Friday, August 12, 2011

Immaterialism, anti-realism and the existence of matter

To: Ochieng O.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Immaterialism, anti-realism and the existence of matter
Date: 9 April 2004 13:01

Dear Ochieng,

Thank you for your email of 1 April, with your response to Unit 14 of the Metaphysics program. Or is this your fifth essay? No matter!

You have chosen to write an essay on the topic, 'Combining Immaterialism and Anti-Realism. Does Matter Exist Objectively?'

This is a sparkling essay which I very much enjoyed reading. With your permission, I would like to publish it in Philosophy Pathways.

Let's start with you final question, 'What is space-time?', or, as Berkeley would pose it, 'What is space?'

We perceive things 'in space', like your red cube. The cube occupies a three-dimensional spatial volume. It is located at a distance from us, a few feet. We can reach out and touch it, and, as we do, our hand moves through space.

But nothing that we gain through the senses gives us a space of *three* dimensions, replies Berkeley. The senses give only two.

Now, we have the opportunity to put forward a number of rival hypotheses:

1. There really is three dimensional space 'out there' at a distance from us, and this explains why things appear as they do (common sense realism).

2. Experience is possible only because we necessarily interpret our experiences using a spatial framework which embodies the a priori concepts of substance and cause (Kant).

3. There really is something 'out there' which ultimately accounts for our experiences 'as of' objects in space, but it is unknowable (Kant again).

4. There really is something 'out there' which ultimately accounts for our experiences 'as of' objects in space: windowless monads (Leibniz).

5. There really is something 'out there' which ultimately accounts for our experiences 'as of' objects in space: archetypal ideas in the mind of God (Berkeley).

6. There really is something 'out there' which ultimately accounts for our experiences 'as of' objects in space: quarks, or superstrings, or waveforms etc.

There are grounds for arguing that 1. and 6. are only apparently contradictory, in an analogous way that, according to Kant, 2. and 3. are apparently contradictory. On the other hand, 4. and 5. can be criticized from a Kantian perspective of attempting to grasp things in themselves in terms of concepts derived from experience (cf. Kant's critique of Leibniz in the section of the Critique entitled 'Amphiboly of the Concepts of Pure Reflection'.)

Your discussion of the surveillance system and the computer neatly illustrates the tempting equivocation which makes immaterialism sound like up-to-date physics. Both appear to depend on a cause and effect model of perception. In the former case, the effect is sense data, or Kantian 'intuition'. In the latter case, it is electrical impulses in the brain.

The argument depends on the plausible claim that from the given effect we cannot deduce the cause. We cannot deduce that subjective experiences are caused by objects in space, because the experiences could have been caused in some other way. We cannot deduce that the electrical impulses are caused by objects in space, because the impulses could have been caused in some other way.

However, we should remember that Berkeley claimed that his philosophy provided the solution to scepticism. On the Lockean picture, we are left to doubt whether knowledge of the causes of our perceptions can ever be possible. For Berkeley, all our knowledge concerns perceptions, nothing else. Philosophy tells us that the ultimate cause of these perceptions is not a dubious 'something out there' but rather a non-deceiving God. (We are not deceived provided we don't fall into the trap of believing in materialism!)

Let's recast the problem.

We are not concerned with scepticism. The issue is not whether *something* exists objectively. Undoubtedly, there must be something that ultimately accounts for our experience. The question is what that 'something' is, or, rather, how we may legitimately describe it.

If it truly is the case that the complete description of my experience *leaves the question open* whether there is such a thing as space or material objects, then the space hypothesis is otiose, empty, a wheel which turns though nothing turns with it.

Note that the argument I have just given is the mirror image of an argument used by the Australian materialists (Armstrong Smart) against Cartesian dualism:

If it truly is the case that the complete description of a subject's behaviour in the world leaves it open whether there are such things as 'raw feels' or 'qualia' then the qualia hypothesis is otiose, empty, etc. etc.

The technical term for this method of argument is 'topic neutral description'. Berkeley's idealism effectively rests on the assumption that it is possible to give a topic neutral description of experience, an assumption which he inherited from Descartes (cf. Meditation 1).

Where is the chink in immaterialist's argument? If you grant the starting point, then the rest follows. If the fundamental task is to describe experience, then the space/matter hypothesis is empty, or, rather, we ought to say (along with Kant) that spatial concepts are merely the necessary means for describing phenomenal reality. Space and matter are nothing in themselves.

And if we do not grant that starting point? What is the alternative?

All the best,

Geoffrey