January 4, 2007

Why Idealism?

I talk a lot about Berkeley on this blog, and it has probably become clear to most regular readers that I am quite sympathetic to his position. There are a number of reasons for holding to various forms of idealism, and I have already discussed the chain of inferences which leads Berkeley to his theory. Important also is Berkeley's critique of matter, which proceeds by collapsing Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities (this collapse is almost universally viewed as successful by later philosophers), then applying Locke's arguments that secondary qualities are not actually in the objects to all perceived properties, thus refuting representationalism (there is a lot more to Berkeley's critique of matter than just this, but this is a big part of it). I now want to give very briefly my own primary reasons for accepting it. Besides finding many of Berkeley's arguments generally compelling, I think that there are serious problems with the alternative positions, and idealism does not suffer from an equivalent defect. This is what I will try to show in this post.

The only two alternatives to idealism I know of are physicalism (aka materialism) and dualism (if anyone knows of any views that have been proposed besides these three, please say so). Physicalism is the view that matter and/or energy (where those two terms are used in more or less the technical usages of modern physics; from now on I will simply say "the physical") is all that exists on the deepest ontological level. The physical is fundamentally real, and anything that exists which is distinct from it is ontologically dependent on it. Dualism is the view that, there is some mental or spiritual substance which is distinct from and equally ontologically basic with the physical. Idealism is the claim that this mental or spiritual substance is the only ontologically fundamental entity.

The problem with physicalism is that it is singularly bad at accounting for the most obvious and indisputable fact in our experience of the world: that our experience exists. I experience the world, and I experience it subjectively. A huge proportion of the contemporary literature in philosophy of mind is made up of attempts to explain this from the perspective of physicalism. I regard this as essentially a lost cause. It just isn't happening. The best argument to this effect with which I am familiar is David Chalmers' "functional isomorph" (aka "zombie") thought experiment (note: I have not personally read Chalmers' original work on the subject). Chalmers simply points out that there doesn't seem to be anything impossible about a being who looks and acts in a manner indistinguishable from a human being, but does not experience consciousness. If nothing about the human body (including the brain) necessarily entails consciousness, then how could anything physical explain consciousness? It doesn't seem that it can. The physicalist approach is backward and upside down. We need to explain what consciousness and perception are before we start using perception to deduce things about the world. For this reason, we can't use perception to explain consciousness (though we may form and test hypotheses using perception).

The more natural step is to posit dualism. The dualist takes the experience of subjectivity seriously, and posits a mental or spiritual substance which is the subject of this experience. He then makes the allegedly common-sensical supposition of reliabilism. That is, he supposes that our senses provide data about a "real" physical world which corresponds to our perceptions. The problem here is, of course, the infamous mind-body problem, which millenia of philosophers have tried and failed to solve. If the physical and the mental are totally different types of entities, how can they interact? It seems that they probably can't. I only know of two real solutions to the mind-body problem: Leibniz's "pre-established harmony" and Malebranche's "occasionalism" (there may be others which I have missed due to the ancient and early modern bias of my philosophical studies thus far).

According to pre-established harmony, the physical and the mental operate according to totally separate laws and do not interact. God has simply created the relevant laws in such a way that the two separate worlds operate harmoniously. Leibniz uses the analogy of a clock-maker who wants his two clocks to always say the same time. He says that the best way to do this is simply to make the two clocks both accurate and set them to the same time to begin with. (It should be noted that, while there is some controversy regarding Leibniz's later writings, scholars generally do not regard Leibniz as actually being a dualist; but his actual metaphysical understanding is complicated and not relevant here.)

According to occasionalism there is, again, no interaction between the human mind and the material world. Instead, God acts as a go-between. God knows what's going on in the physical and causes appropriate perceptions in us, and he knows what is going on in the mental and causes appropriate movements of our bodies.

Both of these answers have the same problem: they make matter irrelevant to human existence by totally cutting off our epistemic access to it. That is, in the first case, if all matter were suddenly destroyed (on a strict Leibnizian picture of the universe, even if everything except God and myself were destroyed), I would go on having the same perceptions I would have had if matter had continued to exist, so it follows that I have no way of knowing whether matter exists. In the second case, God is really the direct and immediate origin of my perceptions (in Leibniz it is the law of my own monad unfolding over time, which God created), and God doesn't need matter in order to do this. It's not clear why God would even create matter in this case. (Berkeley makes this argument against Malebranche explicitly in several places.) So the mind-body problem may be even more difficult than a physicalist explanation of consciousness.

Does idealism suffer from a similar defect? It might be thought that it does. Idealism still needs to explain perceptions and their source. According to Berkeley's theory (which I accept on this point), that source is God. If there is already independent evidence for the existence of an omnipotent personal God, then problem solved; this is clearly something he can do. But in the absence of independent evidence, positing an omnipotent being to explain whatever can't otherwise be explained is simply unreasonable. However, as was pointed out in the post on Berkeley's argument, there are reasons to think that whatever the source is has some characteristics similar to the known characteristics of a mind, so positing something like my mind but having an additional power might be reasonable. For comparison, imagine you were living in a jungle and there is no reason why there couldn't be hitherto undiscovered animals there (it hasn't been very well explored yet), and there are only a few animals that are already known. Imagine what kind of evidence would be needed for you to justifiably suppose the existence of something like a big wolf, but with opposable thumbs, without actually seeing such a creature. This won't quite get you to God, but to a super-mind at least.

We still have problems like what is substance, how does mental/spiritual substance works (that is, e.g., how am I and how is God able to create new thoughts), but these are equally problematic for physicalists and dualists.

This set of considerations is, I believe, sufficient to justify belief (i.e. render non-belief irrational) in idealism for the already-comitted theist, and at least warrant belief (i.e. render belief not irrational) in idealism (and some weak form of theism - that is, not necessarily belief in the tri-omni God, but belief in something) for the hitherto agnostic. I'm waiting for a refutation better than Moore's.

Posted by Kenny at January 4, 2007 12:12 AM
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I'm a substantial (rather than property) dualist, but I'm also a Monotheist (as was Descartes) so I don't regard souls and bodies as ontologically basic (or equal, since I regard souls as somehow superior to bodies, e.g. they can actually exist in many worlds) since both are created by God (perhaps in different ways). God is ontologically basic, but am I (and was Descartes) therefore an Idealist? Are not physical objects, or at least we ourselves, substantial? Whether we are ideas in God's mind or not (and ideas as we know them are quite unlike selves as we know them) our minds and God's mind are prima facie two sorts of substance.

Conversely, the mind-body problem is not that bad, e.g. Popper's propensity interpretation of quantum-mechanical probabilities seems to answer the earlier objections. There is a mystery about the details of the linking of the soul's creative power (whatever that is!) with such physical probabilities in the brain, but that is no worse than other mysteries (what are numbers? what are probabilities? what is creativity? and so forth), and there are theories of it (e.g. Stapp's). Given that God created both souls and bodies, that there should be some lawful link is unsurprising.

Posted by: Enigman at March 31, 2008 7:51 PM

I suppose part of this hangs on what we mean by "ontologically basic." Generally, substance dualists suppose that there are material substances that are not in any sense reducible to the immaterial, and immaterial substances that are not in any sense reducible to the material, whereas idealists and physicalists suppose that one is in some sense reducible to the other. (Of course, there are many forms of idealism and physicalism corresponding to different possible senses of the word "reducible" in this context.)

Although you may claim that in a certain sense God alone is ontologically basic, I don't think you want to claim that material substance is reducible to God. At least, traditional western monotheism doesn't want to say this. So by saying that you are a dualist, you are claiming that both the material and immaterial are ontologically basic in the sense that I intend.

I'm not familiar with Popper or Stapp particularly on this point, but the mind-body problem is a pretty serious one, and if you think either of these writers has a real solution (or you have a real solution), I'd love to hear it.

If you are a descriptivist about laws, then I agree with your last statement; if you mean to be saying something stronger, than I do in fact think there is something quite surprising about it.

Posted by: Kenny at March 31, 2008 11:54 PM

Thanks; I'm still puzzled but I think if I read more of your posts about Berkeley that should help.

The way I see dualism, our brains control our bodies and store information about reactions, language, world-view and so forth. Our minds are individuals, connected to individual brains by bridge laws of some kind (those laws originating, alongside physical and spiritual laws, in God). Those laws are akin: all as real as we are, and as rigid as stones are; and they work together. We feel pain and pleasure, and perceive a world of coloured objects etc. because our spirits are sensitive in such ways; conversely, our brains can be controlled by our choices, e.g. perhaps our minds are directly connected to uncollapsed wavefunctions of our brain, and we can exert some influence on the probabilities.

All details are lacking at present, but is there anything wrong with the basic picture? If the body was not there, our minds could not be in touch with it directly (via biochemicals in the brain's nerves normally, but perhaps also more widely in similarly micropsychokinetic ways), so if we got sense-data directly then that would seem more like a vivid dream to us, rather than waking. If we want to check whether or not we are awake, we can focus upon reality and feel it somehow. Also, if our existence in a material world serves a divine purpose, then God could not get the same effects by just giving us sense-data directly.

Posted by: Enigman at April 2, 2008 5:46 PM

So, this is the standard dualistic picture, more or less, and the principle objection to it is just that these "bridge laws" are mysterious. This is, of course, not debilitating as every theory is going to contain at least some mysterious entities (but see here).

I don't understand your last paragraph very well. I'm not sure what purpose God would have that would require a mind-independent physical world, unless that is a purpose in itself, and I don't understand what you say about dreams very well. Perhaps you can expound a little more?

Posted by: Kenny at April 2, 2008 7:13 PM

I agree that minds are primitive, but the posit that there are things of various kinds in an external world does seem to be justified by the nature of what we perceive, e.g. what we know about our own limbs. It seems like such is so obvious that one would need a really good reason not to posit material objects. The mysteriousness of matter is merely the other face of the same coin whose face is economy - not accepting more than seems well justified - so economy does not seem to be a good enough reason.

Re dreams, see the pair of essays linked to by my name on that comment, perhaps; re God's motives, why make painful, mundane perceptions? My theodicy (linked to my name here) is based on a divine motivation for incarnating minds into a relatively independent world.

Posted by: Enigman at April 3, 2008 9:12 AM

On what you know about your limbs, see here. Perceptions as such do not provide you any information about any mind-independent entities. When you perceive a cherry (one of Berkeley's examples), you perceive something that is round, red, sweet, etc. What Berkeley says is that a cherry just IS roundness, redness, sweetness, etc., conjoined together and all of these things are SENSATIONS, so that what you perceive really IS the cherry, and not some sort of representation of the cherry or a collection of sensations caused by the cherry. A cherry is not some "material substratum" which has various mind-independent properties which cause sensations of roundness, redness, and sweetness - a cherry is an object of perception which is round, red, and sweet.

If material objects are something other than what I've just described then you have no good reason to suppose that your senses inform you about them.

In addition to this skeptical objection, Berkeley makes two further points against your claim that your alleged knowledge about your (mind-independent) limbs is "obvious:"

1) This "knowledge" is not a pre-theoretical intuition or a natural belief or anything of the sort - it is an Aristotelian prejudice imparted with your education. An uneducated person (a person whose intuitions really are pre-theoretical since he or she has not been exposed to theories of metaphysics) will not suppose that a cherry is anything other than what he or she perceives. If you start talking about a material substratum you'll only get funny looks. On the usefulness (or uselessness) of intuitions in metaphysics, see here.

2) In Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (and elsewhere) Berkeley argues that matter is not just mysterious but logically contradictory. Because there are so many definitions of matter, Berkeley handles this in dialog form and allows his interlocutor to keep shifting positions, so he makes a whole bunch of different arguments against different conceptions. Since there are so many different arguments, I won't try to give them here. I recommend you read the book.

Finally, why should we suppose that God making painful or mundane perceptions is worse than his making inanimate objects lacking free will which, with absolute physical necessity, cause painful or mundane perceptions? Is strangling someone with your bare hands worse than strangling someone with a rope? I don't see why a theodicy would hinge on how independent of God material things are. I can see how it might hinge on them behaving according to laws, but God can do that even if he causes them directly.

I'll try to get around to reading the posts you linked sometime in the near future.

Posted by: Kenny at April 3, 2008 9:39 AM

...yeah, I'm bogged down too; but on why make material stuff, why make this world and not something more heavenly? My suggestion is that God is investigating His external world. (Omniscience is being all-knowing about His Creation - which is why we have that conception of God anyway - and only maybe maths and logic and Himself... we can't define God to have other properties if He is by definition our Creator.) For that He could put stuff at His limits, if He has any, or, by creating actually external stuff, create such a limit.

As to why that world should include sentient beings, suffering and evil, there is a longer explanation, involving it being useful and morally OK because (on this motivation for Creation, at least) our souls volunteered for this job... But why would God create the mere perceptions of suffering? There we have the classical problem of evil, and to my mind it is likely to be intractable (for all the usual reasons that atheists love pointing out) because all the suggestions I've heard of would not allow that we could have volunteered (and so do not make evil morally acceptable - they must eventually deny that it exists). In short, if my theodicy is the only really good theodicy (as I believe it is!) then it is also evidence for the falsity of Idealism.

Regarding knowing one's limbs, why assume that one cannot know them directly? You and they are both created by God, as God willed, and you and they are linked by natural bridge laws, according to God's will. Why does knowing about your own limbs (their reality, their being externally real) have to be indirect, epistemically (why should that be logically necessary)? But you may be right (I'm undecided between Idealism and Dualism, but mostly thinking through the latter)...

Posted by: Enigman at April 4, 2008 11:59 AM

The theodicy you've outlined appears to me to be inconsistent with historically orthodoxy Christianity. (Not that this is in and of itself a refutation; I just thought I'd point that out so that if you intend it to be consistent with historically orthodox Christianity you can explain.)

Suffering is nothing above and beyond perception ("there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so" -Hamlet). How could it be? As such, there is nothing "mere" about the perception of suffering. Perception of suffering just is suffering. Whether there is an external world makes no difference to suffering.

You've just refuted yourself in your discussion of direct perception of your limbs. Consider:
1) I perceive my limbs
2) I know (somehow) that God created the world to have "natural bridge laws" between the mental and the physical
:. 3) There is something physical (mind-independent) behind my perceptions of my limbs

That's indirect knowledge.

Ideas (in the early modern sense - that is, all direct objects of the mind) are mind-dependent. Nothing mind-independent can be a direct object of the mind (as a matter of logical necessity). If there are any such things as mind-independent physical objects, then we cannot know (or even think) them directly, since they are not ideas. So if your limbs are mind-independent you don't know them directly.

Posted by: Kenny at April 4, 2008 1:14 PM

Phew... not sure where to begin. You're probably right about all that, but... Yes, it's consistent with Christianity - do you have any particular doctrine or dogma or whatever they're called in mind? (E.g. the doctrine of original sin is pretty unfashionable nowadays, since guilt clearly can't be inherited, not literally.) I'm still working out the details of the compatibility (and indeed, of the theodicy) so whatever strikes you as obvious would be helpful.

Suffering is subjective yes, but suffering could be morally acceptable if it was in a good cause, and whether or not a cause was good (e.g. whether or not one volunteered for it) is an external question if one is not currently aware of all the facts. Suppose one volunteered to be the subject of an experiment that would remove all your memories and then cause you some suffering (all of which would later be reversed) in order to help the team of scientists develop better pain-relief techniques that would help billions of people. You would have purely subjective suffering for no reason that you knew of. But there would be no problem of evil (you might think there was at the time, but hell, it was you who volunteered for that experience).

I'm not entirely sure about direct perception of limbs. I'm pretty sure it's a logical possibility (like genuinely responsible free will is, despite the logical argument that things are either determined or random) but I can't really prove it is. Berkeley makes some good points I think. We don't really know what if anything lies behind our ideas of objects. But similarly, I don't know that I'm not in direct contact with objects when I seem to be, and I do seem to be...

Posted by: Enigman at April 4, 2008 4:51 PM

On original sin see here. The doctrine of original sin doesn't necessarily involve inheritied guilt. That said, what is "pretty unfashionable nowadays" is not particularly relevant to questions about historical orthodoxy because these questions are historical. I consider orthodoxy pretty broadly, but I think it's clear that historical orthodoxy requires some doctrine of original sin, if not the doctrine of original guilt as traditionally understood in western Christianity.

The idea that God has limits or learns over time (process theology or openness theology or whatever) is generally not consistent with historical Christian understanding of omnipotence and omniscience. In fact, these doctrines have sometimes been explicitly formulated in terms of unlimitedness. I'm not sure i understood what you said about omniscience in your previous post.

The preexistence of human souls does have some precedent in Christian tradition, and I can't think of a particular dogma it contradicts off the top of my head, but it has generally been repudiated by most of the Church.

Most critical, however, is that original sin be ultimately to blame for the evil in the world. I'm not sure how what you are saying can accomodate this.

On your final point, Berkeley denies that you seem to be in direct contact with "objects" if by "objects" you mean anything mind-independent. You've been taught to think this way, but if you examine your perceptions closely you find that there is nothing about them to indicate or otherwise create any appearance that there should be anything mind-independent. "Objects" are in fact objects in the sense in which later idealists use that term: objects are the objects of some subject (mind). They can't exist without a subject to perceive or will or think them. That's what makes them objects.

Posted by: Kenny at April 4, 2008 6:15 PM

I suppose that anything that is directly accessible to me will be unable to be mind-independent by definition.

Original sin is, I suppose, ultimately to blame for the evil in the world. (Interesting link, lots of stuff I didn't know, which I'm still reading through; but for now:) My theodicy involves a Fall (a choice by a community of angelic souls to become humans) from an angelic state to this state, a state that required divine intervention (maybe we were overconfident). I suppose that Adam = Adam + Eve can be regarded as a metaphor for Man = all mankind, so that there is some compatibility with Genesis 3. On my account we all chose to volunteer against the advice of God, who was nonetheless complicit. If God had been totally against that fruit eating, there would have been no such tree (to think otherwise is to limit God's omnipotence).

But I think that Genesis 3 is largely, in its details, fabulous, the lesson (conveniently near the start of the Bible) being that a little learning is a dangerous thing (something modern scientists should know better!): God tells only part of the apposite truth to Adam, and that rather deceptively, and the serpent tells more of it to Eve, again without lying but just as deceptively, and to worse effect.

Omniscience is not well understood by Christians, who quite rightly regard salvation as more important anyway - and the thing about the Fall is that it is hard to square original sin (if it is without inherited guilt) with God's omnipotence, whence the problem of evil. (E.g. even if we only inherit depravity, why, if we begin innocent, does God not deal with that depravity more potently?) But just as you wonder about our reasons for not being Idealists, I wonder about our reasons for having the traditional, logical view of divine attributes. I suspect that the main one is the belief that there was an ontological Proof of God's existence.

Posted by: Enigman at April 5, 2008 11:30 PM

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