Wistful Observations on the Virtues of Idealism

Idealism is a ridiculous thesis.  That said, I wish it were true, because on some level it’s just such an attractive position.  It solves many interesting problems.  What follows are some sketched thoughts on the virtues of this intuitively implausible thesis.

Idealism is the view that matter is an illusion.  There are no physical things.  You and all the objects in your awareness are mental entities.  For all sensation – conscious perception – is some kind of mental event.  But these are the only things you are acquainted with in your experience.  If all your experience is just of mental character, what right have we to posit matter at all?  You seem to be interacting with a physical object, but really that’s just an illusion, for what more is there to the appearance of an object than some underlying appearance?  All there are are appearances and sensations, and those are certainly seem mental.

This has been an absurdly quick treatment of Idealism.  It is only meant to give the gist or flavor of the position.  I really just want to express my happy thoughts about Idealism.

I think the most attractive thing about Idealism is this: conscious perception – that is, your conscious experience – is easily understood.  Every morning, when I walk out my door, I’m amazed.  I see people walking, cars passing in their various colors.  And I hear them too.  This is to say that a world shows up for me.  I’m confronted by things, conscious perceptions; there is something that it is like to be me.  Personally, I think first-person conscious experience is the most amazing and baffling thing.  Why there should be conscious perception at all is called the hard-problem of consciousness.  Materialism struggles to account for it.  For experience is phenomenal, but the world material and physical.  How could the phenomenal ever be reduced to the physical?  But suppose all there is is the mental.  Then experience becomes a brute fact about the world – it is primitive.  In contrast, on a materialist conception matter and spacetime are taken as primitive – that is, we just have to accept that that’s what there with no prior explanation.  There is likely no obviously compelling argument why we should privilege matter and spacetime as primitive as opposed to taking experience as primitive.  Indeed, on a certain level it seems more intuitive that experience is what we take as primitive, instead of matter and spacetime.  After all, experience is what is immediately before us, what we are immediately confronted with.  It seems we cannot doubt that we have experience, but we could reasonably doubt matter and spacetime should be privileged as primitive.  For the Idealist, experience is going to primitive, and the hard-problem of consciousness is largely accounted for.  The Idealist can explain to me how the world shows up for me.  This relieves much anxiety.

And it’s worth noting that none of the “physical facts” are disrupted in any significant way.  Physics is suddenly describing the laws relating possible perceptions, or ideas, or mental “stuff”, as opposed to physical “stuff”.  But there’s no reason we shouldn’t find a straightforward isomorphism.  It’ll just take describing the relation between appearances.

Berkeley’s alleged idea that we are mental entities in an ideal world sustained by a God-Mind may sound a little far-fetched.  But it has a sort of intuitive appeal if you are at all awed by the fact that you should be confronted by phenomena, and not be “mentally dark” devoid of conscious experience.

 

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4 thoughts on “Wistful Observations on the Virtues of Idealism

    • I do not think it is true. I think that we directly perceive the mind-independent objects around us.

      More or less, I think find the paradox of mediate knowledge rather convincing. Most skeptical questions arise when we ask “yes, but how do we *really* know that there is an external world, or that there is inductive knowledge, or that there are other minds?” And we concoct some barrier (e.g. qualia, or Hume’s riddle, or behavioral *signs* [which of course do not necessarily imply mental states]) between us knowledge of the things that we can already simply see to be so.

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  1. “There is likely no obviously compelling argument why we should privilege matter and spacetime as primitive as opposed to taking experience as primitive. Indeed, on a certain level it seems more intuitive that experience is what we take as primitive, instead of matter and space-time.”

    Very good point. But idealism…ah, we don’t want to go that far, do we? So just become a phenomenologist! Then you can have your cake and eat it too.

    (Or, depending on how you look at it, you don’t have your cake and you don’t eat it too.) 😉

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