Wednesday, September 30, 2009

God, ethics and Euthyphro's dilemma


On Sat, Sept 26, 2009 at 05:29:58
Courtney asked this question:

What does the Euthyphro Dilemma Argument show about the relationship between morality and religion?

Anyone who, like me, thinks they have a moral case against God has to reckon with the moral case for God. I suspect, or worry, that the moral case for God is stronger than many believe — which is why I have chosen Courtney's question.

Briefly, in Plato's Euthyphro Socrates poses a dilemma to the God fearing but not very bright young man, Euthyphro, who is on his way to the law courts to prosecute his father for impiety. We needn't go into the somewhat macabre circumstances of the case (which today would be considered manslaughter). How sure is Euthyphro that what his father did was sufficiently bad to be an offence against the gods? 'What is piety?' asks Socrates with a wink.

Euthyphro states confidently that pious actions are 'what please the gods', and impious actions are those that displease them. Socrates replies, Are pious actions so-called because they please the gods, or do they please the gods because they are pious?

That's Euthyphro's dilemma. Substitute your favourite term of moral appraisal. Either an action is ethical because God commands it, or God commands it because it is ethical. In the former case, anything that God commanded would be ethical by definition, even if He commanded the entire human race to commit suicide. In the latter case, the reason why an action is ethical must remain a valid reason irrespective of whether God exists or not.

Hence, there is no moral argument for God's existence. Belief in God is redundant, so far as ethics is concerned.

The case looks open and shut. However, when I saw Courtney's question I recalled an essay on 'Plato's Euthyphro' I had seen many years ago in a collection by Peter Geach, Logic Matters (Blackwell 1972), where Geach accuses Socrates of tangling his hapless young victim in sophistical knots. Searching on the internet, I found a chapter from Geach's book God and the Soul (Routledge 1969), The Moral Law and the Law of God.

Students of the philosophy of religion are probably familiar with Geach's forthright response to Socrates (or if they are not, they should be).

Geach constructs his argument with meticulous care. First, he concedes outright what many would think is the point at issue: we do know that certain actions, like lying, are wrong without qualification, independently of any belief that God forbids us to tell a lie.

Why is lying wrong? As I argue in unit 5 of Ethical Dilemmas, the very attempt to state that you sometimes tell lies, even if only very occasionally, is self-defeating. If I tell you that I only lie 'when I am in a tight spot', then the next time you find me in a tight spot my lies won't help me. Any attempt to articulate one's policy on lying is similarly self-defeating. I conclude, 'An action which we will never freely admit to and always condemn, is by definition always wrong.'

Now Geach states his case:

The knowledge of God is thus not prerequisite to our having any moral knowledge. I shall argue however that we do need it in order to see that we must not do evil that good may come, and that this principle actually follows from a certain conception of God. If I can make this out, the sophistry from which I started will have been completely refuted; for accepting or rejecting this principle makes an enormous difference to one's moral code.
[ibid., my italics]

If you do not believe that there are any moral principles (not even the moral principle 'do not lie'), then Geach has nothing to say to you. You are beyond the pale ethically. His case is directed at someone (like me) who thinks that there are moral principles (however few of those there may be, possibly lying is the only incontestable example), but rejects the idea that God's command is required to make them work as principles.

Geach cleverly insinuates that many of those who hold principles, only do so because of their implicit knowledge of what God commands, even if they refuse to acknowledge this fact. God is the ultimate source, whether they like it or not.

Perhaps you are a moral intuitionist who holds that principles of duty are the ultimate ethical given, which cannot be further articulated. Geach's answer is that without God such a view amounts to rule worship. 'If a young Nazi machine-guns a column of refugees till he bleeds to death, instead of retiring for medical treatment, is not his Sense of Duty something to fill us with awe?'

Geach also looks at attempts by moral philosophers such as Philippa Foot, to explain moral principles in terms of the idea of virtue. Such attempts fail to cover those cases — relatively rare though they may be — where a man is forced to contemplate an action which will 'damage his virtuous habits and perhaps irreparably wreck his hard-won integrity of soul', in response to the agonized plea, 'Haven't you got a hand to burn for your country (or mankind) and your friends?' When push comes to shove, for the ungodly man principles must go.

One of the main themes of my Ethical Dilemmas is that we must, simultaneously, recognize certain moral rules as principles while at the same time accepting that 'sometimes you have to go against your principles'. I acknowledge that this is a paradox. In ethics, as elsewhere in philosophy, paradoxes are not something that you happily live with.

Even if I won't own up to telling lies, shouldn't I be prepared, Geach would say, each time the choice presents itself, to calculate whether in this particular case lying would be the 'best' option (the option that leads to 'the good')? But If I believe that, then how can I at the same time hold the prohibition against lying as a principle? It is just one more ethical consideration amongst others. Then I am beyond the pale.

Why the fuss about lying? One could envisage a language game where telling lies was accepted as a matter of course, in the same spirit as bluffing in poker (cf. the notorious 1968 article by Albert Carr in Harvard Business Review, 'Is Business Bluffing Ethical?). Perhaps I don't want you to put me in a position where I am held to moral account, now and for all future time, for the things I say. 'Assume that I will always act in my self-interest,' I tell you candidly. 'It is in my self-interest, as we both know, to tell you the truth now, but I refuse to commit myself for the future. You must judge me by my actions.'

That's a kind of honesty, but not honesty from any ethical motive. I have chosen to abrogate ethics so far as our conversation is concerned, and I present this to you as a fait accompli.

The effect is to reduce human beings to more or less useful instruments for finding things out about the world. A faulty thermometer doesn't 'lie'. But even though it is not totally reliable it can still be useful (e.g. if I know that I need to tap it hard to get a correct reading). If you suspect your partner in crime of lying to you, there are ways to test a person's reliability.

But, then, why aren't people just 'useful instruments'? Why hold, with Kant, that one ought to treat others as 'ends in themselves'? — The fact is, that is what human beings do. We despise 'users', praise those who recognize the justified moral claims of others.

The strength of Geach's case is that one is not required to decide whether God exists or not. That's not what the argument is about. 'You deny God's existence,' Geach in effect says to the atheist, 'yet your attitudes and behaviour belie that claim.'

Maybe the believer in God is still, despite his belief, inclined to calculate advantages and disadvantages of telling a lie. As Geach reminds the reader, defying God is not merely imprudence, it is 'insanity'. There is no place to hide. Whatever may be for 'the best' is ultimately in God's hands, not ours. All He requires us to do is follow His commands.

I have to own up at this point: there was a time when I would have been prepared to argue for the necessity of ethical principles, along the lines of Levinas' notion of the irresistable ethical command of 'the Other'. In my book Naive Metaphysics I articulate the case for ethics as a presupposition of there being such a thing as a 'shared world' or 'truth' for me — pretty hard things to give up.

But needs must where the Devil drives.

Now, from my more sober perspective, Levinas, like Geach just seems to me one more in a long line of apologists for religion, even if Levinas is far more circumspect in introducing the God concept. And I have set my face against religion in all its forms. It is time for the human race to grow up, and recognize that we only have ourselves — as terrifying as that prospect may seem. Ethics is in the dock, and, as they say, 'the jury is still out'.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wiggins on the ship of Theseus


On Wed, Sept 23, 2009 at 06:30:45
John asked this question:

What would David Wiggins' answer be to the paradox of Theseus' ship?

As an undergraduate at Birkbeck College, University of London I cut my teeth on David Wiggins' short, and in parts maddeningly obscure monograph Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity (Blackwell 1967). I remember working on my essay on Wiggins' theory of identity as 'spatio-temporal continuity under a covering sortal concept' while the Yom Kippur war raged. Perhaps that says more about me than it does about the intellectual attractions of the metaphysics of identity.

A year or two later found me attending David Wiggins' intercollegiate lectures at Bedford College, which were later incorporated into his considerably longer work, Sameness and Substance (Blackwell 1980). The room was packed. Nibbling on a cube of cheese — which I assumed was his lunch — Wiggins explained in precise logical detail why God could not have turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt.

At that time, the early to mid-70's, essentialism and 'going back to Aristotle' were the big thing. Kripke had published his Naming and Necessity (originally in Harman and Davidson Eds. Semantics of Natural Languages (Reidel 1972), it later appeared as a Blackwell monograph in 1980). But I'm digressing.

There is in fact a short, and rather boring answer to the puzzle about Theseus ship. (I won't dignify it by calling it a 'paradox' because it isn't one.) But first, here's Plutarch's description:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus

What's all this about?

Let's bring it up to date. Fred has been bringing his old Ford for servicing at Joe's Garage for many years. Unknown to Fred, Joe kept every single part that he replaced. Every time Fred dented a wing or a door, the panel was replaced by a new one. What Fred didn't know was that a couple of decades later Joe had Fred's entire original car in the form of a heap of (still usable) parts hidden in the back of his garage. So which is Fred's Ford, the one he's been driving for 20 years, or the heap of parts?

If you're sentimental about ownership you might prefer the heap of parts. ('This is the very car seat where I proposed marriage to my wife-to-be.') But Wiggins has a more logical answer. What Fred owned, and still owns, is a functioning car, not just a heap of parts. It is the same car as he has always owned because of the continuity, through space and time, of its essential function as an artefact designed to propel passengers from one place to another.

In a not totally dissimilar way, my body is the same body as the one I owned 20 years ago, even though nearly all the matter (in the form of living cells) has been replaced. In both cases, what matters is the 'covering concept', what the thing essentially is, and cannot lose on pain of 'going out of existence'.

In his Bedford lectures, Wiggins explored the relation between the logical role of a sortal concept, and underlying chemical or biological structure as revealed by scientific inquiry. Investigation of underlying structures leads to explanation of why things hold together in the way that they do. Wiggins' idea was that the availability of such an explanation was not just a happy accident — as if a lazier deity could have made a world where there weren't any interesting stuctures to be found through scientific inquiry. The existence of underlying structure is metaphysically necessary.

A living organism, such as a human body, is a better example of this than an artefact like a ship or a car. The essence of an artifact is identified by the function it performs. By contrast the 'essence' of a living human being reaches down to an individual's unique genetic structure, and the relation of that hypothesized structure to observable characteristics as explained by the laws of biochemistry and biology.

This is in fact very un-Aristotelian. Aristotle was hostile to the novel idea, proposed by the atomists Democritus and Leucippus, that the changes we observe in the world might be accounted for by invisible mechanisms whose existence can only be postulated. According to Aristotelian metaphysics, water freezes because the power to transform into ice when cooled belongs to the Aristotelian Form of water. Today one might scoff at such an empty 'explanation' but Aristotle was convinced that the human mind aided only by the power of observation is equipped with all it needs to understand nature; which would not be the case (or so it seemed at the time) if the atomists were right.

Wiggins is fully aware of this, of course. He has no axe to grind in defending or resurrecting Aristotelianism. The central idea is that through logical or conceptual inquiry we can discover interesting and important metaphysical necessities, or ways that the world must be. That was what Aristotle believed too.

This is still the bread and butter of contemporary academic discussions. In any introductory metaphysics text book you will find a chapter on the concept of substance, along with chapters on time, causation, possible worlds etc.

However, looking back now I think that my former enthusiasm was somewhat misplaced. This isn't metaphysics as I now understand it — inquiry into the ultimate nature of reality. Wiggins' and Kripke's metaphysical necessities are founded on soft ground. They are necessary provided one is prepared to grant absolute priority to 'our conceptual scheme' — what P.F. Strawson referred to in his Individuals (Methuen 1959) as 'descriptive metaphysics'. But this seems too parochial. It is also unrealistic, because it fails to recognize the creativity of language use, the fact that 'our' conceptual scheme is not a rigid structure, but fluid and malleable.

Strawson is credited for bringing about a revival in interest in metaphysics at a time when English speaking philosophy had reduced the scope of its ambitions to logico-linguistic analysis. Yet Strawson's legacy — at least in this respect — seems to me to have been harmful rather than beneficial.

The world could be much more different in all sorts of ways. I mentioned the possibility that in some possible world (which for all we know might turn out to be the actual world when particle physicists have dug down to the very lowest level) there might not exist microscopic structures that account for the things and processes we observe — a world, in other words, where Aristotle is vindicated.

There is no logical limit, despite what Wiggins says, to what 'sortal concepts' there might be in other possible worlds, or what changes a thing can logically undergo. Michael Slote in his book Metaphysics and Essence (Blackwell 1974) offered some highly imaginative counterexamples to claims about 'metaphysically essential' properties, which bear a second look.

Or if we just look at day-to-day puzzles about identity, there are many questions which simply so not have a determinate answer. In the real world, objects can be vague, or vaguely defined (regardless of what a mess this makes of attempts to map ordinary language onto first-order predicate logic). Philosophers do not have the last word on ownership disputes (like that over Fred's car) when all things are taken into consideration, including the fact that human beings can be very creative in 'defining' objects and their identities.

With regard to the question of substance and identity, including the much-debated question of personal identity, in so many cases you can say what you like not be wrong — a sure indication that we are not dealing with things as they ultimately are but merely a 'world' of more or less temporary linguistic constructs that for the moment suit our purposes.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Exact meaning of 'philosophy'


On Fri, Sept 18, 2009 at 20:49:03
Eric asked this question:

Exactly what does philosophy mean?

How do philosophical questions differ from other questions?

How do philosophers answer the questions they raise? (most important).


The short answer to Eric's first question is that the word 'philosophy' (from the Greek philo sophos, literally 'love of wisdom') doesn't have any significant meaning. It is a gesture — nebulous, vaguely pious — which intimates something profound but in reality is little more than a magician's hocus pocus. Or as I once wrote:

The term has the appearance of a label invented for political purposes, like 'social democrat'. The philosophers' party wished to be known as the lovers of knowledge or wisdom: if you were against them then you had to be an ignoramus or a philistine.

Pathways Program B Searching for the Soul Unit 1


José Ortega y Gasset in his brilliant short book The Origin of Philosophy (Tr. Tony Talbot Norton 1967) wittily describes the term 'philosophy' as 'cross-eyed':

For no sooner were people aware of the existence of 'inquirers', than they began assaulting them, misinterpreting them, confusing them with other vague professions, whereupon that marvelous, ingenuous name [aletheia or 'inquiry'] had to be abandoned and another assumed, one born of spontaneous generation, infinitely inferior but more 'practical' — that is, a more inane, base, and cautious one.

Still today, academic 'philosophers' have to keep their eyes open on two fronts, to the world of politicians and university grants committees, and to their own domain, where they can let their hair down and inquire, alone or together with fellow 'inquirers' in language which makes perfect sense to those initiated into the circle, while remaining sufficiently abstruse to the non-initiated.

With rare exceptions, academic philosophers don't get paid for thinking or dialoguing amongst themselves. They are paid to teach. To the tyro student's questions, 'What is philosophy?', 'What do philosophers do?' academic philosophers have their pat, ready-made answers. Those who seek initiation into the inner circle learn soon enough that no mere formulaic answer can be adequate.

The fact is, I don't really know 'exactly' what question Eric is asking. He evidently thinks he does, and has stated the form an answer should take: 'A philosophical question is one that blah blah blah, and you answer a philosophical question by doing blah blah blah.' — Just fill in the blanks, please.

Well, just what is it that I do? A first stab would be this:

Philosophy is concerned with ultimate things, things that you can't find out by performing experiments, sifting evidence or looking around the world. I know that there are ultimate things to be inquired into, and I believe that such inquiry is worth while; that is the faith of the philosopher.

When people talk of 'ultimate things' the first thing one thinks of is God. As it happens, I am an atheist. I consider the God question all but settled. There's no way forward, so don't waste your time inquiring. You are perfectly entitled to say I'm wrong, and offer your reasons if you have any. But I don't feel obliged to answer every possible philosophical question. I pick the questions that grip me. The God question doesn't grip me, because I see through it.

I am gripped by many questions. For example, by the problem of time or the nature of knowledge. St Augustine famously said something about time which is relevant: 'When no-one asks me, I know. When someone asks me, I don't know.' He means, 'understand'. You assume all sorts of things — all sorts of ideas — that you don't really understand. You are not even aware of that fact, until a question is posed.

Those ignorant of philosophy eventually reach a point where all one can say is, in the words of the Lieber and Stoller song, 'Is that all there is?' I know that there is more. I don't know what it is; I only know that there is a question, and where there is a question, there one can inquire. To inquire — to seek aletheia — is to be in touch with something 'ultimate'.

Philosophy's saving grace is that anything you can say that clarifies or is relevant to the question counts as progress. Slowness, not speed, is of the essence. The more slowly, the more painstakingly you proceed — the more shades of meaning you see wrapped up in what you thought at first was a simple question — the more you understand.

As a teenager ignorant of what philosophers do, the only image that came to mind was 'old men in beards'. You can laugh at that but the funny thing is, that is just what I have become. A human life isn't long enough to pursue the questions of philosophy. Rush Rhees, one of Wittgenstein's students at Cambridge once wrote an introduction to philosophy entitled Without Answers (Routledge 1969). You can learn a lot from pondering the paradox which that title implies.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On identity and belonging


On Wed, Sept 16, 2009 at 07:28:18
Casey asked this question:

I am doing a school essay on identity and belonging.

The topic is: 'Personal identity is determined by what others think of us.'

I was just wondering whether there are any philosophical theories relating to this topic?


Casey, I'm guessing that you have done a few Google searches and seen the phrase 'personal identity' on philosophy web sites and forums. It's a popular topic in academic philosophy. However, when philosophers discuss personal identity they are primarily interested in identity in the forensic or strict sense: the precise physical and mental criteria for being one and the same person at time A and time B. Much of the discussion is quite arcane, involving science fiction thought experiments of body duplication, mind swaps etc.

But let's bring things down to earth.

A suspect is arrested for a murder. What the police want to know is whether the suspect is the person who did the murder or not. Suppose that they think that he is the murderer. (Well, obviously we assume they do otherwise he wouldn't have been arrested.) What the police think is just their belief — which might turn out to be true or might turn out to be false, depending on whether the suspect really is the murderer or not. That's what they hope to find out.

Applying your formula — 'personal identity is determined by what others think of us' — would lead to the absurd (and scary) conclusion that a suspect is guilty if other people believe he is guilty, even if he knows that he is innocent!

The facts are the facts. Sometimes, innocent people get convicted of crimes they did not commit, and no-one ever discovers the truth. On your formula, however, that would never happen. Your formula says that the identity of a person — e.g. the perpetrator of a crime — is determined just by what people think.

So, if you don't mean personal identity in the forensic or strict sense, what do you mean?

I think what you are talking about is a person's sense of what kind of person they are. We loosely refer to this as 'a sense of identity', but the identity in question is not the identity of a particular individual over time but rather identity with something larger than themselves, for example, a family, an occupation, a religion, a flag. All these things express one's 'sense of identity'. You can accept or reject the religion you were brought up with. You can be proud to be, e.g., an American, or indifferent, or ashamed depending on how feel about the country of your birth.

Whatever my parents' religious beliefs may have been, whatever they hoped I might believe, my beliefs are mine. Whatever people may think of me, I'm the best judge concerning whether I am proud of my country or not. Those are facts about my feelings and attitudes, and the kind of person I am. How can what other people think be relevant?

What makes your topic interesting is that despite what I've just said there does appear to be room for questioning this view.

Consider the popular phrase, 'You can't deny your roots.' Do you agree? or disagree? Think of different actual situations where someone might make this remark to another person. Is it always true, or does it depend on the situation? Are there circumstances where it is OK, or even desirable to deny one's roots? Who has the final say?

In certain parts of the world, skin colour is, sadly, still a major factor in determining how others think of you. 'I may have white skin, but I have a black heart,' said an Irish politician to his Harlem audience. They didn't laugh.

Around 1970 I was wearing granny T-shirts and bell bottom jeans, and sported a shoulder width Jimi Hendrix hair style. You might have taken me for a hippie. Maybe I thought of myself as a hippie, but in reality I was just a middle class British kid dressing up. If someone had offered me free love or a tab of LSD I would have run a mile.

What others think of you affects the way you think of yourself. If how you think of yourself is an expression of your sense of identity, then what others think can be a determining factor of your 'identity'. But much still depends, just as before, on the facts. You can be wrong about who you think you are, and others who 'know you better than you know yourself' can be right. Or they can be wrong and you can be right. Or maybe in this particular case there's no answer to the question. You just have to make your decision and stick with it. — All these answers are equally possible.

Or perhaps it is truer to say that we conspire with others through our desires, beliefs and attitudes to create our social 'identity' — our allegiances, our 'roots' — a 'fact' which we subsequently embrace or repudiate (for good or bad reasons). Each person has his or her own version of the story. There's no referee keeping score.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Point of being a philosopher


On Tues, Sept 8, 2009 at 12:49:51
Marcin asked this question:

What's the point of being a philosopher?

What do you actually accomplish when you answer a philosophical question?


Let's say I'm a philosopher. I will accept that as the premise of your question, although on some days (or in some moods) I don't really feel that I qualify. Elsewhere (My philosophical life) I've described myself as a latter-day 'sophist'.

Amongst the most prominent Sophists of Ancient Greece — Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, Prodicus, Antiphon, Thrasymachus (Jonathan Barnes The Presocratic Philosophers Ch.XXI) — there was by no means agreement on the value of the new-fangled inquiry known as 'philosophy'. By all accounts, the self-styled 'lovers of wisdom' were a pretty exclusive group, jealous of their monopoly on 'the truth' (as they saw it).

A true lover of wisdom would never stoop so low as to make a living as a professional thinker. That's fine if you're an aristocrat like Plato, or content to live on the streets like Diogenes, begging pennies off passers by.

You will gather that there's no love lost between me and Socrates. I have no interest in defending Socrates' and Plato's grandiose view of the philosopher as best qualified to rule because the philosopher alone knows what is required for the 'proper care of the soul'.

Yet the questions of philosophy grip me. I state that as a fact, which often (on some days, in some moods) surprises me. Why do I care about the nature of time, or the relationship between consciousness and the brain, or the definition of truth, or the problem of knowledge? It beats me. I just do. As I described in a previous answer, I have puzzled over the nature of time for as long as I can remember.

I suspect, though I can't prove, that most persons — even those who scoff at philosophy — are gripped from time to time by philosophical questions; they just don't recognize a philosophical question when they see one. Like any area of expertise, you get better at spotting opportunities for applying your knowledge with practice.

However, that's not really an answer to your question. It is blatantly circular to defend the value of answering philosophical questions by appeal to the brute, inexplicable fact that you find the questions gripping (as Socrates would no doubt be quick to point out). Maybe the critics are right: philosophy is best described as an obsessive compulsive disorder, and philosophers need to be cured, not indulged in their pursuit of answers which serve no useful purpose.

(As an aside, the great 20th century philosopher Wittgenstein in his later writings compared the activity of the philosopher to therapy, the aim being to cure us of our tendency to erect fanciful theories in response to seeming 'questions' which only arise in the first place because we misunderstand the grammar of our own language. — But, actually, on a closer look, Wittgenstein seems to me the very archetype of the 'philosopher's philosopher'.)

I think the problem with your question, Marcin, is that you are looking for an answer on a level of generality which completely bypasses the issue what philosophical questions are actually about. Above, I gave a list of the first questions that occurred to me (time, consciousness, truth, knowledge). The list isn't random. Philosophical questions are not about anything you please. They are about the nature of reality.

There is no such thing as a definitive answer to a philosophical question. You grapple with it. As a philosopher, you get to see bits and pieces of reality, never the whole thing, all at once. Traces of the truth.

Millions have enjoyed the Matrix movies, and heard Neo confess to Trinity that he knows there's 'something wrong with the world' but he just doesn't know what it is. Neo is right. There IS something wrong with the world. Something about the world just doesn't add up. And in a much more profound way than some silly conspiracy tale about good guys and bad guys.

We tell ourselves stories about what we are and why we're here. Everyone you meet has their 'pitch'. We compete with one another to be more attractive or fascinating. Above all, human beings need to justify their existence and will do anything to avoid admitting that their lives are pointless, unnecessary, superfluous. So the first thing you need to do is take off the mask. Admit to yourself, even if you won't admit to anyone else, that you don't know how it all adds up. You didn't ask to be born.

When you finally realize it's 'game over', then a new game — the real game — begins. You have woken up. You are no longer sleeping in your pod, dreaming the same dream as everyone else. You won't have to ask what the questions are because you will know. You will have started on the road to philosophy.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The case for idealism


On Mon, Aug 31, 2009 at 03:46:56
Bill asked this question:

How can an idealist, namely Schopenhauer, talk about 'the material (or physical) world' whilst claiming mind (consciousness) as the subjective 'support of the world'?

Does anyone take idealism seriously nowadays given the strong physicalist view of most scientists?

And doesn't idealism seem quite anthropomorphic? Why privilege ourselves so? As far as we know sentient beings exist only here on this cosmic speck of dust we call earth.


Finding an effective argument against idealism is a central challenge for philosophy. I won't attempt to do that here. What I will try to show is that idealism is not a straw man or easy target practice for first-year philosophy students.

I take idealism seriously — which probably puts me in the minority of English speaking philosophers working in the field of metaphysics. Notable books are John Foster The Case for Idealism (1982) and T.L.S. Sprigge The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (1983). The Pathways Metaphysics program is based around the debate between idealism vs materialism as 'theories of existence', and realism vs anti-realism as 'theories of truth'.

I like Bill's question, not least because of what he says in his last sentence. For all we know, we might be alone in the universe. There are good reasons for thinking we are not — it would just be too fantastical a coincidence — but the reasons are less than conclusive. You can play the game of 'calculating the probable distribution of intelligent life in the universe' any number of ways, but whichever way you do it, you have to make assumptions which cannot be verified.

So: we are very, very small, and the universe is very, very big. Maybe we are alone; but even if we weren't, surely it would be absurd if material existence — physical planets, stars, galaxies — were all mere products of consciousness. And, in any case, physics and cosmology provide a far more convincing explanation of the existence of the universe than the human mind. That's the essence of Bill's question.

However, the idealist is not defeated so easily. Consider the fact that Schopenhauer also said that conscious experience is produced by the brain. How can he possibly hold that the brain (being a part of the physical world) is simultaneously produced by consciousness and that which produces consciousness? It doesn't add up.

Or consider the view that the Earth existed for billions of years before life evolved. How can that be true, if the planets, stars and galaxies only came into existence with the first conscious experience?

The simple, short answer is that idealism is not an empirical claim. The idealist can quite happily endorse current scientific theory. The best explanation, in whatever field of scientific inquiry, remains the best explanation. What the idealist questions is whether 'the best explanation', supposing it to be true (and given that it is the best explanation, we have to regard it as probably true) is the ultimate truth about the nature of things.

Putting a formal case for idealism requires a book. I am just going to ask you to consider a thought experiment, or, rather, two thought experiments. The aim is to show that a seemingly easy and plausible way of arguing for materialism can be 'turned on its head' and converted into an equally plausible way of arguing for idealism.

John has toothache. What can we say about John that is true? Obviously, things are unpleasant for John, and he would vehemently agree. So one thing that is true is that John is wincing, holding his jaw and complaining of toothache. Another thing that is true is that John has a large, festering cavity in his tooth which is the obvious cause of the pain. This example suggests a plausible generalization: take any psychological state: what is true about it reduces to all the causal connections between that state and the rest of the physical world.

That, in essence, is the idea behind Armstrong and Smart's 'topic-neutral analysis' of mental states. You can insist that, regardless of all that is physically true about John's toothache there is something real for John, a 'raw feel' that cannot be reduced to the physical. You can keep saying this till the cows come home, but nothing turns on it. Any truth that can be stated, can be stated in the physical mode without implying the existence of anything extra over and above the neural state which, according to the best explanation, is John's pain.

What materialists may not have noticed, however, is that exactly the same form of argument can be used by the idealist.

John perceives an apple tree. What can John say about his experience that is true? John is standing on the grass, admiring the juicy apples dangling on the branches. If he closes his eyes and opens them again, the tree is still there. If he walks round to the other side, it still looks like a tree (and not e.g. a cardboard cut-out). John shakes the tree, some apples fall down. He takes one, and eats it.

Everything that John can ever know about the tree is ultimately based on his direct experience or knowledge which he has gained through experience, including the fact that the tree was planted before he was born, belongs to a species which has been cultivated for hundreds of years, is studied extensively in university departments of botany. So far as John is concerned (or you or me or anyone who asks the same question) any question relating to the tree is a question to be answered (if it can be answered) by investigating and thus enlarging upon human experience.

That in essence is Bishop Berkeley's argument for immaterialism. You can insist that, regardless of what may be true about the tree as an object of experience, there is something real that the experience is of, the actual substance, the 'matter', which produces the experiences in us. But whatever you say about this 'material substance' merely reduces more talk about experience or possible experience.

What I am suggesting is that when you tell the story about science, the 'raw feel' of conscious experience is indescribable, but also dispensable; when you tell the story about human experience, the 'material substance' behind all that experience reveals is indescribable, but also dispensable.

But now comes the finesse. The upshot of the two stories is the same. The subject of science is the world of our experience. The object of experience is the world of science. Look at the picture any way you like: from whichever side you start, the other side drops out as superfluous. The thing itself — 'raw feels', 'material substance' — which we regarded as so important, cannot be expressed.

With two perfectly balanced arguments, you might be tempted to call the debate between the materialist and idealist a stalemate. That would be premature. I prefer to say that the easy-going materialist has been hoist by his own petard.