Having tried to follow the recent discussions of various realisms, I have always wondered about the sort of a picture of reality that one would have were one to agree with a realist position, even if a very speculative (and entertaining) one – Harman does a good job of describing his fictive reality, yet still one wonders what it would be like to actually live in one. I think my main (philosophical) concern has always been with the peculiar distinction between “is” and “ought” both in a metaphysical and ethical sense: metaphysically, if I am using this term correctly, of course, the distinction could be the one between “actual” and “potential”; ethically, it is a distinction between “I do” and “I ought to do” – at least this is what it seems like to me. Before I cite some passages from Kant (as I usually do), I’d like to summarize my issues, if you’re interested in a specific text I am thinking of, you can read on and see if my reading of it makes sense.
As I think about a philosophical view that would claim that there is no significant philosophical problem when it comes to the distinction between the way we perceive things and the way they are in themselves, i.e. the distinction itself is affirmed (I’m yet to see a realist position that completely disregards the fact that it is humans who perceive objects) but it is not presented as a major issue, I wonder if there is any possibility of prescription in such a view of reality. In other words, if we ask an old question – why should I be moral? – then the issue here is not simply of moral motivation (self-interest, pleasure, utility etc etc), but of the possibility of any sort of moral necessity, in fact, if we take Kant’s moral theory as a model here, then any necessity, period. Does reason prescribe at all, or does it simply describe? It seems to me that in the world of things in themselves (assuming that our perception of them coincides perfectly with the way they are in themselves), of things without any input from human understanding, there can never be any sort of a consistent ethical or political theory. That is, no knowledge of what is right, only a competition of opinions.
That metaphysical pictures do have ethical (and maybe political) consequences could be illustrated by an interesting passage from Kant’s third Critique – closer to the end of the book’s second section on teleology, Kant paints a picture of the world where things as they appear to us are in fact things as they are in themselves – not in so many words, but I think one can certainly see the description in §76:
It is absolutely necessary for the human understanding to distinguish between the possibility and the actuality of things. The reason for this lies in the subject and the nature of its cognitive faculties. For if two entirely heterogeneous elements were not required for the exercise of these faculties, understanding for concepts and sensible intuition for objects corresponding to them, then there would be no such distinction (between the possible and the actual). That is, if our understanding were intuitive, it would have no objects except what is actual. Concepts (which pertain merely to the possibility of an object) and sensible intuitions (which merely give us something, without thereby allowing us to cognize it as an object) would both disappear. [5:402]
This section, of course, is a continuation of Kant’s central argument that we need to distinguish between sensible intuitions, categories of understanding and concepts of reason – see your Kant 101 for more on that. Now Kant will argue that this triple constitution is this way and not any other way in the whole of his critical work, and, of course, not everyone can agree with that, so I think if we keep the Kantian jargon to the minimum here, we can still see the point of his observation about the necessity to distinguish between “possible” and “actual” – let’s imagine, Kant says, what it would be like if we knew things as they are in themselves, i.e if there was no distinction between the way I see this table and the table as it is in itself; let’s imagine, in other words, that I am looking at this table without asking a question of correspondence between my subjective perception and its objective reality, because if these two coincide, then there’s no reason to make the distinction. To put it differently, let’s go through Cartesian meditations and establish that what appears “clearly and distinctly” is, in fact, the way it appears. If a very simple definition of any realism is that is accepts the idea that things exist independently of my perception of them (in which case, by the way, Kant would be a realist), in this case, when I discount any possible discrepancy between the way I see the table and the way it is (of course, taking into consideration, again, Cartesian argument about the possibility of error) I basically state that I can know things as they are in themselves (whatever method I choose to do so).
So, what do we have then? I am certainly a human with a specific perceptual apparatus, I don’t think anyone denies the fact that it is I who perceive all these objects, but since I am able to both perceive things and know what those things are like when I am not perceiving them, i.e. since things as they appear to me and things as they are in themselves are same things (basically, of course, we can incorporate observations from, say, phenomenology concerning things like adumbrations and such), does that mean that the distinction between “potentiality” and “actuality” is gone? Kant does not suggest, it seems, that things no longer come into existence or cease to exist, but that human understanding requires that we are able to distinguish between potentiality and actuality, regardless of all the other Kantian doctrines that we might or might not agree with. That is, let us assume that Kant is only correct on this one matter: human understanding needs to distinguish between what is actual and what is not, that this is the most basic and fundamental distinction that is absolutely necessary in order for any knowledge to be able to take place.
Now, however, all of our distinction between the merely possible and the actual rests on the fact that the former signifies only the position of the representation of a thing with respect to our concept and, in general, our faculty for thinking, while the latter signifies the positing of the thing in itself (apart from this concept). Thus the distinction of possible from actual things is one that is merely subjectively valid for the human understanding, since we can always have something in our thoughts although it does not exist, or represent something as given even though we do not have any concept of it. The propositions, therefore, that things can be possible without being actual, and thus that there can be no inference at all from mere possibility to actuality, quite rightly hold for the human understanding without that proving that this distinction lies in the things themselves.
The distinction between “actual” and “potential” is the distinction that human understanding makes, it is not found in things themselves. Kant, of course, assumes that his long critical project and accompanying explanations and arguments are successful so he does not have to explain himself in this case in great detail, but let’s assume we know nothing of that sort of argumentation and just take the passage as it is: we can certainly think of things that are not actual, that cannot be found in reality – let’s say we thought up a unicorn and then, assuming that we can know things as they are in themselves, we took a careful look around (and maybe read some books that have other people’s observations) and we agreed that unicorns do not exist actually, but only potentially. In other words, one does not need to be a Kantian to accept the above paragraph’s validity.
This is where I think Kant’s argument is going: if we all accept the validity of the distinction between possibility and actuality and that we cannot infer actuality from possibility (see old arguments regarding the ontological proof of the existence of God, for example), then all that means (minimally) is that we distinguish between thinking (potentiality) and intuiting (actuality). Whatever Kantian arguments about the mechanics of intuition, understanding and reason are, this distinction between thinking and sensing has nothing really controversial about it, does it? However, if we imagine a being without such distinction, it would be something like this:
For an understanding to which this distinction did not apply, all objects that I cognize would be (exist), and the possibility of some that did not exist, i.e., their contingency if they did exist, as well as the necessity that is to be distinguished from that, would not enter into the representation of such a being at all. [5:403]
For a being of that sort, in other words, all objects just are. There is not only no need for moral language here, there’s not possibility of any sort of “ought” in general – things just are, let’s say that they are in accordance with a complex system of necessary laws, laws of nature, absolute necessity of scientific picture of the world. My issues here is that with all the admiration directed at science, all the envy of scientific precision and progress in describing reality, I don’t see how scientific picture of the world can actually concern itself with ethical dimension of life? It seems that the kind of admiration one has for precision of mathematics is an admiration for calculability and efficiency. There is no room for ethics, no room for any sort of prescriptive code of human co-existence, no room for law either, no room for any sort of prescriptive politics, no room for the discourse on human rights and so on.
To cut this postshort, i.e. to skip some logical step for the sake of brevity, one might say that there is really no freedom in the world without the distinction betwen possible and actual. The lack of the distinction between what is (actual) and what could be (possible) is making it impossible for us to decide what should be:
Now since here, however, the objective necessity of the action, as duty, is opposed to that which it, as an occurrence, would have if its ground lay in nature and not in freedom (i.e., in the causality of reason), and the action which is morally absolutely necessary can be regarded physically as entirely contingent (i.e., what necessarily should happen often does not), it is clear that it depends only on the subjective constitution of our practical faculty that the moral laws must be represented as commands (and the actions which are in accord with them as duties), and that reason expresses this necessity not through a be (happening) but through a should-be: which would not be the case if reason without sensibility (as the subjective condition of its application to objects of nature) were considered, as far as its causality is concerned, as a cause in an intelligible world, corresponding completely with the moral law, where there would be no distinction between what should be done and what is done, between a practical law concerning that which is possible through us and the theoretical law concerning that which is actual through us.
In other words, there is no way to argue for a necessity of a moral action – no “should be” – in the world without the distinction between “potential” and “actual” (things as they appear to us, as they are intuited and thought, and things as they are in themselves, assuming we have an access to them independently of our understanding), there is no moral obligation, as Kant understands, there is no absolutely necessary duty, there are no commands. Methodical extermination of Jews in such a world would be as justified as Nürnberg‘s trials arguments against the Nazi crimes…