Metaphysics (theory of reality) is notoriously difficult to get off the ground. There is very little to start from, because everything else starts from here. However, as Descartes so famously observed, I, the one reasoning about metaphysics, am, in fact, reasoning about metaphysics, and therefore must, in some sense, exist. Descartes has been challenged by Neitszche (in Beyond Good and Evil) and others, for his inference from "there is thinking going on" to "there must be a substance which does the thinking," and, as little sympathy as I have for Neitzsche in general, I think that this may be a just criticism, showing that Descartes had not thrown off the Aristotelian 'substance-accident' picture of the world well enough to make his project truly 'foundationalist' (this mistake is, of course, the least of Descartes' problems - *cough* Pineal gland *cough*). As I have blogged before, I think the best way to get around this is to stop worrying about the whole substance thing, since it's a metaphysical abstraction that doesn't seem relevant to the question of my existence, and identify the self with the event of thinking.
So I exist - as an event at least, if not as a substance. Now, the event that is me has certain characteristics, and it is from these characteristics that we must proceed in our foundational metaphysical reasoning. Analytic metaphysicians really haven't gone this route very much, mostly because there haven't really been a lot of analytic metaphysicians. As an editor observed in the introduction to some work of Leibniz that is still in a box somewhere due to my not yet having a bookshelf (yes, I know that's very helpful for those of you trying to find the reference), 20th century Anglo-American philosophers often studied metaphysics in the way one studies tropical diseases - in order to find a cure! (The situation has gotten somewhat better since the time of writing, which I believe was in the 1980s.) At any rate, I don't think metaphysics, even these fundamental questions of ontology, are diseases to be cured; I think they are legitimate and important questions to answer, and that they way to answer them is to pursue a line of reasoning that begins from the nature of the 'me' event.
From this point on, I don't think we have deductive certainties. We must reason probabilistically to determine what is most likely to be the case. In my paper "The Ontological Status of Dreams in Berkeleian Metaphysics" (currently being considered for publication by The Dualist) I develop a fairly detailed neo-Berkeleian ontology. I do not propose to do any such thing in this short post (God-willing, the journal will be published in a few months and the paper will be in it - if the paper isn't included I'll make sure it makes it online, either in another journal or on this site). Rather, I simply want to outline the basic chain of reasoning used to establish a Berkeleian metaphysical theory. For Berkeley's actual argument, go read his "Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge" - it's not very long or difficult, though it is rather dry; "Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous" presents basically the same argument in a much less dry, but also less rigorous, form. Here I will give you my own re-processing of the argument.
This argument is, as has been said, probabilistic in nature, and heavily dependent on Occam's Razor. Berkeley's account seeks to explain the phenomenon of my perceptions, and argues that the existence of God (or, at least, some 'super-mind') is a better explanation of these phenomena than the existence of (ontologically fundamental) material substance. Berkeley's arguments against matter are very interesting, but I'm going to ignore them here. Instead, I'm going to briefly go over (my version of) the positive argument in favor of Berkeley's view.
I am, and what I am is a mind. I have three types of ideas (where the word 'idea' is defined to mean any direct object of a mind): thoughts, perceptions, and volitions. Thoughts are those ideas that I make up myself by acts of my will, and volitions are the acts of will. Perceptions, however, are the problem. I don't create them (because I am a thinking, and am therefore anything I am not conscious of cannot be me). Clearly, however, they must come from somewhere (mustn't they? This may be another ungrounded though highly intuitive assumption, like Descartes' "a thinking presupposes a thing that thinks" assumption). What characteristics must their source have? Well, it must be active (since it is acting upon me), and it must have ideas (otherwise how could it be a source of ideas)? A thing that is active and has ideas is the same as a thing that thinks, i.e. a mind. It could be, of course, that some other totally mysterious something out there causes my perceptions, but this would be a very strange reasoning step to take, and would run afoul of Occam's Razor, because I already know that at least one mind exists, and I know that the existence of another mind could explain the phenomena in question, so it makes far more sense to posit the existence this other mind than to posit the existence of a Lockean "thing, I know not what" existing independent of any mind.
Thus having posited the existence of another mind, I have explained my perceptions. The question still remains of what these perceptions mean, why the mind causes them, what the mind's characteristics are, and whether he/she/it is in fact identical with the conventional idea of God (as Berkeley thinks he is). What we do know about the mind is that it is rational (since my perceptions are connected with one another in a coherent way), it has powers I lack (since I cannot impose ideas on other minds against their will), and it is far more intelligent than I am (since it is able to maintain a consistent physical world in the perceptions it gives me). I think Berkeley is unfairly importing theological ideas when he uses words like 'spirit' and 'God' in his discussion. However, I do think that he has established that minds (person-events) are the only entities whose ontologically fundamental existence we have good reason to believe in. The ideas of said minds (including the perceptions which make up the physical world) are very real, but not ontologically fundamental, since they supervene on the minds. If anything else exists in the universe, it is impossible for us to know anything about it.Posted by Kenny at June 10, 2006 11:18 AM
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