Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The stories we tell ourselves

Often, when I respond to a piece of art work, it's because of the stories that it evokes in my brain.

When I was in college, and took an art appreciation class, I fell in love with Édouard Manet's painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.  And it wasn't because of any knowledge of French Impressionism, and how Manet's work fit into the artistic movements of the time; nor was it really about the style, or the skill of the painter, although those certainly played a role in the capacity of the painting to touch me.  The whole thing was about emotion, and how it brought stories bubbling up from the depths of my brain.

Who is this girl with the despairing expression?  I imagined her as a country girl who'd come to the city, allured by its lights and excitement, and is having to support herself as a barmaid -- and now she's there, trapped and disillusioned, her mind and her heart a million miles away.  The painting struck me then as terribly sad.  And it still does.

All of this comes up because of a conversation I had with a friend who is working toward his Ph.D. in philosophy.  His dissertation is on the subject of phenomenological idealism, which is (as far as I understand it) the idea that the universe is a construct of the mind -- that reality is solely experiential, and may or may not have any external existence.  (Kant said that we "cannot approach the thing in itself" -- all we know is our experience of it, so that's what reality is.)

Anyhow, my friend told me a bit about what he's studying.  I did try my best to understand it, although I don't know how successful I was -- and it must be admitted that I am not entirely certain I have the brains required for such an esoteric subject.  But insofar as I understood him, I found myself disagreeing with him almost completely.

That said, I'm not going to try to craft an argument against idealism.  For one thing, I am wildly unqualified to do so.  My background in philosophy is thin at best, and my attempts at understanding classical philosophy in college were, on the whole, failures.  What interests me more is the immediate reaction I had to my friend's description of his philosophical stance.  It wasn't an argument; it was purely an emotional reaction that, if I put it into words, was simply, "Oh, now, come on.  That can't be right."

So I started thinking about why people respond the way they do to belief systems.  Why, apart from "I was taught that way growing up," does anyone believe in a particular view of the universe?  Why does a theistic model appeal to some, and others find it repellent?  Why do I find materialism "self-evident" (which it clearly is not -- from what my philosopher friend has told me, it's no more self-evident than any other view of the world)?  Why, within a particular religious worldview, do some of us gravitate toward viewing the deity as harsh and legalistic, and others as gentle, kind, and forgiving?

I suspect that it all comes down to the emotional reactions we have.  I'd bet that very few of us ever do the kind of analysis of our concept of the universe that my friend has done; for the vast bulk of humanity, "it feels right" is about as far as we get.

And I can lump myself in with that unthinking majority.  I'm drawn to the mechanistic, predictable, external reality of materialism, but not because I have any cogent arguments that that worldview is correct and the others are false.  I accept it because it's a solution to understanding the world that I can live with (and that's even considering the bizarre, non-intuitive bits, like quantum mechanics).  But for all that, I can't prove that this view is the right one.  Being locked inside my own skull, even the solipsist's answer -- that he, alone, in the world exists, and everything else is the product of his mind -- is irrefutable.  Why don't I believe that, then?  Because it doesn't "seem right."  Hardly a rigorous argument.

Now, I still think you can make mistakes; once you've accepted a rationalist view of the world (for example), you can still commit errors of logic, misevaluate evidence, come to erroneous conclusions.  But why is the rationalist worldview itself right?  You can't argue that it is, using logic -- because to accept that logic is valid, you already have to accept that rationalism works.  It's pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.   The only reason to accept rationalism is because it somehow, on a gut level, makes sense to you that this is the way the world works.

It's a little like my experience with art.  A Bar at the Folies-Bergère appeals to me because of the emotions that it evokes, and the tales I tell myself about it.  I wonder if the same is true in the larger sense -- that we are drawn to a worldview not because it is logically defensible, but simply because it allows us to sleep at night.  Beyond that, all we do is tell each other stories, and hope like hell that no one asks us too many questions.


  1. I base it on utility.

    It seems to me that philosophers actually are just playing with ideas, rather than sincerely believing these crap theories. Everybody is actually a materialist, because anybody who sincerely isn't is dead, having been (for instance) run over by a bus that their conviction of its illusory nature couldn't protect them from.

    Sure, it might be that everybody else is a figment of my imagination. But if I believed that, then why bother to talk with other people? I already know everything they could possibly say. (Or to turn it around, why should I have anything to do with a sincere solipsist? Not believing in my existence, he can't possibly respect me or what I have to say.)

    The nature of reality might be totally different than it appears, in any number of other ways. But materialism is unique in that it can inform how I live my life. We don't know anything absolutely. But that doesn't mean we can't provisionally believe things are a certain way, and act on that until we have contrary evidence.

    Even if there's no good evidence for something, or reason to think it's false, it often makes sense to act as if you believe it anyway, if you get better results that way. Whether or not you believe in free will, you have to treat people as if they are responsible agents, because if there are no consequences for misbehavior they'll go around harming others.

  2. Okay, speaking as the idealist philosopher in question (and you don't have to anonymise me, Gordon - forthright and earnest criticism and analysis is the most profound form of praise), I need to offer a separate response to the blog post and to Tyler's comment.

    To the first, all I really have to say is this; when I first heard about phenomenalistic idealism, when the theories of George Berkeley were first described to me, I laughed and dismissed them myself. I had the same 'That can't be right' reaction as you did, Gordon. I was fortunate (or not, depending on how you look at it) to be in a position a few years later to study some of the arguments and questions that motivated Berkeley, along with Kant and the other idealists, and in doing so encountered philosophical oddities which convinced me that there was something powerfully insightful about the idealist solution. You are entirely correct, though, that the same considerations do not motivate everyone - many philosophers dismiss the arguments of idealists, either spuriously or on reasoned grounds, and just as a lot of philosophical debates do, it often ultimately comes down to differing intuitions about the meanings of terms and how they relate to one another.

    To Tyler, I feel I have to start by saying this: I'm a little hurt that you'd write off the arguments of a whole group of total strangers as offered in bad faith. I grant that our views may seem strange or counter-intuitive, but then so do the deliverances of almost all frontier academic subjects.

    More importantly, though, I think you're failing to understand phenomenalistic idealism. Though all idealist views are often flippantly described as claiming that 'the physical world is an illusion' (and I'm as guilty as anyone of this - it's the description I used in my Smashwords author bio), this is not actually a statement compatible with the idealist position.

    To be illusion, a perception must be deceptive - it must represent a state of affairs which is not occurring. Idealism says something subtly but importantly different - that all states of affairs are composed of perceptual data. An illusion, according to an idealist, occurs when some item of perceptual data is not consistent with the vast majority of available data - the sight of water, for example, in the heat-haze of a desert, is out of place because if you move towards it, try to drink it etc., you will not have any other experiences consistent with the presence of water.

    In this way idealism preserves all the things you claim make materialism unique - we can still learn about the world around us, but we understand it purely in terms of what experiences are likely to be followed by others, what patterns we can find in our experiences.

    I have not been hit by a bus because I understand that the appearance of an approaching bus is reason to expect the subsequent experience (or collection of experiences) of being hit by a bus, including all the experiences of physical trauma, serious injury, unconsciousness (if that can be experienced) and so on.

    All the virtues you claim for materialism are grounded in the fact that it is one way of explaining the consistency of our perceptions (though thinking of it at 'materialism' at all requires quietly ignoring most of what quantum physics has to say, since at the fundamental level quantum physics reduces matter to energy behaving in certain ways), but it is not the only way. Without going into technical details too complex to summarise at an introductory level here, the business of idealist philosophy is to offer alternatives which avoid the long-standing philosophical problems of materialism (also too complex to go into here).

    I hope that's clarified things a bit.

  3. Good sir, could you provide me with a practical application of phenomenalistic idealism, that I might find it's relevance to our growing understanding of reality? (Anecdote, maybe?)

    We can talk about splitting atoms and what the effect would be, but it's when someone actually splits one and measures the effect, that the conjecture becomes reality.

    If everyone on the planet believed that it was flat, at one point in time... Did the collective consciousness actually make it flat? Are we talking about the mind manifesting reality or how it is perceived? Implications abound...


  4. Took a bit of a crash course in this subject, this afternoon.

    Forgive my hubris... This subject is quite interesting to me.

    If the mind provides value, then value did not exist until there was a mind to prescribe it.

    Then what of the reality that provided the complexity, such that there are different things to prescribe value to?

    Reality had a complexity to it before we had the imagination to desire to understand it. We did not create the elements that make up the periodic table, we discovered them. If there was but one element, then the assigning of value to it would be pointless. It is because there are a multitude of them that we can differentiate and therefore assign value.

    It is my opinion that the framework cannot be separated from the product. It is circular. Value did not spawn into existence the first time a mind applied it. It spawned when potential for it's eventuality was present...
    Value has been present from the moment the procession of increasing complexity provided the eventuality of a mind that could exercise it.

    The Universe's most patently obvious goal is to increase in magnitudes of complexity. That complexity has been the engine of the existence of thought... that sits and ponders the thoughtless Universe.