Thursday, 17 April 2008

The skeptics of the other side

In the worldview tug-of-war, the position of skeptics always has been clear to me, until recently. I consider myself a skeptic, and I have found myself together with the group of natural scientists, materialists or physicalists, evolutionists, and atheists - as opposed to believers, idealists, creationists, and theists. Until recently, I said.

Until I have dealt with the question of idealism vs. physicalism which is the theme of the 67th Philosophers' Carnival, hosted by Kenny Pearce, a self-declared idealist.

You can read much cloud-headed stuff there, which is my main criticism of this debate. Of course, thoughts are free, and as a self-declared freethinker I am the last one to impose borders to thoughts. I only doubt whether it is wise to start the whole philosophy of the world with the statement "I think, therefore ideas do exist, but everything else may be subject to doubt, even matter." This position, called radical skepticism, is one of the main lines defending idealism. Briefly put: Idealists believe that ideas are the basic essence of all things, and that matter is just sort of an illusion.

And here we have them, the skeptics of the other side: They doubt almost everything, even the existence of matter. Is this a sound position? I guess that skepticism itself should not be excluded from a skeptic view. A real skeptic should always ask himself: Is my skepticism justified?

In the last consequence, a radical, borderless skepticism must lead to a position known as solipsism, that is, I only can be sure that I exist, and all other things and living beings may just be an illusion. This is weird. Of course, we may do philosophy, applying logic in a radical way without accepting borders, and looking where this may bring us. Nothing against that. But when we arrive at a consequence that contradicts every experience of our life and is completely opposed to common sense, we have to decide which of these two possibilities may be more plausible: Either the world in which we live is a complete illusion, or there is something wrong with the reasoning. I take the latter position, definitely.

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Kenny said...

Berkeley denies the consequences you attribute to idealism. He doesn't think matter is an illusion - he thinks it is a conceptual confusion. The "external" world that obviously exists around us, that we interact with every day, is totally unrelated to the world that other metaphysicians (like Locke and Aristotle) have been talking about with their "material substratum" or whatever. In reality, the world is not made up of material substrata or tropes or wave functions or quantum strings or anything like that. The world is made up of things like tables and chairs. A table is a flat, smooth surface raised off the ground that you can set things on. Something is a table in virtue of the facts that it feels flat, looks flat, can support weight, etc. How does matter enter the picture?

Berkeley bills his philosophy as the antidote to skepticism (one of his works on the subject is called Three Dialogs Between Hylas and Philonous: Against the Sceptics and Atheists), whereas representative realism is the real skepticism. With representative realism, you never know whether your perceptions are accurate in their representation of the unperceivable external world. With phenomenalism, you can always know that your perceptions are accurate because the world is defined in terms of your perceptions.

Now, if you are going to call this a type of skepticism, and say that however tight the reasoning is we have to reject it because it is "obviously" false, then you seem to be saying that we have a "suitably basic belief" or some such about a mind-independent material world. Alvin Plantinga argues that at least some people can rationally believe in God in the same way you believe in matter. Further, Berkeley has brought up as many paradoxes about matter as you can bring up about God.

Brad said...

You do know that the word skepticism has two meanings, don't you? A Humean, philosophical skeptic need not have much in common with, say, James Randi or others who might read The Skeptical Inquirer. Your first paragraph tells me you are in the second group, but not the first. The second has been (rightly) pointed out to be part of the methodology of science; the latter, most decidely not. Humean skepticism, or most any philosophical skepticism, isn't a methodology at all--it's a belief about our lack of knowledge about something.

Since a completely radical or global skepticism is well-known to be self-contradictory, usually some less radical form is chosen. But an idealist, or solipsist, ISN'T a skeptic about the existence of ideas--they exist--or about the existence of matter--it doesn't (at least, to be fair to them, independently of ideas or minds). No skepticism there, in the philosophical sense.

Likewise, a solipsist isn't a skeptic in this sense, either. She KNOWS she exists (no skepticism there) and that you don't (again, no skepticism).

This is not an "admonition" in any way--I like your work and you are a smart guy. We all need to carefully distinguish between two quite different meanings of the same word, "skepticism," before we cna make any headway.

Christian said...

@ Kenny: "In reality, the world is not made up of material substrata or tropes or wave functions or quantum strings or anything like that. The world is made up of things like tables and chairs." I respectfully disagree, seeing it the other way round. The world is made up of energy, quarks, quantum strings and the like, and tables are results of our perception.

@ Brad: You bring up an important point I failed to make clear, that the term "skeptic" needs some (outspoken or inherent) reference to an object of skepticism, answering the question "skeptic to what?"

Kenny said...

Well, we do seem to agree on one thing: phenomenalism about tables and chairs. That's a starting point, at least.