Home > Philosophy > Putnam, God, And The Demise of Metaphysical Realism

Putnam, God, And The Demise of Metaphysical Realism

As of late, I have either been too lazy or too uninspired to write new philosophical pieces. So here is an essay I wrote last January, the issues of which I am still deeply interested in. The essay was written for a class on postmodernism. I took the chance to write about Hilary Putnam and expound upon some postmodern themes in his work that result from his rejection of metaphysical realism, a view assumed by philosophers since Plato. The essay concludes with considerations as to how Putnam’s views may be compatible with Christianity and how they may force us to conceive of God differently (the class focused on postmodernism in general and postmodernism in religion). I wouldn’t expect anyone to read the whole thing, but this is interesting shit.

Many of the major themes of postmodernism—pluralism, relativism, perspectivism, incredulity toward meta-narratives—arguably stem from the rejection of a metaphysical view that has been prominent among philosophers of nearly every age. With the rise and widespread success of the natural sciences during the modern period, this view—sometimes referred to as metaphysical realism—became especially entrenched in the worldview of modernity. Thus, in one sense, to reject metaphysical realism is to show an affinity toward postmodern ways of thinking. But while such postmodern ways of thinking have, in the past, been something primarily confined to continental philosophy (mostly French and German philosophy), there have been signs in recent years of a postmodern influence amidst the Anglo-American philosophical tradition. Such signs are most apparent among the American neo-Pragmatists. For this essay I will concentrate on the work of Hilary Putnam who Richard Rorty (perhaps the quintessential American postmodernist) referred to as “the most important contemporary philosopher to call himself a pragmatist.”[1]

In this essay I will first describe two major characteristics of metaphysical realism and why Putnam thinks that it is time that we abandon such a view of the world. This will involve a description of Putnam’s alternative form of realism: internal or pragmatic realism. Second, I will attempt to look at Putnam’s rejection of metaphysical realism and his adoption of internal realism from a Christian perspective. In so doing I will explain two reasons why I find Putnam’s quasi-postmodern views to be beneficial to Christians. Lastly, I will consider one objection of internal realism from a Christian perspective.

One of the central tenets of metaphysical realism, according to Putnam, is the view that the world consists of “a fixed totality of mind-independent [or language-independent] objects.”[2] In other words, the world consists not merely of mind-independent objects (something that Putnam agrees with) but of objects that are self-identifying or objects that are cut up into different kinds by the world. Thus, on this view, what the world consists of—with its different types or kinds of objects—is determined by the world itself. The world comes “ready-made,” so to speak. The role of the perceiver on this view is one of passivity: we show up on the scene passively receiving the perceptual information of this ready-made world. The role of the perceiver is thus minimal.

A second tenet of metaphysical realism that is closely associated with the first is the idea that there is exactly one true and complete description of the way the world is. Such an idea does not merely seem to hinge upon the previous tenet—that the world consists of a fixed totality of mind-independent objects—but also upon the presumption that there is such a thing as a “one true language” for us to describe the world with. Usually this transcendental, God-like language is taken to be the language of physics, but the central point is that, according to the metaphysical realist, there can be—and perhaps someday there will be—one language that is capable of describing the world in its entirety.

One of the great insights of Immanuel Kant—an insight that both Putnam and many postmodernists emphasize—was that the world does not come ready-made. Rather, much of what the world consists of is determined by us or by the mind’s interaction with the world. In the language of postmodernism, one might say we always look at the world through a lens:  a lens contaminated by the categories of our mind (Kantianism) or our languages (linguistic Kantianism) or our conceptual schemas (Putnam). In the language of Putnam, our view of the world is always going to reflect our interests and values. For Putnam, it is primarily we who cut the world up into different objects (not the other way around) when we introduce one or another theory of description.[3] This leads to what is perhaps the central tenet of Putnam’s internal realism: conceptual relativity.

Conceptual relativists hold that the question, “What objects does the world consist of?” only makes sense when asked within a conceptual schema or a theory of description.[4] For instance, suppose that there are three cars in a parking lot and we are asked the question, “How many objects are in the parking lot?” One response is to say, obviously, that there are three objects: car 1, car 2, and car 3. However, another response may be that there are fifteen objects: three cars and twelve tires. But why stop there? Why not include the windows, the engines, the headlights, and so on, as objects? Why not even include the lines of the parking lot as objects? The point for Putnam is that there is always a conventionality in the statements we make concerning what sorts of objects are in the world and how many of them there are. Ultimately, what Putnam is saying is that there is no sense in asking, “What objects are in the world?” without first establishing a theory of description or defining what counts as an object. On this view, not even God could answer the question pertaining to how many objects are in the parking lot and not because he lacks omniscience but because “there is a limit to how far questions make sense.”[5] Such a view should seem quite troubling for the metaphysical realist who thinks that what the world consists of is a question that has an absolute, non-theory-laden answer.

A corollary to conceptual relativity is equally troublesome for the metaphysical realist. For if there are a plurality of correct ways to go about answering the question, “How many objects are in the parking lot?” then it follows that there can be more than one true description of the world. For Putnam, it all falls back upon what our interests and values are (or what our current purposes are) and it is those interests and values that will ultimately determine which theory of description we choose to adopt. In essence, there is no non-theory-laden or non-value-laden description of the world. Whether or not a description is true is always relative to one’s theory of description. And because it is the case for Putnam that more than one theory can adequately describe a particular situation (such as was the case with the objects in the parking lot), there is not just one and only one true and complete description of the world. To summarize this point, Putnam states,

In my picture [internal realism], objects are theory-dependent in the sense that theories with incompatible ontologies can both be right. Saying that they are both right…is not saying [for example] that there are both absolute space-time points and points which are mere limits. It is saying that various representations, various languages, various theories, are equally good in certain contexts.

On this internal realist view then, there is no way for us to just perceive “raw reality” or the world as it is “in and of itself.” In other words, there is no God’s-Eye view from which we can view the world. We are always viewing the world from a certain perspective. The dream of viewing the world from a perspectiveless standpoint—“the view from nowhere” as some have called it—is untenable. However, for Putnam, this is not merely tantamount to saying that humans will never achieve a God’s-Eye view in practice. Putnam thinks that even metaphysical realists could agree to that. Rather, what Putnam is saying is that a God’s-Eye view, even understood as an unachievable idealization, does not make sense. We can no longer even visualize what it would mean to attain such an ideal.[6] He states,

There is no God’s Eye point of view that we can know or usefully imagine; there are only the various points of view of actual persons reflecting various interests and purposes that their descriptions and theories subserve. (emphasis added)[7]

While the current discussion thus far has primarily concerned metaphysics, Putnam’s internal realism extends to other fields as well, such as moral philosophy. According to Putnam, the situation is the same with moral questions as it is with metaphysical ones. In the same way that it does not makes sense to ask, “How many objects are in the parking lot?” outside of all contexts, it also does not make sense to ask “What is the right action to take in a particular situation?” outside of all contexts. In other words, there are no absolute answers to our moral questions or to any of our essential questions for that matter. However, this does not mean that “anything goes.” For Putnam, there are right and wrong actions—just like there are true and false descriptions of the world—but the rightness and wrongness of an action (or truth and falsity of a description) is always context-relative.

As one can perhaps tell by now, rejecting the sort of metaphysical realism just described leaves open the door for some of the major themes of postmodernism. The rejection of the plausibility of the God’s Eye view means the adoption of some form of relativism in nearly all areas of importance. Relativism can lead to pluralism or the view that there is more than one right answer to certain fundamental questions. The issue that the rest of this essay will be concerned with is whether or not internal realism and some of its postmodern implications are something that Christians should be willing to adopt or something that they should be wary of. It is my position that internal realism is, on the whole, something positive and something that Christians should welcome (or at least should not be afraid to welcome).

The first reason why I think internal realism is compatible with Christianity is because the former, like the latter, is willing to affirm and embrace human finitude (it is no coincidence that Putnam refers to internal realism as realism with a human face). This is similar to the insight of John Franke who has argued that the postmodern denial of certain modernist projects—epistemological foundationalism for Franke, metaphysical realism for Putnam—is something that has long been supported by a biblical worldview. This may sound anachronistic if we suppose that what Franke is saying is that the scriptures make explicit denials of these philosophical positions. But I do not think this is what Franke is saying. What he seems to be saying is that the scriptures have always emphasized the limitedness of human nature. That is, they has always stressed the gap between humans and God and the impossibility of the former to view the world from the perspective of the latter. At the same time, Franke’s nonfoundationalism and Putnam’s internal realism emphasize that the aforementioned modernist projects are “an impossible dream for finite human beings”[8] Thus, there is a commonality between Christianity and internal realism: they both reject the possibility of human beings looking at the world from a God’s-Eye perspective.

The second feature of internal realism that I think Christians should be welcoming of is its emphasis that the “world of appearances” or “the world as it appears to us” is not merely some subjective illusion but that it is, to a certain extent, the real world. This is not the claim that we can, after all, get at the noumenal realm or at objects as they are “in and of themselves.” Rather, this is the claim that we should do away with the scientism that became so prominent during the modern period: a scientism that draws the appearance-reality distinction in a place that only allows for the world-picture or language of physics to describe that which is “real” while considering everything else as mere “appearance” (think of Locke and his distinction between primary and secondary qualities). According to Putnam, however, simply because our moral perceptions, color perceptions, sound perceptions, and so on, may be appearances in the sense that they are our projections onto the world, this does not exempt them from being real and objectively so. Ultimately, what internal realism allows is for there to be more to the world than what the world-picture or language of physics can give us. It is not that internal realism rejects the world-picture of physics but it does reject that such a picture is the one by which we measure all others. Putnam argues this point when he says,

Talk of moral ‘perception’, like talk of mathematical intuition…is not reducible to the language or the world-picture of physics. That does not mean physics is ‘incomplete’. Physics can be ‘complete’—that is, complete for physical purposes. The completeness physics lacks is a completeness all particular theories, pictures, and discourses lack. For no theory or picture is complete for all purposes. If the irreducibility of ethics to physics shows that values are projections, then colors are also projections. So are the natural numbers. So, for that matter, is ‘the physical world’. But being a projection in this sense is not the same thing as being subjective.[9]

I presume that one of the reasons why Putnam considers his metaphysical view a form of realism in the first place, as opposed to anti-realism, is precisely because he takes his view to be a preservation of—rather than a disposal of—our most fundamental human experiences (such as our color perceptions).

One reason why Christians may be drawn to this feature of internal realism is because it breaks the stronghold that physics has had on our conception of the world. Adopting internal realism means that we need not think that the world God created is one that humans are completely unaware of. For if the only thing that the world “really” consists of is the mind-independent particles of physics, we end up with a world that is wholly inaccessible to humans. Under internal realism, however, what the world “really” consists of is a product of both mind and world. Thus, colors, tastes, and the rest of our senses are a part of the world. The mind is seen less as a contamination or distortion of that which is “out there” and more of something involved in the creation of that which is “out there.” Thus, on this view, we are seeing and experiencing the world as God created it (for humans).

There is one Christian response to internal realism that I wish to address. This response concerns Putnam’s discussion about the God’s-Eye view. As it will be recalled, internal realism does not merely involve the denial that humans will eventually achieve a God’s-Eye view of the world. Rather, it involves the denial that a God’s-Eye view is even intelligible or imaginable. There is an important difference here. The Christian theist who holds that humans will never become God can easily adopt the first view. The second view is more controversial, however. For if it does not even make sense to talk about an absolute, perspectiveless perspective, in what way can we say that God is perspectiveless or beyond perspectives? In other words, does internal realism force us to admit that even God himself is unable to look upon the world from an absolute, theory-free perspective? And if so, is this not contrary to our view of God?

There are various responses that could be given to this critique. The first response would be to say that internal realism is only applicable to finite beings or beings who have to look upon the world from a local perspective. Thus, an infinite being like God is exempt from this restriction. To look through the “eyes of God” (a phrase that already reeks of perspectivism) is to view the world as it is “in and of itself.” But again, such a response seems utterly unintelligible. For how can God “view” the world without viewing it from a certain viewpoint? If God is at all a being like us, there does not seem to be anyway around saying that he also has a perspective from which he looks at the world. Insofar as he is a being that is wholly different from us, then there may be a possible solution to this problem. But for now, such a possibility will have to be thrown up into the category of mystery for I do not even know what it would mean for a being to be entirely without a perspective. In this sense, this is not just a problem for theists who adhere to internal realism: one cannot simply reject internal realism and pretend like the problem has went away. Instead, this is a problem for any theist who wants to argue that God can view the world “from nowhere.”

For those who want to avoid throwing this issue up into the realm of the mysterious and at the same time avoid saying that God is restricted to one perspective, the only other solution that seems tenable is to argue that God has an infinite amount of perspectives (or, at least, all possible perspectives). Thus, while God is still bound by the laws of perspectivism, he can nonetheless navigate from one perspective to the next, looking at the world in every way possible. It is in this sense then that we might say God is able to look at the work “as it really is.” Not because he is without perspective but because he can view the world from every possible perspective. It may still seem a bit strange that God would not be able to look upon the world—something he created—as it is “in and of itself.” But perhaps this is simply a sign that we need to throw away such a concept. As Putnam has said, it is no longer something that we can usefully imagine.

I hope this essay has made it apparent why a rejection of metaphysical realism and its favored view—the God’s-Eye view—is one of the central causes for some of the major themes of postmodernism. All of this postmodern talk about relativity (conceptual relativity, moral relativity), pluralism (concerning the correctness of two or more incompatible ontologies), and perspectivism stems from the “demise of a theory that lasted for over two thousand years.”[10] To think that the champion of the modern intellectual world, Immanuel Kant, would be the first to teach us that the metaphysical realist’s desire for a God’s-Eye view is unfulfillable is perhaps one of the great ironies in intellectual history.[11]


[1] Russell B. Goodman, ed. Pragmatism: A Contemporary Reader (Routledge: London and New York , 1995), 160. It should be noted that “postmodern” is probably not an accurate description of Putnam’s views. In fact, he often distances himself from the likes of some of the prominent postmodernists such as Rorty and Foucault. There is little doubt, however, that there are postmodern themes within his work. If we can consider him a postmodernist, we should probably consider him a soft or quasi-postmodernist.

[2] Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face, (Harvard University Press, 1990), 30.

[3] Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth, and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981), 52.

[4] Ibid, 49.

[5] Russell B. Goodman, ed. Pragmatism, 173

[6] Putnam, Realism, 18

[7] Putnam, Reason, 50.

[8] Myron B. Penner, ed. Christianity and the Postmodern Turn (Brazos Press: Michigan, 2005), 111.

[9] Putnam, Reason, 147.

[10] Putnam, Reason, 74.

[11] Ibid.

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