of that particle is undefined (instead of being disturbed) [See 't HOOFT, G., 1989, Van Quantum tot Quark, p. 100]. The necessary connection of the object with the measuring device (according to the Copenhagen interpretation) implies some sort of mixing up of object and subject.
That quantum particles are only defined within the context of a macroscopical measuring device could point to their being deficient beings, and as such they perhaps do not fall into the proper domain of Metaphysics, which is about (true) beings [See the Section What is the Investigation about? in the Essay concerned with an Introduction and Overview (of our investigation)].

Of course there are states of affairs which DO depend completely on our thinking and on the way of our thinking, but these are as such recognizable, and distinguishable (be it sometimes with much effort) from things which exist independently of us, because in this case it concerns matters which belong to (the act of) thinking (pertain to thinking insofar as thinking). They clearly originate from ' within '. Often these ' beings of reason ' are completely subjective only at a certain high level, while at a lower level they are one or another in principle objectively describable psycho-physiological activity. Thinking (insofar as thinking) is a phenomenon at a high (complexity)level, that ' floats ' on, and is totally dependent on, physico-chemical activities at a low level.
One can never say that everything is subjective, because this assertion itself pretends to be objective [See The Principle of Motif and Background, in NOTE 3 : subjective knowledge can never be the only form of knowledge, it presupposes the possibility of objective knowledge].

And of course there are certain limits for possible knowledge : Some states of affairs could be so complex (even when they are maximally ' compressed ' by our theories), that they can never become completely known [ Even if we would possess the ' formula of the World', then it could still be impossible to translate this formula into real comprehensive knowledge of the World ]. The amount of information contained in such a complex state of affairs (even stripped of all redundancy) could be so huge that it cannot be comprehended (= grabbed as a whole) in the form of an understood active system (for example the system of the world for that matter), because the brain, as an information-processing device, is limited in its capacity (for storing amounts of information).
But one can never assert (I repeat this again) that objective knowledge is principally impossible, because this assertion itself pretends to be objective knowledge, namely the following :

" The World is such that we cannot know it objectively."

The content of such an assertion that objective knowledge would be impossible, does not square with its intention.
The possibility (and ability) of knowing objectively demands that in the reality that is intended by such knowledge, determination at one or another level must prevail, because an undetermined something is unknowable. Further, genuine knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, implies that we can, on the basis of such knowledge, make predictions that prove to be true. But then in Reality necessity must prevail, and also repeatability.
This repeatability implies in turn that every being, every real entity, must have a Species-Individuum Structure as its ontological composition : A certain nature (Species) can be repeated over individual cases. This ontological structure is equivalent to the (ontological) Form-Matter structure of real material beings (See the Essay on Substance and Accident, first section ).

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