Arguing Idealisms: Epistemological

I have been having a whole bunch of fun thinking about idealism lately (and then immediately putting on my unoriginal theologian’s hat) [1].  Of course, there is a raft of meanings that people attach to the term idealist and obviously I can’t be meaning all meanings all the time, so I will only be speaking here about those that I find particularly compelling.  First, there is epistemological idealism, a family of views [2] that concerns itself with the contents of experience and which asserts that we cannot know objects in a mind-independent way (how this washes out is somewhat different for each theorist).  Then there is ontological idealism, which makes the much stronger assertion that reality is, in one way or another, at base fundamentally mental, not material.  I am going to present, across an indeterminate number of posts, some arguments for each that I have cooked-up myself.  I make no claim that these arguments are original to the history of philosophy – I wouldn’t know because during my undergraduate degree idealism wasn’t a big topic of discussion, due to too much worrying about free will in light of the obvious fact (?!) of causal determinism – but at least they are my own.  On, then, to…

Epistemic Idealism:

Of the two, epistemological idealism (henceforth: EI) is by far the easier to argue for and is actually, I have found, a quite common, if very much implicitly held, belief among scientifically literate people (and others besides) [3].  To put my cards on the table, I take EI very seriously – I haven’t encountered an argument yet that seriously threatened idealist skepticism of knowledge about the external world.  Although I may deal with such criticisms in some future post, at present I am interested in presenting my own reasons for accepting EI.  As such, I present the following argument:

Say I have two apples (yum!) and I want to know what colour they are.  No problem, I just look at them – “oh, one is red and one is green” – and that would count as sufficient evidence for most people that one of the apples is red and the other is green.  They could repeat the experiment and confirm my results.  If there was a large enough group of people, however, there would inevitably be a few colour blind people who would insist that “there are two green apples and what the heck is this ‘red’ thing you people are always on about?”  They would be doing the same experiment and actually getting different results.

A simulation of how the colour sighted and the colour blind would see the apples.

We cannot merely dismiss the colour blind as being wrong about the colour of the apples simply because there are fewer of them – after all, if we were in a hypothetical colour sighted minority we wouldn’t accept that red doesn’t exist simply because most everyone else couldn’t recognize it.  So what becomes obvious is that we have a problem, which is that the apples seem to be differently coloured (red and green) only within certain frames of reference (i.e. those including organisms with perceptual apparati like that of colour sighted human beings), while they are identically coloured within other frames of reference (e.g. those of colour blind human beings).  With this recognition it becomes easy to imagine further frames of reference in which the apples seem to be multi-coloured, or to have no colour at all, or even to be visually absent (e.g. worms don’t have eyes).

Still, the question stands: what colour(s) are the apples?  What is obvious is that we cannot answer the question by piling up a list of the apples’ seemings-to-be across the complete set of possible and actual frames of reference for the apples.  That such a piling-up of seemings will bring us closer to the facts of the matter is difficult to believe, particularly since in only a trivial number will they even have colour, let alone be red and/or green [4].  What we want to know is what colour the apples are independent of how they seem – that is, what colour are they from no frame of reference?  Unfortunately, this is impossible to answer.

For example, we might try to resolve the issue by use of science.  We know that our perceptual apparatus works in particular ways and acknowledges different colours in response to certain wavelengths of light reflected from the surface of objects, so we could simply measure the reflectivity properties of the apples.  But if that is what we choose to do, although we would be learning something potentially interesting and useful about them, we nevertheless wouldn’t have ascertained what colour they are, merely something about their light-reflective properties.  Or we could measure the wavelength of the light reflected from the apples, but again we will not have identified what colour the apples are.  We could note what is going on in our nervous systems when the light reaches our eyes, but certainly whatever that research reveals would definitely not tell us anything about the apples!

This argument, while familiar to any who have spent much time learning about human perceptual systems, is still, however, one step away from full-blown EI.  I will now take us the rest of the way.

In a deeper sense, the question of what colour the apples are is incoherent.  Remembering that we cannot identify the colour(s) of the apples except from some frame of reference, for there to be the seeing of a red and a green apple requires the presence of both the apples and of a perceiver capable of the perception of red and green alike.  I can see both colours but colour blind people can’t, even if we are looking at the same objects.  The apples are able to cause different perceptions of colour in different organisms on the basis of those organisms’ perceptual faculties being of the sort that are capable, in conjunction with the right external causes, of producing ‘red’- and ‘green’-experiences.  Were there no such organisms, there would be no such thing as experiences of ‘red’ or ‘green’.  So to ask what colour the apples are from no frame of reference in particular is to ask what the non-experience of experiential qualities – as caused by some object(s) – must be like, which is an obvious non-starter.

The implication of this is that colour is not a property of the objects at all!  Rather, colour is a perceptual experience that may be said to have been caused along the lines explained above, so the very most we could say about the apples is that they have the property of being the sort of things that can cause ‘red’- or ‘green’-experiences (under the right conditions).  Now, the same holds true for all properties and all objects.  A challenge for the reader: identify even a single property of some object that is not relative to some particular frame of reference.  I believe that there is nothing – nothing – that may be posited as an observer-independent property of any perceived object whatsoever.  In fact, we do no not perceive objects at all – there are only our perceptions.  This is EI.

Endnotes:

[1] What can I say?  I was always kind of weird – definitely never much of an outdoors kid (sorry, Dad).

[2] Just assume from here on that I am speaking about families of views.  It’s too much work to provide an in-depth and subtle comparison between, say, Berkeley and Kant.  In addition, I would have to understand Kant.  Ha! :S

[3] Which brings me sharp jolts of Schadenfreude any time it becomes apparent.  The irony of my sciencey friends making idealist arguments about perception when the very thought of idealism itself is repellent to them… it’s just too delicious.

[4] I suppose one could say that God could clear it up, that if any frame of reference is objective, it’s his.  To  which I would respond: “what, does God have eyes?”

Thinking About ‘Enlightenment’

A discussion has erupted over at David Chapman’s blog about that most important of Buddhist concepts – namely, enlightenment.  More specifically, he took as his subject matter the following set of questions:

  • What is enlightenment?
  • Is there such a thing?
  • How can we find out?
  • What is it good for?
  • Why should we care?
  • Who is enlightened?
  • How can you tell?

He also asks what do we want Buddhism for?

These are, naturally, very important questions for Buddhists to ask of themselves and their sanghas since the whole point of the Buddhist path is to take us from wherever it is that we are toward enlightenment (even if enlightenment wasn’t anywhere else to begin with). Buddhism without enlightenment seems a lot like coffee without caffeine – sure, it tastes sorta the same, but what’s the point? Unfortunately, it is a question that very few Buddhists actually pause to give much thought to.  I’ve been thinking about this myself and have concluded that people really are confusing/conflating enlightenment as epistemic event/state, as metaphysical event/state, and as worldly-pragmatic state.

Enlightenment as an epistemic event/state:

This version of enlightenment-as is constituted by some sort of knowledge-that/of or the moment of the acquisition of such knowledge. In Buddhist terms it is relatively straightforward what might count as ‘enlightened’ knowledge: emptiness, universality of the Three Characteristics, dependent origination, karma and its workings, rebirth, etc.  However, there are other possibilities here too – God-like omniscience is surprisingly frequently thought to be gained at enlightenment.  At bottom, any realistic idea about Buddhist enlightenment will necessarily include some epistemic aspects – non-enlightenment for Buddhism just is ignorance about not-self, etc. – but need not include all of these.  For example, Mahayana traditions maintain that arahantship (a sort of enlightenment) is possible without having fully comprehended the emptiness of all phenomena (a point which Theravada disputes).

Enlightenment as a metaphysical event/state:

Metaphysical enlightenments-as are characterized not by knowledge but by a change in the being of the enlightened person.  On such conceptions enlightened beings are freed from the birth-death-rebirth cycle, have gained magical powers, replaced their material bodies with immaterial ones (!), merged with God, etc.

Enlightenment as a worldly-pragmatic state:

Though not as colourful as metaphysical enlightenment-as, this is perhaps the most broadly inclusive category as it can include all sorts of different things.  There is the old Buddhist stand-by of enlightenment as freedom from suffering.  There is enlightenment as moral or ethical perfection.  Enlightenment can be imagined as the total absence of negative mental states and the continual presence of pleasant ones.  It has even been suggested that enlightened beings will have become the ultimate learners, able to learn new languages (or other such novel tasks) with great ease.

Any of these could comprise a reasonable definition of enlightenment (singly or in combination)[1] but one nevertheless has to be really clear with oneself about a few things.  First, one must be clear about when there is some mixing-and-matching happening between different enlightenments-as.  What is important here is that while any picture of enlightenment will likely cobble together different aspects of each of the categories given above, there will generally be something that is thought of as being the core ‘essence’ of enlightenment (say, it’s epistemic but emotional good times follow, or emotional stability is the aim but knowledge is a step on the path to that).  Second, it may be that in reality there is no connection whatsoever between these different enlightenments-as – for all we know, knowledge of the emptiness of external phenomena may be just as likely to lead to a complete lack of regard for others’ well-being as it is to lead to ethical perfection.  Third, one should not be under the impression that it will necessarily be the case that the methods that produce one sort of enlightenment will lead to the production of some other sort.

Based upon what I’ve seen in my investigations, it strikes me that Vajrayana Buddhism (in general?) tacitly acknowledges this – at least, this seems to me the most probably useful way to gloss the three-yana/nine-yana approaches to the path. It seems to me the instructions are to hit stream-entry, defined as epistemic insight into emptiness, as quickly as possible and then to move on to cultivating real-world usefulness and compassion, although not totally ignoring other stuff either [2] – full enlightenment, Buddhahood, being a blending of insight and worldly efficaciousness.  This is very different from, say, Daniel Ingram and Kenneth Folk’s brand of Theravada, where the point is to pound emptiness through the skull as completely and as quickly as possible and then worry about everything else after arahantship, which one will have to do since the method isn’t designed to produce e.g. compassion (this is cartoonish but good enough).  This sort of approach is based on enlightenment as purely epistemic (albeit, with the real-world consequence of suffering being eliminated).

Obviously, these paths are going to appeal to different types of people. Vajrayana (as it is presented to Western lay-folk) makes much hay about compassion and so those with an empathic or ‘real-world’ sort of bent are going to be strongly attracted to that sort of practice. Ingram and Folk are much more INTP in their orientation and so will naturally appeal to those like myself (pure episteme, “knowledge for its own sake”). But if one spends all his time doing compassion practices (e.g. tonglen, metta) he should not expect to ‘get’ emptiness, nor should someone who spends all her time breaking down reference points expect to become temperamentally different from before merely because she sees that her anger is dependently arisen. Of course, most Buddhist teachers either don’t know or won’t say what their brand of enlightenment is aiming at – so we enter Dharma centres and get talks about cutting through self-clinging but are given metta practices, or about cultivating compassion but are given vipasyana/vipassana practice. And since most students aren’t clear about the difference between these or even what they’re after, they can’t get whatever it is that they really need.

Endnotes:

[1] Rather, some of these could present a reasonable definition of enlightenment – flying cross-legged across the universe is unlikely to be truly possible.  By “enlightenment” here I mean, of course, ENLIGHTENMENT!!!‘ – i.e. something that is suitably desirable and non-ordinary that it would be a satisfactory aim for a spiritual practise.

[2] Major caveat: I have a suspicion that in monastic settings the aim of Tibetan Buddhism is to produce arahants first and then move along to other things (hence the decades of training).

Some More Words on Agnostic Atheism

I was having a conversation with an atheist friend of mine and he suggested (actually, ‘suggested’ is much too weak a description of what he did) that my agnostic atheism is hopelessly confused.  He gave two  somewhat related reasons that struck me as being worth addressing.  The first is that, although he was willing to concede that atheism ought properly to be considered a belief claim, he nevertheless felt that one who believes that ‘there is no God’ necessarily cannot also believe that ‘whether or not there is a God is beyond our capacity to know’ – to do so is to somehow do something that is contradictory.  The second reason was that the agnosticism takes away reasons for adopting the atheism.

The first is actually not that difficult a matter to address.  Obviously, in one sense he was cutting himself off at the knees by granting that atheism ought to be considered a belief claim rather than a knowledge claim.  If the one claim is that ‘I know x‘ and the other is that ‘I cannot know x‘, there is an obvious contradiction there.  But there is nothing at all inherently contradictory if the first of the two statements were to be replaced with ‘I believe x‘.  For example, suppose I believed that I will be receiving a pink slip today (perhaps the company is in some tough times and layoffs have been announced).  This is in no way incompatible with my acknowledgement that I do not know whether or not I will actually receive a pink slip (maybe I sit somewhere in the middle of the seniority ladder and the management hasn’t announced how many they will be laying off).  The same applies to agnostic atheism.

The second criticism is perhaps more damning.  To take a stance on the question (whether that be some species of theism or atheism) is to make quite a strong commitment, even if that stance is ‘merely’ a matter of belief rather than knowledge.  Given that this is so, wouldn’t it just be best to acknowledge that one cannot know and leave it at that?  While it would certainly be a ‘safer’ position, I don’t think that it is a better one.  While the epistemic requirements for knowledge (especially of this kind) are rather high (I am here assuming some JTB+), there are certainly reasons for deciding more or less tentatively in favour of one proposition over another.  For example, I believe (rather strongly) that my house keys are where I left them when I got home yesterday.  Of course, I do not ‘know’ this – perhaps my wife, for what would clearly be a good reason, had occasion to move them – but, nevertheless, I have some pretty good reasons for thinking so.  The same can hold for theism or atheism.  For example, I see Darwinian natural selection as an adequate explanation of apparent design, which makes a designer superfluous to the whole process, while a theist might point to what he sees as the unintelligibility of morality without a lawgiver as evidence in favour of God.

Of course, the coherence of my position really does depend on whether theism/atheism really are belief – but not knowledge – claims.  I think so, but that is a matter for another day.

Essay: On the Impression of Time

David Hume

What you will find below is one of the short papers written for the Hume seminar I took last year.  I think it safe to finally start posting essays without danger of being kicked out of school.  So without further comment:

 On the Impression of Time

In this paper I shall investigate the explanation Hume gives in A Treatise of Human Nature of how the human mind comes to perceive, in the changing series of its perception, a flowing of time, as discussed in “Of the other qualities of our ideas of space and time” (1.2.3.6 – 1.2.3.10).  I will provide reasons for believing that this view is untenable as it stands.  I will also argue that his account of time cannot be rescued, for the best available means of doing so would have significant knock-on effects on his general understanding of perception, effects which are contrary to experience.  Interestingly, revision to his account of the perception of time will also have effects upon his understanding of perception.

For Hume, “[t]he idea of time, [is]… deriv’d from the succession of our perceptions of every kind, ideas as well as impressions,” and that without this “succession of ideas and impressions… [it would not be] possible for time alone ever to make its appearance” (1.2.3.6 – 1.2.3.7).  There are several reasons to suppose this plausible.  Firstly, Hume points out that for a man who is asleep there is no experience of time, nor is there for one who is “strongly occpy’d with one thought,” though in this latter case he actually means that “according as his perceptions succeed each other the greater or less rapidity, the same duration appears longer or shorter to his imagination…”  Further, Hume illustrates with an example of how when we spin a burning coal, we are able only to perceive a ring of fire as a static object and perceive no change in it and therefore no ‘time’ (1.2.3.7).

Hume hastens to point out, however, that “[t]he idea of time is not deriv’d from a particular impression mix’d up with the others, and plainly distinguishable from them; but arises altogether from the manner, in which impressions appear to the mind, without making one of the number (1.2.3.10).  Our experience of time is not something over and above our experience of the impressions (and ideas of these impressions) themselves, but is rather the collection of these that furnish the experience of time.  He illustrates this by using the example of five notes played in succession on a flute; the notes are played and they are perceived (as impressions and ideas) and there is no sixth idea or impression of reflection that constitutes the experience of time.  The only thing of importance here is, as Hume emphasizes, the manner in which they arise: “here it only takes note of the manner [emphasis original], in which the different sounds make their appearance…” (1.2.3.10).

Is this a satisfactory account of how we come to have the impression (and idea) of time?  In its broadest outlines this account certainly seems to accord with how humans experience the world: I have never known a feeling of time while in a deep (i.e. dreamless) sleep and everyone has experienced the ‘timelessness’ of a wandering mind.  But any explanation of human temporal perception must account for these common observations, and to do so is a low hurdle to overcome, while there are difficulties for Hume in the technical aspects of his theory.  Since Hume is building upon the account of perception that he provided at the beginning of the Treatise, the perception of time must be consonant with that account.  So first I shall grant his claim that without a continually changing series of perceptions, whether of impressions or ideas, there could be no experience of time, since this seems a plausible point.

The objection is as follows.  Hume is insistent that there is no idea or impression over and above the series of perceptions that may be identified as a separate impression of time.  If this point holds then, when hearing the five notes of the flute, I can only perceive a particular impression of a note (or the idea of that impression) at any given instant.  If this is true, then would it not appear to my perceptual faculty that, at any given instant, whatever it is that is being perceived would appear to be an unchanging object?  A reason to think this might be the case is that while perceiving that impression I am denied, by Hume’s account, any impression of reflection combining the ideas of a previously heard note with the idea of the present one.  If this is the case, I can have no recollection or knowledge of any previous impression(s) or idea(s) to indicate that the current impression has not always been.  Without such an impression of reflection it seems to me that change could not be perceived; that in the next instant there would be the perception of a different idea or impression does not resolve the matter, since that too would have the appearance of an unchanging object for the same reasons as given above.  And since, for Hume, the perception of time is a function of the perception of change, then without any change being perceptible, time must also be unable to appear to us.

If anyone should wish to rescue Hume’s account from this difficulty, she would necessarily be confined to the use of our original ideas and impressions of the notes, since the impressions of reflection have been ruled out due to their derivation from our ideas (1.1.2).  How might such a defense me made?  A possible solution might be to allow a ‘piling-up’ of our impressions and ideas, such that their durations overlap and are perceived simultaneously, so that there would be awareness of change without requiring any impressions of reflection.  Although Hume does not address the issue of whether our perceptions have the characteristic of persisting for durations or whether they may be so layered, it is plain that if this attempt to save his account of temporal perception is successful, it will be so by virtue of how it emends his account of basic perception.  If the manoeuvre fails, then it will be precisely because humans are not in actuality such inveterate multi-taskers.

While some would no doubt disagree, upon careful self-reflection, I cannot find any evidence that I am capable of simultaneous perception – it appears to me that I can only perceive one thing at a time (although what is perceived changes extremely quickly).  Since it seems that I am not actually able to perceive more than one idea or impression at a time, I must conclude that this method of layering perceptions cannot be a valid means of rescuing Hume’s position.  Consequently, I believe that his account requires revision.

It would be a simple matter to make his theory of the perception of time consonant with his general theory of perception and our lived experience, but it requires the affirmation of just that which he denies – that is, that the perception of time is a species of impression of reflection.  On this view, it is the case that the perception of time is a complex idea that compares current impressions with the ideas of previous impressions and notes the relative vivacity of each and their progressive diminishment in vivacity as new impressions arise.  Thus, the perception of time does not arise simply from an experience of the manner in which perceptions arise, without remainder.  Happily, this hypothesis actually helps explain how it is that one who is lost in thought experiences time more slowly than otherwise – the sustained focus upon the thought reduces the number of other impressions crowding upon the mind, meaning the vivacity of the idea of the thought competes with fewer other ideas and therefore appears stronger than it otherwise would.  Therefore, it would appear to change more slowly and consequently time would appear slower as well.  Unhappily, however, even this view would have impacts upon Hume’s basic understanding of perception.  Specifically, since it does appear that we only perceive the impressions of the flute notes and their ideas, our perceptual apparatus must operate much more quickly than we typically take for granted!

Although it is presumptuous in the extreme, I have here outlined Hume’s account of how we come to perceive time and the reasons why I find it untenable.  An exploration of possible resolutions to it were explored and I found in favour of the revision of the account he gave to one that classifies the perception of time as an impression of reflection.  I did so because to believe otherwise would require the acceptance of a state of affairs about human perception (namely, simultaneity) that I do not believe obtains.  Consequently, I asserted that the impression of time must be an impression of reflection, contrary to Hume’s position.

How to Avoid Getting Trapped in an Echo Chamber

I asked the question a few posts back of what it would take for atheists to reconsider their atheism and for theists to reconsider their theism (specifically, what would count as evidence in favour of/against god or gods).  It was mostly out of curiosity, but there is a more serious side to it.  That is, I find that far too many people live their lives stuck in an echo chamber of one sort or another.  What do I mean by echo chamber?  Well, an actual echo chamber is a space that, by its design, creates echoes – so in this usage, an echo chamber is going to be a group environment wherein the same opinions keep bouncing around without ever really changing or being challenged.  We are all very familiar with this dynamic because it keeps popping up in all sorts of different places: churches, political parties, philosophy departments, peer groups, and even entire cultures.  All of us have spent some amount of time trapped inside an echo chamber – it’s only human, after all – but it is best to extricate oneself as quickly as possible.  At least, I think so – I have always felt relieved and thankful to have broken through to the other side.  But it is better by far to avoid getting trapped in on in the first place.

I think that absolutely the best method of avoiding this fate is to do just what I did in the post I linked to – ask people what it would take to disprove some deeply important belief or what would count as evidence against it.  If you ask someone this and he shames you for daring to suggest that the belief might be wrong or she asserts that her belief cannot be disproven or that there can be no evidence against it because “it’s the truth”, then you know that you are dealing with someone who is in an echo chamber.  When you discover this, do your best to stay away from such people (or at least from the topics that have them trapped in the echo chamber).  And never forget to frequently conduct honest assessment of one’s own beliefs (especially the ones that one holds dear) in order to figure out what would count as evidence against them.  Freedom is valuable and important, but it isn’t necessarily fun.

Contrary to Agressive Atheists and Their Theistic Counterparts,…

can be both an atheist and an agnostic.  It has been claimed by at least one theist of whom I am aware that he appreciates atheists because they at least have strength of their convictions, whereas he finds agnostics to be too wishy-washy.  Of course, a sentiment such as this makes perfect sense coming from a man of faith – he recognizes and admires firm belief in the face of doubt, even if that belief directly contradicts his own.  [1]  And I am personally acquainted with many atheists who would agree with this pastor that agnosticism is an unacceptable form of cowardice because it is obviously the case that there is no God. 

But I must demur.  I think both of these positions can be taken up by the same person, because they have different domains – atheism is a doxastic (i.e. belief related) position, while agnosticism is an epistemic (i.e. knowledge related) matter.  It is true that I do not believe that Christianity is true (or, more strongly, I believe that it is false), and I believe that I have good reasons for saying so.  But I also think that I do not and cannot know that there is nothing at all that exists which is invisible to us and which might well be something that is deserving of the appellation of ‘God’ or ‘The Absolute’ or somesuch.  [2]  So I don’t see these positions as incompatible.

Endnotes:

[1] This reminds me of an old story about my great-grandfather that has been passed down in family lore.  He (British) fought in the trenches in WWI and had the following to say about Frenchmen and Germans.  Paraphrased: “give me a German over a Frenchman any day: at least you know the German’s not going to run.”

[2] Granted, the falsity of Christianity is something that can be more definitively assigned to the realm of knowledge because it posits miracles and interventions by God in the natural world – for example, I am fairly certain that I know that there has never been a virgin birth.  Other positions are firmly out of the realm of knowledge, however.  For instance, deism is precisely the sort of position that I literally cannot make any knowledge claims about.