The Mirror Crack’d

This article is a reply to RW’s “The Mirror Men Strike Back”, a response to “Smoke and Mirrors“. In it, RW agreed that reality is hard, but argued that truth is the relationship between it and a soft and ever-changing human condition.

His arguments included the emotive meaning of roses, quoting Barthes’ view that it has gone beyond symbolism into “myth”, so that in our culture roses “are” love; that our understanding of language, even such a simple sentence as “pass the salt”, is all custom and convention; that language has power both to evoke emotions and to make people such as women suffer (from sexist language); that we cannot conceive of something we cannot express in language; that nothing exists until it is sensed; that our observations of reality can change it; that changed language can create a different truth; and that “subjectivism is about the only acknowledgement that truth is only, and can only be, what we really believe in”.

RW (Tableaus, October 92) agreed that reality is hard, but spent most of his article arguing that it is not. If reality is hard it is not possible that “nothing exists until it is sensed”, or “truth is only, and can only be, what we really believe in”. If reality is hard, then by definition things exist whether or not we are aware of them, and truth is what corresponds to reality, whatever we believe.

My understanding of this discrepancy is that RW thinks there is a theoretical reality somewhere out there which is hard in itself, but to us reality is soft because we interact with it as human beings. But all my arguments were about the reality we interact with (the only one I’ve ever seen!). So if RW wishes to dispute that reality is hard, he should say so, and refute my arguments: not evade the latter requirement by “agreeing” with my words by changing their meaning! However, though not disputing my arguments that reality is hard, he did advance his reasons for thinking it is soft, and some require comment.

The Name of the Rose

The way Barthes carries on about roses, I suspect he owns the biggest rose farm in Europe. It is all beside the point. That some things have symbolic meaning for many humans, and can trigger love or loathing, has nothing to do with whether their objective nature is knowable by us. It is a fact about human beings, and therefore relevant when dealing with them (even I have been known to give a lady a rose), but that is all. A flower’s symbolic attachments do not prevent our objective study of it, for a rational man is quite able to keep the two separate aspects apart. My proof: a botanist with the most detailed knowledge of the nature of roses has no trouble with giving a bunch of them to his girlfriend; nor does she, another botanist, have any trouble accepting them with pleasure. Indeed, this is further proof of the hardness of reality: no matter what emotional meanings a thing might have, rational inquiry still can discover the nature of the thing itself.

Word Games

That human communication involves a lot of background knowledge is another side issue. It has nothing to do with whether we can learn about reality. It does have something to do with whether communication from one person to another is possible, but RW’s own example of “passing the salt” is proof that it is not only possible but routine.

Despite RW’s contrary claim, even language is tied to hard reality. If someone asks me for the salt and I throw it in his face, then he will let me know that my understanding of his request was in error, which means: not in accordance with reality. The primary reality behind communication is what the communicator intended me to know, as hard a fact of reality as any: for like everything else his intents are what they are, not necessarily what I think or wish they are . In addition, the value of communication depends on its concordance with external reality. Thus, the characteristics of salt and salt shakers, and why someone would want salt, are not some subjective quirk of language, but facts of external reality.

RW’s most startling claim is that “we cannot conceive of something we cannot describe to ourselves”: his implication being that if it isn’t in our language then we can’t know about it. This is false. A word is a label for a concept. The referents of valid concepts are things that exist in reality. As reality is hard, our investigation of it uncovers aspects of it for which we do not yet have concepts (further proof that reality is hard). This does not prevent their discovery: on the contrary, it is what generates new concepts! And to label those new concepts, we invent new words. As proof, I offer “neutron”: the label for a concept relating to particles that have always existed in the universe, yet were completely unknown, completely outside human concepts and language, until this century. As proof, I offer “gene”, the label for the units of heredity that have ruled our own evolution for billions of years before we ever discovered them. Language does not determine reality. Reality determines language.

Sense & Reality

It is not true that science accepts that “nothing exists until it is sensed”. Quite the contrary. Let me ask RW a question: did neutrons exist before this century, or not? If they did, then your statement is false, or at least misworded. If you say they did not, then I would like to see your explanation of what kept atoms together before then. If genes did not exist, then I would like to see your explanations for heredity in previous times, our own evolution, and the correlation between evolutionary relationships and gene sequences. You see, reality can affect us in the most personal ways even when we are completely ignorant of it .

What is Truth?

Truth is most definitely not “only, and can only be, what we really believe in.” Truth is what corresponds to the facts of reality, whether those facts are the nature of an atom or the thoughts of a human being. Humans are capable of “really believing” in total falsehoods. The stars have never revolved around the earth, carried on a giant crystal sphere.

Of course we see the world through human eyes. The question is, does that invalidate our attempts to know the external world, as many philosophers have claimed? I have proved not. Our senses do not have to be all-seeing and infallible (as consciousness is reflective, we can learn about and compensate for our human limitations). For reality to be knowable, all that is required are two undeniable facts: the hardness of reality, and the efficacy of reason. And thus the real world out there, including our own nature, can be known by us. And this is the key to the improvement of human life.

© 1993, 1996 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.