Friday, April 9, 2010

Realism, idealism, solipsism

On Tues, Mar 16, 2010 at 13:58:53
Ruy asked this question:

Is it possible to embrace idealism and not to fall into solipsism?

On Tues, Mar 16, 2010 at 14:25:51
Muganga asked this question:

I would like to know the difference between the idealistic philosophy and the realistic philosophy.

I've postponed this question long enough. I first tried an answer a couple of weeks ago, but abandoned it. You could say that solipsism is my Achilles' heel. But Ruy is one of my University of London students so I have to give it a go.

The starting point is a talk I gave to graduate students at The University of Hull in 1997 entitled The Partial Vindication of Solipsism. I had to apologize to my audience because the talk was only half-written. At the crucial point, I just ran out of things to say, so I had to extemporize. (We had a lively discussion — I wish someone had taped it.)

Let's first get clear about some definitions. I'm not interested here in the realism/ anti-realism debate about truth and meaning, associated with philosophers like Michael Dummett and Crispin Wright. I've written about this — you'll find it in the Pathways Philosophy of Language and Metaphysics programs, but I want to focus here on 'traditional' idealisms, like Berkeley's Immaterialism, Kant's Transcendental Idealism (with phenomena-noumena distinction) and, possibly, Bradley's (or Hegel's) Objective Idealism. These are all robustly non-solipsist theories, so in a way that answers Ruy's question.

But, of course, it doesn't because the next question is, can Berkeleian Immaterialism or Kantian Transcendental Idealism or Bradleian Objective Idealism (or etc. etc.) be defended? If you do some research on the internet you'll see that a 'case can be made'. Two notable books which I may have mentioned before are John Foster The Case for Idealism (1982) and T.L.S. Sprigge The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (1984).

You don't need to be an idealist in order to see the attractions of a 'partial solipsism'. In fact, as I argue in my book Naive Metaphysics it doesn't even help to be an idealist so far as contemplating the attractions of solipsism is concerned.

Here, I want to give my 'take' on why idealism is challenge to be reckoned with. I think that idealism can be refuted. But there wouldn't be much interest in its refutation if idealism wasn't worth taking seriously.

Science has moved on, since Berkeley attacked the idea of 'matter'. The distance between a Newtonian corpuscularianism (essentially, a modified Democritean atomism) and (e.g.) string theory is stupendous. Physicist David Bohm's notion of an 'implicate order' could even be described as a 'new idealism'. But I'm going to take a broad sweep and include any view that sees physics as giving the ultimate account of the nature of the universe as inconsistent with philosophical idealism. The universe might be much stranger than we supposed, but physics gives the final account. After that, there's nothing more, you've included everything that exists.

According to the idealist — or at least my kind of 'idealist' — physics can never give the ultimate or final account. Physical theories aim to tell us how the world works, at the most fundamental level. But there is something else, which physics doesn't and cannot explain.

It's easier to grasp this if you are a theist (which I am not). What there is, which physics doesn't account for, is, on Berkeley's version of theism, the super-mind within which all physical existence is enclosed. When you look out onto the world, you are merely looking at the inside of God's mind. All the physicist does is look deeper into it. The nature of the deity is a subject for theology, or, possibly, metaphysics, but not physics.

(You can of course, be a theist without embracing idealism. God did his God bit by 'making' things out of 'matter', the way a potter makes pots out of clay. Alan Watts has a great phrase for this theory in The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966): he calls it 'The Crackpot Universe'.)

If you asked me, 'How is it that the Earth is able to hang suspended in space?' and my reply was, 'Imagine the Earth resting on a tortoise. Now, remove the tortoise', you wouldn't think much of my answer. But I do contend that what I said about the tortoise is a valid way to think of idealism. 'Imagine the universe existing inside God's mind. Now, remove God.' The point is that nothing is explained by appealing to the nature of the deity. How can we know? But, equally, one can't simply say, with Wittgenstein, 'A nothing would serve as well as a something about which nothing can be said.' Serve what purpose, exactly? If you just mean 'serve the purposes of science', then you're just begging the question.

In short, for all its ambitions towards objectivity, science is confined to looking at the universe from the inside. That's what the idealist claims. There is something beyond science, for the same reason that anything that has a 'inside' must have an 'outside'. But as to what that 'something' is we can only speculate.

A student of metaphysics might notice that what I've said isn't very far away from Kant's theory of phenomena and noumena. Or maybe Schopenhauer's World as Will and Idea.

In objective idealism, the metaphor of 'inside' and 'outside' is replaced by the notion of part to whole. According to F.H. Bradley in his treatise Appearance and Reality (1893), thinking dismembers experience by means of the apparatus of terms and relations, resulting in irreconcilable 'contradictions' which are only 'overcome' in the Absolute — although as finite beings we can have no positive knowledge of how this is possible. Even God is merely an aspect of the Absolute.

What's wrong with idealism? We can leave aside the usual objections, like P.F. Strawson's disappointingly weak reasons for rejecting the phenomena-noumena distinction in his otherwise excellent book on Kant, The Bounds of Sense (1966). Yes, talk of an 'unknowable ultimate reality' borders on the unintelligible. But that's precisely the point where we need to avoid the temptation to throw our hands up in horror (the way the old-time logical positivists used to do).

Commenting on Bradley's denial of the reality of spatial and temporal relations, Strawson's contemporary at Oxford J.L. Austin is said to have remarked, 'There's the part where you say it, and then the part where you take it back.' Space and time are 'real', for all practical human purposes, just not for metaphysics. Well, I know what Bradley meant, even if Austin (disingenuously, in my view) professes not to. If only philosophy were that easy!

I've not done much more than try to describe the idealist's vision, so it would be somewhat unfair to offer a refutation when I haven't really given an argument to refute. I have more to say about this in the Pathways Metaphysics program. However, there are two books which stand out for me as encapsulating what needs to be said if you want to resist the idealist's challenge.

The first book, or rather pair of books, is John Macmurray's The Self as Agent (1957) and Persons in Relation (1961) based on his Gifford Lectures, 'The Form of the Personal'. Macmurray identifies the key move that needs to be made as the rejection of a 'metaphysic of experience' in favour of a 'metaphysic of action'.

The second book is Richard Rorty's rightly celebrated Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) where the key assumption behind the panoply of idealist philosophies is identified as the view that human thought acts as a 'mirror' which serves to 'copy' or 'represent' an 'external reality'.

We are as agents bound up with the world too intimately to make a separation, even in thought, between experience, or thought, and its 'object'.

I suppose that this is, essentially, pragmatism. The American Pragmatist William James correctly identified this as the weak point in F.H. Bradley's idealism, the notion that human physical agency reduces to so much 'experience'.

It is the same point, again, as the famous incident when Dr Johnson, emerging into a church courtyard after hearing one of Berkeley's sermons, kicked a heavy stone and declared 'I refute it thus'. An idealist would say that Dr Johnson was being naive because 'of course' idealism can explain the experience of rapidly moving your boot, the judder of contact, etc. What Dr Johnson saw — and Berkeley missed — is that what makes reality real, and not merely 'virtual', is that actions are things we do rather than things we merely experience.

1 comment:

  1. Are you a hard line Idealist? Meaning total non-
    esistence of existence?
    I've always felt this must be the case in order to
    make sense of reality.