“Speaking as a philosopher, I am quite prepared to say that the common sense world of physical objects in Space and Time is unreal—that is, that there are no such things. Or, to put it less paradoxically, that in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and what is not that is not.” Speaking as anyone else, I am quite prepared to say that any such philosopher has only produced a turd. Specifically, the turd is an unhealthy mix of partially digested ideas confusing, among other things, two levels of observation, one unaided and one aided; then it denigrates the things “seen” in one manner of observation over the other in such a way that both become philosophically unintelligible—or more precisely, illusory. In short, Sellars’ conception of the scientific image reduces science to using (potentially) illusory information from illusory instruments to detect the truly real things and events that show just how both illusory the information and the instruments are. So science under Sellars amounts to real knowledge derived from illusions to explain more illusions. For a philosopher this should be problematic, even as the rest of us can just move along.
Sellars’ offers little by way of example for his reasoning, but consider the scientific discovery of the wave spectrum of visible light, and its relation to other sensory phenomena, sound and heat. Unaided perception shows that when light is passed through a prism, it gets divided into different, observable colors. Scientifically we now know that these various colors are due to different wavelengths of light, even though we can’t directly see the “waves” or their “lengths”. We also know scientifically that waves of varying lengths explains the heat radiating from a warm body and the sounds we perceive all around us, even though these phenomena occur in different sensory modalities. So science gives us a unified explanation of phenomena that the senses insist are quite different. In this respect, science reveals something common underlying what, to unaided perception, appears diverse. To put the matter another way, unaided perception relies on qualitative diversity that science ignores in its description of the world under a common explanation. In this respect, scientific explanations seem more “truly” real.
But—and this is the first butt—this common explanation, the emanation of waves, cannot be observed unaided; to the senses the phenomena have nothing in common except that they can be sensed at a distance. Instead, the emanation of waves in light, heat, and sound are observed using instruments. In one sense, then, waves are only indirectly observable, in that they require instruments, but in another sense they are directly observable on the assumption that instruments give reliable information about the nature of actual physical events they measure (the success of physics testifies to at least the value and probably the validity of this assumption). So two kinds of observation are at work here: one unaided (directly sensory) and one aided (instrumental), with the latter being both directly sensory (as we read the instruments) and directly sensitive to actual physical events (the function of the instrument itself). The assumption that the instrument is “directly sensitive” to actual physical events is no more controversial than the one that stipulates that our senses are directly sensitive to actual physical things. Some important dimensions to the concept of “information” could be invoked here, but since Sellars doesn’t invoke them, they won’t be.
Sellars would have us believe that these common scientific explanations for manifestly diverse phenomena in the “manifest image” (as he calls it) show that scientific explanations touch a reality more real than the experiences of events and things that they explain in that “image”—in other words, science reveals a reality more real than the qualitative diversity we actually perceive around us. He would also have us believe that these “images” of man and the world are rival images that need to be brought into a “stereoscopic” view. But– and this is the second butt– the perceived rivalry is mistaken because the called for “stereoscopic view” already exists; in fact, its existence testifies to the fact that both the scientific image and the manifest image are, for what the words are worth, “equally real,” despite their obvious differences. How this is the case can be easily shown from the logic of scientific explanation itself.
First, the rivalry is only apparent precisely because the stereoscopic view is necessary in order to understand most scientific explanations as explanations of anything; that is, without some kind of stereoscopic view, it is hard to see how and explanation can even be an explanation, so provisionally, at least, it is already implied. In this respect, scientific explanations, i.e. the scientific image, are better understood as isomorphic to the manifest image. For instance, consider the scientific explanation of light, heat, and sound. In the scientific explanation, the different wavelengths only make sense as explanations for the different colors of light, the different degrees of heat, and the different types of sound perceived in the “manifest image.” It explains why these qualities can be detected at a distance—waves emanate—even as it explains why they differ in kind or degree—the wavelengths differ. But, rather truistically and obviously, they explain reality. In fact, to gain their traction as explanations of reality, they draw from and refer back to the qualities and distinctions of everyday, perceived reality in a real way; otherwise they wouldn’t be explanations of it (seriously, this has to be said?). What’s more, without presuming that this world as the explanandum is also real , scientific explanations, to the philosopher, become in effect explanations of nothing—or equivalently, they become in effect explanations of the non-real, of illusions. So science explains…illusions, not reality…It’s real knowledge of an illusion? One can be a normal person and shrug off such verbiage (science has always moved along quite nicely without anal-lytic philosophers), but as a philosopher one should be unsettled that the only use we have for the ultimately real we discover in science is that it explains what is ultimately an illusion. It would be much nicer to have real explanations for real things. It sounds so juvenile, but such is the “problem” of rivalry for the philosopher.
Second, it would also be nicer as a philosopher if knowledge of those ultimately reals was based on something more than information derived from non-real instruments. As already noted, the wave length explanation of radiation, like other scientific explanations, relies on the assumption that the instruments used yield immediate information about actual physical events. If these instruments are somehow “unreal”—and as a philosopher Sellars is willing to say they are—how can this assumption hold water? How can a non-real instrument provide real information about actual physical events? To anyone else, this is a stupid puzzle, but to a philosopher it should be a problem that detection of ultimately real events and constituents of the universe is based on real information yielded by non-real instruments. At this point, those important dimensions to the concept of “information” have to be invoked, for in order for Sellar’s view of science and the scientific image to hold water, i.e. in order to say as a philosopher that the common sense world of physical objects is not real but the world of science is, he is committed to some kind of metaphysics of information, where “information” both transcends and is transcended by our non-real powers for gathering it. Perhaps, then, information is the ultimate truly real of the universe, and only science reveals this despite using unreal instruments… and so on. For scientists and the rest of us, it is best just to flush the whole damn toilet.
Perhaps in charity it could be pointed out there is an almost religious dimension to the power of science to reveal what the universe is like as though (in some respects) we were not in it—that is, to yield a knowledge not bound by the limits of what we can natively know (though it should be noted that as science progresses, the issue of being an observer is again encountered in full force). Only in this quasi-religious, quasi-metaphorical sense do we apprehend “things in themselves” through science. Similarly, the power to abstract ourselves from our rootedness in a specific time and place and body and senses is almost holy. But that holiness is no excuse for deifying science at the expense of that rootedness itself, salvaging for ourselves only a presumptive direction and purpose because science reveals that our place in the world is not truly real. Why is that? Are we not part of the universe too? As a part of what is real, aren’t we entitled to be real? Are we the only “unreal” part? If that’s so, how is it that the only un-real part has as a primary vocation knowledge of the real? Maybe a presumptive direction is both all that what we need because it’s all that we can get, but that’s not because questions like those just asked need to be resolved by reconciling the rivalry between “reality” of the “scientific image” and the “non-reality” of “the manifest image” in some kind of “stereoscopic view.” For as already noted, the so-called “rivalry” is mistaken, but the deification driving it is worse than mistaken: it is juvenile. In its own way it is no better than deifying the religious into a supernatural god who dictates how we should live our lives through a tablet of commandments revealed by a burning bush, with guardian angels on our shoulders looking out for us every step of the way, just for good measure. There is a deeper meaning of science to be had, one perfectly consistent with common sense, one which the best of our scientists appreciate without the idolatrous obfuscations of philosophers. Max Plank got it and posed the problem well over 100 years ago. So did Eddington just afterwards. Dewey followed him a year later. Maybe Sellars should have read them before becoming rivalrous himself.
At the end of the day, Sellars’ view of science as a philosopher is unscientific in so far as it does not respect the reality of the mysteries science seeks to explain. This neglect seems to be a pervasive theme among the luminaires of anal-lytic philosophy. Quine does it. So does Rorty, just from the other direction. Searle just doesn’t get it at all. Only Putman seems immune. Without at least one foot in that reality, without one foot in the mystery, scientific explanations and philosophical analysis are literally, for a philosopher, explanations of nothing. What use is there in that?