Bertrand Russell’s Structural Realism

Russell the Naturalist Pioneer
Russell’s two books ‘The Analysis of Mind’ and ‘The Analysis of Matter’ are massively underrated philosophical texts. As philosophical folklore has it; Russell did brilliant technical work in philosophy between the years of 1903 and 1913 but peaked at that period. Under pressure from criticisms from his student; the young genius Ludwig Wittgenstein, Russell came to realise that he could no longer do serious technical philosophy. According to this philosophical mythology, from 1913 onward Russell worked primarily in the area of popular philosophy, and left real philosophy to the younger generation.
In Russell’s intellectual autobiography he notes that his last major philosophical work ‘Human Knowledge: It’s scope and Limits’ (1948) was viewed by younger philosophers as being merely a quaint outdated attempt at philosophy. In a similar vein, in his brilliant biography of Russell, Ray Monk paints a picture of a Russell post 1920 as out of touch with modern philosophy, engaging with debates with philosophers who were no longer at the cutting edge of the discipline. At the forefront of Monk’s characterisation is that Russell’s treatment of philosophical questions was wedded to an antiquated psychological interpretation of epistemology, while the younger generation of philosophers had moved beyond this approach. Logical Positivists, exemplified by Carnap and Wittgenstein were treating these questions as semantic questions that are best understood interms of logical analysis. On this picture, poor Russell was out of step with the younger generation of philosophers, he was a man of an earlier simpler time.
Monk is certainly correct in characterisation of the state of play for post 1920 Russell in relation to the cutting edge of philosophy of the time. Russell’s views were indeed considered quaint by the younger generation of philosophers. But time has a way of changing things. As every school child knows; Quine’s ‘Two Dogma’s of Empiricism’ cast serious doubts on the neat distinction between philosophy and science. Quine’s arguments convinced a majority of philosophers that the logical positivists attempt to make philosophy a discipline that is somehow outside our overall theory of the world and a judge of it, is unworkable. Quine argued plausibly, that we are all fallible humans with contingent theories about reality that we try to match to experience as best as possible. Quine (1969) convinced a lot of people that epistemology was a branch of empirical psychology, and that any metaphysics would have to be derived from studying the sciences in particular physics. Quine’s conception of philosophy isn’t universally accepted; but it think it is fair to say that it is close to being the standard position in philosophy, and certainly it has far more adherents than the views of the Logical Positivists . Philosophers today such as Noam Chomsky, Dan Dennett, the Churchlands, Don Ross, and James Ladyman are contemporary defenders a type of Quinean Naturalism. Furthermore, in a recent article Ray Monk has noted (somewhat hyperbolically) that Wittgenstein’s reputation amongst contemporary academic philosophers is sharply in decline (Monk ‘The Agony and the Destiny: Friedrich Nietzsche’s descent into Madness’ New Statesman).
Of course whether a majority of philosophers identify as naturalists of a Quinean sort proves very little. The truth of a proposition isn’t decided by a democratic vote. The majority of contemporary philosophers being Russelian naturalists, doesn’t vindicate Russell’s post 1920 turn. Nonetheless it does cast an interesting light on the typical narrative told about Russell. Far from being poor old Bertie who couldn’t keep up with modern trends of the younger philosophers; Russell can actually be considered a pioneer who was ahead of his time. Russell’s later philosophy prefigured Quine’s naturalism, and was arguably superior to Quine’s because Russell’s understanding of science was much deeper.
But narratives aside; it is important to evaluate Russell’s naturalistic conception of philosophy based on its empirical evidence and argumentative structure. Russell’s two books ‘The Analysis of Mind’, and ‘The Analysis of Matter’ were deeply steeped in the sciences of his day in particular behaviouristic psychology, relativity theory, and quantum mechanics. A central claim in both books was that there was a tension between the ontology suggested by both psychology and physics. The psychology of his time was primarily behaviouristic and suggested a picture of the world that was materialistic and mechanistic, while discoveries in physics, such as the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics suggested a picture of the world that sounded less and less materialistic and mechanistic. Russell’s attempt to resolve these seemingly contradictory pictures was to explain both psychology and physics in terms of neutral monism. I have discussed Russell’s take on psychology in earlier blog-posts; in this post I will focus on his understanding of physics. While in my next blog post will be an overall consideration of Russell’s neutral monism.
The Child’s development of his intuitive concept of the physical
When analysing our conception of matter as revealed by discoveries in modern physics Russell sensibly begins with the ontogenesis of our conception of matter. His reasoning being that our intuitive conception of matter may influence scientific theorising on its nature. When discussing infant development Russell noted:
“In this primitive condition, the infant obviously has no conception of an “object.” An “object” for common sense, is something having a certain degree of permanence, and connected with several kinds of sensation… In infants, the most important factor in forming the common-sense notion of an object is the hand eye co-ordination, the discovery that it is possible, often, to grasp what is seen. In this way the visual and tactual spaces become correlated, which is one of the most important steps in the mental growth of an infant.” (ibid p. 143)
On Russell’s view the child begins with no conception of an object and gradually forms a concept of an object through a process linking sight with touch as the child moves about and explores the world. Russell’s picture of how the child develops the concept of an object is intuitively compelling and to some degree prefigures the work of the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and naturalist philosopher Willard Quine. Up until the early seventies a majority of developmental psychologists would have agreed with Russell’s picture of how the child develops their concept of a physical object. Russell argued that:
“Common sense does not initially distinguish as sharply as civilized nations do between persons, animals and things.’’ (ibid p. 149)
Quine in his ‘Word and Object’ and Piaget in his ‘Principles of Genetic Epistemology’ would have found the above claim very congenial.
Since the early seventies, with the work of the developmental psychologist TGR Bower, a different picture has emerged. Piaget’s dim view of the human infant’s ability to form a concept of an object was based on the fact that children didn’t search for objects once they were placed outside of their field of vision. However, beginning with Bower, theorists began to speculate that the reason for infants didn’t search for missing objects, wasn’t because they lacked a concept of an object; but because of problems in coordinating motor movements. To overcome these difficulties researchers used a technique that involved scientists tracking the child’s attention. When children are viewing a scene after a time they become habituated to it, and spend less time studying the scene. Scientists took advantage of this fact and designed experiments where the infants were habituated to a particular scene and then something out of the ordinary happened. When this happened the child would stare longer at the scene; indicating that the infant was surprised by the new occurrence. Using techniques like these to track infant expectations of object behaviour, scientists determined that children have expectations of object permanency, of number (up to 4), contact mechanics, etc.
How to interpret these experiments is still being debated by scientists ( for a detailed discussion see my: ). A lot of the debate centres on whether the evidence which indicates that children have a concept of object as early as 6months old, is evidence that the concepts are innate. Whatever way one decides on this issue, the evidence does indicate that Russell’s views on the ontogenesis of the child’s concept of physical object are not correct. Children exhibit conceptual understanding of physical objects prior to them developing motor skills sufficient for them to coordinate touch with sight.
Nonetheless despite Russell being incorrect in his views on how the child develops her concept of an object; this doesn’t affect his overall philosophical position. Russell’s primary point when discussing how the child develops their concept of an object is to indicate that our intuitive conception of a physical object isn’t identical with our scientific understanding of the physical world.
The ontogenesis of our scientific conception of physical objects.
Russell’s discussion of the scientific conception of matter noted that from the beginning of the scientific revolution (roughly Galileo and Descartes time) the concept of matter was still closely related to our embodied experiences. He argued that our understanding of matter was derived from three bodily sources:
“We may perhaps distinguish three sorts of physics, in relation to the sense-experiences from which their ideas are derived: I will call them muscular physics, touch physics, and sight physics respectively. Of course no one of them has ever existed in isolation: actual physics has always been a mixture of the three…Broadly we may say that sight-physics has more and more predominated, and has achieved an almost complete victory over the others in the theory of relativity” (ibid p. 161)
As we discussed above Russell’s conception of how the child developed their concept of a physical object (through a combination of sight and touch) was incorrect, children have a pre-theoretical concept of an object prior to their development of motor skills. Given the incorrectness of Russell’s concept of how typical humans develop their ordinary language conception of an object, a critic may wonder whether this fact will effect Russell’s conception of how physicists developed their conception of a physical object. Russell’s emphasis touch-physics, and sight-physics etc may put critics in mind of his earlier conception of how the child develops his concept of an object. However, in the case of scientific conceptions of matter Russell justifies his claims in reference to facts about the history of science and hence his views aren’t refuted by facts about the ontogenesis of the child’s concept of an object. Nonetheless, it should be noted that human’s intuitive understanding of objects, may have influenced early scientific conceptions of physical objects in a way that Russell underestimated.
When discussing how our muscular physics influenced our early scientific conception of matter Russell explicated it in terms of Newton’s concept of force:
“Muscular physics is embodied in the idea of “force,” Newton evidently thought of force as a vera causa, not as a mere term in a mathematical equation. This was natural; we all know the experience of “exerting force,” and are aware that it is connected with setting bodies in motion. By a sort of unconscious animism, the physicist supposed that something analogous occurs whenever one body sets another in motion” (ibid p. 161)
Russell believed that touch-physics influenced early scientific conceptions of atoms engaging in a kind of contact mechanics analogous to billiard balls bashing off each other. One of the difficulties that Russell sees with touch physics is that relies on immediate contact with objects. Whereas sight-physics has been much more important in astronomy (ibid p. 164), as light waves can travel with little change through empty space, hence they put our senses in contact with objects incredibly far away. Russell argues that sight-physics is much more congenial with an event based ontology and that sight-physics is much more important than the other conceptions of matter.
The primary point of Russell’s discussion of the three different conceptions of matter is that our intuitive conception of matter is based on expectations derived from our senses of touch, sight and muscular tensions as we move about our world. Humans are in touch not with the objects we intuitively assume, but rather with sensible qualities which we use to infer common sense objects. Russell notes that the abstract notion of matter that is used in modern physics has little in common with our intuitive conceptions of objects that shaped early modern philosophy and science; nor is it identical with our sensory experiences. Our scientific conception of matter is almost entirely abstract and is very different from our sensory based conception of matter.

Russell’s structural conception of the physical

After outlining how we use our percepts to infer the world of commonsense objects and how these percepts influenced our early scientific understanding of matter; Russell then moved on to discuss matter in contemporary science. On Russell’s picture of the world once we move beyond stimulus to contemporary science , matter becomes entirely abstract and very different from the material objects assumed by common sense. Russell argues we should not think of the basic structure of reality as revealed by physics in terms of stuff or things. When one analyses the actual scientific data to deduce what it ontically commits us to, Russell argues, we discover that the science has no use for the notion of substance. Russell’s considerations of electrons and protons nicely illustrate his view on this topic:
“Are electrons and protons part of the ultimate stuff of the world, or are they groups of events, or causal laws of events? There may be a substance at the centre, but there can be no reason to think so, since the group of events will produce exactly the same percepts; therefore the substance at the centre, if there is one, is irrelevant to science, and belongs to the realm of mere abstract possibility. If we can reach the same conclusion as regards matter in physics, we have diminished the difficulty involved in building our bridge from perception to physics. The substitution of space-time for space and time had made it much more natural than formerly to conceive a piece of matter as a group of events. Physics starts, nowadays, from a four-dimensional manifold of events, not as formerly, from a temporal series of three-dimensional manifolds, connected with each other by the conception of matter in motion. Instead of a permanent piece of matter, we have now the conception of a “world-line,” which is a series of events connected with each other in a certain way. The parts of one light-ray are connected with each other in a manner which enables us to consider them as forming, together, one light-ray as a substance moving with the velocity of light. Just the same kind of connection may be held to constitute the unity of the electron. We have a series of events connected together by causal laws; these may be taken to be the electron, since anything further is a rash inference which is theoretically useless.” (ibid p. 244-245)
In the above quote Russell argues that science has shown that the postulate of matter (in the sense of substance) is superfluous and that we can account for the scientific data in terms of an event based ontology. In the particular case of electrons he notes that thinking of them as things held together by some substance is not warranted by the evidence. While there remains an abstract possibility that such a substance exists; from the point of view of science there is no reason to take this abstract possibility seriously.
Throughout his ‘The Analysis of Matter’ Russell vacillates between arguing that the notion of substance or thing-hood has no place in interpreting physics; and arguing that substance may play a role but we have no scientific way of studying it. Despite at one point arguing that agnosticism is the correct approach to the issue of substance (ibid p. 271), the overall tenor of the book is that once we move beyond our percepts our best theory of the physical world is an insubstantial one.
Russell’s argument is that our knowledge of the physical world is purely structural is based on the fact that we are not directly acquainted with the theoretical constructions used in modern physics. This argument is consistent with both the claim (1) we can only know structural features of reality because of our epistemic limits, but at metaphysical level there is more than structure to fundamental reality, (2) At an ultimate level there is nothing more to reality than the structures science discovers and we only think otherwise because we wrongly assume that reality must conform to our basic perceptual experience. But Russell in his ‘Analysis of Matter’ seemed assume that the second interpretation was the correct one.
In his 1928 paper “Mr Russell’s Causal Theory of Perception” M. H. A. Newman argued that Russell’s structuralist position resulted in a situation where we weren’t making discoveries in physics but were rather engaging in stipulations. In a letter which Russell wrote to Newman, Russell acknowledged the force of the criticism, and it’s devastating impact on his theory. Russell then argued that he had to some degree misspoke in his ‘Analysis of Matter’:
“…I had not really intended to say what I did say, that nothing is known about the physical world except its structure. I had always that there might be co-punctuality between percepts and non-percepts, and even that one could pass by a finite number of steps from one event to another compresent with it, and from one end of the universe to the other. And co-punctuality I regarded as a relation which might exist among percepts and is itself perceptible.” (Quote taken from Demopoulos and Friedman ‘Russell’s ‘The Analysis of Matter: Its Historical Context and Contemporary Interest’ p. 630)
In Russell’s above reply to Newman we can again see the ambivalence at the heart of Russell’s project. Russell never worked out the precise nature of his structuralism and what his structuralism meant for his neutral monism. In my next blog-post I will explore Russell’s neutral monism in relation to his overall views on the nature of mind and matter.

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