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I am, brought on by a section on phenomenology in a forthcoming book, looking back into the school of philosophy known as idealism. It’s been a long time since I have written and researched on this particular subject and I am enjoying it immensely.

What are phenomenology and idealism?

Well, Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. Let’s take it back to Descartes and then on from there. Cogito ergo sum: I think; therefore, I am. Whatever “I” is exists indubitably. In order to doubt we exist, we have to exist.

We could take this one step further to say: I experience; therefore, experience exists. Idealism is the metaphysical philosophical position that the mental world, the realm in which our consciousness exists (or that is our consciousness), is all there is. The material world is a representation of something that we then experience, or that is created by our minds. We should not confuse the map with the terrain and think that the things we experience are the reality in material form.

Idealism can take many forms. I like to see it as a continuum from solipsism – the belief that your mind is the only mind, and that the whole of reality is a figment of your mind – to a form of panpsychism (but not panpsychism – I’m sure there is a word for this) – where your experience and other minds are all part of some uber-consciousness or Absolute Spirit or some such overarching non-material framework.

Materialism, on the other hand, is the belief that we exist and that we experience a real, external world made of matter (sometimes physicalism is preferred to encompass the weirder aspects of physics). When I touch the table, the table really exists, even though my experience of it might not be a 1:1 correspondence to the external object. This is a form of realism.

Immanuel Kant came along and developed his (what was later to be known as) phenomenology to declare that we, the experiencer, could not know the thing-in-itself (Ding an sich), the external object – the noumenon. Because we are necessarily subjective experiencers, we will always be subjectively experiencing such stimuli within our own phenomenological frameworks, thus producing the phenomenon – an object of our senses.

This was the start of idealism that has since developed into many different flavours.

People, considering the cultural baggage that we have, dismiss idealism out of hand all too often. I am an indirect realist materialist myself, which can be defined in this way:

This states that it is highly probable that there is an external physical world of objects or things/events that corresponds indirectly to some objects of perception in the sense that some objects of perception are causally dependent on real objects.

But we do not have direct access to the external objects of reality, but only to some conscious “objects of perception” that are causally dependent on them. That is to say, the objects and events of the world of matter and energy described by science are not objects of immediate experience/“objects of perception”.

Sounds reasonable, right? Obvious?

The thing is, it is a position largely of “faith” that is, essentially, unfalsifiable. We cannot prove we are not living in The Matrix, not a brain in a vat, or not victim to Descartes Evil Daemon. We have to accept that, on faith, we are actually living our lives as we think we are, not in some experience machine, touching a material table when we touch the table. We can’t prove this and one of the strongest arguments is that we simply have no good evidence to think we are in an experience machine reality.

This can be applied to matter at large.

We experience matter through our subjective lenses, but we cannot know these things-in-themselves, these objects, this table. I can feel it, see its form and its colour, but these are phenomenological experiences. I simply take it on faith that these things actually exist as material objects external to my mental world, or the phenomenal world at large.

The idealist often attempts to employ Ockham’s Razor to state that materialists have to unnecessarily create a whole other dimension, for which there is no “proof” in order to navigate reality. The idealist’s view is more parsimonious, they would argue, in that we know that the non-material world of experience exists – let’s just keep everything ontologically (ontology is the study of existence) to that non-material realm.

When I build up my own epistemology – my theory of knowledge and truth – I use science and probability and this method and that to get to something like a truth or knowledge. I might use the Correspondence Theory of truth: that a proposition is true if it has 1:1 correspondence with the external world. The thing is, we can never indubitably know if there is a correspondence because we cannot know that external world in itself, we can only know it subjectively. So, not only is the theory impossible to prove, it is also built on an axiom that is itself an unproven leap of faith that the material world (to which propositions actually apply) exists.

Once I hold to this axiom, then my epistemology (using reliabilism, coherence, Bayes’ Theorem and probability, and other epistemological methods) follows on easily.

But that initial axiomatic assumption that there is a material world is not as easy to argue for as many think.

This is unsurprising given the Munchausen Trilemma. This expresses that there are only three ways of grounding any claim: (1) an axiom; (2) a circle; and (3) an infinite regress. We are using an axiom and hoping that it is, indeed, a self-evident truth.

And don’t think that science will get you there (as evidence for materialism) because the idealist can argue that science holds within idealism – everything we discover in science is telling us something, but it is all representations of an ultimately mental reality. The argument that science qua materialism works therefore is rendered impotent. So, in some respects, whether we exist in an idealist or a realist/materialist reality is neither here nor there; we still use coherence and reliabilism to coherently and reliably get answers and knowledge that we can pragmatically apply to whatever it is that is our reality.

Now. personally, I am persuaded by many materialist arguments (try sticking a fork in your eyesocket and see how your consciousness is affected) but all of these can be rebutted by the thinking idealist. Bernardo Kastrup would say to this (taken from the second video below):

If everything is reducible to consciousness, then of course consciousness cannot cease to exist. But my and your personal consciousness can stop insofar as we are particular localisations of this broader field of consciousness. Those localisations can end. Consciousness itself doesn’t. As for the things we know affect our consciousness in our life like alcohol – it’s a “material substance”, right: you drink it and your inner life changes; or if somebody shoots you in the head, something’s going to happen to your inner life…. but notice that the claim here is not a dualist one; I am not saying that there is matter and there is consciousness and consciousness is fundamental next to matter. What I am saying is that there is only consciousness. What we call matter, including my brain and your brain (in my view), is just how particular mental processes present themselves across a dissociative boundary, across a mental boundary of some sort. It’s just the way mental processes look like…. Everything that can influence your inner life through “physical means” are also what other conscious processes, what other mental processes look like, that you don’t identify yourself with. And, of course, mental processes, when they interact, they affect one another. That’s why, when the the surgeon’s scalpel interacts with your brain, those are both images of mental processes in the process of interaction… and of course there will be a conscious effect of that because you have mental processes interacting…. just like thoughts effect emotions and the other way round.

In the end, for me at any rate, I actually think that my leap of faith (that the material world exists) is equivalent to the idealist’s leap of faith that the material world does not exist, and is intuitively parsimonious in its own way. The material world laid out in our  orthodox understanding of science does a good explanatory job, only falling short of the hard problem of consciousness. Idealism posits a lot of mystery – a sort of nebulous “nature” of mental “excitations” (see the work of Bernardo Kastrup here) that is answering the hard problem of consciousness or explaining away a leap by positing something wholly more mysterian.

I suppose I have trouble with positing something so ultimately mysterious in place of something that works, makes sense, and only has a small area of challenge (the hard problem of consciousness).

For one of the best conversations on this – nay, one of the best conversations on philosophy – that I have seen is this marathon but thoroughly worthwhile one with the erudite philosopher  and computer scientist Bernardo Kastrup (if only most English people had the same grasp of the English language as he does):

YouTube video

I honestly advise watching this in its entirety. If that’s not quite enough, here is another wonderful exchange:

YouTube video

There is so much to Katrup’s worldview that is coherent with mine (evolution by natural selection, morality, God), and yet we fundamentally disagree. Where we disagree is at a rather important level: the whole of reality. But I concede that my and his position are built on pretty unsubstantiatable grounds (leaps of faith, if you will).

I will look in more depth at his position in future posts.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...