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Putting the case for idealism


To: Bernard P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Putting the case for idealism
Date: 25th August 2010 12:50

Dear Bernard,

Thank you for your email of 18 August, with your untitled essay towards the Associate Award, putting the case for idealism.

In terms of structure, this is less an essay than a series of connected observations or points -- or notes towards an essay.

I am not going to attempt a critique of the many arguments, or allusions to arguments, that you put forward. The main thrust, although not your only line of attack, is the case from science and in particular recent developments in physics.

You quote from Joad, who quotes from Eddington, that the apparently 'solid' objects we perceive, like this desk, are nothing of the sort, the experience of impression of solidity arising from the interaction between the 'object' and our senses. Does this show that apparently solid objects are not solid? Or does it show precisely the opposite -- that what is, or is not solid is defined in relation to our capacity for perception and action? The ground is solid, but to a sufficiently powerful burrowing tool (as envisaged in popular comics) it presents a similar aspect to air or water. The burrowing machine can 'swim' or 'fly' through it.

Kant, following Leibniz's criticism of Descartes for failing to account for the property of 'inpenetrability', saw the basic point (also grasped apparently independently by Boscovitch) that the hardness or solidity of 'matter' is fully definable in terms of a resisting force.

It is not news that 'matter' isn't what it was once thought to be (e.g. by the atomists Democritus and Leucippus). It isn't the end point of explanation but rather something to be explained, a particular combination of properties for which we seek a unifying theory.

All contemporary physicists would accept this, but all physicists are not idealists.

What is idealism? Your answer is buried in the middle of the essay: you refer to Plato's theory of 'ideas' or forms, and also to the notion of an Absolute. Experience isn't the basic thing, any more than matter: what is basic is thought, as such.

I'm somewhat surprised that in taking this line, you don't have anything to say about Whitehead's Process Philosophy, which claims to be a 'mere footnote' to Plato's dualism of the world of forms and the world of appearances. Maybe you think (as with Hegel, and contra Bradley) that if you have the concept, or the form, you don't need the experiential 'filling'. But all this needs to be explained.

In discussions of the mind-body problem, philosophers who take the physical monist view are more likely to describe themselves as physicalists than materialists. Is your idealism consistent with physicalism? I can't tell from what you say. The crucial point is that, for the physicalist, what science discovers, or theorises about, is the ultimate reality. There is nothing beneath or beyond that accounts for the 'appearance' of a physical world. The world is all that is physically the case.

This is something Kant did not believe: he clearly commits himself to idealism by asserting the existence of 'things in themselves' or a 'noumenal' reality beyond the world which 'appears' in space and time. But this does not appear to be your view.

You can see that I am struggling. The main reason that I am struggling is that you have failed to state, at the outset, what is at stake in arguing for 'idealism', or against 'materialism'.

Here is an analogy which might be helpful: In the time of the Presocratic philosophers, one observation which was taken to be universally true is that 'things fall down'. No-one thought to ask what this means, why there is (apparently) only one direction in which falling happens, or indeed what falling is. Now we know that falling is just the effect of gravity. Things don't 'fall down', they move under the influence of a gravitational force.

In a similar way, it was once thought that solidity is just what makes a thing a 'thing'. It was the end point of explanation. Now, we know better.

In the Metaphysics program, I set out to challenge what appeared to be strong arguments for an idealist metaphysic. I conceded that the idealist has ample resources for defending idealism against the charge that it violates the 'reality principle'. By the end of the program, however, idealism is shown to entail insoluble antinomies, and that the only alternative is to accept that, as stated above, the world is all that is physically the case.

However, this isn't the rejection of metaphysics: on the contrary, what I take this to show is that from the point of view of metaphysics, agency is more fundamental than experience. Truth is merely a concept. Judging is a physical action. Again, I don't see any consistency between your rejection of 'materialism' and this view, which is not idealist in any sense that I would recognize.

In sum: I think that the case for idealism from science is a potentially valid topic. I don't think that you have successfully made that case, although you have included a lot of material which could be used to make that case.

Most importantly, you need to define idealism, or what would count as a successful defence of idealism. What does being an 'idealist' in your sense commit one to? What are its consequences? What view are you arguing against? Surely not the naive view of matter that people who have no knowledge of contemporary physics hold.

All the best,