Realism, Indeterminacy and the Eye of the Mind

Epistemic indeterminacy concerns our representations of things rather than things. Thus the location of a mobile phone with a nokia ring tone may be represented as indeterminate between your pocket and your neighbor’s handbag. This epistemic indeterminacy is resolvable through the acquisition of new information: here, by examining the two containers. By contrast metaphysical indeterminacy – if such there be – is brute. It cannot be cleared up by further investigations.

We can thus distinguish between being indeterminately represented and being indeterminately ?  in situations where it is possible to progressively reduce and eliminate the former indeterminacy (Roden 2010: 153).

Facts are metaphysically indeterminate if they involve indeterminate natures. The nature of a thing is indeterminate if it is impossible to determine it via some truth-generating procedure that will eliminate competing descriptions of it. Clearly, some will cavil with my use of “fact” and “nature” either because they see “facts” as ineluctably propositional or because they have nominalist quibbles about attributing any kind of nature or facticity to the non-conceptual sphere. However, like Marcus Arvan, I don’t see any conceptual affiliation as ineluctable. If the world is structured in ways that cannot be captured without remainder in propositions, it is not inappropriate to use the term “fact” to describe these structures – or so I will proceed to do here.

My favorite case of putative metaphysical indeterminacy are the two versions of the Located Events Theory of sound. LET1 (Bullot et al 2004; Casati and Dokic 2005) states that sounds are resonance events in objects; LET2 says that sounds are disturbances in a medium caused by vibrating objects (O’Callaghan 2009). According to LET1 there are sounds in vacuums so long as there are objects located in them. According to LET2 there are not. So the theories have different implications. There is also nothing to obviously favour the one over the other in the light of ordinary observations and inferences regarding sound.

As I put in in “Sonic Events” most people would probably judge that there is no sound produced when a turning fork resonates in an evacuated jar – “Yet were the air in a jar containing a vibrating tuning fork to be regularly evacuated and replenished we might perceive this as an alteration in the conditions of audition of a continuous sound, rather than the alternating presence and absence of successive sounds” ( Roden 2010: 156). You pays yer money, but it’s hard to believe that the world cares how we describe this state of affairs, or that persuasive grounds will settle the matter one bright day.

Anti-realists might say that this indeterminacy is practical rather than factive. It reflects discrepant uses of the same lexical item (“sound”) only. So (as in the case of metaphysical indeterminacy) there is no information gathering procedure that would settle the issue. But that is not because the nature of sound is indeterminate in this respect. Rather, there is no deeper (determinate or indeterminate) fact here at all.

However, this ignores the fact that LET1 and LET2 are responsive to an auditory reality that they both describe, albeit in incompatible ways. Sounds existed before there were ontologies of sound and thus have an independent reality to which LET1 and LET2 attest. If so there must be a deeper fact which accounts for the indeterminacy.

Now, either this fact is indeterminate or it is not.

If it is not, then there is some uniquely ideal account of sound: ITS. The ideal theory cannot be improved via the acquisition of further information because it already contains all the relevant information there is to be had and has no empirically equivalent competitors (there is no ITS2, etc.). ITS might or might not be an event theory – e.g. it could be a “medial theory” which represents sounds as the transmission of acoustic energy (Bullot et al. 2004). So ITS ought to replace both LET1 and LET2. We may not be aware of it, but we know that it exists somewhere in Philosophers Heaven (or the Space of Reasons).

If the fact in question is indeterminate, there is no ideal account which captures the nature of sound. Or rather, the best way to capture it is in the alternation between different accounts.

Given indeterminacy, then, there is an auditory reality which permits of description, but which cannot be completely described.

There is an interesting comparison to be made here between the indeterminacy of auditory metaphysics and the claims regarding the indeterminacy of semantic interpretation described in Davidson and others. Again, one can take indeterminacy in a deflationary anti-realist spirit – there are no semantic facts, just competing interpretations and explications recursively subject to competing interpretations ad infinitum (One popular way of glossing Derridean différance!).

Or there are semantic facts. In which case, these may be determinate or indeterminate. If there are determinate semantic facts, then the indeterminacy of radical interpretation is an artefact of our ignorance regarding semantic facts. If semantic facts are indeterminate, however, there is – again – a reality that is partially captured in competing interpretations that is never fully mirrored or reflected in them.

At this point it is interesting to consider why we might opt for factive or metaphysical indeterminacy rather than anti-realist indeterminacy. If we have reasons for believing in indeterminate facts – the ones for which there are irreducibly discrepant descriptions – this is presumably because we think there is some mind-independent reality outside our descriptions whose nature is indeterminate in some respects. If this thought is justified it is presumably not justified by any single description of the relevant domain. Nor by the underdetermination of descriptions (since this is equally consistent with anti-realism). So if we are justified in believing that there are indeterminate metaphysical facts, we must be justified by sources of non-propositional knowledge. For example, perhaps our perceptual experience of sound supports the claim that sounds occur in ways that can be captured by LET1 or LET2 without providing decisive grounds for one or the other.

This train of thought might suggest that some metaphysics bottoms out in “phenomenology” – which seems to commit the metaphysical indeterminist to the “mental eye” theory of pre-discursive concepts disparaged by Sellars and others. However, what is at issue, here, is non-propositional access to the world. One way of saying this is that such access “non-conceptual” – though this seems to presuppose that concepts (whatever they are) are components of or parasitic on propositions, and this may not be the case.

However, there is a further problem. If Scott Bakker and I are right, our grip on phenomenology is extremely tenuous (Roden 2013). So if metaphysical indeterminism is warranted, there are non-discursive reasons for believing there are metaphysically indeterminate facts. But the nature of these facts is obscure so long as our phenomenology is occluded. Now, there is no reason in principle why a subject can believe p on the basis of some evidence without being in a position to explain how the evidence supports p. This weakens their public warrant but does not vitiate it. So we may have weak grounds for metaphysical indeterminism but these are better than no grounds at all.


Bullot, Nicolas, Roberto Casati, Jérôme Dokic, and Maurizio Giri. 2004. Sounding objects. In Proceedings of Les journées du design sonore, p. 4. Paris. October 13–15.

Casati, Robert, and Dokic, Jérôme. 2005. la philosophie du son, Accessed 3 June 2005, Chapter 3, p. 41.

O’Callaghan, Casey. 2009. Sounds and events. In Matthew Nudds & Casey O’Callaghan (eds.), Sounds and Perception: New Philosophical Essays. Oxford University Press. 26–49.

Roden, David. 2010. ‘Sonic Art and the Nature of Sonic Events’, Objects and Sound Perception, Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1(1): 141-156.

Roden, David. 2013, ‘Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalized Phenomenology’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 72 (1): 169-88


3 thoughts on “Realism, Indeterminacy and the Eye of the Mind

  1. Wonderfully illustrative piece. On my own peculiar way of looking at things, the big thing to note is the way *dichotomies* structure both the dilemma and our understanding of the dilemma. Dichotomies shout schematism, and schematism shouts informational neglect – in other words, it’s pretty clear that approaching these problems through the lens of traditional dichotomies (real/anti-real, representation/reality) amounts to approaching this problem via a certain heuristic, a fact which shouldn’t be all that surprising given the thoroughly heuristic nature of the brain. Since all heuristics possess adaptive problem-ecologies, and are only hit and miss (and mostly the latter) when applied elsewhere, the first question confronting this debate seems to be one of whether this is the kind of problem that a procrustean real/not-real approach can do anything but mangle.

    So I would actually approach the issue in terms of *heuristic applicability,* the question of what cognitive systems we know or assume we have available, and *dimensionality,* the kinds and quantities of difference making differences investigators have available. The ‘real,’ on this approach, ceases to become an all or nothing affair regarding some totality apart from our attempts to know it. We are always a part of nature comporting itself to other parts of nature. We are, in effect, what science it revealing us to be.

    In this respect, the question of why we should opt for metaphysical indeterminacy as opposed to epistemic indeterminacy regarding ‘semantic facts’ is itself suspiciously procrustean (dare I say ‘prescientific’). I agree there’s a drastic gulf between natural facts and semantic facts that needs explanation, but it is a gulf of degree involving dimensionality and heuristic applicability, not a fundamental one that can be carved along the joints of the epistemic/metaphysical kluge. We are problem-solving machines (where ‘problem-solving’ is understood in terms of evolutionary filtration): only the information provided by science has allowed us to indirectly discriminate the distinct efficacies of semantic and natural problem-solving regimes, and to thus confuse the contrast between the generality of the latter and the specificity of the former and with a contrast between what is real and what is not real.

    This may seem too fine a distinction, but it pretty much nixes the debate, or points it in an entirely different direction at least. The fact is that *natural cognition is heuristic as well,* which is why we see this dichotomy, and the attendant impasses, reproduced throughout various domains and argue the existence of tables the way we argue the existence of souls.

  2. Yeah. Indeterminacy talk trades on dichotomies; so any argument for metaphysical indeterminacy requires some determinacy in a categorizing or measuring system. Understanding it involves attention to what Luciano Floridi calls levels of abstraction. Indeterminacy only shows up relative to some LoA (some mode of presentation) of the world.

    This provokes a puzzle about standard interpretationist arguments for semantic indeterminacy. An interpreter judges meanings to be indeterminate in the OL where the facts underdetermine the choice between ML’s – which are recursively subject to the same interpretations. So this doesn’t seem to be a stable position. Frankly, this is just a first-off attempt to get to grips with the idea of metaphysical indeterminacy in general and I’ll need to read a lot more (e.g. in the vagueness literature) to develop it. Motivations: well, I think if we can make a case for metaphysical indeterminacy, we might rebut model-theoretic arguments for anti-realism. Since (or so it could be argued) if there are brutely indeterminate metaphysical facts, they cannot be models for languages at all. So the Putnamesque way of setting up metaphysical realism won’t do.

    But I’m open to the possibility that (as you imply) there is something broken about the way indeterminacy claims are set up. I think that they need to be framed in terms that are maximally general (e.g. in terms of information acquisition) relative to some system of coding. All this is extremely vague in my mind as yet, so thanks for prods and pokes.

    As often noted, I’m glacially slow on the uptake and tend not to notice radical development until at least twenty years after their advent (still coming to terms with grunge and new wave) but it’s remarkable how BBT is developing into a metaphilosophy 🙂

  3. Be it known that I am the weird one, espousing all this!

    That said, I think it is clearly the case that traditional knower/known dichotomies entirely elide all the dimensions of complexity belonging to the natural processes that, we know as a matter of empirical fact, actually constitute and constrain cognition. So given that the information elided is relevant to the problem of cognizing cognition (we’ve dedicated a whole science to it for this very reason), my perennial question is simply what impact this elision has on our attempts to philosophically solve the nature of cognition. Subject/objects, concepts/contents, knower/known, how/what and so on, are a bloody handy way of talking (which I help myself to continually) in any number of contexts. They solve all kinds of problems, allowing us to cognize *instances* of cognition with only scantest access to the facts of cognition (what I call medial neglect). But given the way they enable cognition despite neglecting almost all the information pertaining to cognition, should we be surprised that they generate impasse after impasse when applied to the problem of cognition?

    I actually think your LET1 and LET2 theories capture the point quite nicely. Where the former isolates sound as a property belonging to the object, the latter insists the property belongs the system. So the question is, Why does the point of alternately adding and removing the medium of resonance generate the intuition of ‘alternating conditions of audition,’ that we are somehow accessing something already there—thus rendering LET1 more intuitive. This transformation of the ‘intuition landscape’ really is quite remarkable when you consider that it’s nothing more than a demonstration of LET2. If you make hearing criterial of sound, for instance, then demonstrating how hearing depends on the presence of some medium amounts to demonstrating that sound depends on some medium. And yet exactly the opposite suggests itself!

    This is a great way to isolate the knower/known heuristic in action: medial neglect means blindness to the enabling mechanisms of cognition. On BBT, this is all that ‘transparency’ consists in—neglect. So far as illumination mediates vision, it is invisible. So far as sound mediates hearing, it is inaudible. We see things, we hear things—the media only become conspicuous once they cease enabling visual or auditory cognition. The reason LET1 suddenly seems intuitively plausible when we alternate between medium and no medium, then, is simply that sound vanishes to the degree it enables. The demonstration of sound as a property of the medium cues us to intuit sound as a property of the object. A straightforward demonstration of LET2 becomes an intuitive vindication of LET1!—thanks to the knower/known heuristic.

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