Many Worlds

Furniture Sales in Đồng Văn Market
Tables at Đồng Văn market
In the Sunday market, at the northern tip of Vietnam, a H'mong woman sells furniture

These two 'tables' seem definite and solid enough for any objector to be able to bang, and to claim they exist; the very hands resting on them seem to affirm the claim. But those quotation marks, and the obviously exotic context, allow us to question the tables; asking what is meant by table, and in what context they would count as tables. This page covers very similar ground to the page Russian Nesting Objects, although this has a more abstract slant.

Firstly the word table. In English it denotes something easily distinguished from a cupboard, but here, in the picture, these clothes cupboards are being sold to people who traditionally had little furniture. So table is often used as the translation for such items, indicating that it is in the house and other things can be put on it - as well as in it. The chests, or tables, at Đồng Văn give us an example of the way that language interacts with the social world, and is not simply laid on top of neutral objects. Probably the most famous case of this linguistic relativity is the Inuits' many words for snow, where the 'tables are turned' and it is English that is failing to make distinctions another language makes, and so, it is sometimes argued, one language can fail to 'see' objects seen by another.

In these cases the processes of naming and perceiving interact. This may be in simple matters like distinguishing types of table, or types of snow, or in more fundamental constructions such as the attribution of 'I' and 'you'. This line of thought seems to lead to aspects of reality itself being held to be socially constructed. In Berger and Luckmann's view our apparently substantial and thump-able worlds are moulded through time by the handing on of ideas; in an extreme form, the argument may lead to the claim that all knowledge is socially determined, and any supporting tables, or snow, begin to seem dispensable.

A second way the tables in the picture lead us to question which world they belong to, is held by many today. It is a view well presented by Russell. There are the tables themselves, these are objects quite independent of humans - if all humans suddenly ceased to exist the tables would be just fine. Then there are conceptions and words about the tables, sometimes conceptions and words are bound together as 'the facts' about the tables, these are highly dependent on humans, and human demise eliminates them. So now we have two separate worlds, worlds which, according to Russell, are related by being in correspondence. My thought (an event in my mind) about the table is related by correspondence to the object, the table, which is independent of me. A most inviting description, accepted by many, but which covers over the difficulty of seeing if these 'objects' out there are in fact indubitably independent of my thoughts. For example, what would it mean to say that the tables are orange if there was no vision, as colour is an interaction of our nervous systems and light? This question can be repeated across the other modes of thought.

So we are left to ask what is there of the cupboards that are objects in themselves, and what could that mean? This line of argument leads us to find that Russell's world of objects is in fact another conceptual world, and so it certainly does correspond to the world of language, but it is far from independent of human beings.

There is a more radical take on these tables which Russell was trying to circumvent. Three hundred years earlier Descartes had pointed out that we cannot know if we are being misled by an 'evil genius' in such a way that there are no external tables 3- or anything else for that matter. Given that we might be deceived, he argues, it follows that only internal mental processes are trustworthy, and that if there is an external physical world, it is only there out of the goodness of god's heart. This divide which he so clearly suggested, between the mental and the physical, has persisted in many circles, and the discipline of consciousness studies4 still abounds in such discussions. Most of us wish for an external world that does not rely on god, although equally what use is an external world with which we can have no contact? And so to Kant.

Lastly, the most radical version of the tables. Kant's divide between worlds is the deepest. But he places those tables depicted above, along with all the objects which humans apprehend, and all our thinking about anything, squarely in the world of the phenomenal. There are distinctions between the concepts in our heads, and objects we regard as being out there, but both are united in one world, and under this one word - phenomena. This apparent unity has a catch, for that unity is an artefact, it is a product of our minds, created by the way our minds gather together 'unknown matter' and form it into what we call experience. For that 'unknown matter' he coins the term noumena.

So, in fact, for Kant there are two very different worlds, the one of experience, and another one comprising what there is if there were no minds to have experiences. To the latter world it seems unlikely that the tables could belong, but that is logically something we can never know anything about. Kant is explicit that the noumena cannot be said to have any of the characteristics of experience, for those characteristics come from the 'categories' that are in our minds; we simply could never know if they do, or do not, have such characteristics independently of us, and that means we cannot talk about them at all - end of discussion!

The picture points to many worlds: the physical, the constructed, the factual, the mental, the possibly, and in a way, even the hidden noumenal. Western protagonists have often thumped their tables: 'This is here, damn it!' And in the end we may want the hands resting on the tables to testify to this one unified world. But it is not a claim that is easy to make, and the path to that claim is long.

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  • Russell, Bertrand (1911) 'Problems of Philosophy' Butterworth, London (p 190) "...truth consists in some form of correspondence between belief and fact."
  • Gray, J. A. (2004) Consciousness: Creeping up on the hard problem OUP
  • Descartes, Rene (1641) 'Meditationes de prima philosophia'. Translated: Haldane, E. S. & Ross, G. R. T. (1911) In 'The Philosophical Works of Descartes'. Cambridge. (Meditation I, p 148) "I shall then suppose, not that God...but some evil genius... has employed his whole energies in deceiving me..."
  • See often in: 'Journal of Consciousness Studies', Imprint Academic, P.O. Box 200, Exeter

  18th May 2015 ~ 29th July 2015