Confessions of a metaphysical rake…

substance dualism, physicalism and property du...

substance dualism, physicalism and property dualism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Physicalism P and/or mind-brain identity MBI cropped up a few weeks ago in a post about “neuroenvy” at Dr. Feser’s blog. It got me reading again on physicalism, namely this exchange between Melnyk (M) and Taliaferro & Goetz (TG) at I was going to present some straightforward thoughts I’ve had about (i.e. against) physicalism, but then I felt compelled to save those points for a follow-up post, and first make a confession. A metaphysical confession.

George Berkeley is credited with the developme...

George Berkeley is credited with the development of subjective idealism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The dirty truth is, I have long been drawn to absolute idealism, despite my genuine attachment to and long-running espousal of metaphysical realism. Partially this is because I find the argumentation––the style, if you will––of idealists fascinating and robust. Idealism is something only a brave man could espouse. No wonder everyone finds idealism so scandalous: it’s as bold as cutting the Gordian knot. There’s something invigoratingly virile about idealism, as strong a drink for the mind as scotch, and as succulent a word as McTaggart. (Besides, Bishop Berkeley is a delight!) The idealist, living at such a higher plane of reason than the common man, can only look with pity upon, well, the common man for his unthinking attachment to “stuff”, a commonness of thought no less pitiful when espoused by “hard-nosed scientists” (cf. numerous examples in Berkeley’s Three Dialogues of Hylas and Philonus).

Now, another facet of my affection for idealism is the fact that I find little existential difference between being a realist and being an idealist. I found my hunch on this vindicated whilst reading Schwitzgebel’s titillating essay on “crazyist metaphysics of mind”. Schwitzgebel notes how

There is … no material-world-ometer. The lack of these devices problematizes the metaphysics of mind. Samuel Johnson kicked a stone. Thus, he said, he refuted Berkeley’s idealism (Boswell 1791/1980, p. 333). Johnson’s proof convinces no one with an inkling of sympathy for Berkeley, nor should it. Yet it’s hard to see what empirical test could be more to the point. Carnap (1928/1967, p. 333-334) imagines an idealist and a non-idealist both measuring a mountain; there is no experiment on which they will disagree. No multiplicity of gauges, neuroimaging equipment, or particle accelerators could give stronger empirical proof against idealism than Johnson’s kick. Similarly, Smart, in his influential defense of materialism, admits that no empirical test could distinguish materialism from epiphenomenalist substance dualism (1959, p. 155-156); there is no epiphenomenal-substance-ometer.

I heartily agree with Carnap’s assessment. Imagine that we agree there is a door across the room and we must ambulate our bodies to enter it. You are a materialist, while I’m an idealist. Nevertheless, we agree on the proposition that “there is a door across the room, etc.” The only difference is that by “door” I mean that the idea of a door holds my attention, while you mean an actual door attracts you to approach it in spacetime. Despite our radical ideological divide, we both share consciousness of something that has identical features according to both of us.

Berkeley notes this parsimony in the Third Dialogue, when he has Philonus advise Hylas:

retain the word MATTER, and apply it to the objects of sense, if you please; provided you do not attribute to them any subsistence distinct from their being perceived. I shall never quarrel with you for an expression. MATTER, or MATERIAL SUBSTANCE, are terms introduced by philosophers; and, as used by them, imply a sort of independency, or a subsistence distinct from being perceived by a mind: but are never used by common people; or, if ever, it is to signify the immediate objects of sense. One would think, therefore, so long as the names of all particular things, with the TERMS SENSIBLE, SUBSTANCE, BODY, STUFF, and the like, are retained, the word MATTER should be never missed in common talk.

For the living, in other words, the world as we know it would still be the world as we know, even if, in conceding to everyday parlance, we refer to the contents of ideal existence by “uncouth”, “vulgar” material terms.

The objection to idealism, of course, is that we could never have the idea of a door unless there were in fact at least one door, in the real world, that existed distinctly from our perception of it. The idealist retort, however, is that the materialist is just fixating on and reifying some of his ideas at the expense of others. Indeed, for an idealist, to reify something just is to make it central to one’s consciousness. As the idealist sees it, the materialist is settling on the doorness of his doorish perception as a cause of his perception. The materialist’s error is to forget that doorish perception (or, if you like, being appeared to doorly) is necessarily inseparable from any actual knowledge of “the door across the room” and is the only thing we can reliably say we know. For an idealist, it is a false dichotomy to choose between real versus fake awareness of a door, since there is literally no higher standard by which knowledge could be assessed or grounded than the very act of perceiving doorishly. Such is the basis for real knowledge, not the realist’s abstruse notion of adequation between the intellect and thing, nor the cognitivist’s abstruse notion of representation.

But enough about idealism, my first intellectual paramour.

I must make another, similar confession: when I’m not defending realism or fantasizing about idealism, I am in the grip of a perhaps equally strong attraction to physicalism. My nod to Carnap on the materialist-idealist divide should suffice to explain why. Call it idealism or call it physicalism––in any case I would at least have the satisfaction of knowing anything I want without having to worry about what it really “is”. Mine is the antithesis of the goal of the ancient physicists (Anaximander, Anaxagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus, etc.). They desired to know the basis for all things, whether it was all water, air, fire, Mind, change, Being, or so on. I, by contrast, have the metaphysical temptation to dispense with knowing ‘what’ everything ‘is’, so long as I can have a theory which allows me to speak indiscriminately of anything. Saying that “everything is fundamentally matter” is vacuous, and immediately throws one back into the realist-idealist debate. Better just to have a vocabulary that can absorb any new findings under a single name. I suspect this is the impulse behind so much of the scientism in our day: we don’t care ‘what’ science tells us, as long as we can all agree it is science that tells us anything at all.

Despite strong intellectual objections to physicalism, the allure of being a monist is great; hence, idealism or physicalism, which are just two terms for the same thing. As Syphax puts it at Aristotle’s Revenge,

I have already explained, in a previous post, why I would love to be a materialist, and how it would actually resolve a lot of tension in my religious life. Materialism also has a psychological appeal that I think is rarely acknowledged – it is nice to think that everything in the universe is tangible, measurable, and concrete (I know I’m using these terms sloppily but it gets the point across). However, I simply have a very hard time accepting materialism for a few reasons.

Earlier I called idealism a courageous worldview––a manly metaphysic––but I think that is only half-true. Or, rather, it is true unless the Incarnation is a fiction. For one of the key metaphysical lessons we receive from the dogma of the hypostatic union, is that monism is false. Reality is a crucifixion, and any desire to cut the Gordian knot of embodied wisdom, is just the reflex of fallen man to flee mortification of his intellect as strenuously as he flees mortifying his libido, appetite, and pride. In the end, what draws me back to realism is that it has a strikingly Christomorphic character. Like grace, the world must be given to us. As St. Paul writes (I Cor. 4:7), “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” Like grace, our access to the world increases or suffers based on our synergistic openness to it. Children are cognitive “sponges”, granted, but past a very rudimentary level, human maturity consists not in absorbing physical data as one physical object among other, nor in merely perceiving and dwelling on one’s perceptions, but rather in learning to perceive and learning to perceive better as time goes by. We must train our emotional sensitivity to others, cultivate our grasp of verbal nuance and play, develop our skill in crafts and sport, train our senses for elite pleasures like wine tasting and birdwatching––in short, we must make good on the cognitive ‘graces’ we have been given by investing them back into the world as a personal offering.

“Therefore, stay alert” (Mt 25:13). In this sense, Jesus’ parable of the talents extends to the metaphysics of mind. Those who would remain inert observers, without engaging the world as infinitely more abundant than one’s own passing thoughts, or who would “break the spell” and reduce the richness of mature human praxis to the insensible autonomy of subatomic particles––such cognitive dullards receive their punishment in having their humanity revoked, either by drowning in the smothering embrace of sensory escape, or suffocating in a hermetic self-hypnosis that nothing on the human level is good or “really real”. The cyber-addict, like any user of “mind-expanding” drugs, would deny he’s escaping reality, insisting his inner reveries broaden his appreciation of reality, a reality the common man only rarely glimpses. How reminiscent of the idealist! Likewise, the naturalist scientist would never say his goal is render the world an aesthetic blank, insisting that knowing the inner workings of nature only deepens his appreciation of the beauty of nature. “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mt 25:29).

Existentially, I may be able to receive “the Body and Blood of Christ” as an idealist or a physicalist, but it should give me pause to wonder how an idealist or a physicalist can receive “the whole Christ” by also partaking in His “Soul and Divinity”. The cleft between the spiritual and the corporeal is something an idealist or a physicalist could abide, I suppose, treating it as a mysterious given which he must accept on faith, but there is a strong whiff of bad faith throughout. Should the idealist, for example, imagine the ideal, immaterial Word of God descending from Heaven to take on… ideal, immaterial flesh? Should the physicalist, in turn, imagine the incarnate, physically reanimated Christ ascending to Heaven to dwell in… incarnate, reanimated glory?

About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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