Saturday, 19 November 2011

A Conversation with An Idealist

Oliver an undergraduate has been exposed to science and philosophy for many years, and is perplexed by the seemingly bizarre claims of idealism. He finds Michael an idealist and physicist who he hopes can clarify idealism, or at least outline his position in a way which sounds sane.

Oliver: 
I am quite confused about idealism. I agree that we cannot have a concept of an object without perceiving it; objects exist in our minds as representations. Everything we experience is via access to our mind’s representations, we live in our perceptions.

How does this imply that the material cannot exist without someone to perceive it: surely matter exists on its own?

Michael:
What does matter look like, on its own?

Oliver:
For something to "look like" anything it has to be perceived, we can only know an object through the image of it in our consciousness. To have to know something we have to represent it; I know what a representation looks like.

Michael:
Exactly. We have no knowledge, and can have no knowledge, of this 'mind independent' stuff. Why do you believe things can exist “in themselves”?

Oliver:
Why should I believe otherwise? I cannot understand why it is impossible for something to exist without it being perceived.


Michael:
Because you have no knowledge of otherwise!


Oliver:
 I agree that I can only know what my consciousness provides. So you're saying we need a consciousness? It seems we require evolution (etc.) to produce observers in the first place, unless you’re advocating a God to observe everything.

Michael:
Idealism starts from pointing out that experience is a closed system. You begin with experience and have nothing else to refer to: when you identify a car, there is no 'car in itself' to which you can refer. Every thought, identification, expression relates to experience: nothing else. The ideas of science are inferences above experience, but as they refer to it, cannot exist without it.

All of the "substance ontology" on which mind-independent realism is based is an inference on top of our interaction with the world. Science exists after this inference; idealism cannot be criticized from the point of view of science, because idealism challenges the assumptions science makes: it is insufficient to simply re-assert them.

The world is in fact not a collection of substances; the collection of substances exists in a particular, scientific model of the world, which removes a vast component of our interaction with things. Consider the nature of your relation to, and being in, the world, before you try to apply the scientific reduction to it.

Oliver:
I agree we cannot step outside ourselves, the external world could be a dream: i cannot confirm that my senses relate to the objects I believe they do. Science assumes that the relations are true however, and begins its project on that foundation.


Michael:
You suggest there is something external to our consciousness, of which we have no knowledge, nor have any comprehension. Everything you believe about the world is an inference on top of consciousness (or experience) not something independent of it.

As for science, it does not make such an assumption and cannot: the externality required is meaningless; the concepts have no reference.

Science merely assumes that the division within experience between internal mental life and the external unchangeable world is fixed. And that the external world is a shared experience across all observers which can be investigated as such.

Science and realism appear to be making assumptions about 'things in themselves', but it is clear such talk is meaningless. It is simply a confused way of understanding how we think about that aspect of our experience which is not subject to our will ('the external world').


Oliver:
Your argument appears to rest on a kind of existentialist phenomenology. It seems the assumption that matter exists only in terms of our encounters with it as anti-materialistic, supernatural in its nature. Everything you are talking about is a kind of psychology: surely the subjective nature of our knowledge is easily explained by biology.


Michael:
It is a position informed by phenomenology, but does in its major premises precede it (Hume, Berkeley, etc.).

It isn’t 'anti-materialistic' because materialism exists as a model we place atop experience (a world which I dislike in this context, because it misleads. We don’t really experience ourselves, but we are aware of ourselves, etc.). Incidentally, I believe the supernatural to be explanatorily bankrupt and it is largely on that basis I reject it.

As for the ‘subjective nature of our knowledge’, scientific explanations are wonderful ways of accounting for our experience, in the sense that they are hugely successful in predicting what our experiences will be in the future, and providing an analysis of the patterns we see within experience.

But again you are putting the cart before the horse. We start with the world and reduce it to a model and analyse the model to provide a general account (ie. science). We do not start with the model and then flesh it out with experience. We do not encounter quarks then atoms and then H20, wetness, transparency, water, a drink. We encounter a drink, something for use to use to quench our thirst. An object which exist in a nexus of relations to us and other people. We disregard most of ontology when we perform (the entirely useful) scientific reduction.

This is why science has such a hard and unsatisfying time trying to account for wetness and color and consciousness and so on. Because it has disregarded everything but substance and therefore fails to be able to provide an account which is not simply about how mechanical parts interact.

I am a physicist incidentally, not anti-science by any stretch of the imagination.

Oliver:
Surely the question of whether we have anything to refer to, distinct from direct experience, is a psychological or cognitive question, rather than something that can be explained through metaphysical analysis.


Michael:
Certainly not!

Yes I used to believe all of this sounded an awful lot like psychology, and dismiss it on that basis. But you see, we come to know everything about the world from our "point of view". Science has given the people the impression that the way we know about the world is through disinterested instrumentation, and knowledge is something handed down by an abstract scientific method. Which is why you leap to psychology, because that is the detached method by which we learn about humans.

But all of this is backwards. We must first analyse our point of view, to put it in simple terms, before we can know anything else. Our point of view is the starting point of everything! To subsume that into science is to make a profound mistake, to disregard most of reality.

Consider yourself to have just woken up; you’re entirely alert and awake, but you know nothing about the world yet. Your first impression - perhaps - is that your inner thoughts and desires do not cross some boundary or division within your experience. Part of the world is separated from another part. As you interact with people increasing you define yourself as this inner part, and the shared fixed world as something different from you. And you find that analysing this shared world predicts your experience of it. The theory of gravity tells you how an object will fall and so on.

Eventually you become enthralled in predicting your own experience. But you forget and disregard this inner part, and treat the outer part as not an experience at all, but something alien and separated out. You aren’t predicting your experience, you’re describing "things in themselves!". And thus you arrive in your position. You forget 'you', your experience is like water to a fish - you ignore the fact you’re swimming in it, that it's the medium through which everything else is revealed and known.

Science and analytic philosophy has convinced a generation of people that disinterested, computational rationality is True. This is a profoundly misguided over-reaction, which I see as born of anxiety. Anxiety over the incompleteness of science and the problems it cannot tackle (consciousness, sensation, emotion, etc.). Anxiety over doubt and political, economic and social situations. It is difficult to explain fully, but the phenomenon is interesting.


Oliver: 
So we are not in a logical universe, but our intelligence has allowed us to understand it. This does not undermine scientific logic.


Michael:
Who is arguing against logic? I am only showing that the world science conceives of is not The World, it is an abstraction.

That 'the world' is something 'I' am embedded in, existing in relations to things-for-a-purpose (equipment) and others (other minds) which through language reveal they too exist in such relations. And I am related to them through all of my actions: I speak to others; I think about others; I act with others and for others.

All of this complexity is the fundamental ontology, every other is a reduction. These relations are part of the world. A hammer is not a piece of iron and a piece of wood. It has much more to it than that.

The knowledge we have of the word is significant and substantial, and we can be certain about it. Science, as a world view, has left us in a position of doubt and confusion. Do we know others exist? Do I know there is an external world?

All of these sceptical questions could not be asked if we realized that they are based on a fundamental mistake. Once you realize to be able to doubt experience you must have it, you reveal much broader more certain and satisfying reality in which science is a tool for producing models not an oracle pronouncing on the nature of things.


Oliver: 
Perhaps idealists need to close their eyes and have their faces slapped! And have their furniture rearranged!


Michael:
A slap is just another kind of sensation. No one has done something to them which does not require their mind, ever.

How do they come to know furniture has been rearranged?

I’m not saying there aren’t patterns within experience which "span" experiences, eg. the persistence of objects. But we come to know these patterns through experiencing the world. We encounter the room in one configuration and then another, and make the inference that things have been moved. All of our knowledge depends on our interaction with the world; there is none which does not.

It is putting the cart before the horse to say that object precede our experience, when clearly they do not and cannot. It is a platonic notion I think, to hold these generalizations and abstracts (eg. the persistence of objects) as The Truth in some higher external, inaccessible plane of existence.

I find realism quite theistic and platonic in exactly this way, a kind of faith in something completely inaccessible and unknowable which supervenes on everything else: a confusion.

Oliver:
Perhaps. I see objects not as "abstract generalizations" but as concrete independent phenomena.

Michael:
No, you relate your abstract generalizations to your experiences and call them "concrete".

Oliver:
I see, so the impression of objectivity is really just provided by the grounding our experience gives to our ideas?

Michael:
Exactly!

Oliver:
I will need to think about this some more, thank you for your time!

Michael:
You're welcome.


Written by Michael Burgess, based upon several conversations had in /r/philosophy

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