Idealism, Materialism, and Science

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

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…

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 defend can be noticed. I do not wish to dwell overmuch on this and will focus in this series of posts 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.

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 resumed after the dominance of Christian theology.

Analytic philosophy, as originally conceived, and the continued ”Enlightenment project” (as Capaldi calls it) within it, went too far, however, when it wanted to make itself the servant of science instead of theology, in most cases as part of a project of socialist reconstruction of society. Today, as I discussed in the first post in this series, 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, being 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 temrs 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 involved in the enterprise as ever, only now inevitably poor speculative philosophy, not knowing and recognizing itself as philosophy, having deliberately relinquished its full theoretical resources and their conscious and systematic use.

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.

I have doubts about this. 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.

It does not follow that they are equally plausible. But 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 one must ask what ”matter” is – a definition is 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 asks. I could perhaps later develop the case by adding the dimensions of such idealism.

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 is still quite impressive. Philosophy is, among other things, a general culture of the intellect that is central to civilization.

But no philosophical view comes out as a clear winner.

I have to admit I have always had doubts about this. It seems to me idealism and personalism come out as clear winners.

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 of Descartes.

Of course, reformulation is necessary. 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 introduced in several of my posts on idealism, it is not at all clear to me that other aspects of the theory of forms, the paradigmatic model or ontic logos according to which the phenomenal world is ordered, most obviously those relevant to ethics, aesthetics, and society, should be simply replaced in a complete re-statement in terms of objective mathematical axioms.

Moreover, questions must, I think, be asked, 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?

It is not to be expected, then, that materialism is susceptible to a knock-down refutation.

“Knock-down” may not be the right way of putting it.

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.

Of course it is always possible 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” (see about this term the first part of this series), which Ward seizes on, do not represent the true nature of objective reality. But it is idealism ofBerkeley’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.

Nevertheless, materialism faces some very grave problems, 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, and I, have 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, conservatism, the great tradition in the arts etc. And some were materialists, and the original programme was in any case such that the step to materialism was always a rather 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, todays materialist scientists and journalists do it to an even greater extent. Meanwhile, science in general or as a whole disappointed the early analyticists by not lend support to their programme, and the same often seems to be the case with its relation to the programme of 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 important and precisely identifiable ways.

The gravest objection 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:

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s




Categories

Archives

Recent Comments

Sverige Först on Enhetslinjens förlust
Jan Olof Bengtsson on The Significance of Franklin…
AS on The Significance of Franklin…
Bas on The Significance of Franklin…
Bas on The Significance of Franklin…
Jan Olof Bengtsson on Salvini, SD och EU-reformismen…
Jan Olof Bengtsson on 10 år
RB on 10 år
Jan Olof Bengtsson on 10 år
axelwkarlsson on 10 år
Jan Olof Bengtsson on 10 år
sui generis on 10 år
Victor on 10 år
Jan Olof Bengtsson on Moderat omprövning
Irminsul on Salvini, SD och EU-reformismen…
All original writing © Jan Olof Bengtsson
"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi