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.


[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?”

Was David Hume Enlightened?!

Hume needed all that fat to fuel his ginormous brain.

So, I’ve been sitting meditation for a long while.  It’s an interesting pursuit – the more one tries to just stay with whatever is here now, the more strange things seem to pop up.  Anyway, I was thinking about Hume today because of something that made itself so blindingly obvious during my meditation practice that I couldn’t help but make the connection.  Basically, whenever you have a sensory input (say, a fly passes through your field of vision), that input will be followed extremely shortly thereafter by an involuntary mental reproduction of that sight-event.  This comes almost immediately after the original sensory input and is noticeably different in ‘feel’ than a memory of the same event after the fact.

Now, you can’t force yourself to notice this – indeed, trying to force it will either entirely prevent it from occurring or will cause too much mental noise to allow you to notice it (I’m not sure which it is) – but it definitely happens.  And now I think I understand where Hume got his notion about ideas.  Or at least I think I do – my suspicion is that he was up to some sort of what today would be recognized to be meditation (granted, he probably didn’t sit full-lotus).  Which makes me wonder – where in God’s name did he get the idea to do that from?  For goodness sake, he even appears to have figured out anatta!

And so I’m seriously freaked – was David Hume… enlightened?

Where Is the Mind Located?

Which is it – body in mind or mind in body?

If asked whether the mind is located within the body, most people – most Westerners, at least (I cannot speak for how people from other cultures might experience such things) – would immediately and unhesitatingly say “yes, the mind is located within the body.”  Indeed, it often feels a lot like it is.  I was lying awake last night and it was really apparent in the dark and the silence that my thoughts really did seem to be taking place in the physical space between my ears and behind my eyes.  But this, I know, hasn’t always been the case – other cultures have maintained that thinking happens in other parts of the body (by this they did mean thought, not emotion, which I experience as scattered throughout my body), sometimes even disconnected parts!  The heart was a typical one (and Aristotle thought the brain was an organ for cooling the blood).

There are other times, however, when I have exactly the opposite intuition, when I really do feel like my body is actually inside my mind.  It is a strange feeling and I can’t really describe it because it both is and isn’t a matter of physical/spatial location, but that is what it feels like.  Sometimes I oscillate between these two perceptions, back and forth, without any clear priority given to either.  But when I am ‘body in mind’, my thoughts take on a strange non-locality, are not really anywhere, whereas when I am ‘mind in body’, thoughts definitely occur in my head. So I have two questions for everyone:

  1. Do you experience your mind as being located within your body or do you experience your body as being located within your mind?
  2. Do you also experience your thoughts as being in your skull or do you sometimes have thoughts in your heart or left pinky?

Memory and Symbolic Thought

I followed some links on Sabio’s blog and found my way over to this page of beliefs that people once had, but no longer do.  Pretty interesting reading.  What caught my attention most was the change of belief by Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist, who went from thinking that memories are once-stored and ever retrieved things to being things that are repeatedly generated when called for.  I have heard this elsewhere, but it reminds me of something else that I have thought about (or read/been told about, but cannot remember where).

Hardly anyone remembers anything from before about the age of four years.  What is also interesting is that this is also right around the time that language skills are coming into their own (if there are any developmental psychologists out there, please feel free to correct me/supplement this).  I have a suspicion that it is actually our ability to use language (symbolic thought) that gives us the ability to ‘remember’ so much as we do.  So while non-linguistic animals might have an experience and need to store reams of data about the particular qualities of that experience, we are able to store symbolic instructions that may be used later to reconstruct the event for us out of a much smaller set of stored sensory modalities.  I find this a fascinating notion (and the implications are neat).

Just a thought.

Cognitively Structured Reality

The world is not as it appears to us in naive conscious perception, instead we perceive reality only after it has already gone through a process of cognitive structuring.  At this very moment, none of us is engaging with reality as it is, but instead we are, quite unbeknownst to ourselves, projecting reality.  This seems obviously wrong, of course – is there a way to compellingly demonstrate what I mean?

Indeed there is: reading.  When we are looking at what is ‘written’ on a page or computer screen we do not perceive patterns, colours, or shapes but, rather, we perceive ‘meanings’.  Take the following statement:

Today is Friday

We all know precisely what it means – indeed, we cannot help but see what it means.  Now, take this statement:

اليوم هو يوم الجمعة

Do we know what this means (if it even means anything at all)?  According to the online translator, it also means ‘today is Friday’.  Unless one has learned to read Arabic, however, it does not – to those who don’t know that language, it is a meaningless bunch of squiggles on a page.  Now, turning our attention back to the phrase in English, try to look at the words again and see them not as meanings, but as shapes devoid of meaning – that is, try to see them in the way we see the written Arabic: as nothing more than some squiggles.  We can certainly see that there are shapes present in the visual field, but it isn’t actually possible to look at an English word and not perceive its meaning (or, at least, I am unable to do so).  Note that the meaning is instantly apparent to us, that there is no delay between the conscious visual perception of the shapes and the conscious perception of the meaning those shapes encode – the two arise simultaneously.  Note also that the shapes in the visual field and the meaning of the shapes appear to be coextensive.

There are (at least) two implications that fall out of this.  First, meaning isn’t out there in the world.  It is something that we project onto the world – our minds cognitively structure reality before it is even available for us to consciously engage with.  Second, because this projection or structuring happens in the way it does, it is completely transparent to us, so we cannot even be certain whether or not we are dealing with something that’s a feature of the world or just a projection onto the world.

These implications are troubling, and not just because of the havoc they wreak on traditional epistemological concerns – there are political and interpersonal worries too.  In dealing with any individual or institution, I cannot be certain whether I am actually engaging with the reality of that person/thing, or whether I am engaging only with what I imagine to be there.  This can lead to problems like lack of empathy, or the elimination of more-or-less tolerable though necessary institutions, or even violence against groups/individuals who do not really ‘deserve’ it.

Meditation and Philosophers of Mind

Although it will cause offence, I must admit to thinking that any philosopher of mind who refuses to practise some (broadly but appropriately defined) form of meditation is a fool.  Why?  Historically, philosophizing about the mind has arisen from phenomenological facts about our common experiences and how they could possibly fit into reality.  The trick is, meditation, engaged in diligently and over a long enough period of time, demonstrates that our naive phenomenology is actually wrong about a great many things.  In addition to helping with our direct or personal phenomenology, meditation communities have developed extensive theoretical/classificatory phenomenological schemas which are, in principle, testable (albeit, not necessarily by the  third-person methods favoured by laboratory science).  What analytic philosophy of mind desperately needs is a phenomenology of just this sort, both to help it get its concepts straight, but also to help it map phenomenology to neurobiology – a task that is of critical theoretical import for both materialists and dualists alike.