What More than Structure Do We Know?


Structural realism is the view that scientific theories give us knowledge only of the structure of the unobservable world. The view faces an influential objection that was first posed by Max Newman: if our knowledge of the unobservable world were strictly limited to its structure, our knowledge turns out to be trivial, for it amounts to nothing more than knowledge of the cardinality of the world. In this paper, I shall propose a response to Newman’s objection. It shall be argued that in having epistemic access to the intrinsic nature of our conscious experiences—knowledge that structural realists allow for—we have knowledge of what it is to exist as concrete phenomena. With the plausible assumption that the relations of the unobservable world are also similarly concrete, one can address Newman’s objection. I shall further contrast this response to other similar responses that have been proposed, and also address the objection that this response is not available to structural realists.

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  1. 1.

    This view is often referred to as epistemic structural realism, as opposed to ontic structural realism. The latter takes structure to be primitive and ontologically fundamental, and thus, all there is to know about the world. See Ladyman (2014: section 4) for summary of debates around it. In this paper, structural realism shall refer only to epistemic structural realism.

  2. 2.

    See Frigg and Votsis (2011: 232–246) for a critique of the various arguments for structural realism.

  3. 3.

    The term relation when used in this paper is to be understood as including one-place relations that are commonly referred to as monadic properties or just properties.

  4. 4.

    Conscious experience or just experience refers to mental phenomena that are subjective and qualitative, i.e. necessarily for a subject, with a what-it-is-like quality associated with them. This has also been referred to as qualia, phenomenal properties and phenomenal consciousness, e.g. see Chalmers (1995) and Block (1995).

  5. 5.

    Protophenomenal properties are those that are not themselves phenomenal, but such that some arrangements/combination of them can yield phenomenal properties (Chalmers 1996, 126–177). I take protophenomenal properties to include what has sometimes been called neutral properties.

  6. 6.

    The Ramsey sentence articulation presented here is borrowed from (Ainsworth 2009) with some modifications.

  7. 7.

    The example is borrowed from Maxwell (1970).

  8. 8.

    The strong–weak terminology is borrowed from Ainsworth (2009).

  9. 9.

    Psillos (1999) refers to these two aspects of Newman’s objection as multiple realization and trivial realization.

  10. 10.

    The intrinsic property of X refers to the what-it-is aspect of X over and above what it does or how it relates to other entities. A useful definition of an intrinsic property is the one offered by Langton and Lewis' (1998): an intrinsic property is one that is such that the having or lacking of the property is independent of whether it is accompanied or not by any other contingent entity wholly distinct from itself. Langton and Lewis (1998) themselves note that this definition is only approximate. For our purpose here, this definition shall suffice.

  11. 11.

    The claim to knowledge of the intrinsic nature of our experiences was prominently put forth by Descartes (Cottingham 1996). Something like this claim is often argued for by contemporary proponents of non-reductive approaches to consciousness, e.g. Chalmers (2010: Ch.9) and Goff (2017a: Ch. 5).

  12. 12.

    For example, Russell says, “Percepts are the only part of the physical world that we know otherwise than abstractly. As regards the world in general, both physical and mental, everything we know of its intrinsic character is known from the mental side” (Russell 1927) and Maxwell, “Intrinsic properties are those that are, or could be, direct referents of predicates. For example, red is an intrinsic property and transitivity is a structural property” (Maxwell 1970: 188, original emphasis). Both Russell and Maxwell are strong epistemic structural realists, and as noted earlier, I have assumed strong version of SR in this paper. Weak epistemic structural realists, who claim non-structural knowledge of macroscopic, “observable” objects of the external world, may not admit to intrinsic knowledge of experiences.

  13. 13.

    Worrall (2007) and Zahar (2004) argue that merely retaining the observational terms without Ramseyfying (i.e. replace them with variables and quantify over) them would suffice to counter Newman’s objection. As Ainsworth (2009) notes, their response fails, for their contentions seems to be based on a misunderstanding of what it means for theories to go beyond their empirical data. Further, Ketland’s (2004) argument does not Ramsefy observational terms, and would hold against Worrall and Zahar.

  14. 14.

    The examples of physical-phenomena-naively-construed are only to clarify my conception of e-concreteness. In giving these examples, e-concreteness is not being defined as the aspect of existential similarity between experiences and the external, physical world. Such a definition would not be allowed for a structural realist, for our knowledge of the external world is what is in question in the first place (which itself is based on the belief that the external world does not exist as we naively think it does). Knowledge of e-concreteness of the external world has to be argued for, as I shall do below.

  15. 15.

    Henceforth, necessary shall refer to logical necessity as opposed to normative or nomological necessity, unless otherwise stated.

  16. 16.

    I thank Varun Bhatta and an anonymous reviewer for highlighting this possibility.

  17. 17.

    A similar quote from Zahar (2001) is cited and endorsed by Worrall (2007, 153) as well.

  18. 18.

    Maxwell (1979) considers the view that all concrete phenomena are intrinsically experiential, a view that is now referred to as Russellian panpsychism. For more on Russellian panpsychism, see Brüntrup and Jaskolla (2016).

  19. 19.

    See Ainsworth (2009) for a critique of the various ways of responding to Newman’s objection.

  20. 20.

    Psillos borrows his response from the responses of Merrill (1980) and Lewis (1983) to Putnam's (1977) model-theoretic argument against realism.

  21. 21.

    Goff (2017b) considers a similar response to Newman. While he argues that this does avoid Newman’s objection, he also argues that it leads to vicious regress or vicious circularity and is hence not a very attractive option.

  22. 22.

    Ainsworth (2009) raises this point against Psillos’ response.

  23. 23.

    Yudell (2010) makes a similar point. Ruyant (2018) further shows how a modified theorem of set theory would apply for Ramsey sentence with modal second-order intensional relations, allowing us to derive such relations a priori.

  24. 24.

    See Alter and Nagasawa (2015) for more on Russellian monism.

  25. 25.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for the suggestion to contrast my proposal with Russelian monism.

  26. 26.

    Chalmers (1995) refers to this as the hard problem of consciousness.

  27. 27.

    For example, references to Newman’s objection by panpsychists seem to be mainly to argue against ontic structural realism (and causal structuralism, the view that fundamental physical properties are purely causal) as an alternative to panpsychism, e.g. Brüntrup (2011), Strawson (2016, 86), Goff (2017b, 54–55). Strawson (2016, 86) and Goff (2017b, 54–55) also argue that in knowing that the relations of the external world are instantiated by causal/nomic properties, one can respond to Newman (something similar to Chakravartty’s response outlined earlier). It is not clear why they think this is sufficient to address Newman’s objection, and whether they would hold that one cannot respond to Newman without appealing to intrinsic knowledge of one’s experiences.

  28. 28.

    For example, Russellian panpsychists argue for monism over dualism on account of causal closure of the physical world, and appeal to considerations of parsimony and/or rejection of ontological emergence to argue for experiential properties as intrinsic to all physical phenomena. Others argue that positing phenomenal properties leads to further problems (like the combination problem), and thus, one ought to only posit protophenomenal properties and so on. See Goff et al. (2017) for more on arguments for panpsychism.


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I would like to thank my doctoral supervisor Prof. Sangeetha Menon for her guidance and feedback on this paper. I would like to thank Dr. Indrani Bhattacharjee, Dr. Sreekumar Jayadevan, Dr. Kit Patrick, Bryce Gessell and Varun Bhatta for comments and discussions that have helped shape this paper. I would like to thank the participants at the “Epistemology and Philosophy of Science” workshop organized by Azim Premji University, Bengaluru in June 2018, where I had presented an earlier version of this paper. I would also like to thank Ms. J. N. Sandhya for her administrative support during this research. I am thankful to University of Mysore for permitting this research as part of the PhD programme.

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Siddharth, S. What More than Structure Do We Know?. J. Indian Counc. Philos. Res. 37, 115–131 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40961-020-00193-8

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  • Structural realism
  • Newman’s objection
  • Consciousness
  • Conscious experience
  • Concreteness