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Reapproaching Idealism
May 21, 2003 (Edited Jul 24, 2015)

Analytic philosophy, the Anglo-American philosophy which formed at the beginning of the twentieth century, can trace its origins to an attempt to save the world from the hands of idealists and set things back on firmly real ground. G.E. Moore's "The Refutation of Idealism" is perhaps the first and most obvious example of the analytic philosopher's distaste for idealist notions. Moore attempts to undermine the basic idealist premise "to be is to be perceived," with his goal (shared by many subsequent analytic philosophers) being to show the objectivity of the world we live in. Moore wished to show that our sense of reality is independent of perception -- for the realist an object exists not only when observed, but also when not perceived by anyone. Interestingly, many of the ideas which develop in twentieth century analytic philosophy point back towards idealism, as does the core belief shared by analytic philosophers of the value of empiricism and scientific investigation. The attempt to describe a reality independent of perception fails, leading back around to re-approach idealism.

Bertrand Russell's logical atomism, although formed in the spirit of realism, developed in such a way that it falls back towards the subjectivity of idealism. Russell described a world based on sense data, where perceived sense data can be broken down into an unknown number of logical atoms which in turn can be used to build things back up and explain the larger reality. Russell's assertion is that "the stuff of which the world of our experiences is composed is neither mind nor matter, but something more primitive than either." Nevertheless, his ability to apply that objectivity to the world of sense experience relies on his notion that everything be describable in terms of some sort of logical atoms -- atoms which must be neither mental nor physical, but which must be able to describe things in terms of both mental and physical. The failure of Russell to ever unveil a logical atom, and the assertion of the later Wittgenstein that the logical atoms don't actually exist after all, represents a boost for idealism. If no atoms are there to be found, and reality cannot be broken down to locate the objective facts of objects of sense data, then perhaps reality must remain confined to subjective perception. Russell intertwines existence with perception, but fails to locate the logical atoms needed to ground perception in an objective reality.

The logical positivist movement sought to reject talk of entities beyond the grasp of possible experience -- or in other words, entities impossible to perceive. Although the positivists rejected idealism, their central premise is similar to that of idealism. The verifiability criterion of meaning makes perception and possible perception into the creators of meaning, dismissing anyone who claims to know something for which they can't describe a possible method to perceive evidence of it. Although not the same, this closely parallels idealism's claim that there is no reality independent of perception. The idealist says there is no reality independent of perceptual experience, while the positivist says it's meaningless to speak of something being real if it's independent of possible perceptual verification. The main difference between the viewpoints is that the logical positivists let everything which has the theoretical potential to be verified empirically be considered meaningful, while the idealists tend to limit themselves to only actual experience being real. Still, this leaves the logical positivists quite close to those idealists who speak of potential sense data, even though the positivists approach the position from a very different direction.

The ideas set forth by Willard Quine attack reductionist and foundationalist thinking, which are manners of thought that play a large role in why many philosophers reject idealism. Quine challenges the notion of reduction in his essay "Two Dogmas of Empiricism", labeling reductionism as a dogma which should be dismissed. Although Quine doesn't speak of this in terms of matter and perspectives, the idea can be extended into that territory. The realist philosopher sees idealism as a system without foundations, a collection of subjective perspectives floating around with no grounding in anything. It's the desire reduce these subjective sensory experiences to something else (namely, to an objective cause) which makes people eager to reject idealism. To see subjective perception as something which must require a reduction to some more basic form of reality (the objective cause) is clearly a reductionist approach. As such, it's relying on an unjustified dogma and this line of reasoning can be dismissed by Quine's ideas.

Critics of idealism believe an objective foundation is needed in order to support and be the cause of the subjective, and this a process which can be criticized by extending the Quine-Duhem thesis. With the Quine-Duhem thesis, Quine rips the foundations away from knowledge and shows knowledge as being a coherntist system, where new observations tweak old beliefs and although some beliefs are more central none are immune to change. Much like with Otto Neurath's ship metaphor for knowledge, which has the ship being slowly rebuilt while at sea, there are no foundations involved and so it becomes pointless to try to speak of objectivity. While Quine's criticism of foundational thinking is centered on talk of knowledge, his representation of knowledge as a coherent formation in the mind without any objective foundations draws into question the style of thinking which is commonly used against idealism. If it's possible for a foundationless system of knowledge to work, it seems only a logical step to consider the possibility that the world of perception doesn't need objective foundations. Idealism itself is sometimes taken to be a foundational system and a reduction of everything to mental, but this is a misconception -- idealism doesn't take the objective and reduce it to subjective descriptions, it simply notes that reality independent of perception has not been shown to exist and applies Occam's razor to shave off the extra metaphysics which having a second layer of reality would involve. Those who reject idealism, on the other hand, are clearly applying reductionist and foundationalist ideas. They're unwilling to let perception be simply a coherent scheme, and are driven to reduce talk of perception to talk of a reality of objective causes independent of perception that provide the foundation for that perception (and must itself have foundations in finite solid particles). In "Things and Their Place in Theories," Willard Quine remarks "there remains the fact--a fact of science itself--that science is a conceptual bridge of our own making, linking sensory stimulation to sensory stimulation; there is no extrasensory perception." The result of this inability to find anything in the world which isn't perception is that no one can demonstrate a world independent of perception, and the only reasons for talk of a world of objective causes are the questionable beliefs in reductionism and foundationalism.

A general commonality among analytic philosophers is a belief in empiricism, and in the value of a scientific approach. The belief in science generated by an empiricist approach, which was at the core of analytic philosophy's origin and development, began to point in the idealist direction during the twentieth century. This occurred through the development of quantum mechanics, the verification of Bell's theorem, and the results of special relativity. As these theories were developed and their consequences began to be understood, science came to develop idealistic notions.

Quantum mechanics destroys classical notions of the separation between the observer and the observed and the solidity of matter, and in doing so it makes idealism's claim that there is no reality independent from observation seem to fit the facts of the universe. The quantum world behaves differently from the large scale world, and the most obvious difference is that what the system does depends on if you're observing it. In his paper where he first presented the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (which states that it's impossible to know both the location and momentum of a particle at the same time), Werner Heisenberg said "I believe that the existence of the classical 'path' can be pregnantly formulated as follows: The 'path' comes into existence only when we observe it." Another idealistic feature of the quantum world is the quality of wholeness. As Niels Bohr explained: "Planck's discovery of the elementary quantum of action ... revealed a feature of wholeness inherent in atomic physics, going far beyond the ancient idea of the limited divisibility of matter." [ more info ] Further destroying the ancient notion of matter, the phenomenon of quantum tunneling completely eliminates the concept of solidity. With quantum tunneling, it's possible for one "particle" to pass directly through another without either of them being affected by it. Although the possibility is so small at the macroscopic level that it could require waiting billions or trillions of years, it's possible to throw a ball at a wall and have the ball go directly through it without affecting anything. Solidity, then, can no longer be held as an objective fact about matter. Without solidity, there's no foundation on which to build reality and reality becomes understandable only as perception of solidity. Werner Heisenberg sums up the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics in this way: "We can no longer speak of the behaviour of the particle independently of the process of observation. As a final consequence, the natural laws formulated mathematically in quantum theory no longer deal with the elementary particles themselves but with our knowledge of them. Nor is it any longer possible to ask whether or not these particles exist in space and time objectively." Heisenberg and Bohr, among others, took quantum mechanics as meaning that the reality we live in and which science studies is fully dependent on perception.

Bell's theorem, developed to test the validity of quantum mechanics, represents one of the most important discoveries of modern science and also generates results supportive of idealism. The theorem addresses the debate between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, where Einstein rejected quantum mechanics as either wrong or incomplete and speculated about hidden variables because of his desire to avoid the inherent uncertainties involved in QM. (This was what prompted Einstein's famous quote in which he says God does not play dice with the universe.) The result of Bell's theorem, verified by repeated experimental tests, is that one or more of the following items must be false: (1) Logic is valid (2) There is a reality separate from its observation (3) Reality is local. [ more info ] Most people would prefer to eliminate (2) or (3) and leave (1) untouched, for if (1) fails we can't discuss the other two logically. Denying (2) clearly leads to absolute idealism, as it would directly echo George Berekley's ideas. This leaves denying (3) as the last hope for a non-idealist, and denying (3) leads to a loss of the idea of objective dimensions. If reality is not local then the whole can be said to make up the parts just as easily as the parts make up the whole, and this means there's no way to objectively claim the existence of two independent particles. Without at least two particles which can be said to be independent of each other in an objective way (not simply interpreted as separate by an observer's perception), it's impossible to build dimensions into objective reality. A single point cannot be measured, no distance can be involved without splitting the point into multiple points, and so dimensions fall out of the picture. This leads back to the conclusion that the dimensional reality of objects lies in perception. Thus, if we accept the experimental demonstrations of Bell's theorem we must accept that existence in space-time depends on perception.

Another nail in the coffin for the notion of space-time being independent of perception is Einstein's special relativity. Under relativity, absolute motion drops away and all motion is relative to the observer. When an object is said to be in motion, there must always be the implication of the motion being relative to a particular observer: the Earth moves relative to the sun, the sun moves relative to the galaxy, but if a point of comparison isn't chosen nothing can be said to be in motion. Motion, then, is entirely dependent on perception since it can only be said to exist when someone makes an arbitrary selection of a comparison point. Time, quite simply, is a measurement of motion -- thus, time only exists relative to a particular observer's perception of it. Space can exist only when particles interact (without interaction there cannot be any distances and so there cannot be any space) and thus space can also be said to depend on perception. Independent of perception, space-time loses all meaning. The universe we're left with is one where the reality of any space-time object depends on it being perceived.

An argument could still be made for dimensionless relations being objective, even with dimensions being subjective, and in this way the non-idealist might attempt to maintain some conception of a dimensionless objective reality. What sort of reality, however, can a dimensionless, unvisualized, and unapplied relation have? A dimensionless objective reality can be described only in terms of potential sense data. Any other attempt at description is useless, because it is not part of our inherently dimensional subjective experience to know what the existence of something outside space-time could be like. [ more info ] Surely when we say "this table exists" we mean something concrete and comprehensible, and so we must mean something that we're capable of describing, which limits us to meaning that it has an instance in space-time. We have no justification for using the word "existence" to describe an incomprehensible "substance" outside of space-time... even if we want to try to say that there is an objective substance that must be the cause of what we do experience, we must recognize that substances outside of space-time don't exist in any way we are capable of imagining or speaking of. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." If we want to speak of an objective cause of the subjective, and we recognize that the objective cause must be dimensionless, the only way we're capable of speaking about it is by describing the potential of it to give us sense data. This leads back to idealism, as it doesn't differ (at least in any describable way) from how idealists speak of potential sense data.

Born of the desire to escape idealism, analytic philosophy and the empiricist method simply take us back around to re-approach idealism. When G.E. Moore made the claim at the beginning of the twentieth century that it was impossible to gather empirical evidence to support idealism, he failed to recognize that when combined with mathematics empirical evidence can in fact be used to show that observed reality depends on the observer -- and while this doesn't prove that nothing exists which is not perceived, it does show that we could have no conception of such things if they were to exist. The universe we're left with is actually a simple one, for idealism is simply a lack of a claim of anything beyond the subjective, the application of Occam's razor after an objective reality is shown to add nothing of use. J.A. Wheeler described the result of reality depending on observers in these terms: "The universe gives birth to communicating participators. Communicating participators give meaning to the universe. With such a concept goes the endless series of receding reflections one sees in a pair of facing mirrors." To be is to be percieved, to percieve is to be... indeed, an endless series of mirrors.

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