Willard Van Orman Quine (1908–2000), considered by many in the philosophy trade to be the most important American philosopher of the 20th century, authored two monumental essays—“Two Dogmas of Empiricism” and “Ontological Relativity”—that continue the quantum antirealist revolution in science and philosophy. Quine, paragon of epistemological holism, on the ontological problem: “What is there? Everything.”
“Two Dogmas” (1951) presented Quine’s holistic assault on scientific objectivity, demolished Kant’s hitherto essential philosophical analytic/synthetic distinction, and therefore the demarcation between objective science and subjective metaphysics (the “demarcation problem”). Quine thereby forever (a long time) changed the empirical, determinist, realist, materialist character of Western Science and philosophy, opening the door to the present noetic paradigmatic crisis, and to centrist pragmatic, including Buddhist epistemic options. This was not at all his intention. Indeed, such a view casts a subjectivist pall over Quine’s professed physicalist “naturalized epistemology.” Ironically, Quine was it seems unable to entirely free himself of the logical empiricism (positivism) of his Logical Positivist mentor Rudolf Carnap, whose logicism he demolished (Boaz 2012, “Quine’s Revolution: Epistemological Holism in Science and Philosophy,” p. 16).
This places Quine, like Hume, on the cusp of an historical intellectual revolution. Hume bestrides the subjectivity of Premoderm tradition, and the objectivity of the European Enlightenment that is Modernity. Quine abides rather precariously between Modern objective Science, and a balancing neopragmatic centrist subjective metaphysic.
Let us here acknowledge that our knowledge goal is the complementarity and mutuality of an epistemic middle way between these ostensibly incommensurable paradigms—objective and subjective.
In “Ontological Relativity” (1969) Quine clarified the relation of ontology—“what there is”—to language, that is, to the intersubjective deep background cultural reality assumptions (e.g. Realism/Materialism) of our semiotic individual and collective “web of belief.” This collective concept/belief system arises from its nondual primordial ground, mythopoetically instantiated in the two-valued duality of the logical syntax of language. For Quine, there are no objective facts, only linguistic meanings.
For Quine and his great collaborator, French physicist and philosopher of science Pierre Duhem, “The truth of a theory is dependent on the assumptions upon which it rests’” (Quine/Duhem Thesis); and these prior assumptions can never be necessary, objectively certain and universal. Thus scientific knowledge is necessarily corrigible, conjectural and contingent upon language and cultural evolutionary historical variables. It follows that scientific knowledge is at root socio-culturally constructed, historical, normative and value-laden, and ideological, just as Kuhn told.
This is hardly the idealized, valorized massmind notion of Science as the supreme method that discovers objective, necessarily certain, universal knowledge and Truth. Far from it. The knowledge constructed/fabricated/contrived by the miracle of modern science cannot be certain and universal, but is instead contingent, particular, probable and marvelously pragmatic as to its products in the service of human beings.
Scientific conceptual schemata and philosophical truths are then, on Quine’s view, not objectively discovered knowledge or truth of an independently existing reality “out there,” but rather, duly considered and constructed scientific opinion (doxa/vikalpa), validated, vindicated, or falsified by our subjective experience.
This is the view of Plato’s “Earth Giants,” the pragmatically wise Sophists, nemesis of Plato and his “Gods” who purport to reveal absolute, deductively certain, foundational universal Truth (the “Ideas” or “Forms” of Plato’s Sophist). So Platonic Realism— the view of the Gods—can no longer serve the epistemology of the colossus of earthbound Science. Once more, a realist/materialist science cannot discover certain, absolute and universal truths. Objective human consciousness has no “God’s eye view” of arising reality. Thus is the subjective remedy of trans-conceptual contemplative cognition indicated.
Yet, within the realm of relative-conventional truth (samvriti satya), the spacetime quarks and leptons, and perhaps Higgs bosons that Science “discovers” are indeed, for now, conventionally, interdependently real (if not inherently, ultimately real), even though, given the evolutionary historical nature of Science, such “knowledge” will be “incorrect;” transcended in a few years by more inclusive, yet ever incomplete theories. And real trees and real stars will still be here—ever present to the infallible direct perception (pratyaksa/kensho/satori) of human consciousness. And the scientific explanation of their being here will be but a platonic footnote in the historiographic fantasque of scientific inquiry. But isn’t such a radical noetic epistemology just too radical for our present “web of belief”?
In “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951), arguably the most celebrated philosophical essay of the 20th century—required reading for both physicists and Buddhist scholars—Quine reveals his “radical nominalism,” an anti-essentialist, antirealist view which asserts that abstract terms, like “red,” do not entail physically real existents, like “house.” In contradistinction to the young A. J. Ayer, ebullient apologist of the Logical Positivists, “Language Truth and Logic” require no ontological commitment to a separate RWOT (real world out there). Again, such nominalism shares the middle way anti-essentialist, but not antirealist view of centrist middle way Prasangika Madhyamaka Buddhism that is the foundation of the pinnacle of Vajrayana wisdom, namely, Dzogchen Ati, the Great Perfection.
In this trenchant essay Quine also develops his consciousness expanding epistemological holism (“confirmation holism” that is a semantic holism). The two justly famous essential and interdependent precepts of this holism are, 1) interpretation of all sense-based empirical observations are thickly “theory laden”, or theory-dependent, that is, they are dependent upon, and heavily laden with prior intersubjective historical/cultural assumptions, theories and beliefs, and 2) all theory is “underdetermined” by its evidential data, that is, empirical evidence in isolation—apart from its “auxiliary hypotheses” that comprise the “whole of science”, indeed the whole of a language—is not an adequate criterion of decidability as to theory falsification, verification, vindication or truth. This means that factual scientific claims cannot be reduced to empirical data of the senses.
Goodbye Scientific Empiricism, Scientific Reductionism, and Logical Positivism. Hello noetic ontological relativity of the new incipient reformation in science, culture and spirituality—the Noetic Revolution—that is just now emerging in the 21st century (Boaz, “Being the Whole: Toward the Emerging Noetic Revolution,” 2013).
On Quine’s epistemic holism then, scientific statements and the theories derived from them, just as the mature Wittgenstein told, face the crucible of our experience, not as individual hypotheses or theories, but as the “whole of science” with the “auxiliary hypotheses” of its entire language “coordinate grid.” This Postmodern pragmatist narrative—Nietzsche, Peirce, James—with the Neopragmatists (Rorty) as with Middle Way Buddhism, is steadfastly perspectival and anti-essentialist, but not always (Buddhism) antirealist.
Acknowledging the epistemic limit of material Realism, and the truth of our primordial wisdom’s “Two Truths”, Quine counsels wryly, “Familiar material objects may not be all that is real, but they are admirable examples.” We have seen that our deep background, unexamined cultural presumption that “real” means merely “physical” is a primary cause of the destructive paradigmatic split between Science and Spirit/spirituality. The recognition of this constitutes a perspicuous penetration of Leibniz’ subjective “indiscernibles” that pervade human consciousness (morals, value and obligation, free will, spirituality, and the rest). Reality itself far exceeds our obsessive habit of mere objective cognition.
Hence, this second “dogma of empiricism” with its epistemological holism (a semantic holism) and ontological relativity proved to be the death knell for Logical Empiricism (Logical Positivism)—Carnap, Ayer, Russell, young Wittgenstein (The Tractatus)—of which Quine was an early adherent.
It also effectively ended the entire scientific reductionist project, namely ontological reductionism (we’re no more than Alice’s—Carroll’s—“bag of neurons” which are then reducible to the tiny, purely physical billiard balls of microphysics). It ended as well, methodological or explanatory reductionism. Here psychology, the social sciences and spiritual experience are reducible to molecular biology and neurobiology, the all of biology to chemistry, chemistry to physics, physics to quantum physics, quantum physics to post-quantum, post-Standard Model asymmetry M-Theory—strings, loops, branes, etc., ad nausem.
William James pointed out a hundred years ago in what he called the “psychologist’s fallacy,” that what a theory posits, e.g. atoms—or atoms reduced to quarks, leptons and Higgs bosons—is what the theory is likely to “discover.” This “discovery” then “proves” the theory. Alas, altering the trajectory of such belief discoveries in the “Big Science” of today, with international trillions of dollars and thousands of scientific careers and reputations at stake, is not socio-culturally likely. Ah, the irrefragable, wonderfully circular logic of Scientism. Don’t we love it?
Unfortunately such logical dependence of deductively certain truth derived from the intrinsically equivocal experimental/empirical, always changing data of our sense experience is not logically possible. To attempt to derive such logical certainty is to commit Aristotle’s logical fallacy of “affirming the consequent,” an invalid form of logical deductive inference. Scientist’s and their objectivist philosophical ideologues must at last acknowledge that—while marvelously practical—empirical, contingent sense experience cannot validate necessarily certain and universal knowledge/truth propositions. Philosophers of physics, philosophers of religion and religious thinkers have dedicated vast quantities of ink to this logical truth. How long before the big business of Big Science physics gets it?
Moreover, the reductionist “naturalism” of the natural sciences reduces the natural world to an unnatural, unreal, meaningless spectral Planck scale micro-world which is, ipso facto, and ex hypothesi forever beyond human conceptual comprehension and elaboration. That the ultimate nature of mind with its arising spacetime realities is conceptually (if not contemplatively) incomprehensible may well be the case, but this 2400 year old “old paradigm” and its obsessively physicalist arguments are circular and self-sealing, not to mention skeptical and nihilistic as to humanity’s urgent problems of knowledge, morals and governance. Social caveat: don’t argue this point at cocktail parties, or worse yet, in a grant proposal.
Thus is this scientific reductionist result at odds with its hopeful, unlikely illogical scientific quest for an objective, physical Theory of Everything. Reductive Materialism and Eliminative Materialism just get “curiouser and curiouser,” do they not? What would Quine say?