Realism and Antirealism - Cornell University Press
Surely, it is difficult to decide between the two above-mentioned alternatives. Language allows many things for us. For example, people sometimes disagree about whether an utterance expresses a genuine question or whether it expresses an assertion (in the form of a rhetorical question). This indicates that it can be difficult to know when a statement is to be taken literally and when it is not. If literalism were to carry any weight for the realism/antirealism debate, then there should be some independent way of telling when a statement is to be taken literally. That is, literalism about moral language requires an independent footing. Furthermore, it is very difficult to imagine that the long and recalcitrant history of the realist/antirealist debate has been just about the literal meaning of moral language. We presumably understand what moral statements express, if only in a rudimentary fashion. The disagreement about literalism may help explain why moral realists and antirealists often seem to talk past each other. Nevertheless, attributing different meaning to moral terms fails to further our inquiry. At any rate, it does not seem feasible to make literalism a criterion for moral realism, especially when the difficulty associated with literalism about moral language is considered.
It is not uncommon to hear philosophers remark that the dialoguebetween the various forms of realism and antirealism surveyed in thisarticle shows every symptom of a perennial philosophical dispute. Theissues contested range so broadly and elicit so many competingintuitions (about which, arguably, reasonable people may disagree),that some question whether a resolution is even possible. Thisprognosis of potentially irresolvable dialectical complexity isrelevant to a number of further views in the philosophy of science,some of which arise as direct responses to it. For example, Fine(1996/1986, chs. 7–8) argues that ultimately, neither realismnor antirealism is tenable, and recommends what he calls the“natural ontological attitude” (NOA) instead (see Rouse1988 and 1991 for a detailed exploration of the view). NOA is intendedto comprise a neutral, common core of realist and antirealistattitudes of acceptance of our best theories. The mistake that bothparties make, Fine suggests, is to add further epistemological andmetaphysical diagnoses to this shared position, such as pronouncementsabout which aspects of scientific ontology should be viewed as real,which are proper subjects of belief, and so on. Others contend thatthis sort of approach to scientific knowledge is non- oranti-philosophical, and defend philosophical engagement in debatesabout realism (Crasnow 2000, Mcarthur 2006). Musgrave (1989) arguesthat the view is either empty or collapses into realism.
The traditional areas of disagreement between the realist camp and the antirealist camp are cognitivism, descriptivism, moral truth, moral knowledge, and moral objectivity. The long and recalcitrant history of the realism/antirealism debate records that the focal point of the debate has been shaped and reshaped over centuries, with a third way, namely, Quasi-realism, attracting more recent attention. Quasi-realism debunks the positions of both realism and antirealism.Interestingly, quantum physicists believe that the Large Hadron Collider will create micro-black holes, so the boundary between realism and antirealism may soon be tested.If there are moral facts, how can we know them? For a realist, moral facts are as certain as mathematical facts. Moral facts and mathematical facts are abstract entities, and as such, are different in kind from natural facts. One cannot literally display moral facts as one could display, say, a plant. One can display a token of the type, for example one can write “lying for personal gain is wrong” or one can write an equation; however, one cannot observe moral and mathematical facts in quite the same way as one can observe, with the aid of a microscope, clorophyll in a leaf. Such limitations of experience do not stop realists and antirealists from disagreeing on virtually every aspect of the moral practices that seem to presuppose the existence of moral facts. The list of contested areas includes moral language, moral truth, moral knowledge, moral objectivity, moral psychology, and so on. These areas are not discrete but intermingle.Figure 5 indicates an inflated way of establishing the realist’s ontological thesis, namely, that there are moral facts. On this inflated moral realism, the realist view turns out to be a jumble of 4 major theories in philosophy: cognitivism, descriptivism, literalism, and success theory. (The correspondence theory of truth is neither necessary nor sufficient for moral realism as we saw above.) Although the existence of objective literal moral truths may show that the aforementioned theories are jointly sufficient for moral realism, it ignores the quasi-realist’s ways of saying the realist-sounding things (the quasi-realist’s way in masquerading as moral realists, if you will). A less inflated way of marking the realist territory would be advisable, should there be such a way. This is because quasi-realists insist that they are as much entitled to cognitivism, descriptivism, moral truth, moral knowledge and even moral objectivity as moral realists. Their insistence effectively thwarts realist attempts at marking their territory by relying on the traditional disagreement between realists and antirealists mapped in figure 5.