September 25, 2007

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

"The Ontological Status of Dreams in Berkeleian Metaphysics"

The Dualist 13 (2006) is finally available online, including my paper "The Ontological Status of Dreams in Berkeleian Metaphysics". Unfortunately, the main index site is still badly broken. Hopefully it will soon be fixed. In the meantime, the direct link to my paper works.

There are some typesetting errors in the PDF (most importantly: footnote numbering is messed up, and some logical symbols are boxed out), and I haven't seen the print version to know if it contains these errors as well. I was never shown any proofs and I also found some spelling errors, and at least one place where a sentence is missing a word. Such is life. But the content is, I hope more interesting than the form, so that's what I will focus on and ask readers to focus on.

I wrote this paper over two and a half years ago, and it's now been just over a year since the paper was accepted, so there are definitely things I would do different if I were writing it today. Most of this is simply the sloppiness, unclarity, and general lack of polish that one expects from a Sophomore philosophy student. However, having just re-read the paper, I think that there is only one place in which these flaws touch the core of the argument, and that is in defining just what the argument is supposed to show. I will try to correct this flaw here, by outlining the general flow of argument as it appears in the published paper and explaining how it ought to differ.

The paper deals with the problem of dreams, given a Berkeleian idealist framework. In particular, it is focused on the question of whether "esse is percipi" places dreams on par with waking life, ontologically. Since, for the Berkeleian, perception defines reality, and dream perceptions are bona fide perceptions, it seems that the answer is yes. However, Berkeley claims (Dialogues 235) that "by whatever method you distinguish things from chimeras on your own scheme, the same, it is evident, will hold also upon mine" (emphasis original). The paper argues that this is in fact true: that is, that a particular solution to the epistemological problem of dreams, drawn from Leibniz's "On the Method of Distinguishing Real From Imaginary Phenomena," succeeds in solving Berkeley's ontological problem of dreams.

The descriptions of the nature of this "ontological problem" and its solution are the critical flaw of the paper. On p. 34, I say that the paper will argue that it is possible for a Berkeleian to draw "an ontological distinction" between dreams and waking life (this is the sentence with the missing word - my draft says "between dream worlds and the actual world"). I go on to talk about an ontology with four "levels" and use the word "real" in scare quotes a lot. Later, in sect. 5, I talk about some things being more or less real than others. I'm no longer entirely sure what the things I actually said mean, but, having studied a bit of W.V.O. Quine and David Lewis in the last year, I think I am prepared to say more accurately what it was that I was trying to say before:

In the famous Quinean formula, "to be is to be the value of a variable." That is, the things that are in the domain of quantification for the universal quantifier are the items of our ontology. However, context often causes the domain of quantification to vary, and, although existence is, as a matter of the way the world is, almost certainly an absolute, black and white sort of thing, "relative existence" enters the picture via language and discursive context.

Given this picture of being, I claim that Berkeley's position (that is, the position I believe to be entailed by his system, although he doesn't discuss the issue) with regard to dream worlds is almost exactly analogous to Lewis's position with regard to non-actual possible worlds: Lewis says that while, strictly speaking, all possible worlds exist, most of the time we restrict our quantifiers to the actual world, and the modal realist has as much reason as anyone for doing this.

I divide Berkeley's world into four "ontological levels:" "The level M of minds, the level RP of 'real' perceptions, the level DP of dreamed or hallucinated perceptions, and the level T of thoughts and volitions" (p. 51). These "ontological levels" are in fact domains of quantification, with every level including the level before it, in addition to the entities it specifies (that is, for instance, DP includes M and RP, but not T - it includes minds and all their perceptions). Strictly speaking, the Berkeleian is going to have to either say that ideas are modes of minds and so M is all that, in metaphysical rigor, exists, or that ideas are bona fide entities and so all of it exists. However, what the paper seeks to show, is that the use of these distinct domains of quantification is well justified by Berkeley's system and, especially, there are good reasons which the Berkeleian can admit - reasons having nothing to do with mind-independent entities - for frequently quantifying over only RP, and saying that those things are "real."

With these thoughts in mind, I present for your consideration, "The Ontological Status of Dreams in Berkeleian Metaphysics". You are encouraged to post your comments and criticisms here.

Posted by Kenny at September 25, 2007 6:01 PM
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