Nelson Goodman

GOODMAN: On Multiple Worlds:

What makes knowledge construction possible

The prestige of science is such today that its method is respected as the primary means of settling differences of opinion. C. S. Peirce offers what may be taken as the core description of the nature of scientific truth and reality. Beginning that a man should consider that he wishes his opinions to coincide with the facts of things, he argues that such a result is the prerogative of the method of science [note 1]:

Different minds may set out with the most antagonistic views, but the progress of investigation carries them by a force outside of themselves to one and the same conclusion. The activity of thought by which we are carried, not where we wish, but to a foreoredained goal, is like the operation of destiny. No modification of the point of view taken, no selection of other facts for study, no natural bent of mind even, can enable a man to escape the predestinate opinion. This great law is embodied in the conception of truth and reality. The opinion which is fated [note 2] to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality.

However attractive one finds Peirce’s vision, is it not clear that profound problems exist ? His definition of truth and reality depends upon a convergence over all time and even extra-human intelligences as well. His definition of reality finesses the issue of its characterization. We may CHOOSE to believe in the eventual convergence of opinion to a possible singular truth if we are able to take the viewpoint of eternity, as Spinoza proposes, but our everyday world of science, as Kuhn describes it, [note 4] seems more like “a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night”

Too often Peirce’s assumed convergence with its implication of progress supports in practice an extreme sort of physicalist reductionism — where works are judged scientific only if they grow directly out of or attach directly to the canonical theories of the hard sciences [note5].

After Peirce, other notable philosophers have struggled with the same issue. Among these, the perspicuous and profound effort of Goodman is most congenial to the presuppositions of my work [note 6].

Countless worlds made from nothing, by the use of symbols — so might a satirist summarize some major themes in the work of Ernst Cassirer. These themes, the multiplicity of worlds, the speciousness of “the given”, the creative power of the understanding, the variety and formative function of symbols — are also integral to my own thinking…. In just what sense are there many worlds? What distinguishes genuine from spurious worlds? What are worlds made of? How are they made? What role do symbols play in the making? And how is world making related to knowing? These questions must be faced even if full and final answers are far off.

The Reality of Multiple Worlds
We are not speaking in terms of multiple possible alternatives to a single actual world but of multiple actual worlds…. Consider, to begin with, the statements “The sun always moves” and “The sun never moves” which, though equally true, are at odds with each other… We are inclined to regard the two strings of words not as complete statements with truth-values of their own but as elliptical for some such statements as “Under frame of reference A, the sun always moves” and “Under frame of reference B, the sun never moves” — statements that may both be true of the same world.

Frames of reference, though, seem to belong less to what is described than to the system of description…. But if I insist you tell me how it is apart from all frames, what can you say ? We are confined to ways of describing whatever is described. Our universe, so to speak, consists of these ways rather than of the world or of worlds.

The alternative descriptions of motion, all of them in much the same terms and routinely transformable into one another, provide only a minor and rather pallid example of diversity in accounts of the world. Much more striking is the vast variety of versions and visions in the several sciences, in the works of different painters and writers, and in our perceptions as informed by these, by circumstances, and by our own insights, interests, and past experiences. Even with all illusory or wrong or dubious versions dropped, the rest exhibit new dimensions of disparity. Here we have no neat set of frames of reference…we turn from describing or depicting “the world” to talking of descriptions and depictions, but now without even the consolation of intertranslatability among or any evident organization of the several systems in question.

While we may speak of determining what versions are right as “learning about the world”, “the world” supposedly being that which all right versions describe, all we learn about the world is contained in right versions of it; and while the underlying world, bereft of these, need not be denied to those who love it, it is perhaps on the whole a world well lost….

On Reduction
Since the fact that there are many different world-versions is hardly debatable, and the question how many if any “worlds in themselves” there are is virtually empty, in what non-trivial sense are there…many worlds? Just this, I think: that many different world versions are of independent interest and importance, without any requirement or presumption of reducibility to a single base. The pluralist, far from being anti-scientific, accepts the sciences at full value. His typical adversary is the monopolistic materialist or physicalist who maintains that one system, physics, is preeminent and all-inclusive, such that every other version must eventually be reduced to it or rejected as false or meaningless. If all right versions could somehow be reduced to one and only one, that one might with some semblance of plausibility [note 7] be regarded as the only truth about the only world. But the evidence for such reducibility is negligible, and even the claim is nebulous since physics itself is fragmentary and unstable, and the kind and consequences of reduction envisaged are vague…. A reduction from one system to another can make a genuine contribution to understanding the interrelationships among world versions; but reduction in any reasonably strict sense is rare, almost always partial, and seldom if ever unique. To demand full and sole reducibility to physics or any other one version is to forego nearly all other versions.

So long as contrasting right versions not all reducible to one are countenanced, unity is to be sought not in an ambivalent or neutral something beneath these versions but in an overall organization embracing them.

Lawler’s Conclusions:
So it is also, I believe, the case with mind [note 8]. Goodman continues that Cassirer sought unity through cross-cultural study; Goodman’s own focus is analytic study of the types and functions of symbol systems. My approach is the empirical probing of his opening questions: What are worlds made of? How are they made? And how is worldmaking related to knowing? In this study of the human mind, the conclusion is clear: THE CONSTRUCTABILITY OF KNOWLEDGE DEPENDS UPON THE INTEGRABILITY OF THE SYSTEMS OF SYMBOLS THROUGH WHICH WE COME TO CHOOSE TO REPRESENT THE DISPARATE EXPERIENCES OF OUR EVERYDAY LIVES.

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