Stupid Philosopher Tricks

Taner is going to love this one. I’ve made a short list of some of the stupidest things philosophers have said over the millennia. Each of these claims has been seriously maintained by one or more major philosophers (in parentheses). Each is not only false, but obviously so. As the late philosophical iconoclast and maverick (if John McCain has not ruined this word) D.C. Stove used to ask: What is wrong with our thoughts?

1) Matter does not exist.
(Berkeley)

2) Atheists are less trustworthy than theists.
(Locke)

3) Time is unreal.
(Bradley)

4) Change is impossible.
(Parmenides, Zeno)

5) This world is the best of all possible worlds.
(Leibniz)

6) Animals have no thoughts or feelings.
(Descartes)

7) Nothing could have happened other than it did.
(Spinoza)

8) You cannot know that you are in pain.
(Wittgenstein)

9) There are no such things as pains.
(the Churchlands)

10) We perceive only sense-data.
(Ayer)

11) When someone speaks in a native tongue that is historically unrelated to yours, you can never know what he or she means.
(Quine)

12) Worlds are constructed by category schemes, and, since humans create category schemes, humans create the world, in fact, many worlds.
(Goodman)

13) Truth is whatever society lets you say.
(Rorty)

14) Saying “God does not exist” is self-contradictory.
(Anselm)

15) It is always wrong to lie, even if lying saves an innocent life.
(Kant)

16) You cannot learn from experience.
(Hume)

17) Humans are naturally good, but are corrupted by society.
(Rousseau)

18) Virtue cannot be taught.
(Plato)

19) Women are less rational than men.
(numerous)

20) Evil is merely a privation of good.
(Augustine)

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04123863777408880111 Brigham

    Regarding Wittgenstein and pain: his point was not the one you’re laughing at. He meant that it is meaningless to say I have knowledge of my pain. One is either in pain or not in pain–it’s an ontological rather than epistemological issue. If it were otherwise, it would be possible and make sense to doubt one’s own pain. But clearly that’s silly. Wittgenstein’s larger point was that language matters, and that philosophers–more than most people–trip themselves up with special meanings and usages. This, ironically and presumably, is the point of your post.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12763971505497961430 Jeffrey Shallit

    What, nothing stupid by Stove? He had some remarkably stupid things to say about evolution.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    “Taner is going to love this one. . . D.C. Stove . .”

    Of course I’m going to love it. Stove is one of my favorites. Wonderful writer; probably the only philosopher who has had me laughing out loud. See

    http://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/wrongthoughts.html

    Mind you, Jeffrey Shallit is right. Stove had some strange ideas of his own, weird notions about evolution being some of them.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    Of course matter doesn’t really exist. It’s ‘frozen’ energy. [laughs]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Brigham: But it is actually possible to have pain sensations and not care–to recognize the pain yet not be in distress. This is a repeatable condition that can be produced by some forms of local anesthesia. I’ve experienced it myself when I had a cyst removed from my neck under “standby anesthesia,” also known as conscious sedation. I remember thinking, gee, ordinarily I’d be complaining about this experience, but I just don’t care. It was recognizably pain, but seemingly some affective component of the pain had been removed.

    Daniel Dennett discusses this phenomenon in “Why You Can’t Make a Computer That Feels Pain,” and the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy entry on “Pain” section about eliminativism. Via Google I see that there is a book called _Feeling Pain and Being in Pain_ by Nikola Grahek that’s partly visible on Google Books, with a foreword by Dennett.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04123863777408880111 Brigham

    Jim: Of course, people often deny, ignore, or mask their pain in many ways. That’s the human condition. My point is different, grammatical. It makes no sense to say “I know I’m in pain” (under what circumstances would anyone say such a thing?). The “I know” is superfluous. And for Wittgenstein the “I know” is confusing, especially for philosophers. The point is that Keith Parson’s “8) You cannot know that you are in pain. (Wittgenstein)” is not actually stupid. Two excerpts from Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” (forgive the length):
    ____

    246. In what sense are my sensations private?–Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it.–In one way this is wrong, and in another nonsense. If we are using the word “to know” as it is normally used (and how else are we to use it?), then other people very often know when I am in pain.–Yes, but all the same not with the certainty with which I know it myself!–It can’t be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I am in pain. What is it supposed to mean–except perhaps that I am in pain?

    Other people cannot be said to learn of my sensations only from my behavior,–for I cannot be said to learn of them. I have them.

    The truth is: it makes sense to say about other people that they doubt whether I am in pain; but not to say it about myself.
    ____

    Wittgenstein picks up the idea again a few pages later:
    ____

    288. . . . [I]f anyone said “I do not know if what I have got is pain or something else,” we should think something like, he does not know what the English word “pain” means; and we should explain it to him.–How? Perhaps by means of gestures, or by pricking him with a pin and saying: “See, that’s what pain is!” This explanation, like any other, he might understand right, wrong, or not at all. And he will shew which he does by his use of the word. . . .

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16675591063438206496 Ilkka Pyysiäinen

    Being wrong is not necessarily stupid. If you have insufficient evidence you can get it wrong, although following sound principles of reasoning. I suppose most scientists have ben mostly wrong; that’s why science can approach truth continuously (Popper). Each of the quoted stupidities can be given at least some sense by adding just a few words. E.g.: “Matter does not exist [given a particular sense of 'exist'].” “Atheists are less trustworthy than theists [in some cases in some situations in history].” “There are no pains [but this does not mean that you cannot experience pain].” Etc. etc. I’m sorry for being a spoiler but I do not find this list very illuminating or even funny.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    Couple of zingers in there (Leibniz, Descartes), but a couple of straw-men too (Berkeley, the Churchlands).

    Quine never said you can never understand another language. He pointed out that one consequence of the general thesis that theories are underdetermined by data is that linguistic reference is underdetermined by observations of linguistic behavior.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert

    Actually, what the Churchlands denied were propositional attitudes, like belief and desire.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    A lot of BS, but Herr Doktor Leibniz (ie #5) takes the prize for grandest heap of BS (as Voltaire realized).

    Ayers point seems odd, but in a sense he’s correct: all perceptions are mediated by our senses. He’s not saying we cannot know external reality (a bit stronger), but that our senses–our visual apparatus, and really brains themselves–shape our perceptions. Research in colorblindness confirms Ayers, as do other studies. Were you equipped with the eyes of, like, a preying mantis, reality would be quite different.

    Quine’s point not so bizarre either, but meant something like, an anthropologist confronting a previously unknown language would not know how to translate anything, except by observing behavior, and sort of associating it with various sounds, or signs.

    Anything mad Ludwig said should be considered suspect.

    It’s interesting to note that some of the more ‘scientific” thinkers (the Churchlands, even Descartes) are capable of making some rather outrageous pronouncements–Darwinists themselves have no monopoly on reason, as reading a few of say TH Huxley’s thoughts on eugenics might remind us.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Brigham: Wittgenstein’s point is precisely what’s being disputed, e.g., here:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pain/#argRD

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17093711439992855042 UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 1/28/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06660306787777777265 Peter Buckland

    I absolutely love the Leibniz quote. It is so Pollyanna that it makes my skin crawl. Someone queue Leonard Bernstein’s musical of Candide please.
    Rorty drives me right up the wall because he ended up saying that philosophy had nothing important to say about anything at all: truly a man lost in the labyrinth between his ears.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    “””3) Time is unreal. (Bradley)””””

    That may seem prima facie strange or odd, but perhaps an empirical realist–one of the resident Davey Stoves (may he RIP)–could provide a counterargument: Time does not seem phenomenal, whatever it is.
    For that matter, Einstein nearly suggested as much, did he not.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Mr. Pyysiainen: Although I posted this with tongue in cheek, I do not find it all that funny either. As a philosopher, I find it quite distressing that so many of the most esteemed philosophers have said things that are spectacularly, egregiously, and perversely wrong. Of course, as you say, scientists have often been quite wrong, too. Darwin, for instance, endorsed a theory of genetics that was dead wrong. The difference is this: When scientists are wrong, they are generally wrong because (a) they simply misjudge, or (b) they go with the evidence that seemed best to them at the time, but later turned out to be wrong.

    The big mistakes by the big philosophers, however, are errors of a different order altogether. They were not supported by the evidence, but so often, proudly and defiantly were contrary to the evidence. Indeed, they were often contrary to what every sane person pubescent or older knows to be so. Bertrand Russell said of one philosophical howler that it was so wrong that only a very educated person could ever come to believe it. Precisely.

    In short, in science errors are a mistake or a misfortune. In philosophy they are intentional creations (usually because their authors have an ideological ax to grind).

    George Berkeley really does say that physical substance does not exist. He claims that only spirits and their ideas exist: esse est percipi aut percipere. Finite spirits are given their ideas by God, and “things” are nothing but congeries of ideas infused by God. As the famous limerick goes, the tree continues to be because God is always about in the quad to supply finite spirits with the appropriate tree-like ideas.

    Why does Berkeley say these silly things? Because he has an ax to grind. Berkeley was, above all, a religious apologist (his Alciphron is a “classic” of the genre)and he held that materialism was the main prop of atheism. But if there is no matter, but only spirits and their ideas, then atheism is in trouble and theism has it easy.

    The real problem with the big philosophical howlers is not just that they are wrong, or even that they are obviously wrong, but that they are tenaciously and defiantly defended by clever but specious argument. In fact, in my more cynical moments, I’ve said that the way to get a big reputation in philosophy is to say something palpably absurd and then skillfully defend it against all comers.

    In scientific fields, howlers are generally a source of acute embarrassment, and scientific communities move as quickly as possible to eliminate them. In philosophy we savor and celebrate the howlers, and lovingly preserve and venerate them for centuries. We canonize their authors and elevate them to the level of “Great Philosophers.”

    I think howlers hang around in philosophy for so long because, despite all our talk about “rigor,” our standards of argument are so low. For instance, I cannot think of any other field where appeals to “intuition” are still so fequently invoked to address big questions. I think the only way to eliminate the howlers from philosophy is to rigorously naturalize the field. That is, wherever possible we need to substitute empirical evidence for philosophical speculation. Great progress has already been made in naturalizing epistemology and ethics, and I hope the trend continues.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Yep. Still revolutionary after all these years. The one thing Richard Rorty said that I think is resoundingly right is that philosophy still too often thinks of itself as the Tribunal of Pure Reason, the Court of Last Appeal on matters of rationality. Philosophical thinking is still far to prone to “dialectical” thinking (in Kant’s sense). The cure, as Robert Fogelin argues so persuasively in Walking the Tightrope of Reason, is to tether out thoughts to empirical reality as firmly and as often as we can.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09219501247530064405 Andrea Weisberger

    Well said Keith.

    I think Descartes takes the prize here — especially in light of his gruesome habit of vivisecting animals and watching them writhe in pain.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    “I think howlers hang around in philosophy for so long because, despite all our talk about “rigor,” our standards of argument are so low. For instance, I cannot think of any other field where appeals to “intuition” are still so fequently invoked to address big questions. I think the only way to eliminate the howlers from philosophy is to rigorously naturalize the field. That is, wherever possible we need to substitute empirical evidence for philosophical speculation.”

    But Berkeley did not say that Molybdenum does not exist, or kittens, or Norway. Those would be fairly easy to discount by empirical means.

    But what empirical evidence has conclusively disproven Idealism (with or without Yahweh)?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    The naive empiricist generally forgets that the concept “empiricism” is itself not observable, or provable via empiricism. The churchlands or AI types have barely begun to demonstrate the specifics of concept-formation (ie, the mental processes involved with “empiricism”).

    In terms of explaining mental events, empiricism (or cognitive science, really) has not been a complete success. Empiricism may work great for research pertaining to fossils or flagellum; not so great with explaining philosophical reasoning, or mathematical reasoning for that matter.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16731690779682393927 Philip

    Keith Parsons speaks of “mistakes” made by great philosophers, of their so-called “howlers.” But assuming a mistake is just an error, a truly philosophical claim cannot be simply mistaken (or correct). If I see the back of someone who has short hair and I say the person is a man, even though the person is really a woman, I’ve made a mistake. Saying that we have freewill or that we don’t isn’t that sort of claim.

    Even scientific theories aren’t simply correct or mistaken; what scientists can get right or wrong is their data. Interpreting the data and justifying a theory depend on some values, and values aren’t simply correct or mistaken. Likewise, philosophical interpretations of how things seem to be are attempts to forge coherent worldviews, taking into account values, traditions, intuitions, ideals, creative visions, and so forth, none of which are propositions capable of being simply correct or mistaken. (Saying there’s no fact-value dichotomy only makes it easier for me to make my point: if values enter even our sensations, then not even the collection of information can be correct or erroneous.)

    Take, for example, the values of a murderer who thinks his own sadistic pleasure is more important than the lives of the people he kills. It’s just a category mistake to say that this preference of his is mistaken. The murderer is evil, but he doesn’t just err when he chooses to value his pleasure more than other people’s lives. Being evil isn’t just getting some facts wrong due to something like carelessness; having a vicious personality isn’t like pressing the wrong button on a calculator.

    Or take Berkeley’s claim that matter doesn’t exist. Did he simply err in saying this? Of course not. He reduced Locke’s empiricism to absurdity. Matter is unobservable and so is God, and the empiricist can justify the claim that matter but not God causes our sensations, only by appealing to some values such as the fruitfulness of metaphysical materialism. Thus, the empiricist has to interpret the way the world seems, just as does the metaphysical idealist.

    Or take Parmenides’ claim that change is impossible. A mere mistake? No, a metaphysical theory is neither correct, in the sense of being purely an accurate representation of a fact, nor erroneous. There are many value judgments in Parmenides’ rationalist preference for logic over observation of the material world, and his monism, which implies that the material world is illusory, expresses those judgments.

    An Aristotelian might say that value judgments are simply mistaken if they run up against the fact of our function as human beings. But if our function is to think and thus to interpret, to meditate, and to speculate rather than passively to observe, the claims of philosophers such as Berkeley or Parmenides are hardly due to malfunction.

    Keith Parsons avers that “wherever possible we need to substitute empirical evidence for philosophical speculation.” I agree that philosophical claims need to cohere with scientific ones, but speculation is needed precisely when dealing with a philosophical problem, that is, with a problem that isn’t solved scientifically by looking at the empirical evidence. How could just accumulating this evidence determine our interpretations or evaluations of this evidence? That’s what scientific theorization or philosophical speculation (reflection, meditation) is for.

    The real howler here isn’t that great philosophers have made so many mistakes over the centuries; it’s that some naturalists think that observation, which is only part of science, can answer all of our questions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Do Berkeley’s premises entail that Molybdenum, kittens, and Norway do not exist? Yes, they do. Likewise, strings, sealing-wax, and cabbages do not exist (kings exist, as pure spirits). Berkeley, of course, was sensitive to the charge that he was saying something patently absurd when he said, as he affirms, that we eat idas, drink ideas, and are clothed in ideas. He says that when he says that there is a horse in the stable he means this in a common sense way. That is, he is saying that if you go in the stable you will see the horse there. But you won’t. You might have what we call the experience of seeing a horse, but that is not at all what we mean by “seeing a horse.” Further, by no stretch of the imagination can “if you go into the stable you will have the experience of seeing a horse” be made to mean “there is a horse in the stable.” This is not common or any uncommon kind of sense. Is Berkeley empirically refutable? Of course not, no more than the assertion that the universe was created five minutes ago with the appearance of age. Once you throw evil geniuses, omnipotent gods, or superhuman mad scientists into the mix, pretty much anything goes. And that is the problem.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    Do Berkeley’s premises entail that Molybdenum, kittens, and Norway do not exist? Yes, they do.

    No, they don’t (disengaging gainsaying bot).

    They entail that this particularly weird eternally unobservable noumenal thing called “material substance” exists, into which every conceivable property is “stuck” like pins in a corkboard. Molybdenum and kittens exist on this view, it’s simply that their nature is different from what early modern metaphysics tried to say it was.

    Likewise, strings, sealing-wax, and cabbages do not exist (kings exist, as pure spirits). Berkeley, of course, was sensitive to the charge that he was saying something patently absurd when he said, as he affirms, that we eat idas, drink ideas, and are clothed in ideas. He says that when he says that there is a horse in the stable he means this in a common sense way. That is, he is saying that if you go in the stable you will see the horse there. But you won’t. You might have what we call the experience of seeing a horse, but that is not at all what we mean by “seeing a horse.” Further, by no stretch of the imagination can “if you go into the stable you will have the experience of seeing a horse” be made to mean “there is a horse in the stable.”

    It’s no stretch at all. He doesn’t deny that there is a horse in the stable, he denies that there is both a horse in the stable and some second eternally unobservable thing in the stable called “material substance”. If anyone is flying in the face of lowercase-e empiricism in this picture, it is the uppercase-E Empiricists.

    (There is an interesting prefiguration here of Putnam’s externalism, i.e. if our common-sense way of referring refers to vat-kittens then that is in fact the referent of our descriptions of kittens.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    Really it’s not that complex: philosophical systems serve politics, usually–so the particular metaphysical stance favors a political stance. Protestant monarchists want idealism ala Berkeley or Hegel (a few prefer Kant, until finding out he was a wuss) and catholic-aristocrat types want some mystic-realism ala Plato, Aristotle, or Leibniz. Jews want the Spinoza mystic-volcano god, or now, marx-freud.

    Pretty much bogus for centuries, as even Bertrand Russell admitted (tho’ he had a bit of platonist aspect as well). At least outright naturalists–whether sophisticated sorts like Quine, or not so sophisticated, ala Darwin or Nietzsche–, however tres savvage, don’t f-n bullshit.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Berkeley did say that matter does not exist. Recently Bostrom in his “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation”) makes a hypothesis that implies the same. So, what’s “obviously false” or “stupid” with this idea?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Do Berkeley’s premises entail that Molybdenum, kittens, and Norway do not exist?

    Yes they do (disengaging gainsaying bot–infinity).

    Hiero5ant offers Molybdenum, kittens, and Norway as paradigms of material objects. To accept them as paradigmatic material objects does not now, and never has, committed you to all of the claims of early modern metaphysics. However, to say that Molybdenum, kittens, and Norway are nothing but sets of ideas infused into the minds of disembodied spirits by God, is not to give an alternative account of their materiality. It is to deny that they exist as material objects–in any sense. If Hiero5ant insists that it is not to make such a denial, then I am simply at a loss to understand what “material” could possibly mean to him. If Berkeley is not denying the existence of molybdenum, kittens, or Norway as material (in any sense) things, then how COULD one deny that they exist as material entities? If saying that they are ideas infused into the mind of one disembodied being by another disembodied being does not do it, what possibly could?

    Hiero5ant says that Berkeley does not deny that there is a horse in the stable. But it does not matter what Berkeley said, but what his claims entail. If we take a horse, as we do molybdenum, kittens, and Norway, as a paradigmatic material object, and if we say, as Berkeley’s claims entail, that there is no material (in any sense) object in the stable (which, by the way, is itself a collection of ideas), then there is no horse in the stable. Berkeley can only say that that there is a horse in the stable by offering an entirely new, highly tendentious, badly argued account of what a horse is: Not a material object at all but a set of ideas imparted by one incorporeal being to another.

    Dianelos Georgoudis said…

    Berkeley did say that matter does not exist. Recently Bostrom in his “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation”) makes a hypothesis that implies the same. So, what’s “obviously false” or “stupid” with this idea?

    Of course, you COULD be a brain in a vat. The universe COULD have been created five minutes ago with the appearance of age. There COULD be no external physical reality. It COULD be that mine is the only mind in existence and everyone else is a zombie.

    I think, though, that John Searle makes an excellent point in Mind, Language, and Society when he says that the human mind comes with certain default settings. By default we think there is an external world; by default we think that other people have minds; by default we think that the world has existed long before we did. Now these default settings COULD be wrong, but we rightly regard any assertion that they are with great skepticism and put a heavy burden of proof on anyone who says that they are. I agree with Searle that the arguments so far offered to change our default settings are all bad. I would ask further why philosophers perennially waste our time by trying to get us to change them.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16731690779682393927 Philip

    Keith Parsons says he agrees “with Searle that the arguments so far offered to change our default settings are all bad. I would ask further why philosophers perennially waste our time by trying to get us to change them.”

    Another of our default settings is to see patterns where there aren’t any, and specifically to attribute mental properties to anything we come across, such as the stars, the weather, and the cause of the universe. Hence, one of our default settings seems to be theism, judging by the near universality of belief in gods, ghosts, and so forth.

    Scientists have been busy explaining how nature works without appealing to divine intervention. So why doesn’t Parsons blame scientists for challenging that default setting and many of our other intuitions about the nature of the world beyond ourselves? Supposedly, philosophers waste time by speculating about metaphysical possibilities, but physicists don’t waste time by positing numerous other dimensions or an infinity of universes to account for bizarre, counterintuitive quantum mechanical effects. Surely, the problem with philosophy can’t be just that philosophers challenge our default, naturally selected mental or even biological settings, since the naturalist has to celebrate the scientific smashing of those biases and limitations.

    I know, quantum mechanics is overwhelmingly confirmed since it can be used to predict empirical reality to an astounding degree of accuracy. By comparison, philosophical speculation is useless–except for the fact that in advanced societies where science is best put to use, most people are spiritually dead, zombified, materialistic consumers who could do with a little philosophical mind-expansion. Philosophy by itself may not tell us exactly how nature works or build us a technological wonderland, but it makes for a more complex inner world, stimulating the imagination, building up critical mental faculties, and providing people with a grander perspective.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant


    Hiero5ant offers Molybdenum, kittens, and Norway as paradigms of material objects.

    There’s the misunderstanding. No I don’t. I offer them as paradigms of objects, which Berkley did not deny exist.

    The crucial difference here is between saying that something is an object, and the additional claim that it is a mental object or a material object. According to his idealism, kittens(which are objects) exist, and all objects (in addition to being objects which exist) are mental objects. No object which exists does not exist.

    To accept them as paradigmatic material objects does not now, and never has, committed you to all of the claims of early modern metaphysics. However, to say that Molybdenum, kittens, and Norway are nothing but sets of ideas infused into the minds of disembodied spirits by God, is not to give an alternative account of their materiality. It is to deny that they exist as material objects–in any sense.

    But to deny that something which exists is material is not to deny that it exists, any more than to deny that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet is to deny that Shakespeare exists. It is to say that some claims frequently made about something (which exists) are spurious.

    If Hiero5ant insists that it is not to make such a denial, then I am simply at a loss to understand what “material” could possibly mean to him. If Berkeley is not denying the existence of molybdenum, kittens, or Norway as material (in any sense) things, then how COULD one deny that they exist as material entities? If saying that they are ideas infused into the mind of one disembodied being by another disembodied being does not do it, what possibly could?

    I hope it’s clear now that this is off the mark. Only if one question-beggingly defines ‘exists’ as ‘exists as a material object’ can you read Berkley as denying that Molybdenum exists. But that is precisely the point at issue.

    Hiero5ant says that Berkeley does not deny that there is a horse in the stable. But it does not matter what Berkeley said, but what his claims entail. If we take a horse, as we do molybdenum, kittens, and Norway, as a paradigmatic material object, and if we say, as Berkeley’s claims entail, that there is no material (in any sense) object in the stable (which, by the way, is itself a collection of ideas), then there is no horse in the stable. Berkeley can only say that that there is a horse in the stable by offering an entirely new, highly tendentious, badly argued account of what a horse is: Not a material object at all but a set of ideas imparted by one incorporeal being to another.

    I’m no advocate for idealism. Perhaps at the end of the day his arguments for the claim that horses are ideas are “entirely new, highly tendentious, and badly argued”. But it’s important I think to at least get the subject matter of the conclusion right.

    The two big problems with his idealism as I see it are 1) the problem inherent to *all* monisms in saying that “all possible things” are X when there is no contrast class and 2) the dispensibility also common to both mentalist and materialist metaphysics — our science seems to be able to proceed without either super-empirical assumption.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parsons said: “Of course, you COULD be a brain in a vat. The universe COULD have been created five minutes ago with the appearance of age. There COULD be no external physical reality. It COULD be that mine is the only mind in existence and everyone else is a zombie.

    The computer simulation hypothesis (which implies that matter does not exist) is not just a logical possibility. Both Nick Bostrom and David Chalmers estimate the probability that we live in a computer simulation at about 0.3 . So here we have a not highly improbable hypothesis based on naturalistic and technological principles which implies that matter does not exist. So, again, what is so obviously wrong or stupid in the claim that matter does not exist?

    Keith Parson said: “I think, though, that John Searle makes an excellent point in Mind, Language, and Society when he says that the human mind comes with certain default settings. By default we think there is an external world; by default we think that other people have minds; by default we think that the world has existed long before we did.

    Well, I don’t think that the existence of matter is such a default setting. On the contrary we find ourselves by default in a soup of conscious experiences in which we notice little by little the presence of stable patterns such as material things, deeper patterns such as physical laws, and so on. The idea that matter exists comes much latter in the context of metaphysics, and is nothing like a default setting. Indeed, it seems to me, nobody actually has any idea of what matter actually is. Contrasted to this we all by default and immediately know what conscious experience is.

    Keith Parson said: “Now these default settings COULD be wrong, but we rightly regard any assertion that they are with great skepticism and put a heavy burden of proof on anyone who says that they are.

    As for the basic beliefs you mention, what about libertarian freedom of will, or the objectivity of some moral truths at least? At least I can easily imagine a solipsistic reality, or a zombie reality, or a reality that started five minutes ago – but I can’t even begin to imagine not possessing free will, or that no moral truths are objective. So if I should rightly put a heavy burden of proof on anyone who rejects the former, I should put an even heavier burden of proof on those who claim an ontology that rejects the latter.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11567400697675996283 J

    “Now these default settings COULD be wrong, but we rightly regard any assertion that they are with great skepticism and put a heavy burden of proof on anyone who says that they are.”

    The Berkeleyan or theological idealist (or extreme skeptic) regularly confirms the default naturalist settings himself: like when he goes to lunch, and or heads to the water cooler. Back in the day, Hobbes suggested much the same regarding Descartes’ “cogito”: if Rene Jr. sincerely doubted the reality of his perceptions, and/or believes that his mind transcends the material world (including his body), he shouldn’t merely state we could be deceived, he should stop eating food, or ingesting H20.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Hiero5ant says in response to my thought that he was offering paradigms of material things:

    “There’s the misunderstanding. No I don’t. I offer them as paradigms of objects, which Berkley did not deny exist.”

    OK, I guess I did misunderstand. I thought he was replying to something I said, in which case it would have been relevant to propose the examples as paradigms of material objects. But my exercise in interpretational charity was misguided. He was only saying that they are “objects,” presumably in a sense compatible with MacBeth’s hallucinated dagger being an “object.” But saying that molybdenum, kittens, and Norway (Hiero5ant’s examples of “objects”) are only “objects” in that sense, does not engage my point at all. My point is that Berkeley’s claims entail that material objects do not exist. This means that our paradigms of material objects do not exist given his claims (I take it that when we say that x is a paradigm y, we mean that if x exists at all, it exists as a y). Of course, Berkeley wants to say that they do exist–in a completely different, highly idiosyncratic sense of his own invention.

    Hiero5ant continues:

    “The crucial difference here is between saying that something is an object, and the additional claim that it is a mental object or a material object. According to his idealism, kittens(which are objects) exist, and all objects (in addition to being objects which exist) are mental objects. No object which exists does not exist…

    But to deny that something which exists is material is not to deny that it exists, any more than to deny that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet is to deny that Shakespeare exists. It is to say that some claims frequently made about something (which exists) are spurious.”

    But one of the oldest philosophical tricks in the book is to deny the existence of something in anything like the sense that everybody understands it, and then to deny that you have denied it while giving it an entirely new, highly idiosyncratic meaning. So, when people say that the pantheist is an atheist, he replies that he is as much a believer in God as the Pope–only by “God” he means “the physical universe.” Berkeley, of course, pulls the same sort of trick. When you say that, e.g., kittens only exist as collections of ideas imparted to the mind of one incorporeal being by another incorporeal being, you are not merely denying a claim frequently made about kittens (like saying maybe that they are not really “playful” but are practicing killing techniques); you are saying something far, far stranger than that. Philosophers not only say these very strange things, but they then dishonestly try to cover their tracks with bad argument and rhetorical bluster.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parson said: “ My point is that Berkeley’s claims entail that material objects do not exist.

    Surely Berkeley believed in the existence of, say, apples.

    Keith Parson said: “But one of the oldest philosophical tricks in the book is to deny the existence of something in anything like the sense that everybody understands it, and then to deny that you have denied it while giving it an entirely new, highly idiosyncratic meaning.

    Ah. You mean like the way Daniel Dennett argued about consciousness, and that Berkeley did something similar.

    So let’s see. What is the sense in which everybody understands the existence of apples – since times immemorial I might add? As fruit that grow on trees, that feel kind of heavy and cool in one’s hand, in which one can bite and which taste good, and so on. Do you think that Berkeley denied any of that?

    More recently we have found out that when looked through the microscope one sees that apples have a cellular structure. Physicists model apples as consisting of an enormous number of atoms, each of which has some remarkable quantum mechanical properties. – Do you think that Berkeley would have denied any of the above? After all, in his Dialogues he explicitly discusses the vision through microscopes.

    So Berkeley did not deny the existence of material things in the sense that this concept is commonly used. What Berkeley did deny is a particular metaphysical hypothesis, namely that ultimately reality consists of a mindless, mysterious, unknown, and apparently unknowable substance called “matter”, which somehow (nobody has really the slightest idea of how) imparts on things all their observed physical properties, and which (nobody has really the slightest idea of how) produces the conscious experience through which we observe such properties. From where I stand this is a perplexing metaphysical hypothesis for which no evidence or good argument exists; even so I wouldn’t myself call materialism obviously wrong or stupid.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos Georgoudis has posed some questions several times that need an answer. In what sense, he asks is Berkeley’s denial of the existence of matter absurd? Does he really deny the existence of, e.g., kittens and apples in the sense that everybody understands?

    At some very early stage of life we learn to distinguish between things like itches and tickles and things like apples and kittens. Learning to make this distinction is essential for learning such basic concepts as “self,” “other,” “stuff,” and “object.” Tests with infants indicate that, at least by the end of the first year, they have the concept of a physical object as something that endures in time and space and which continues to exist even when it cannot be seen (see the fascinating discussion of these experiments in Murray J. Murphy, Philosophical Foundations of Historical Knowlege).

    I think that basic to the concepts of things like kittens and apples, as opposed to things like itches and tickles, are the following features:

    1) Externality. Kittens and apples exist “out there,” and not simply things we feel like itches and tickles. They are located THERE or THERE, outside of the boundaries of my body. Itches and tickles are always HERE, in my body.

    2) Independence. We understand that kittens and apples exist and have properties that do not depend upon our perceptions. An itch only exists so long as I feel it. Kittens and apples exist and retain certain properties whether I am perceiving them or not.

    3) Publicity. Kittens and apples exist for everybody. You and I might feel the same type of itch, but itch-tokens are private. Despite Bill Clinton’s asseveration, he cannot literally feel your pain. But you and I can certainly play with the same kitten or take bites out of the same apple. Kittens and apples are public objects in a way that itches and tickles are not.

    Do I really think that all humans everywhere spontaneously make distinctions between things like itches and tickles and things like apples and kittens? Do I think that they spontanteously make this distinction in the sorts of terms I have used (though, of course, they probably would not express it just as I do)? Yes and Yes. I think that in ancient Babylon and modern Iraq, in Papua and in New York City, people sponataneously and from a very early age distinguish between things like itches and tickles and things like kittens and apples. Further, I think that they make this distinciton on the basis of the externality, independence, and publicity of things like kittens and apples as opposed to the internality, dependence, and privacy of things like itches and tickles.

    So what made Berkeley so absurd? His view entails, contrary to the spontaneous judgments of everybody, that kittens and apples are really just like itches and tickles. For the former, just as much as for the latter, their “esse” is “percipi,” according to Berkeley. That is, a kitten’s existence and properties are a function of perceptions just as for itches and tickles.

    Now Berkeley realized that he had said something apparently absurd, so he does some quick CYA with his Deus ex Machina–Deus himself. Externality, independence, and publicity are preserved, he argues, by God. God is always about in the quad, and that is why the tree continues to be, etc. But this ad hoc rescue is no help at all. Saying that kittens and apples exist because God sees them is just as much an affront as saying that they exist because I see them. Either way, Berkeley really is denying the existence of things like kittens and apples in the way that everybody understands, i.e, as existing in their own right and not as a function of perceptions, “out there” in public space and not in private perceptual space.

    Well, I assume we all have better things to do with our time, and this discussion has already gone on ad hauseam. So, here is what will end it for me, and show me that you Berkeley defenders are right and that I am wrong and need to erase Berkeley’s claim from my list of Stupid Philosopher Tricks: Show me either (1) that people in fact do not spontanteously distinguish between things–like itches and tickles–that seem to have percipi as their esse, and things–like kittens and apples–that most defintely seem not to. Or (2)show that Berkeley was, after all, right. Our spontanteous distinctions between things that exist because they are perceived and things that do not COULD just be a bit of erroneous folk metaphysics, and Berkeley might have irrefragable arguments that it is. But those arguments damn sure better be irrefragable, and it sure seems to me that they are not.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16731690779682393927 Philip

    Keith Parsons’ claim that Berkeley’s idealism is absurd is quite untenable from his own naturalistic standpoint. He holds up the “spontaneous judgments of everybody” as the criteria of what is absurd and thus of what is obviously false. However, scientists are no respecters of those judgments, and yet as a naturalist, Parsons is committed to the centrality of scientific truths.

    So he has one standard for scientists and another for philosophers. When philosophers go beyond commonsense, folk intuitions, and the like, they are guilty of howlers. When scientists go beyond these things (that is, when, for example, Darwin explained the appearance of biological design without appealing to an intelligent designer, contrary to commonsense, and when physicists explain macroscopic objects by positing microscopic objects that behave in a very counterintuitive way, according to quantum mechanics), their theories should be accepted as fundamental.

    Clearly, scientific theories are better supported than metaphysical speculations. But that’s not the point. Scientific and philosophical methods differ because their questions are of different types. The point, though, is that science itself gives us little reason to trust the epistemic value of everybody’s spontaneous judgments. To take one ironic example, Parsons speaks of the externality and mind-independence of kittens and apples, but one interpretation of quantum mechanics makes what these objects really are dependent on the observer. Berkeley himself might have been satisfied with quantum mechanics!

    Our commonsense intuitions are about how things appear to us and thus about their phenomenological features. Some things seem internal to and dependent on us, and others seem external to and independent of us. But metaphysicians try to say what things really are, not just what they appear to be. True, the appearance-reality distinction becomes less sharp with regard to Berkeley’s idealism, but he does point to God as the reality behind how things appear to us, and God is not an ordinary mind. Physicists point instead to matter as the underlying reality. But both the metaphysical idealist and the materialist go well beyond commonsense judgments.

    So a naturalist isn’t entitled to ridicule metaphysical speculations in so far as these speculations run up against folk intuitions. This is because, in taking counterintuitive scientific theories to be epistemically central, the naturalist has to be skeptical of these very folk intuitions. At the very least, someone who accepts the scientific picture of nature–as we all should–is in no position to use spontaneous, commonsense judgments to bash philosophers.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    If I understood it correctly Keith Parons’s argument is this: We all kind of know that there are two quite different kinds of things: Subjective conscious experiences, such as itches, and objective material things, such as apples. The former exist only if we exist; the latter exist independently of us or of our experience of them. Whether anybody is around or not makes no difference to the existence of an apple, but the existence of an itch only makes sense in the context of some conscious being being around. Berkeley’s idealistic ontology fails to account for this fundamental difference between existents, hence can’t be a correct description of reality. It fails because according to Berkeley’s idealism both an itch’s and an apple’s “esse” (or fundamental nature) is the same: what Berkeley called “ideas” and we would call “conscious experience” (or “experience” for short).

    In answer to this argument I would say that there is indeed such a difference. And it’s not like that these two kinds of existents are exhaustive. One can think of other kinds of existents apart from the set of experiences and the set of material things. For example numbers appear to belong to yet a different kind of existents. On the other hand according to any monistic ontology, be it materialism or idealism, these differences supervene on a single “esse”. So according to materialism itches are not really completely different things than apples, but just a particular property of a more complex configuration of the same material bits an apple consists of. Conversely according to idealism apples are not completely different things than itches, but a particular pattern of experience. Further, both in materialism and idealism apples exist objectively and independently from us: In materialism they form part of an objectively existing material universe, and in idealism they form part of an objectively existing mind of God. In conclusion I don’t see how idealism, when compared to materialism, fails to comport with our natural way of considering things. Of course if one is a materialist then the idea that apples exist as ideas in the mind of God sounds absurd. By the same measure if one is an idealist the idea that apples exist apart from the ground of all being sounds equally absurd. So I would say that to call Berkeley’s ontology obviously false and stupid is really a case of begging the question.

    In defense of Berkeley’s idealism I would like to offer two positive arguments for it, one from simplicity and the other from science:

    By default we know about the existence of persons and of experience because we are the former and we exist in the latter. Idealism is the ontology that refuses to hypothesize any other “esse” beyond these, and is therefore the maximally parsimonious one. Materialism on the contrary must first hypothesize an ill-defined and really unknowable material “esse” and then claim (completely arbitrarily so far) that consciousness supervenes on it.

    One of the greatest philosophical surprises of the last century must have been that hard sciences since the discovery of quantum mechanics appear to belie materialism’s hypothesis and to support idealism’s. Philip mentions this issue in the previous comment, but I think the conflict between a materialistic worldview and modern science runs much deeper. So, for example, Albert Einstein complained about quantum mechanics saying that the moon is not there when nobody is looking. A comment attributed to Niehls Bohr is as follows: “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is.“. Werner Heisenberg wrote: “One cannot go back to the idea of an objective real [material] world whose smallest parts exist objectively.” Pascual Jordan wrote: “Observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it. […] We ourselves produce the results of measurement.” Eugene Wigner wrote: “It is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness […] It will remain remarkable in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the conclusion that the content of consciousness is an ultimate reality.” John Wheeler wrote: “No elementary phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon.” And “Useful as it is under everyday circumstances o say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld. There is strange sense in which this is a ‘participatory universe’“. Arthur Eddington: “To put the conclusion crudely – the stuff of the world is ‘mind stuff’“. Bernard d’Espagnat: “The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.” David Mermin commenting on Einstein’s question: “We now know that the moon is demonstrably not there when nobody looks.” Sir James Jeans: “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” Martin Rees: “The universe exists because we are aware of it.” Euan Squires: “Every interpretation of quantum mechanics involves consciousness.” – What the physicists above say sounds pretty anti-materialist and pretty close to Berkeley’s view.

    Of course there is some contrary opinion too. In 1998 a long article entitled “Quantum Theory without Observers” (see http://www.math.rutgers.edu/~oldstein/papers/qts/qts.html) was published arguing that a few interpretations of quantum mechanics made away with the need of an observer. It focused on Bohm’s interpretation. Bohm himself on the other hand had a lot to say about consciousness in his “The Undivided Universe”, which kind of muddles the issue.

    Apart from the above we have the argument that materialism’s premises imply that we may well live in a computer simulation in which case what we understand as “matter” does not exist at all (so materialism is kind of self-refuting). We have the mind-body problem and the growing realization that a purely physical solution cannot exist. Berkeley’s ontology displays an enviable coherence and elegance and avoids materialism’s many problems (concerning objective moral values, libertarian free will, the intentionality problem, the ontological status of mathematics, etc). In conclusion it seems to me that idealism today is a much more viable ontology than materialism. But it also implies theism, which makes it of course unacceptable to atheists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Dianelos Georgoudis: “One of the greatest philosophical surprises of the last century must have been that hard sciences since the discovery of quantum mechanics appear to belie materialism’s hypothesis and to support idealism’s. Philip mentions this issue in the previous comment, but I think the conflict between a materialistic worldview and modern science runs much deeper.”

    Nonsense. This is the Deepak Chopra version of quantum mechanics, which has next to nothing to do with actual physics.

    Never believe anything a philosopher says on quantum mechanics, unless they specifically work on the philosophy of physics. And even then, take it with a grain of salt.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    While I agree we should object to the Deeprak chopra views of quantum physics, it’s hardly necessary that a “philosopher” would be unqualified to speak on the topic. Bertrand Russell for one knew as much about Minkowskian space–if not integral calculus– as Einstein did (rumors are that Russell–mathematics student prior to switching to logic and philosophy–tutored some of the Greats such as Einstein and Eddington. Eddington’s comment–”To put the conclusion crudely – the stuff of the world is ‘mind stuff’”— has a certain philosophical integrity, and respecting that doesn’t imply one marches into church each sunday.

    Physics does at times hint at something like metaphysics: even Newton himself suggested absolute time and space (yes, later modified by Einstein) and universal gravitation were attributes of a Deity (not that I necessarily agree, but relevant to the discussion). Kant’s attempts to understand time and space (the forms of intuition) also on point.

    The philosopher of science Feyerabend also wrote on this issue. Merely having a PhD–whether physics, or philosophy–does not confer automatic authority. Feyerabend had studied physics in Berlin before taking up with the metaphysical quacks. Some of his comments on the manipulation and deceit of Oppenheimer and Co in the Manhattan Project are rather entertaining: he was not exactly worshipful of Guru Einstein either. Science, including quantum mechanics, does function politically.

    That’s not to question scientific “realism” (then, Newtonian mechanics still works for most real world physics–even space shuttles), but to suggest that citizens have some grounds to be concernred at the applications of science (say like the Hubble–some pretty pics of distant nebulae, brought to you for a few billion shekels).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos Georgoudis said…

    “If I understood it correctly Keith Parons’s argument is this: We all kind of know that there are two quite different kinds of things: Subjective conscious experiences, such as itches, and objective material things, such as apples. The former exist only if we exist; the latter exist independently of us or of our experience of them. Whether anybody is around or not makes no difference to the existence of an apple, but the existence of an itch only makes sense in the context of some conscious being being around.”

    We do not “kind of know” this. We DO know it. Experimental evidence shows that in early infancy, even before the acquisition of language, we seem to have an idea of objects that persist even when unobserved. That there are objective entities that exist independently of our perceptions of them is so basic to our experience of the world, and for the formation of such fundamental distinctions as “self” and “other,” that I think we can say that we know this if we know anything at all. In fact, Mr. Georgoudis concedes the point:

    “In answer to this argument I would say that there is indeed such a difference [between the subjective and the objective].”

    He continues, however:

    “And it’s not like that these two kinds of existents are exhaustive. One can think of other kinds of existents apart from the set of experiences and the set of material things. For example numbers appear to belong to yet a different kind of existents.”

    But nothing I said or implied requires that these two categorizations be exhaustive, only exclusive.

    He continues:

    “On the other hand according to any monistic ontology, be it materialism or idealism, these differences supervene on a single “esse”. So according to materialism itches are not really completely different things than apples, but just a particular property of a more complex configuration of the same material bits an apple consists of.”

    But a scientific account of itches and other sensations does not erase the distinction between the subjective and the objective. On the contrary, it accounts for that distinction, and shows that our “folk intuitions” have a basis in physical reality. According to such a scientific account, itches exist if and only if an organism’s nervous system is stimulated in certain certain ways. Not so with kittens and apples. They exist independently of the stimulation of your or my nervous systems.

    Mr. Georgoudis:

    “…both in materialism and idealism apples exist objectively and independently from us: In materialism they form part of an objectively existing material universe, and in idealism they form part of an objectively existing mind of God.”

    But how does the existence of ideas in the mind of God confer objectivity upon them any more than the existence of ideas (if any) in the mind of George W. Bush? Or, putting a spin on the old feminist slogan, is objectivity what God calls his subjectivity? To say that objects “really” exist as ideas in the mind of God is not an affront only to doctrinaire materialism. Berkeley realized this, and that is why he twists himself into pretzels of bad argument trying to square his claims with common sense. He engages in some quite remarkable intellectual contortionism trying to show that his account of the horse being in the stable–a set of ideas in the mind of God that is imparted to your mind when you have the experience called “going in the stable”–comports with what ordinary people mean when they say that the horse is in the stable.

    Finally, Mr. Georgoudis appeals to quantum mechanics to support idealism (Why did I know this was coming?). The claim that QM supports idealism has been debunked many times. Victor Stenger’s The Unconscious Quantum is a good antidote to this strangely persistent notion. A classic debunking of idealistic interpretations of physics is Philipp Frank’s Modern Science and its Philosophy, first publshed in 1941. I conclude with a quote from Peter Kosso’s excellent introduction to the philosophy of physics, Appearance and Reality:

    “We hear the sirens of idealism with the song that nothing (in the quantum world) exists unless we are looking at it. There is a natural thrill in somehow throwing the switch on all reality, but it is not warranted by the results of quantum mechanics. Neither the general foundations of quantum mechanics, nor the particular conclusions of things like Bell’s proof, give reason to endorse the alarmist metaphysics in claims to the effect that reality does not exist unless we are measuring it…(pp. 153-154).”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner Edis claims that one shouldn’t trust philosophers when they speak about quantum mechanics. By the same measure one shouldn’t trust scientists when they speak about ontology. Personally I disagree on both counts, for if one wants to think about what science implies about reality one must understand both the relevant science and the relevant philosophy. What I have found striking is that it is mostly scientists who argue about the paradigm shifting ontological implications of quantum mechanical phenomena; philosophers tend to be much more conservative and cautious.

    Keith Parsons said: “According to such a scientific account, itches exist if and only if an organism’s nervous system is stimulated in certain ways.

    He probably means according to the naturalistic account, not the scientific account. As far as I know science has nothing to say about experiences because what “experience” means cannot be described in scientific terms. It’s not terrible relevant to our discussion, but I wonder whether what he writes above is true even in the context of scientific naturalism: Can’t we experience itches when we dream – at the absence of any relevant stimulus to our nervous system? Finally, if we live in a computer simulation then what causes our itching has really nothing to do with our nervous system.

    Keith Parsons said: “But how does the existence of ideas in the mind of God confer objectivity upon them any more than the existence of ideas (if any) in the mind of George W. Bush?

    According to idealism the difference between us and God is one of degree. After all God is not just any person but the foundation of the reality in which we all exist. In any case ideas in the minds of humans exist objectively too, and they can also to some degree be experienced by other people, for example in the case of artistic creation, or in the case of empathy.

    About the issue of the horse being in the stable, I fail to understand the conceptual problem Keith Parsons sees for idealism. Pragmatically when we say “the horse is in the stable” we mean that if anybody goes to the stable they will see a horse there. Ontologically we mean that there exists a horse with identity properties such as now being in the stable, with the various scientific properties such as consisting of cells, with experiential properties such as that it smells so and so if one comes near, etc. On all these counts idealism and materialism exactly agree. Where they differ is in their view about what the horse’s ultimate nature is; what is it that imparts to the horse its existence and its various properties? According to materialism it’s a particular configuration of matter within the universe. According to idealism it’s a particular configuration of ideas within God’s mind. (And in this context materialism suffers from several conceptual problems. For example it has trouble explaining the horse’s experiential properties, because nobody really has any idea how to solve the mind-body problem and it increasingly looks like it does not admit of a purely materialistic solution.)

    Keith Parsons said: “The claim that QM supports idealism has been debunked many times.

    If so it’s strange that as recently as 2006 two physics professors at the University of California Santa Cruz published the (excellent by the way) “Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness”. In it they argue that there is no question that QM implies that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality. (They also discuss that this fact has been abused by New Agers to make mystical and paranormal claims.) If one would list the physicists who claim that QM does imply that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality and those who claim that QM doesn’t imply that, then I think the former is clearly in the majority. One will also find better known physicists in the former list. Incidentally the list I mentioned in a previous comment is by no means exhaustive, for example I could have mentioned Paul Davies, Henry Stapp, and others.

    Perhaps the ontological implications of QM (or, to be more precise, of quantum mechanical phenomena) are not widely known. Rosenblum and Kuttner compare this issue with a skeleton hidden in the physicist’s closet. Nick Herbert in his “Quantum Reality” speaks of it as the best-kept secret in science. So, I say, it’s factually false that the claim that QM makes monistic materialism untenable (and hence increases idealism’s probability) “has been debunked many times”. At best one might argue that science is ambiguous on this point, but this would remove any scientific support for monistic materialism, and without that support I don’t know why anybody would believe in it. Now I am not saying that science has falsified atheism; what I am saying is that modern science renders monistic materialism (which is the worldview of perhaps most atheists) rather improbable. It seems reality is much more interesting a place than monistic materialism has it.

    Finally a few comments on the opposing views you mention. I haven’t read Victor Stenger’s “The Unconscious Quantum”, but it appears this is a book guided more by partisanship than by reason. He goes so far as to argue against non-locality (which virtually everybody agrees is an experimentally confirmed ontological implication of QM), and says “At least this would put an end to mystical speculations about quantum mechanics demanding a holistic universe”. So it seems he is putting the cart before the horse here. You also quote Peter Kosso saying “We hear the sirens of idealism with the song that nothing (in the quantum world) exists unless we are looking at it.” But this is a strawman, for no physicist claims that. What many physicists claim is that some properties of physical systems (such as position) do not exist at the absence of consciousness and therefore do not exist objectively. Other properties, say their rest mass, do exist objectively. And of course the physical systems themselves exist objectively. So I wonder whether Peter Kosso actually understands the problem he is discussing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16731690779682393927 Philip

    This discussion of quantum mechanics and idealism is interesting, but the forest is being missed for the trees: idealism is only one example of a supposed philosophical howler, raised by Parsons. In my comments above, I point to the absurdity of appealing to mere commonsense to claim that philosophical speculations are farfetched, when scientific discoveries have blown many of our commonsense intuitions out of the water. This point covers just about all of the supposed howlers on Parsons’ list.

    Even the notion that philosophers, as such, can make “mistakes” is imprecise. Philosophical claims aren’t simply empirical ones, meant to get the facts right and nothing more. Philosophy and science have different functions. In any case, getting the facts right or wrong isn’t the issue, since Parsons is appealing only to what *appears* to be true to most people. Neither philosophers nor scientists are bound to accept these appearances as transparently factual. (Scientists require that empirical knowledge be based on observations, of course, but these are controlled observations, not the spontaneous ones we all make because of our default settings.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    I think Mr. Georgoudis and I have too many fundamental disgreements to settle the issue here. Much of the discussion seems to be going in a circle, with Mr. Georgoudis demanding answers for things I believe I have already adequately addressed. So, it is time to draw things to a close, at least for me.

    To wrap up my side of this over-long exchange, I would just like to comment on some of his remarks about QM. The well-known quotes Mr. Georgoudis gives from Bohr and Heisenberg are statements of antirealism, not idealism. Bohr held that physics concerns what can be SAID about nature, not the ding an sich reality itslef. When he says that there is no quantum world, he is not asserting an idealistic meataphysic. He is asserting that quantum theory is not offered a literal account of fundamental reality, but strives to make theoretical descriptions that provide a basis for accurate prediction–saving the appearances in other words. Antirealists are not, in general, idealists, and defenses of antirealism are not, eo ipso, arguments for idealism.

    Some famous physicists, such as Wigner, do seem to propose an idealistic interpretation of QM. It is essential to note, however, that this is precisely that–an interpretation. Wigner is playing the role of the philosopher and making comments about ontology. There is nothing in the mathematical apparatus of QM or its practical implementation that entails idealism. Contrary to Mr. Georgoudis’s claim, QM has no such tendentious ontological implications.

    Most idealistic interpretations of QM focus, of course, on the measurement problem. As Mr. Georgoudis notes (and this would seem to be a major concession on his part) everyone recognizes that there are certain static, objective properties of quantum systems. A particle’s rest mass is what it is independently of measurement. Other properties are represented in terms of a superposition of states prior to measurement. “Consciousness” interpretatons say that consciousness does the measuring and makes the dynamic properties of a quantum system assume definite values. However–and I shall hazard that this is the majority view of practicing quantum physicists–measurement need not be taken as cognizance by a conscious mind, but as itself a physical process, the interaction of a quantum system with an inanimate, unconscious measuring device.

    So, I’ll just end my part of this discussion by putting the burden of proof squarely where it belongs–on Mr. Georgoudis. If he insists that QM does support idealism and discredits “monistic materialism”, he will have to show this other than by quoting the obiter dicta of famous physicists. I’ll leave Taner to deal with the fallout, if he so chooses.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    In my comments above, I point to the absurdity of appealing to mere commonsense to claim that philosophical speculations are farfetched, when scientific discoveries have blown many of our commonsense intuitions out of the water.

    Good point. A difference holds between the older, cautious skepticism–like that of Bertrand Russell (who often opposed “common-sensism”)–and the somewhat vulgar neo-atheism of oxford bottlewasher Dawkins and his pals.

    One notes this in the discussion of Design. While I think Dr. Behe’s theory of intelligent design should be kept out of public education (at least K-12), Behe did, while granting the old earth, and most evo. theory, note some of the gaps of Darwinism, and suggest an alternative, not lacking in philosophical interest (unfortunately the biblethumper types seized ahold of Behe’s ideas). Behe’s at least as competent in terms of biochemistry as Dawkins and Co.

    The Dawkins crowd, however, couldn’t stand their precious Darwinian materialism being criticized (Chas, while worthy of respect, probably knew less chemistry than most bright HS students), and so Dawkins offered his usual little rant about evidence lacking: ghastly!. Even SJ Gould himself considered the dandy Dawkins sort of a fool.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15432852460758020597 thomson

    A few have already pointed out that you are wrong in attributing to the Churchlands the view that there are no pains. Their eliminativism isn’t about all mental states, in particular pains, but internal propositionally structured representational contents (e.g., the Language of Thought hypothesis as proposed by Fodor).

    This is a common misunderstanding of their view that can be disabused by a quick reading of any of their books.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12001511002085064198 Mike Almeida

    For instance, I cannot think of any other field where appeals to “intuition” are still so fequently invoked to address big questions.

    Silly comment. Intuitions are used in every field on a multitude of big and small questions. Might be a good time to see Tim Williamson’s ‘Thought Experiments’ or ‘Armchair Philosophy, Metaphysical Modality and Counterfactual Thinking’ for some (much needed) healthful recommendations for “philosophy-hating philosophers” (Williamson’s wonderful term) and the disparagment of philosophical methods.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Victor and one or two other commentators have said that I am being unfair to the Churchlands in attributing to them an endorsement of the ostentatiously absurd claim that pains do not exist. I think Paul Churchland’s Matter and Consciousness and The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul are terrific books, despite my disagreements, and I certainly do not want to be unfair to him, so let me take a look:

    In the revised edition of Matter and Consciousness by Paul Churchland (MIT, 1988) on pp. 44-45, he says:

    “Modern theories of mental dysfunction led to the elimination of witches from our serious ontology…The concepts of folk psychology–belief, desire, fear, sensation, pain, joy, and so on–await a similar fate according to the view at issue [eliminative materialism]. And when neuroscience has matured to the point where the poverty of our current conceptions is apparent to everyone, and the superiority of the new framework is established, we shall then be able to set about reconceiving our internal states and activities within a truly adequate conceptual framework at last.”

    Churchland follows his statement of eliminative materialism with arguments in its favor and a critique of arguments against. Here is one of the counter-arguments he considers and his grounds for rejecting it (p. 47):

    “Eliminative materialism is false, runs the argument, because one’s introspection reveals directly the existence of pains, beliefs, desires, fears, and so forth. Their existence is as obvious as anything can be…The eliminative materialist will reply that this argument makes the same mistake that an ancient or medieval would be making if he insisted that he could just see with his own eyes that the heavens form a turning sphere or that witches exist.”

    At the end of the section, Churchland says that only empirical research can tell us whether the emergent materialism will be reductive or eliminative (p. 49). He concludes:

    “…it has been my aim in this section to make it at least intelligible to you that our collective conceptual destiny lies substantially towards the revolutionary [i.e., eliminative] end of the spectrum (p. 49).”

    There is some ambiguity in that last sentence, and perhaps he is being a bit coy. However, these quotes indicate to me that Churchland here is offering at least a tentative endorsement and defense of a construal of eliminative materialism that does in fact deny the existence of pains. Further, pains are denied for the same sorts of reasons that we now deny the existence of witches. That is, we now possess superior theoretical frameworks that show that talk of pains and witches was simply mistaken and that their purported explanations of phenomena were pseudo-explanations.

    Perhaps Churchland would say that he did not mean to positively and explicitly endorse such a version of eliminative materialism, but was just giving it a (very)friendly exposition and commenting on its plausibility and promise. In that case, I would have to say that, given his wording, my misconstrual is excusable. Further, if a theory that denies the existence of pains is blatantly absurd, then presenting it as so plausible and promising is almost as culpable as an explicit endorsement.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12045468316613818510 Blue Devil Knight

    Keith: those are good passages and it does look like Paul overstated things there. I have a few responses, but non obviate the fact that his passage is overdone likely to be provocative. I have a couple of responses, not inconsistent.

    1. He just overstated things
    If you talk to he and Pat, and read their more thoughtful work they are quite forceful in their attacks on propositional attitude psychology, not at all with sensations we would describe as being of pain, color, and the like. His original book ‘Scientific realism and plasticity of mind’ is quite explicit about this.

    Eliminative materialism is always eliminitavism with respect to some feature of some theory (or all of some theory as in the case of phlogiston theory). The Churchland’s are both vehemently opposed to eliminativism about mental representations altogether. The most animated I have ever seen Pat Churchland was at a seminar when Tim van Gelder suggested we might do away with mental representations. She tore into him like he had suggested we eat children.

    They clarify all this, and apologize in their own way, in ‘Churchlands and their critics.’

    2. He actually is not being stupid.
    By ‘pain’ do you mean the raw experience of pain (e.g., the feeling on your toe when you kick the leg of a table), or the concept of pain?

    Eliminativism is always with respect to scientific theories or concepts. Perhaps the concept of pain as presently used by ordinary people could ultimately be replaced by a more nuanced set of categories that describe much more accurately what is happening in an organism. That is, it could be that the construct ‘pain’ will not be part of our final neuropsychology and physiology of animal behavior. And if this were true, why couldn’t we apply this new, neurally inspired framework, to ourselves once we have acquired it?

    That wouldn’t be a stupid thing to say. It is probably false, but not stupid. I think by including something as prominent in our phenomenology as ‘pain’ he was probably just being provocative.

    He thinks it is ultimately an empirical question whether folk concepts like ‘pain’, ‘belief’, and such, will still be useful within a final neuroscience, that we shouldn’t be too attached to our folk theories.

    Again, possibly false, but not stupid.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12045468316613818510 Blue Devil Knight

    One more thing on the Churchland. We should bear in mind those quotes are from his popular book where he is giving an overview of many different theories (e.g., dualism, good old fashioned AI based theories of mind, etc).

    While I know the book is very tendentious, I think we could partly look at his passage as the broadest possible characterization of eliminative materialism, but not one he actually holds in all the details (this has to be the case given everything he has said in all of his scholarly works).

    However, as I said that doesn’t obviate your exegesis.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Blue Devil Knight: Thanks loads for your valuable comments and the clarification! I certainly agree that as an explanatory framework, folk psychology leaves much to be desired, and that a completed neuroscience will certainly give us much more powerful and accurate explanatory tools. Also, I certainly agree with the attacks on propositional attitude psychology. I think that belief is a biological phenomenon and will be best understood by examining how brains process, store, and employ information. Will our folk pain concepts match one-to-one with terms in a completed neuroscience? Almost certainly not. “Pain” is just too vague and fuzzy a concept. Nevertheless, in our ordinary language we do not use the terms of folk psychology only, or even primarily, as explanatory concepts. When I tell the doctor that I have a chronic, throbbing pain in my left shoulder, I am not explaining anything. I am reporting a symptom–a set of raw feels–in a descriptive vocabulary. Of course, even that descriptive vocabulary may be theory-laden. However, if someone says that there are no pains this, prima facie, seems a denial not just of the theoretical framework of pain-descriptions, but of the referent itself–the sensation. I think you are right that Paul Churchland seems to have just been a bit sloppy in Matter and Consciousness. Seems like Thomas Kuhn would have taught everybody a valuable lesson about that. The poor guy said all this seemingly wild stuff about “conversions” and “world changes” and “incommensurability” in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and had to spend the rest of his career qualifying and explaining! Thanks again for your excellent comments.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12045468316613818510 Blue Devil Knight

    Keith: I like your analogy with Kuhn. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parsons said: “Antirealists are not, in general, idealists, and defenses of antirealism are not, eo ipso, arguments for idealism.

    True, on the other hand antirealism with respect to physical objects is compatible with idealism and is not compatible with monistic materialism. So if QM gives good reason to believe in antirealism then this increases the probability of idealism versus materialism.

    Keith Parsons said: “There is nothing in the mathematical apparatus of QM or its practical implementation that entails idealism.

    True, but I never claimed such. Metaphysical implications are rarely that explicit. My argument was that when comparing idealism and materialism, modern science tends to decrease the probability of the latter and to increase the probability of the former. And not only because of the part consciousness plays in the interpretation of QM.

    Keith Parsons said: “As Mr. Georgoudis notes (and this would seem to be a major concession on his part) everyone recognizes that there are certain static, objective properties of quantum systems.

    Surely all physicists who claim that QM implies that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality know that there are static objective properties of quantum systems – so to point this out is not really a “major concession” on my part. Rather it shows how little philosopher Peter Kosso understood the issues.

    Keith Parsons said: “However–and I shall hazard that this is the majority view of practicing quantum physicists–measurement need not be taken as cognizance by a conscious mind, but as itself a physical process, the interaction of a quantum system with an inanimate, unconscious measuring device.

    Not the physicists who have seriously studied the ontological implications of QM. In this context see the so-called “von Neumann chain”.

    Keith Parsons said: “So, I’ll just end my part of this discussion by putting the burden of proof squarely where it belongs–on Mr. Georgoudis. If he insists that QM does support idealism and discredits “monistic materialism”, he will have to show this other than by quoting the obiter dicta of famous physicists.

    Keith Parsons knows something about burden of proof; I have read his book “God and the Burden of Proof: Plantinga, Swinburne, and the Analytic Defense of Theism”. The discussion at hand though started with others and me challenging his claim that Berkeley’s idealism was stupid and obviously false. The burden of proof for defending that claim rests with Parsons, and I don’t think he has succeeded to prove his case. In reality idealism is a coherent ontology which is entirely compatible with modern science, whereas in comparison materialism is having trouble on both counts.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parsons said: “I’ve made a short list of some of the stupidest things philosophers have said over the millennia. Each of these claims has been seriously maintained by one or more major philosophers (in parentheses). Each is not only false, but obviously so.

    I’d like to comment on some more of the examples Keith Parsons suggests:

    2) Atheists are less trustworthy than theists.
    (Locke)

    There are several statistical studies that show that religious people on average give more of their money, more of their time, and even more of their blood to help others. They even give more to secular charities. (See: Arthur Brooks: “Who Really Cares”) Besides that we have the historical record that shows that the gravest crimes against humanity have been perpetrated by atheistic regimes (and the claim that this correlation is just coincidence stretches credulity). We also have the obvious argument that all other factors being the same religious people will have more reason to act morally than non-religious people. Not to mention most if not all moral paragons of our times have been religious people. Now if we accept that trustworthiness is tightly related to moral character then I think Locke’s affirmation cannot reasonably be called either stupid or obviously false.

    5) This world is the best of all possible worlds.
    (Leibniz)

    Here “best” entails evaluation by some mind. Obviously Leibniz’s meaning is that this world is the best of all possible worlds from God’s point of view, and not necessarily from ours. (I have a 4 years old daughter; to her the best possible world would be one where she can eat all the chocolate she desires.) I know of no argument that convincingly shows that this world cannot be the best of all possible worlds from God’s point of view. So here again I don’t think one reasonably can call Leibniz’s claim stupid or obviously false.

    6) Animals have no thoughts or feelings.
    (Descartes)

    Not only Descartes, but also much admired atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett claims this. Dennett even claims that pre-linguistic children have no consciousness.

    7) Nothing could have happened other than it did.
    (Spinoza)

    Not only Spinoza, but also many naturalist physicists believe that. Observe that according to two of the most popular interpretations of Quantum Mechanics, namely Everett’s “many worlds” and Bohm’s “pilot wave” interpretations, reality is deterministic.

    18) Virtue cannot be taught.
    (Plato)

    My understanding here is that virtue is an experiential thing and can’t therefore be taught. How it is to experience the color red, or how it is to experience God, or how it is to experience any person for that matter, are all things that cannot be taught but must be lived in order to be known. So I don’t think Plato’s point is either stupid or obviously wrong either.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11389914926058244374 psyco_seth

    Some of this things are 'wrong'. some are not. Time doesn't exist, it isn't real. Its an illusion by the characteristic flow of sensors that perceive relation between objects. There is no time in itself. Of course we only perceive sense data. You can not perceive a rock, but the data emitted by your nerves. There is also some very good points, that when interpreted literally might seem dumb, but are an 'equation' of a system, like Wittgenstein's.

    Some of the things here are idealistic, human, and psychological. It's stupid to call them 'wrong'. Kant meant that the truth is the only transcendental being, therefor it surpasses human life. Atheists aren't governed by pity, or so it had been long ago. Goodman? Wrong? this post is retarded. maybe if you studied philosophy you wouldn't have messed up. Many are 'wrong', but it's mediocre that you categorize un-wrong-able and correct things as wrong,.


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