Idealism, Materialism, and Science

Keith Ward on Materialism, 8     1  2  3  4  5  6  7

We now come to a number of formulations in which the differences between Ward’s case for idealism and personalism on the one hand and the more specific and complete idealism that I am inclined to think could be defended can be noticed. I do not wish to dwell overmuch on this and will focus rather on the parts of his case that I wholly accept, but a little should perhaps be said. This could at least serve the purpose of pointing to the larger idealist argument and position.

“If modern philosophy is the application of reason to the widest possible set of known data, in order to obtain an informed judgement about what sorts of things are real, what sorts of things can be known, and what ways of life are most appropriate to the facts, it seems that we have to begin with the admission that there are many possible philosophical views, and none of them is theoretically certain, or even overwhelmingly probable.” Here a definition of ”data” and ”known data” should, from the perspective of such idealism, be added. It could also perhaps be pointed out that classical philosophy too was the application of reason to at least a wide set of ”known data”, like those of the beginnings of science, which was at this time not separate from philosophy. Nor was it separate from philosophy in the early modern period, when the classical agenda was in some sense resumed after the dominance of Christian theology.

Analytic philosophy, as originally conceived, and the continued ”Enlightenment project” (as Nicholas Capaldi calls it) within it, went too far, however, when it wanted to make itself the servant of science instead of theology. Today, as I discussed earlier, analytic philosophy is often used as a formal apparatus of theoretical instruments in the defence of entirely different positions in the various fields of philosophy.

Science ignored and soon outgrow the absurdly reductionistic positions and theoretical instruments the early analyticists offered, but at the same time sought an independence from philosophy as such which was equally untenable. The effects of this are normally immediately seen when the theories and results of science are stated and communicated in concepts and language, as they of course inevitably must be.

Philosophy, conceived as part of the same distinctive Western intellectual development and project as science, should not withdraw the application of reason from the central class of ”data” and ”known data” that science provides, if the need for definition of the latter terms is kept in mind and scientific theories are included as also being data. But neither should science and scientific theory exist without philosophy. Indeed, science cannot really do without philosophy. It can obviously think this is possible, but what we find then is nonetheless philosophy, as inextricably intervolved in the enterprise as ever. Only now it is inevitably poor speculative philosophy, not knowing and recognizing itself as philosophy, having deliberately relinquished its full theoretical resources and their conscious and systematic use.

I have doubts about the statement that no philosophical view is overwhelmingly probable. It is certainly possible to hold many different philosophical views. The questions of theoretical certainty and probability depend on how philosophy is defined. Some ”theoretical certainties” are not only involved in the very possibility and fact of doing philosophy, they also remain central to its continued pursuit and systematic development. In other respects, theoretical certainty has the specific limits that are intrinsic to the discipline of philosophy as such and the range of its use of reason. In those respects, we rightly speak of probability. But in some of those respects we have to supplement the observation that philosophy can point beyond itself, in the direction of forms of spiritual practice which can yield their own certainty.

But Ward must of course rightly add that “It does not follow that they are equally plausible.” Still, “it does follow that reason alone cannot make final decisions between a fairly wide spectrum of possibilities, ranging from the supremacy of Spirit to the supremacy of matter”. Here, I suggest, is one point in the argument where one must focus on the more precise definition of matter: such definition seems necessary for the meaningfulness of the statement about the spectrum of possibilities including the supremacy of matter. ”Reason alone” also calls for definition. These are questions which idealism in a more specific sense than Ward’s very inclusive one often does ask. I could perhaps later try to develop the case by adding the dimensions of such idealism.

But “What reason can do remains important. It can clarify basic axioms and aim to make them consistent with one another, analyse the strength and validity of inferences from those axioms, lay out a range of competing alternative axioms, test the consistency of an axiomatic system against the best available knowledge, and assess the strong and weak points of the general interpretation of the world that a rational system aims to provide. A rational philosophy is one that scores well on these criteria.” This, one must say, is still quite impressive. Philosophy is, among other things, a general culture of the intellect that is central to civilization. But then, again, “no philosophical view comes out as a clear winner”. Again I have to admit I have always had doubts about this. It seems to me idealism and personalism do come out as clear winners.

Indeed, “It may be thought that at least some views – perhaps that of Plato or Descartes or Bishop Berkeley – have been decisively refuted in the course of the history of philosophy. But I have sought to rescue all three from their critics, and show that their views can be reformulated in entirely plausible ways.” There are still some problematic aspects not lest of Descartes, but yes, both the possibility and reality of plausible reformulation is real, and also for the more specifically personal idealist views. “Of course, reformulation is necessary.”

There are of course many specific points to discuss in the various reformulations. “The Theory of Forms, for instance, needs to be re-stated as a theory of objective mathematical axioms, and related more closely to experimental observation. But it then survives very well in some versions of modern quantum theory, and mathematicians like Roger Penrose can describe themselves as Platonists without embarrassment.” The theory of forms exists in very different versions in Plato himself. One of them, developed in his later years, tends towards a reformulation in mathematical terms. Obviously mathematics is important here, important in idealism, as Plato himself insisted. But understood not least in a comparative perspective of the kind I have tried to introduce in several texts on idealism, it is not clear to me that other aspects of the theory of forms, the paradigmatic model or ontic logos (as Charles Taylor calls it) according to which the phenomenal world is ordered, most obviously with regard to ethics, aesthetics, and society, should or could be simply replaced in a complete re-statement in terms of objective mathematical axioms. Inevitable questions must, I think, arise, pace Penrose, about the relation between the structure of mathematical axioms of contemporary physics and the theory of forms. Does not the comparison, indeed identification, overlook the still pragmatic use of mathematics in physics? Is mathematics understood by the physicists in the way Plato understood it?

Ward thinks it is “not to be expected…that materialism is susceptible to a knock-down refutation”. “Knock-down” may not be the right way of putting it. Of course, “There will always be a possible reformulation of the view that mental phenomena are by-products of non-purposive and unconscious physical processes, and that our common-sense beliefs about the world do not represent the true nature of objective reality.” Yes, and it is always possible also to reformulate the materialist position. It is, as noted above, quite obviously possible to hold many different philosophical views – quite regardless of their own probability and possibility.

Ward’s stress on common sense sets his case apart from that of idealism in a stricter sense. It is valid with regard to many of his points. But there is also something that could be called common-sense materialism (not just common-sense realism), common-sense of the Johnsonian variety. Stones feel so hard and heavy when people kick them that their common sense tells them there must be lumps of matter floating about out there in objective space and time, quite independently of mind. Materialism certainly holds that the common-sense beliefs about “a God”, which Ward seizes on, do not represent the true nature of objective reality. But it is idealism of Berkeley’s kind that says Johnsonian common-sense beliefs with regard to stones etc. do not represent the true nature of that other part of reality and the way it can and cannot be said to be objective.

Leaving common sense, Ward says the “very grave problems” materialism faces are “largely raised by quantum physics. This is particularly annoying for materialists, since science tends to be a major plank on which materialism is based.” Ward still belongs to the broadly analytic tradition, although he is one of the many who now use its intellectual instruments for completely different purposes than the ones intended by the founders of it as a school. One can hardly speak of a set of theoretical instruments, of modal logic etc., or, more generally, of a mere formal method, as a philosophical school. I think it must be said that when analyticism relinquished its original programme which included substantial positions in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics etc., it ceased to be a school in any sense comparable with the one used for other philosophical schools.

Even analyticists who have completely rejected the original substantial programme of the logical empiricists and positivists, which included the self-identification of philosophy as the ancilla of science, have often remained preoccupied to a greater extent than philosophers of other schools with science and the theoretical issues of science. Ward is one of them. I see no problem with this but find it rather to be a natural and obvious part of what philosophy should do. But for idealists in the stricter sense, it is not quite as large a part as for mosts formal analyticists, even such formal analyticists as Ward who takes distinctly idealistic and theistic positions.

The early analyticists were not all materialists, as Ward has already discussed; some were phenomenalists and believed in experienced reality as a construct of sense-data. But they did see science as a major plank on which to base their rejection of idealism, religion, traditional morality, the great tradition in the arts etc. And the original programme was in any case such that the step to materialism was always a comparatively short one, at least for the philosophically interested public to which the programme was communicated in popularized form and which noticed rather the campaign against idealism than the subtleties of a certain branch of empiricist epistemology.

If the early non-materialist analyticists relied on science for this campaign, today’s materialist scientists and journalists do so to an even greater extent. Meanwhile, science in general or as a whole disappointed the early analyticists by not lending support to their programme, and the same often seems to be the case with their relation to the materialist scientists and journalists today. This is what Ward seizes on, in a part of the case that is legitimate and meaningful, albeit limited in what seems to me some important and precisely identifiable ways.

“The gravest objection”, Ward rightly observes, “is that it has become increasingly hard to say just what “matter” is. If your philosophical theory is that everything that exists is composed of matter, it is frustrating to admit that you do not know what matter is.” As indicated above, this, along with the question of the nature of reason, must be taken into account in any discussion about decisions, final and other, between a spectrum of positions ranging from the supremacy of spirit to the supremacy of this ”matter”.

0 Responses to “Idealism, Materialism, and Science”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s



"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi