Friday, 11 April 2008

The peek-a-boo of physicalism

carnival of venice
I am not yet fully satisfied with my yesterday's post about unmasked idealism, for two reasons. Firstly, I want to show a beautiful half-mask, coming back to the philosophical implications of the Venice Carnival. And secondly, I think I have missed an important point against idealism: its violation of common sense. Thus, I am going to show that physicalism is common sense and that idealism violates it.

Why is this important? In a strict sense, neither idealism nor physicalism may be falsified, let alone proven because both make a priori assumptions that must be taken for granted. The right or wrong discussion, the true or false dispute is most likely a pointless one. Rather should we argue about what is sound or unsound. If two theories exist and neither of them can be proven true or false, we should prefer the theory that fits common sense.

Babies, peek-a-boo and innate physicalism

I only can recall a few things from my earliest childhood. One is the view of my tiny shoes and the woollen socks bulging over their rim, and I remember their tight fit and how hard they were to put on. And another thing is the peek-a-boo game.

I don't know exactly what makes this game so exciting for babies and toddlers. It may be the experience of a reality that continues to be real even when hidden, and the sudden release of tension when the visible reality merges with the previously hidden one.

Just recently, an experiment at the Baby Cognition Lab at the University of British Columbia has shown that a realistic common sense guides the behaviour of eight month old babies: They have a basic understanding of random sampling in a game where the experimenter pulls red and white pingpong balls out of a box. The baby, when looking into the box, is more surprised when it finds that the mix of the balls in the box does not match the mix of the sample. This reaction seems to be an innate understanding of physical things, even when hidden from perception.

The common sense of physicalism

Objects do exist. They exist whether they are perceived or not. Objects are physical things. You can have an idea about an object. But this idea is not the object. And is seems counter-intuitive that the object itself should be an idea.

Babies seem to have an innate insight of this common sense. In peek-a-boo games, they learn that the assumption of a physical world makes sense. The whole world is full of physical things, and we humans deal with them, always assuming that they are real. And we have never proven wrong with this view. We may be tricked by illusionists, but all these tricks are applied physics on the object side and applied psychology and distraction on the observer side. Even as adults we are fascinated by peek-a-boo games like the Carnival of Venice.

Of course, it cannot be excluded that all physical matter and all energy is just sort of a crystallized idea. Energy and matter may be defined this way. Such a definition is not necessarily false. But it does not make sense.

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