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Why Idealism Is Actually a Practical Philosophy

Not what you heard? Philosopher of science — and pianist — Bruce Gordon says, think again

In last week’s podcast,,” our guest host, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, interviewed philosopher of science Bruce Gordon on “Idealism and the Nature of Reality.” Idealism is “something mental (the mind, spirit, reason, will) is the ultimate foundation of all reality, or even exhaustive of reality” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Gordon thinks that idealism is defensible, reasonable, and too easily discarded:

A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.

Michael Egnor: At its most fundamental level, is reality more like a mind? Or is it more like a physical object? That question — and questions like that — are fundamental to our understanding of nature and our understanding of ourselves, and our understanding of God.

I should point out to our listeners that Dr. Gordon and I both attended a conference on philosophy of mind and on neuroscience about a year ago. And he opened my eyes to idealism, and to what I think is a much deeper insight into the nature of reality.

So perhaps we should start, Dr. Gordon. What is idealism?

Bruce Gordon: There are a lot of different varieties of idealism, and rather than go through a laundry list of its variations, let me just start with the kind of idealism that I would be an advocate of, which is an ontic theistic idealism, essentially a form of idealism that is probably most closely identified with the Anglican Bishop, George Berkeley [pictured in 1727].

Basically, it’s the idea that material substances, as substantial entities, do not exist and are not the cause of our perceptions. They do not mediate our experience of the world. Rather, what constitutes what we would call the physical realm are ideas that exist solely in the mind of God, who, as an unlimited and uncreated immaterial being, is the ultimate cause of the sensations and ideas that we, as finite spiritual beings, experience intersubjectively and subjectively as the material universe.

Note: Philosopher George Berkeley (1685–1753) was a Church of England bishop in Ireland. Among his other accomplishments were his studies of human vision: “Berkeley’s empirical theory of vision challenged the then-standard account of distance vision, an account which requires tacit geometrical calculations. His alternative account focuses on visual and tactual objects. Berkeley argues that the visual perception of distance is explained by the correlation of ideas of sight and touch. This associative approach does away with appeals to geometrical calculation while explaining monocular vision and the moon illusion, anomalies that had plagued the geometric account.” – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

About his idealism: “Berkeley’s system, while it strikes many as counter-intuitive, is strong and flexible enough to counter most objections.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“All the choir of heaven and furniture of earth — in a word, all those bodies which compose the frame of the world — have not any subsistence without a mind.” ~ George Berkeley

Bruce Gordon: So we are, in effect, living our lives in the mind of God. And he is a mediator of our experience and of our inner subjectivity, rather than some sort of neutral material realm that serves as a third thing between us and the mind of God, so to speak.

Michael Egnor: How does idealism, thus understood, relate to Plato’s theory of forms?

Bruce Gordon: Plato thought that there was this realm of abstracts particulars that was eternal and unchanging, a realm of forms, participation in which gives identity to the objects of our experience and enables their recognition by our minds. And you had a whole theory that involved pre-incarnate existence that feeds into that — and a doctrine of reminiscence that we remember these forms, and that’s how we recognize the objects.

I would prefer to look at it so that the Platonic forms are not mind-independent abstract particulars but rather ideas in the mind of God that differentiate and give identity and order to the objects of our experience. So things are the kinds that they are because they fit the form of that thing in the mind of God. And that idea is communicated to us, then.

Note: Plato (c. 424–347 BC), a Greek philosopher, is considered to be “one of the most important figures of the Ancient Greek world and one of the most important figures of the Ancient Greek world and the entire history of Western thought.” He was a student of Socrates and a teacher of Aristotle: “Plato’s recurring fascination was the distinction between ideal forms and everyday experience, and how it played out both for individuals and for societies.” – “Plato” History

Plato’s original ideas were reinterpreted and reworked by other thinkers, including the neo-Platonists and Augustine, in intervening years. Most people sympathetic to Plato’s approach are following this developed tradition, as Gordon outlines.

Michael Egnor: There are, I believe, other kinds of idealism. For example, idealism by German philosophers. And how does that differ from Berkeleyan idealism?

Bruce Gordon: Well, I would say… I mean, it depends on who you’re talking about. But let’s take Kant as kind of the wellspring of all of this. So Kant advocated a kind of epistemic, as opposed to ontic, idealism. So Kantian idealism is entirely compatible with the existence of material substances, even though they are inaccessible as things in themselves. So for Kantian idealism, you’ve got a self that kind of provides a transcendental unity of consciousness. It precedes and grounds all of our experience. And our perception of reality, then, is governed by the innate structure of the human mind. It has space and time as a priori modes of cognition and various categories of the understanding. You know, quantity and quality in relation to modality, stuff like that, that give order to our experience.

Note: Immanuel Kant (1724–1804, pictured in 1768) is considered “the central figure in modern philosophy” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy because of his influence on the modern world. “He argues that the human understanding is the source of the general laws of nature that structure all our experience; and that human reason gives itself the moral law, which is our basis for belief in God, freedom, and immortality.”

Kant’s form of idealism is different from Berkeley’s, as Dr. Gordon explains.

“You only know me as you see me, not as I actually am.” ~ Immanuel Kant

Bruce Gordon: But its structured is what the mind itself, by its innate structuring, gives to our experience. So we never experience reality in itself, which he called the noumenal world, but only reality as it appears to us, a phenomenological reality or phenomenal reality that is ordered by the innate structures of the human mind. So Kantian idealism and its descendants are, in many ways, an epistemic form of idealism, whereas the Berkeleyan form of idealism is ontic. It’s a denial that there is material substance and an embedding of reality in the mind of God, such that it is finite spiritual beings experiencing the reality brought into existence by this unlimited, uncreated, immaterial being.

Michael Egnor: I’ve long been bothered by one aspect of Kant’s metaphysics, or one consequence of his metaphysics, in that his assertion is that we can never know reality in itself. But isn’t that claim itself considered exempt from Kant’s view that we can’t know reality in itself? That is, if we can’t know reality in itself, then how does he know that we can’t?

Bruce Gordon: How does he know that reality is unknowable?

Michael Egnor: Right. It seems necessary to exclude his metaphysics from the reality that we can’t know.

Bruce Gordon: Well, he would have to maintain that he can know and examine from the inside, from the subjective structure of his own experience, I suppose, the innate structure of the human mind, which interposes itself between the thing in itself and our apprehension of it. So if he himself is as inscrutable as the noumenal realm, then I suppose that the objection would apply. But there may be some wiggle room for Kant — and I’m not sure — to say that he has direct access to the contents and structure of his own consciousness, and can describe that. But having described that, assuming that he’s right about its structure, then he has this veil between himself and the noumenal realm, the realm of the things in themselves. He only has that phenomenal realm that is filtered through the structure of his own consciousness.

Michael Egnor: Yes. But one of the things that has always bothered me about skeptical metaphysical perspectives, like Kant’s (and of course there are many others that are much more radical, is that to be really consistent) you have to hold your own viewpoint as the exception to your skepticism. And it seems to me cheating. So if Kant is right, then Kant has no way to know that he’s right.

Bruce Gordon: Sure. If the self is as inscrutable as the noumenal realm that the self supposedly filters, then that’s absolutely correct.

Next: A physicist and philosopher Gordon looks critically at panpsychism


You may also wish to read: Why would a neuroscientist choose panpsychism over materialism. It seems to have come down to a choice between “nothing is conscious” and “everything is conscious.”

and

Why science is growing comfortable with panpsychism. At one time, the idea that “everything is conscious” was the stuff of jokes. Not any more, it seems.

Show Notes

  • 00:43 | Introducing Dr. Bruce Gordon
  • 02:02 | Idealism
  • 03:41 | Plato’s theory of forms
  • 05:09 | Kantian idealism
  • 09:22 | Panpsychism and cosmopsychism
  • 12:31 | What is a mental thing?

Additional Resources


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Why Idealism Is Actually a Practical Philosophy