Pragmatism and Physics
Quine in Word and Object talks much about how our linguistic constructions cannot typically be translated intersubjectively without reference to the whole of a person’s language. Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations can be thought of saying a similar thing. I wish to construe the enterprise of physics in such a way as well. ‘Physics’ comprises a great body of theoretical statements about the world. I believe it constitutes a language by which we can communicate and interact with the world and that there are many other languages which produce empirically equivalent statements concerning the world but posit much different concepts concerning the world. Some people believe that our concepts are all that is there in the world. ‘Relativism’ and ‘subjectivity’ in it most broad and encompassing contexts makes claims such as: “All truth is relative or subjective”, “What is true for you is true for you but what is true for me may be different”, “Whatever I believe is true is what is true”.
A passing remark: If all truth is relative; which means what is true is completely definable by the subject, then the statement “All truth is relative” must also be relative. Although, since I take “All truth is relative” to be expressing a truth claim it then becomes self-refuting.
Quine takes truth to be relative to a linguistic framework (in our case, physics). Let us suppose we were to ask a physicist if it is true or false whether electrons exist in the world objectively. The physicist would then proceed to talk about the properties of an “electron”. He or she would bring to mind electric charges, electric currents, electric fields, and perhaps the whole story of quantum electrodynamics. From left to right in the above statement we have more and more theoretical baggage: it is hard to see how those to right could be true without those to the left being true as well. So, you would then probably question the physicist concerning his or her conception of “electric charge”. The physicist would then probably proceed to describe sensory experiences relating to the presence of negative electric charges. Quine’s genius was to see that the meaning of ‘electron’ for the physicist is simply the collection of all sensory experiences by which the physicist within his or her linguistic community would assent to the statement “electron” (or more appropriately “that, electron”). Therefore, the meaning of sentences in physics comes either directly from sense experience or complex theoretical connections between sentences of various “stimulus meanings”.
To get on to my point “ontological relativity” is not relativity in general. What I take Quine to mean is that truth may be “framework-relative”. So back to the above example we can envision devising many different theoretical frameworks by which to describe the world around us including the world of physics. We could associate certain sense experiences with different linguistic conventions to the point where the normal physics conventions would no longer need to be around to describe the sense experiences we have. At this point we would have two empirically equivalent ways of viewing the world: there is no way to distinguish between the two theories by an appeal to sense data. Thus, the question of whether or not “electrons” exist in the world is true given a modern physics framework but may not be true in other empirically equivalent linguistic frameworks. If left here we can say we have arrived at relativism, that is, some true propositions in my “language” or my community’s “language” may be false in yours. Although, I do not think that it does stop here because we can decide between two empirically equivalent linguistic frameworks by an appeal to the pragmatic maxim. The more appropriate framework to believe is whatever would be most expedient to believe, that is, whatever framework would make it easier for you to operate in the world with success. This means that the most appropriate linguistic framework to hold on to will be whichever one remains fixed, stable, and resists change in the face of all future sense experiences. This is about as true as things get. In this way none of us has freedom to believe whatever he or she wills or pleases because there is an objective world which provides constant sensory experiences which will modify our linguistic frameworks and our conceptions of the world. So, we do not create reality with our linguistic conventions because it is reality which constantly modifies them.