May 2, 2007

The Ontological Economy of Idealism

The following is an excerpt from a draft of my metaphysics term paper, which I thought might be of interest to readers. The paper presents an idealist theory of properties under which two things are said to have a property if those two things are or would be indistinguishable under some specified conditions. I call this account, fittingly enough, the "conditional indistinguishability" analysis of properties. After presenting the conditional indistinguishability account, I discuss the ontological economy of the idealist theory from which it arises, as compared especially to the currently dominant physicalist assumptions, but also to substance dualism:

The theory that has been given presupposes idealism. Accepting the postulates of idealism is the price paid for this simple account of properties which does not need to postulate additional entities beyond the perceptions themselves. Is it worth the price? Idealism takes minds as primitive and, at least as they are in themselves, unanalyzable. It might be thought that this is worse than just accepting properties as primitive and being done with it. However, I am not at all convinced that this is so. Minds are already our epistemic starting point, whether we like it or not: we know only what we know, we think only what we think, and we believe only what we believe, so we first and foremost know, think, and believe that there are minds (whatever minds may be) that know, think, and believe. Dualism is plagued with the mind-body problem, and physicalism suffers from what may be termed the mind problem: what is a mind? How could there be such a thing? Idealism places the starting point of our metaphysics at the starting point of our epistemology. Everything we can know is based on mind. The physicalist or dualist posits that there are other things behind these mind-dependent entities, and then somehow has to explain what these other things are, how we are able to think of them, how they affect our minds, and, for the physicalist, what our minds are in the first place. The problem of properties is just one of the philosophical problems that arises from these sorts of assumptions. From the perspective of the idealist, the plight of the metaphysician today is very much the same as it was in Berkeley's day: �we have first raised a dust, and then complain, we cannot see.�[1]

The idealist instead takes things as they come: we know that there are minds, and that these minds have certain faculties, and also that they receive certain ideas which we call perceptions. The physicalist tries to build these things out of some other objects that are taken to be fundamental, but these attempts have not been particularly successful. Furthermore, even if the physicalist succeeds in this attempt, some objects are still taken as primitive, and these objects tend to be at least as bizarre and complex as minds. The difference is that we know with great certainty that there are minds, whereas we don't know that there are possibilia or states of affairs or quantum strings in this way.

[1]A Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge, Introduction, 3.

Posted by Kenny at May 2, 2007 4:16 PM
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