There is no world

Let this be mistaken as some kind of solipsistic meltdown, I’m not suggesting that we that we’re all living in the Matrix or that there is nothing outside my mind. By “world” I just mean a unique “intersubjective” world in which we encounter fellow subjects and speakers, understand their mental states, interpret or keep score of the grounds and consequences of their statements. Intersubjectivity is a feature of the way we think or experience things. Things are thought or experienced intersubjectively when we understand that they are also there for others or experience them as being there for others. Much of the fun of re-watching the first season of The Wire with my partner, has been our shared appreciation of its grandiloquent dialogue and richly drawn characters. The Wire is not just there for me or her, but for us.

For transcendental philosophers, roughly speaking, intersubjectivity is the sine qua non of objectivity. An object is just something that can exhibit an open-ended set of aspects or properties in a common space and time. A very similar presupposition is at work in the pragmatist idea that rationality is a social trait mediated by norm-governed linguistic behaviour. As Davidson saw particularly clearly, you cannot situate another’s utterance within the “space of reasons” unless there is common topic of conversation:

Communication depends on each communicator having, and correctly thinking that the other has, the concept of a shared world, an intersubjective world. But the concept of an intersubjective world is the concept of an objective world, a world about which each communicator can have beliefs. (Davidson 2001, 105)

But if this sharing is a mode of thought or experience then it would be an error to identify it with a mind-independent reality since thoughts and experiences are paradigmatically mind-dependent entities.

It follows that intersubjectivity would have to be a property of a certain kind of phenomenology, not of anything that would exist even if the universe was a lifeless place without phenomenology.

But who shares this intersubjective phenomenological world? Could there be creatures – like Scott Bakker’s anemone-like Walleyes – so alien that their phenomenological worlds are utterly disjoint from ours?

If there are disjoint phenomenological worlds, however, there are some topics that we can never share in common with their occupants because we cannot adopt the idiomatic perspectives they afford (unless some radical transcendental re-engineering could insert us their orbit). Thus the space of reasons may be kinked or non-unitary.

I’m not in a position to determine whether this is so. But I think it is arguable that nobody is in a position to exclude this possibility. The only way to exclude it a priori is to show that there are certain structural features of human phenomenology that would have to be shared by any significantly intelligent creature – for example, embodiment, temporality, etc. However, I’ve argued elsewhere (Roden 2013) that there are good reasons to think that much of our phenomenology is “dark” – we gain no insight into its nature from experiencing it. Since this extends to the putative structures of experience, like temporality, pure philosophical reflection gives us no fundamental insight into the nature of our experience of worldhood. Phenomenology cannot tell us what phenomenology is. To be sure, there are other avenues of inquiry that might help us grasp its nature – e.g. devising computer models of neural networks – but these provide no a priori understanding of the structure of phenomenology or the “world”.

Since the shared world is a phenomenological datum and we have no future proof knowledge of our phenomenology, then we have no a priori guarantee that this world is a common, unique intersubjective world. It follows that the “world” as experienced is not  intersubjective in this sense. Thus understood, there is no world.

Davidson, D. 2001. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roden, D.  2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology.” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169-88.



9 thoughts on “There is no world

  1. “However, I’ve argued elsewhere (Roden 2013) that there are good reason to think that much of our phenomenology is “dark” – we gain no insight into its nature from experiencing it. Since this extends to the putative structures of experience, like temporality, pure philosophical reflection gives us no fundamental insight into the nature of our experience of worldhood.”

    This is my favourite tub to thump too of course, but because so many people remain so deeply entrenched in the traditional Kantian superstitions it pays to reiterate kinds of very difficult questions they now have to answer. These questions are hard to avoid because they amount to asking the Normativist to credit the information that underwrites their account. And this turns out to be a very hard thing for them to do. It just all kinda hangs together for them because it has to, each in their own idiosyncratic way. Meanwhile the empirical fact is that metacognition is a flea on the back of a gorilla. Every single thing learned in cognitive science is another thing that utterly eludes our reflective capacity, and the picture continues to become more and more alien.

    We can’t even imagine ourselves, let alone the possibilities of alien intelligence!

    1. “We can’t even imagine ourselves, let alone the possibilities of alien intelligence!”

      Yes, Scott. I think is a problem for pragmatism. Even if the pragmatist is not committed to equating truth with justification (or whatever we gloss as “good in the way of belief”) they are committed to some conceptual dependence between the two (as Tim Button points out in his Limits of Realism).

      For example, any pragmatist who is not a straight cultural relativist should allow that our best theory of the world could turn out to fallacious by the lights of creatures that are smarter than us and have access to better information. But now we need to qualify this by saying that each party could share enough for each to demonstrate this superiority of this ideal successor theory. Otherwise, it seems to me, we are no longer talking the language of justification or we are portraying justification as a verification-transcendent relation.

  2. “We can’t even imagine ourselves, let alone the possibilities of alien intelligence”
    yes, much (most?) evades our grasps, but pace DD I don’t think that the kinds of triangulations/co-ordinations that phenemenologists like Alva Noe are currently assembling require “concepts” as described above, and Noe is of course wrong to frame such activities (manglings as Andy Pickering would say) in terms of “access” (he should instead focus on affordances and resistances), my pragmatist’s question about the qualities (quantities?) of existence that really exceed (not just technically to date) our grasps is so what?

  3. @dmf I think you raise an important point. We could characterize the sharing/intersubjectivity of the world and the things in it in terms of affordances. Metaphysically, this means unpacking intersubjectivity in terms of dispositional properties of mind-independent entities. Thus it might be a dispositional fact about some thing that both I and a Walleye could register it and re-identify it in enough contexts to support Davidsonian triangulation. The problem for the Kantian, now, is that intersubjectivity is just a feature of transcendent reality. It seems to me an entirely empirical matter which things have it and what it’s scope might be (what has intersubjectivity vis a vis us and the Walleyes might not have it vis vis us and the intelligent slime mould from the Greater Magellanic Cloud. Thus – at the risk of overweaning cognitive parochialism – we can no longer assume that whatever is minded is interpretable by us as such. Another point – that should be obvious – is that this dispositional property need not commute. The fact that the slime mould can identify features of our phenomenological world does not entail that we can identify or talk about much of slime-world.

    Why does this make a difference. Well, it makes a big difference if one assumes an anthropologically unbounded version of Speculative Posthumanism. Since some of the creatures with disjoint phenomenologies may be our wide descendants. It is even conceivable that future versions of ourselves could have a phenomenology that is significantly disjoint from earlier ones.

    So we might allow, with Davidson, that even radically strange minds might be interpretable by us, but not without undergoing changes – whose import would not be evaluable in advance – which allow us to pick up on the relevant affordances. Thus a disconnection could undermine the social space of reasons in which something like democratic legitimation still makes sense.

  4. I wonder, though, if the problem isn’t so radical that even the Quinean/Davidsonian behaviourist manner of posing the problem is even applicable. Their model (described sans PAs) is one of at least two, largely endogeneously driven systems attempting to form some kind of systematic (order generating) relationship. Contrast this with the Borg collective, say, where the whole is endogenously driven.
    Radical translation/interpretation is only an issue, it seems, when a very specific kind of interval differentiates the systems involved. The systematic ‘synching’ of endogenous systems (a way of looking at Turner’s empathy?) depends, as Davidson cashes out using normative vocabulary, upon some kind of ‘pre-established harmony,’ one which evolution provides. All us wee beasties on the planet are adapted, to degrees massive and infinitesimal, to one another. Viewed through this larger lens, radical translation/interpretation simply demonstrates how parochial – specialized – our particular brand of inter-system systematicity is.

    If what we call ‘rationality’ is specific to the kind of massive pre-synching required to get human ‘mindreading’ off the ground, then normativists are chauvinists in the same sense that young-earthers are. But EVEN if there were something genuinely universal about it, in the sense that evolution pressed our inter-systematizing capacity to some solution-set that multiple species have happened upon throughout the universe, they are still chauvinists in the young-earther sense. Why? Because that solution-set only applies to species that had to overcome similar obstacles to translation/interpretation: namely, those pertaining to endogenously driven systems otherwise synched to form transient inter-systematic relationships. Not only does the form of translation/interpretation have to be ‘just right,’ the capacities of the system have to be in our neighbourhood as well. You could adduce innumerable ‘rationality’ confounds, it seems to me.

    The pragmatist is locked out of these kinds of characterizations altogether, if you ask me. Normativism/intentionalism quite simply lacks the conceptual resources to tackle this issue.

  5. not sure what this “Thus a disconnection could undermine the social space of reasons in which something like democratic legitimation still makes sense” entails I was thinking of affordances along very basic environmental-psychology lines of contributes to our success in some activity/project (our always-already manipulating as Rorty reminded us) so while human-style rhetorics/manipulations might not work on non or post humans I don’t see why we couldn’t (in principle) find other means of co-operating with them, is that close to what you were after?

    1. We might find all sorts of ways of being with posthumans – even if we’re living on them like fleas on a Cat, to quote the great Gaius Baltar – but, there again, the burdens of interaction and interpretation might make this unrealistic.

  6. “burdens of interaction and interpretation might make this unrealistic” I would think so while I’m sympathetic to desires to have approaches to projects/problems be as comprehensive (and even representative) as we might get them so they are close to meeting the demands/interests that we are addressing I’m with Pickering that we can only handle so many factors/interests at once, now how much that can be modified/extended thru cyber means I’m not sure but unless we get pretty substantially post-human I don’t see much hope for more facility/response-abilties, see what you think of:

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