The Dark Allure of Idealism

11 December 2005

On our now not so recent episode about Berkeley, with David Hilbert,  I said in passing that idealism, in some form or other,  is permanently tempting.   Don't get me wrong,  I don't believe in idealism.  I consider myself a realist and a physicalist.  Not only do I think that the world is (largely) independent of mind.  I also think that the mind is ultimately just a part of that mind-independent world.   That is,  the mind is ultimately built out of and reducible to stuff that is not yet mind.   Or so I would argue.   So I don't come here to defend idealism.   Neither do I come to refute it -- not  exactly anyway.  Lots of philosophers  have claimed to have decisively refuted one form of  idealism or another, but   I suspect that such decisive refutation is probably not to be had.    Although I don't for a second endorse idealism,  I think it is worth ruminating on its (dark)  allure  just for a bit.

Idealism is a mansion containing many different rooms, some more elegantly furnished than others.  Berkeleyan idealism, the ur-form of idealism, is a pretty spare  thing compared to   Kant's  "Transcendental Idealism"  which we will no doubt explore a bit to day on the show.    Though the latter has sometimes been said to be just a  fancied up form of  Berkeleyan idealism, that construal does inadequate justice to the richness and complexities of Kant's philosophy.  Kant's  understanding of the constructive and combinatorial powers of the human mind vastly exceeds anything on offer in Berkeley's philosophy.   Indeed,  despite the fact that I reject his transcendental idealism,  I tend to think of Kant as an early and great cognitive scientist.  He was really an amazing student of the human mind, much more astute than John's favorite philosopher David Hume  -- though Hume, too, had many deep and lasting insights into the mind.

After Kant, Idealism, especially in Germany,  takes on many and variegated forms.  Though our show on Shchopenhauer touches on one form of post-Kantian idealism,    I can claim no expertise in this rich period in the history of philosophy.     I do currently chair a department that has perhaps the single best collection of scholars of German Idealism in the English speaking world.  Whether that's blessing or a curse,  I'll leave to others to judge.   This preface is just a way of warning you that I myself am content to  paint with a very broad brush here.   If you really want to know about the many rooms in that  philosophical mansion called Idealism,  I'm not really  the right  philosopher to serve as your guide.

Idealists of all varieties  seem to share  a certain deep puzzlement over how "transcendental realism" could even possibly be true.   By transcendental realism I mean, roughly, the view that our "ideas" somehow represent,  give us cognitive and perceptual access to, and thereby enable us to think about and perceive  a world not of the mind's own constituting and not in any sense contained within the mind.

Why should anybody find the idea that we perceive and think about a world not contained within mind and not entirely of the mind's own constituting  at all puzzling?    Isn't it the most natural thing to believe that there is something "out there" to which our thoughts and perceptions somehow manage to give us access?

Apparently not.  Historically, perhaps the  puzzlement starts with the "idea" idea.   The idea idea has a couple of different components that make idealism a tempting option.  First, there's the thought that ideas are some sort of inner mental occurrence.   Next there is the thought that ideas represent what they represent by "resemblance."   One then rather quickly notices that  an idea is bound to resemble some other idea more than it resembles any non-idea.   It's a pretty short step from there to concluding that our ideas never "resemble" any mind-external reality and so can never represent any mind-independent reality.

This admittedly  quick little  argument  doesn't begin to do justice to the subtlety of various actual arguments for idealism.   But since not  much of  the  remaining allure of idealism in the 21st century is depends on arguments directly tied to the idea-idea,  I won't  try to do better justice to the detailed arguments for idealism that start from the idea-idea.   The idea-idea, especially, its resemblance theory of representation,  fell out of repute long ago.  Kant, for example, had already rejected it and replaced talk of ideas with talk of "concepts."   Thoroughly modern representationalists have many views about how representations connect up to reality,  but mostly they don't go in for simple resemblance theories thereof.   Some  take linguistic representations to be the paradigm of a representation, for example.  The word  'snow'  doesn't  resemble snow in any interesting ways that I can think of but it "stands for" snow nonetheless.

So what  could tempt one to idealism if one rejects the idea-idea and its resemblance theory of representation-represented relation?    One possible answer is connected to belief in what I call the priority of the representation over the represented.   If you think, as many philosophers do, that all of our episodes of thought or perception involve deployment of inner representations of some sort,  you might think that it's impossible to "step outside" the representations.   We have always to do with our own representations and never with a bare object.  If objects are ever present to us in either thought or perception, they are present only through our representations themselves. (Something like this insight is at the core of Kant's own transcendental idealism, by the way.) 

This way of thinking doesn't yet give rise to any particular form of  idealism, to be sure.  Many representationalists are also realists.  But if we ask  just what an object is,  a certain way of looking at objecthood leads pretty naturally to some form or other of idealism.  You could think -- though I don't think you should -- that an object is just whatever is "represented"  by certain sorts of representations, representations that play a certain role in an overall system of representations.    Never mind exactly for now just which sorts of representations and which roles.    But if you think the role playing representations somehow precede and determine the objects, rather than following and being determined by them,  you've taken a first step toward idealism.   

Idealists tend to think that   the very concept of an object is nothing but the concept of a something that is tied to our representations in a certain way.  And they tend to think that this is some sort of  a priori truth about our representations.   If you start thinking this way, you could quickly get yourself into believing that "objects" are just a sort  projection from or construction out of our representations and relations among them.   

Why should anyone believe in the priority of the representation over the object?  Idealism starts with a kind of "how else could it be" impulse.  Think about it this way.   We realists tend to think that our representations  sometimes manage to "match" a world that is entirely independent of us.  But this "external" world  is supposed to make itself manisfest to our minds, realists admit,  only through its relentless rush upon  the portals of sensation.   But this inward rush, the realist will also have to admit,   is really just bare energy that does nothing but energize our nerve endings.   It's not as though through the inward rush upon sensation the external world somehow directly "imposes" truth tracking representations upon us.    As Berkeley puts it somewhere the "external" world does nothing to the eye except to shake the optic nerves.  Yet, somehow the energized shaking of our nerve endings gives rise to a vast and varied plethora of representations -- representations of time, space, cause, effect, persistence, change, and on and on.    How does the mere energized shaking of our nerve endings manage that?   

One only need read, say, Hume, to convince oneself that these representations can't quite be "derived"  or "deduced"  or even "induced"  from the bare inward rush of energy upon the portals of sensation.   They go beyond -- way beyond --  anything merely "given" in sensation.   If you accept that Humean conclusion you might be tempted to conclude that a our representations as of  an "external world" of objects  arrayed in space, rushing in upon the portals of sensation,  is some sort of illusion and that many of our  representations are  groundless and deserve to be abandoned.  In some  moods, Hume seems to flirt with such the view that many of our representations as of an external reality  are groundless.  But his finals views are actually quite subtle.

An alternative path from Hume's insights -- which are genuine insights -- is represented by Kant.  (Kant claims, by the way, that reading Hume awoke him from his "dogmatic slumber.")  Hume is right, according to Kant.   We don't derive our representations of cause, effect, persistence, change, space or time from the inward rush of sensation.  Rather, we impose them upon the inward rush and thereby "constitute" or "create" the world -- at least the world that we experience -- which is the only world that we can know.       The representations of space, time, cause, effect, persistence are already resident in the mind,  prior to the inward rush.  They are deployed by the mind to "organize" the inward rush.   In organizing the inward rush via these pre-given representations,  we structure and order the world.  The structure and order that we impose on the inward rush is not there before we do our thing.  It's not something we find in the inward rush.

Why is this a tempting idea?   In large measure its allure results from the its promise to explain, in a way that few competing theories do,  just how we mamage to cognize a highly complex, structured and ordered world,  on the basis of the meager deliverances of "brute" sensation. 

It comes with a cost, though.  If the order and structure we cognize in the world is merely the mind's own imposition,  that means we can't really know anything about the world "in itself."   Indeed,  it's fair to wonder how an idealist, even a Kantian transcendental idealist,  can believe in the existence of a mind-independent world at all.   

Personally,  I find that an inordinate cost.  But this is not the place to talk about how we can avoid paying that cost.

 

Comments (10)


Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, December 13, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Thanks for your wonderful radio program and your e

Thanks for your wonderful radio program and your excellent blog!
You ask,
"Why should anybody find the idea that we perceive and think about a world not contained within mind and not entirely of the mind's own constituting at all puzzling?"
I call it "philosopher job security". It's much like the tediously incessant discussions over the "meaning of 'meaning'" and other such things. In my view, "meaning" means what an elementary school child thinks it means and our sensations mean what a dog think they mean.
This is not to say that we don't have misperceptions and that our minds don't sometimes fill in the gaps (indeed, we know for a fact this is true based on cognitive studies).
To say that there are inaccuracies and a subjectivity inherent in perception and in our internal models is justified. But to then say that there is no external reality in principle, or even that reality is vastly and hopelessly different than perceived (even on the macro scale) is simply "emperor's new clothes" talk.
In the end, the main problem with such a stance is that it has no practical application. If we decided there was no objective reality, or that we were all brains in jars, what would that mean to how we lived?
Oh yeah, speaking of which: there's the question of "how we are to live" - the thing philosophers *should* be working on instead of goofing off on things like idealism. Just my take :)

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Guest

Thursday, December 15, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

DT Strain wrote: Oh yeah, speaking of which:

DT Strain wrote:
Oh yeah, speaking of which: there's the question of "how we are to live" - the thing philosophers *should* be working on instead of goofing off on things like idealism. Just my take :)
I think even if we were to suppose that all philosophy should be directed towards answering questions about how we should live, I'm not at all convinced philosophers would do a better job answering that question if they stopped thinking about other traditional philosophical questions and spent all of their time tackling the 'How are we to live?' question directly. At any rate, we already know part of the answer to that question and that part of the answer is 'We should live our lives as the types of people who think about things like idealism even though it won't help you bake bread'.

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Guest

Saturday, December 17, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Very true, and far be it from me to suggest we sho

Very true, and far be it from me to suggest we shouldn't think about x or y. But whether or not we consider this in the field of "philosophy" or merely recreational "brain-boggling musings" is another matter.

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Guest

Tuesday, December 20, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

DT, I think David Sedaris is helpful here. 'Wh

DT,
I think David Sedaris is helpful here. 'Who do you think you are?', a student demanded to know having just been told that her story didn't have an ending. 'I'm the one being paid to be here. You are the one paying to be here', he responded. That seems a good first approximation at the distinction between philosophizing and brain-boggling musing.

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Guest

Wednesday, December 21, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Ken, Always a pleasure to listen to / read you.

Ken,
Always a pleasure to listen to / read you. You present and engage with the material in a way my philosophy professors never did: progressively, playfully, wading into them a little bit at a time, rather than as so many of my professors did, from their long-settled views and with a certain impatience they never quite explained. Despite your mastery of the topics, you keep in mind the enthusiasm and perspective of the student for whom all this is new -- and that is very helpful. Thanks!

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Guest

Friday, December 23, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

DT and Clayton, I think that it IS important to kn

DT and Clayton, I think that it IS important to know what reality is before one rushes headlong into "what to do?!". It's like a doctor determining the cause of the illness before prescribing the drugs. If it's true that from all we can tell, we might be brains in vats, that would certainly lead some to a malaise of fatalistic thought and action. Others would seek to fantasize their lives into quite wonderful flights of fancy. Still others would rebel, in a mad attempt to smash the vats and spill out free upon the floor. This is why the first Matrix movie should be shown and discussed in all Philosophy 101 classes!

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Guest

Friday, December 23, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Jeanne-Marie, I don't subscribe to the view tha

Jeanne-Marie,
I don't subscribe to the view that the only question philosophers should concern themselves with is the question 'How should I live?' but only think that even if one held this reductive view concerning the proper aims of philosophy, that doesn't mean we should stop thinking about idealism. We would still have to grant that thinking about idealism, scepticism, and the like paid dividends. That being said, I don't quite see why one would have to settle questions about idealism or radical sceptical hypotheses prior to determining what to do. Suppose the world really is for you and I just as it seems to us to be and we have some 'twin' trapped in the Matrix. If our perpsectives on the world are perfectly alike, will there ever be a situation in which we would be wise, reasonable, rational or what have you to pursue one course of action but it would be wise, reasonable, or rational for them to pursue some completely different course of action? If not, it seems hypotheses such as 'The idealists have the right metaphysical story about this table' or 'I'm a brain in a vat' will not have practical significance. There are details to be argued over, but that is at least the start of an argument.
Do you really think The Matrix should be shown in philosophy classes? I'm partial to Jacob's Ladder.

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Guest

Sunday, December 25, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Hi Clayton! I'm curious to hear what dividends

Hi Clayton!
I'm curious to hear what dividends you think thinking about all this pays! ;)
It seems to me that "what should I do?" is always stuck in there somehow, attached psychologically, but that most people have heuristics in place to keep it at bay (like calling the entire question an is/ought fallacy, for example, or appealing to the authority of scripture, or etc.) Thus, they may think that they don't trouble themselves with epistemic certitude before proceeding in taking actions, merely because it has already been settled in their minds (psychologically). But the way it was settled for them may be very flawed indeed, once examined. IS "the unexamined life worth living?" If not, there are a majority of zombies out there, mosying around thinking they know what to DO when they don't even know what they KNOW!
My point is that one's attitude about the nature of reality or ideality, despite one's degree of care in establishing a factually-based attitude, definitely predicates one's actions in the world. Your twins may well choose different courses of action. The one convinced he is a brain in the vat may decide that further exertion of "will" is illusory, and he may just give up, live the rest of his life a passive recipient of experiences. Why not? After all, to him, life is an illusion. Whereas the "realist" twin would not stop his willful, operant participation in the rat-race. I've had occasion to discuss things like this with people who sincerely believe that reality is somehow based on their ideas of it, and such people absolutely do make different sorts of choices from the hard-liners who assume they know all about the brass tacks of hard, cold reality.
I haven't seen Jacob's Ladder, but now I will keep my eye out for it. I was struck by how much philosophy was crammed into The Matrix, even a little heavy-handedly. I haven't seen it for a while, nor have I taken a philo class in a good ten years, so I'm too rusty to elaborate well....My other choice of films for philosophy beginners is "Dogma" for Intro to Philo. of Religion. There's also a strange film called "What the Bleep Do We Know" full of things to argue about. I remember in my Aristotle class when I was a freshman, we kept using Star Trek TNG episodes as examples....As a K-12 teacher, I came to appreciate the power of showing films to get students rolling! It seems far-fetched, silly, and weird to students when they read about people imagining brains in vats, but when they see what that could look like in The Matrix, it fires up their thought-experimenter!
Have a great day.

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Guest

Thursday, January 5, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

"The representations of space, time, cause, effect

"The representations of space, time, cause, effect, persistence are already resident in the mind, prior to the inward rush"
Perhaps this statement can be proved empirically one day. I am thinking of Steven Pinker's book, "The Language Instinct" where he argues that language is innate.
If we think of the mind (and certain innate ideas) as a product of an evolved organ (the brain) then the distinction between ideas and external reality is not so clear cut. That is, perhaps our basic innate ideas about the external world are molded via world itself. (Think self assembling matter capable of thought - the assembly process is directed by nature - and so examination of the thought process should yield good insights about reality - up to a point). Therefore, there is reason to believe that to a certain extent, we can form some ideas that reflect reality pretty closely - especially to the extent that they are ideas about evolutionary significant reality (space, time, cause, effect, persistence).
That also suggests that we are not naturally equipped with ideas about things far removed from our collective evolutionary experience, such as quantum mechanics - which would explain why no one really understands it ;) .
- Jim

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Guest

Sunday, August 23, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

Idealism is actually proven by a cutting-edge scie

Idealism is actually proven by a cutting-edge science, Quantum Mechanics. Before Quantum Mechanics, Einstein proposed the famous E=MC2 equation, meaning matter is supposed not to be solid, but fluid energy. Another proof is the Double-slit Experiment, where an electron beam is passed through 2 slits but exhibits a wave-like structure. Quantum Mechanics revolves around matter having a fluid energy structure, meaning solids are just perception. A new theory, String Theory, says matter and energy is actually modes of vibration of invisible string-like structures. String Theory means all that is in the universe is possibly just made up of notes of music, but we see the universe as the universe and not heard as music, meaning the universe is based on the perceiver.

 
 
 

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