Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about (philosophical) idealism. I qualify it as philosophical to distinguish it from casual meaning of optimistic. In philosophy, idealism is a metaphysical view about the nature of reality — one that I’ve always seen as in contrast to realism.
What caught my eye in all the talk was that I couldn’t always tell if people were speaking of epistemological or ontological idealism. I agree, of course, with the former — one way or another, it’s the common understanding — but I’m not a fan of the various flavors of ontological idealism.
It seems downright Ptolemaic to me.
Realism is the belief that external reality exists, roughly as we perceive it, and that our minds are travelers through this reality. I’ve posted about realism before.
Idealism is an opposing belief. It holds that reality is primarily, or exclusively, mental. This view has many variations, but broadly divides into two classes: epistemological and ontological idealism
The former really isn’t idealism if it admits to a lawful physical reality. The transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant is epistemic. Kant was an empirical realist. His idealism involved the impossibility of ever knowing things in themselves — we can only know the world as presented to our senses and represented in our thoughts.
Ontological idealism holds that mental content is primary or exclusive. It has some intersection with panpsychism, a view the sees conscious experience in particles or in the universe as a whole.
As I said, I am not particularly sympathetic to ontological idealism, and I’m even less so to panpsychism. I think both are illustrations of philosophy gone wrong. I see them as the result of over-thinking — admittedly a ready and easy trap for philosophers, theoretical physicists, and “thinkers” in general.
All I can say is, to me, panpsychism and idealism have a “whiff of the wide-eyed.”
There’s a taxonomy that, firstly, divides metaphysical views between monism and dualism; and, secondly, divides monism between materialism and idealism. Dualism includes both materialism and idealism.
For me, realism is justified in the convergence of scientific knowledge and in that technology works as understood and designed. Idealism has to account for the constancy and universality of the laws of physics.
When I was in graduate school, I recall hearing “One starts as a materialist, then one becomes a dualist, then a panpsychist, and one ends up as an idealist”.
Chalmers goes on to explain his theory about why: First, one is impressed by science, but then encounters the hard problem, which suggests dualism. Rejecting that, one moves to panpsychism, the view that matter is conscious, which ultimately leads to a view that everything amounts to, or only consists of, consciousness.
I’m not sure I agree. At least, it hasn’t worked that way for me.
I think the materialist position is still an open, not fully written, book. It may turn out to be the reality. The hard problem turns out to be just that: hard. Not impossible; just hard. Like weather prediction.
Phenomenal experience here turns out to be just the something it is like to be an incredibly sophisticated physical information processing machine tuned by millions of years of evolution.
Nothing we know rules this out.
[That said, “nothing rules out X,” is a weak argument, in part because the boundaries of what can be ruled out are malleable. But a horse running last in a race and clearly losing still can’t be ruled out as winning.]
On the presumption materialism fails, there is some form of dualism to fall back on, and since we’re already into metaphysical territory here, I’m not sure why we would pile on even stranger metaphysics.
To me it’s a bit like math involving a hierarchy of uncountable infinities. I think those also are fantasies that come from mathematicians over-thinking things. I think there is only the countable and the uncountable. The idea of a hierarchy of uncountable sets just doesn’t seem coherent to me. It’s just a game with mathematical symbols.
Likewise, I see panpsychism and idealism as a game with ideas. I’m very dubious these games, as genuinely interesting as they are, have anything to do with reality.
Over history, science has shown how small and insignificant we are.
We started with Ptolemy and a model that put Earth (that is, us) at the center. But Copernicus replaced that with a model centered on the Sun — we are just one of many objects that circle it.
We used to think our galaxy was the only galaxy, but Hubble replaced that model with universe filled with galaxies. We just inhabit one of the multitude.
That there is nothing especially special about us or our place in the universe is a key tenant of science. It’s a view that has been shown accurate many times in our history.
I am not the only human. We are not the only family. We are not the only tribe, village, state, or country. We are not the only species, or planet, or star system, or galaxy.
According to some scientists (who, I’m pretty certain are over-thinking things), we are not even the only universe.
And yet, idealism would put our minds back at the center of things.
I’m amused at the conceit.
The universe is vast and old — humans are newcomers who’ve been around for only a tiny blip of time. The idea that our puny minds account for all that time and space is preposterous to me. I have a hard time taking it seriously.
For one thing, we know the brain is flawed and easily fooled — it can even fool itself. It’s also often quite unaware of what it’s doing; we can never truly “know ourselves.”
This flawed trivially deceived instrument is a source of existence?
Color me dubious in the extreme.
A good thing, too, or someone having hallucinations might really screw reality up for the rest of us.
That’s actually, in my view, a revealing flaw in idealism. Our myriad hallucinations and illusions (and self-deceptions) seem not to affect reality as others perceive it.
What makes perfect sense, however, is that individuals, for a variety of reasons, can have highly inaccurate mental models of external reality.
To me, this alone seems to justify realism and deny idealism.
Panpsychism is the view that inanimate objects have phenomenal experience (or something akin to it).
There is a taxonomy that divides panpsychism into three classes: micro, macro, and cosmic. Living creatures with brains are examples of the middle class, macro.
Micro panpsychism is about particles “experiencing” reality — for example, an electron is said to “experience” a magnetic field. (Which I think conflates two different semantics.)
But the micro form has a serious flaw (one I think condemns the idea). It’s called the combination problem. How do particles that “experience” reality combine to form a brain that (we personally know) does experience reality?
Trees aren’t made from tree particles; cars aren’t made from car particles. The idea that the mind is made of mind particles seems absurd.
I think it is. Nothing works like that.
In the paper I mentioned above, of micro panpsychism, Chalmers sums up his discussion of it with:
But it also faces the significant extra challenges from spacetime and causation, as well as the more general challenges from holism and the combination problem. Some of these problems are very serious; arguably the combination problem is the most serious, followed by the problems of spacetime and of holism. So while there are significant attractions to micro-idealism, its prospects are somewhat questionable.
Which leads to cosmic panpsychism, the idea that consciousness is a universal property of some kind. Our consciousness, then, somehow comes from this universal consciousness.
It is here that panpsychism intersects with idealism.
A basic problem with idealism is: If reality comes from mental content, what about things no one is thinking about? Did the far side of the Moon exist before we saw it? Did Pluto? What about other galaxies?
A solution is to posit a cosmic mind — the “mind of God” — that thinks of… well, everything. If reality must be instantiated by thought, then cosmic reality must come from cosmic thought.
But there is a similar problem to the combination problem: How do our minds inherit from this cosmic mind?
I think what we might call structuralism makes the most sense — it’s the one view that accords with what we know.
A brain is a unique (natural) structure produced by millions of years of evolution. It’s complex almost beyond belief — even its basic parts (like synapses) are extremely complex. Its network, a defining property, is mind-boggling in size and interconnectedness.
All in all, it’s an amazing natural engine; this much we know. It’s the one thing the universe has created that questions (and challenges) the universe.
Tiny objects show none of this, nor does the larger universe. We see no questions, no challenges, no art, no celebration, no sorrow, no joy.
It’s tempting to put such a wondrous instrument at the center of things — after all, we are certainly the centers of our personal realities. The epistemic form of idealism is certainly correct.
But ontological idealism? No, I don’t think so.
Stay realistic, my friends!