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  • Writer's picturechris de ray

One of the joys that come with studying philosophy is that it inevitably involves becoming acquainted with the wackiest theories about the world. Of course, this has its disadvantages: someone outside philosophy, upon taking a quick glance at whatever book or paper you are currently working on, would be bewildered to read about zombies in what purports to be a serious academic piece (I speak from experience). This does little to improve the discipline’s reputation in academia at large, let alone wider society. Oh well.

As philosophical theories go, idealism surely ranks among the wackiest. An easy way to understand idealism is to contrast it to dualism and materialism. Dualism, in its traditional form, holds that there are, at bottom, two fundamental sorts of thing, namely, mind and matter. Materialism, on the other hand, holds that there is only one fundamental sort of thing, and that is matter – minds and mental states are either identical to or constituted by material things and states. Idealists agree with materialists that there is only one fundamental sort of thing, but claim, shockingly, that this thing is mind.

Idealism is most commonly associated with the thought of George Berkeley, the notorious Early Modern bishop and proponent of 'immaterialism'. Berkeley was reacting against the standard view of his day, according to which our mental experiences are caused by mind-independent material objects. Thus, my experience of my desk is caused by my mind-independent, material desk which, importantly, exists regardless of whether or not I experience it. Conversely, Berkeley's immaterialism dictates that my desk ‘exists’ while I don’t perceive it (and no one else perceives it), but only in a very loose sense:

“Bodies (…) do exist when not perceived but this existence is not actual. When I say a [body] exists no more is meant than that if in the light I open my eyes and look that way I shall see it” (Philosophical Commentaries 293a).

M.R. Ayers (1975, p.xii) takes this to roughly mean that ‘My desk exists’ is a short and inexact way of saying that ‘my desk would exist if someone were looking at it’. Here, my desk is not some material entity existing independently of experience. Rather, its existence depends on its being experienced by us. On this view, ‘material’ objects like desks are similar to sensations like pains, which cannot meaningfully be said to exist without being experienced. Material objects, construed as independent of experience, hence do not exist.

Berkeley famously argues for immaterialism on the basis that it is impossible to conceive of an unperceived material object, say, an unperceived desk. Try all you can, Berkeley tells us, you will not be able to imagine a desk without imagining it as perceived. Interestingly, Berkeley’s immaterialism is supposed to form the basis of an argument for the existence of God. The mental stuff that we call ‘experience’ has got to come from somewhere, and there must be an explanation for its stability and rich complexity. A stable and complex system of material objects is ruled out. Hence, a supreme, benevolent mind that sustains our experiences and ensures that their stability (e.g. that I experience the table whenever I turn towards it) seems a good candidate explanatory hypothesis. Arguments from idealism to theism have been taken up in more recent times (e.g. John Foster 2008).

However, the argument that interests me for today’s purposes is, instead, an argument from theism to idealism. This argument also has its roots in Berkeley:

“How can you suppose that an all-perfect Spirit, on whose will all things absolutely and immediately depend, would need an instrument in his operations, or that he would use one if he didn’t need it? Thus, it seems to me, you have to admit that it would be incompatible with the infinite perfection of God for him to use a lifeless inactive instrument such as matter is supposed to be.” (Dialogues, 34).

Berkeley seems to be relying on a principle of parsimony, more popularly known as Ockham’s Razor, which states that ‘we should not multiply entities beyond necessity’. That is, we should no postulate a new kind of entity if it doesn’t help us to explain anything, unless there is some other reason to postulate it.

Suppose that God already exists in our worldview. Obviously, we can’t deny the existence of our experience, with all its complexity and stability. Is there any need to postulate mind-independent material objects in order to explain the existence and character of such experience? No, says Berkeley, because God’s creative activity can carry out this explanatory work, without recourse to a “lifeless, inactive instrument such as matter”. In fact, Berkeley argues, a perfect being such as God would not make use of an instrument which He didn’t need. Thus, positing matter on top of experience and God is at best unnecessary, and at worst incoherent with divine perfection.

A very natural response here is to say that the absence of material things makes God out to be a deceiver, much like Descartes’ ‘evil demon’. After all, it sure looks like there are material beings like chairs, desks and trees. Would a perfect God make the world look material when it isn’t? But Berkeley can easily respond that our belief in material beings is our fault, not God’s, for jumping to conclusions about the causes of our experiences. If we were more careful, we would correctly conclude that material beings don’t exist (in the words of a famous Bengali polymath, ‘we read the world wrong and say that it deceives us’).

This problem, I think, is an excellent opportunity for Christians to check whether we have a solid, biblically-grounded theology of creation. If we do, we will easily spot the error in Berkeley’s crucial description of matter as a needless, “lifeless, inactive instrument”. Berkeley assumes that the material world’s value, if it has any at all, would be as a tool for causing the existence and character of our experience. Not so for Scripture. Genesis has God creating the natural world and declaring it to be good, well before humans even enter the picture. The final act of the book of Job (38-41) has God poetically confront Job with his utter finitude and insignificance relative to the cosmos. Fascinatingly, in describing the wonders of the natural world, God repeatedly insists that Job, as a human, has not seen such wonders:

" Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
“Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? "Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
" Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail?

The list goes on. One cannot escape the sense that, in this passage, the natural world has a life of its own, independently of Job's experience. Certainly, idealists like John Foster are right in saying that this world is a 'world for us' (2008, see link above), but it is more than that. The natural world has value in its own right, as a divine work of art only partially perceived by us humans. This, I think, is the proper response of anyone well acquainted with Scripture's account of creation -- to say nothing of its doctrine of the incarnation, which has God literally become decidedly material flesh. If we see this, we will not be perplexed by the specter of idealism, or speechless when asked why God would create dinosaurs long before humans were around to perceive them (again, I speak from experience). Berkeley, G., & Ayers, M.R. (1975). Philosophical works. London: Dent.

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  • Writer's picturechris de ray

Philosophers have traditionally distinguished between substances and attributes. This may seem like yet another piece of obscure philosophical jargon, but is meant to capture the very intuitive distinction between objects and their properties. My pet hamster, Colonel Mustard, is a substance. Colonel Mustard's furriness is one of his attributes. The problem of accounting for the fact that different substances can share attributes has been the subject of several posts on this blog. Another worry has to do with providing a clear criterion for demarcating substances from attributes. At least since Aristotle, a very standard way of doing this involved saying that attributes necessarily depend on things outside of themselves for their existence, while substances do not. The following excerpt from Descartes' Principles of philosophy (I.51) exemplifies this well:

" By substance we can understand nothing other than a thing which exists in such a way as to depend on no other thing for its existence."

The thought here is that attributes, by their very nature, always seem to depend on other things for their existence, namely, the substances that 'have' them. Colonel Mustard's furriness couldn't possibly exist without Colonel Mustard (or, at least, without other furry things). An attribute essentially needs to inhere in a substance in order to exist. A substance, in contrast, is not dependent in this way. Of course, typical substances themselves in fact depend on other substances for their existence -- Colonel Mustard wouldn't survive very long if I stopped feeding him, or if the sun disappeared. Nevertheless, it is perfectly possible to conceive of Colonel Mustard as existing without the sun, or without being fed, though the laws of nature make this impossible in the actual world. In contrast, it is impossible to conceive of 'furriness' existing without something that is furry. Hence, attributes like 'furriness' necessarily depend on other things for their existence, while substances like Colonel Mustard do not.

This way of demarcating substances from attributes accommodates our intuition that objects are in some sense 'more real' than their properties. Colonel Mustard is substantial, he exists in his own right. 'Furriness', at best, is an aspect of him, not fictional, but not substantial either.

The distinction quickly runs into trouble, however, because there is apparently only one being that meets its criterion for substantiality -- God. Indeed, all substances (other than God) are created and sustained in existence by God. Crucially, every substance (again, other than God), if it exists at all, necessarily owes its existence to God. God exists necessarily, and whatever else exists necessarily depends on Him for its existence. This means that while Colonel Mustard's existence may not necessarily depend on the sun, it does necessarily depend on God's creative activity, in the same way that 'furriness' necessarily depends on furry things for its existence. God, on the other hand, being the ultimate and necessary ground of existence, is not similarly dependent (in fact, God is necessarily independent). Descartes recognized this problem, and conceded that, on the standard definition of substance, strictly speaking, God is the only substance. He nonetheless argued that everyday objects could be substances in some attenuated sense, since they are necessarily dependent on God and nothing else, whereas attributes are necessarily dependent on God and on substances (Principles I.51).

A much more radical, if more coherent, response to this puzzle is offered by Baruch Spinoza, who wholeheartedly embraces the conclusion that there is only one substance, God, and that all other alleged substances -- you, me, Colonel Mustard, Donald Trump, etc -- are really just properties or modes of God. You and I don't exist in our own right, we are, at best, aspects of the single divine substance. Steven Nadler puts it nicely in his paraphrase of Spinoza's reply to Descartes:

" In effect, he is saying to Descartes: I agree that a substance is essentially what exists in such a way that it depends on nothing else for its existence; but then, as you yourself admit, strictly speaking only God is a substance; and I, in order to be fully consistent, refuse to concede to finite things even a secondary or deficient kind of substantiality." (2006, p.56)

Hence Spinoza's monism -- there is only one thing, which possesses an infinity of modes. Hence also his pantheism -- everything other than God is an aspect of God, such that God's being 'envelops' everything. This lands us with a rather bizarre theology (it is still debated whether Spinoza's opponents were right in calling him an atheist). More importantly for our purposes, this lands us with an utterly odd picture of ourselves and the objects of the world around us, which, we are told, aren't really objects at all, but properties or 'modes'.

Of course, we can just bite the bullet and accept that we aren't substantial, but instead properties of something else -- God, or whatever else we think to be the ultimate ground of existence. But I tend to think that philosophical systems ought to try to respect the linguistic conventions of wider society. Such conventions stipulate that you, myself, and Colonel Mustard are objects, not mere attributes or properties. As I've said before, philosophers are free to make up their own linguistic conventions, but will have very little to say to those outside philosophy if their use of everyday concepts like 'object' radically differs from that of the wider public. I take it that philosophers should have something illuminating to say to those outside philosophy. Hence, the conclusion that everyday objects aren't substances at all should strike us, I think, as a sure sign that there is something wrong with the argument that inferred it. As we have seen, what brought us to the radical monistic conclusion is the traditional account of the substance-attribute distinction, whereby substances, unlike attributes, are not necessarily depending on anything outside their existence. Thus, if we are to avoid the unacceptable conclusion that you and I are nonsubstantial, it looks like we will have to give up the account. One perhaps surprising upshot of this may be that there is no clear line between substances and attributes. Certainly, different accounts of the distinction can be put forward, but philosophers have struggled to come up with a satisfying alternative (see McBride 2005 for a pessimistic survey of such attempts). But perhaps this shouldn't be surprising after all. The claim that Colonel Mustard isn't a substance or object at all, but rather a mere mode or property of God, may be absurd. But the claim that Colonel Mustard is less substantial than God, but more substantial than 'furriness', isn't obviously absurd.

This is especially true if we take properties to be tropes, i.e. particular things that exist in the objects that have them. If, say, the furriness of Colonel Mustard is a particular 'furriness-trope' that, along with other tropes, helps to constitute Colonel Mustard, then both Colonel Mustard and his furriness are particular, concrete things in the world, and it is easier to imagine how the difference in substantiality might be a matter of degree.

MacBride, F. (2005). The Particular–Universal Distinction: A Dogma of Metaphysics?. Mind, 114(455), pp.565-614. Nadler, S. (2006). Spinoza's Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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  • Writer's picturechris de ray

Metaphysics is commonly criticized on the grounds that those who practice it rely on unfounded common-sense intuitions about the world. Such criticisms are methodological, because they contend that the methods on which metaphysicians rely are untrustworthy.

Another kind of criticism holds that metaphysical inquiry just isn't worth it. Simply put, why bother with questions about the nature of causation, of properties, of free will, and so on? Life is short, and there are many more pressing worries to attend to, e.g. [insert your favorite socio-political concern]. Call this a pragmatic criticism of metaphysics, since it argues that metaphysics isn't pragmatically worthwhile.

Bas van Fraassen (2002) advances one of the most interesting versions of the pragmatic criticism that I have come across in the literature. The idea is that, prior to engaging in any theoretical discipline, we ought to consider the potential costs and benefits of doing so. Take the case of science: if we are in the business of constructing scientific theories, we risk acquiring false beliefs about the world, if such theories turn out to be false. But all wouldn't be lost -- our false theory could still be very useful, in helping us to predict future events, improve our technology and thereby contribute to human well-being. Plenty of theories now considered strictly false are nevertheless incredibly 'useful' in the foregoing sense of the term. Hence, van Fraassen tells us that we shouldn't be put off by the risk of accepting false scientific theories, because the likely gain in practical benefits is well worth such a risk.

Now take the case of metaphysics. If I accept a metaphysical theory, e.g. about the nature of free will, and this theory turns out to be true, I've acquired a true metaphysical belief -- and that's it. None of the practical benefits that come with successful scientific theories likewise follow from true metaphysical ones. Depressingly, this means that if my metaphysical theory about free will turns out to be false, I acquire nothing at all! Nothing, that is, except for the nice feeling of having explained something. Considering that the risk of getting it wrong is pretty darn high (judging by the embarrassing amount of unresolved disagreement between metaphysicians), metaphysics, van Fraassen concludes, just isn't worth all the effort. James Ladyman (2011), though generally sympathetic to van Fraassen's position, qualifies it with the claim that some metaphysical theories have indirectly contributed to scientific progress. Highly successful scientific paradigms, like Newton's physics, were inspired by metaphysical views like atomism. This leads him to posit a criterion that any worthwhile metaphysics must meet: "the fertiliser of naturalised metaphysics has no value if it does not help the tree of science bear empirical fruit". This fits nicely with his advocacy of a thoroughly naturalised metaphysics, which concerns itself only with drawing connections between the different sciences. Of course, most metaphysical endeavours would be excluded by this criterion. Theories about the nature of free will or personal identity are unlikely to inspire successful scientific theories.

But, returning to van Fraassen, is it correct that false metaphysical theories can give us nothing at all, except a possible indirect contribution to the march of science? Unsurprisingly, I do not think so. Insofar as we care about the sorts of questions that metaphysics addresses, it isn't clear to me that having false answers to such questions is worse than having no answer at all. This is especially true if we understand the aim of metaphysics to be the construction of a coherent worldview. A worldview (from the German Weltanschaaung) is a system of beliefs about what the world is 'basically like', and how we fit in it. Worldviews typically include beliefs about whether there is a God or not, how the mind relates to the body, whether the world is as it appears to us, and so on. Clearly, having a worldview is something that many (most? all?) humans beings in fact want. If that is the case, then perhaps having a false worldview is better than having no worldview at all.

The question of what it is that makes the possession of a worldview desirable is one that I hope to address in more detail in subsequent posts. For now, I will content myself with some tentative suggestions:

1. Having a worldview is admirable, because it manifests the distinctly human ability to think beyond everyday concerns. To risk being accused of anthropocentrist elitism, I think there is something uniquely noble about creatures that strive to discover who they are and what their place in the world is. A world containing such creatures, everything else equal, is greater than one containing creatures who only ever think about what they will be eating tomorrow (if they can think at all).

2. Having a worldview gives us a perspective from which to interpret our lives and the world as we experience it. This is closely related to what R.M. Hare called a blik, roughly, a way of looking at things. My interpretation of a loved one's death may be very different depending on whether I opt for a religious or materialistic worldview. Interestingly, this is what van Fraassen (ibid. p.17) seems to have in mind when he defines philosophy as "the enterprise

in which we, in every century, interpret ourselves anew". This arguably satisfies the very human need to feel 'at home' in the world.

3. Having a worldview helps us to answer the crucial questions of what constitutes a well-lived life, and why. For all the talk of the impossibility of inferring an 'ought' from an 'is', it is impossible to shake off the intuition that how we ought to live intimately depends on the sort of thing we are and the sort of world we live in. That's why all the baroque metaphysics in Plato's Republic ultimately serves to answer the question, posed at the start of the book, what is the just life? Certainly, many of us already have strongly-held beliefs about the well-lived life prior to any metaphysical theorizing. Even so, having a worldview could give us a basis or a ground for such beliefs, answering the 'why' bit in the above question.

If I am right, then it seems that metaphysical inquiry is certainly worthwhile, despite the high risk of getting it wrong, and that, pace van Fraassen, metaphysics is not 'truth or nothing'. Such inquiry would still be constrained by the need to construct a worldview. But I take it that this constraint is much less restrictive than Ladyman's criterion, which would rule out controversies that humans have always cared about.

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