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Friday, February 08, 2013

A World of Existence Outside of Expierence

Blackadder is flummoxed: "I confess I find Oakeshott's statement mystifying. What is self-contradictory about the idea of there being a world of existence outside experience?"

This is a tricky question to answer. To an extent, I view it as similar to one of those trick pictures, where you can see either a lady or a rabbit. If someone just doesn't see the rabbit, there is no "argument" you can make that will convince them it is there. (And once they see it, they need no argument.) But perhaps you can give them hints that can lead them to the viewpoint where they do see it for themselves. In any case, no harm in trying.

So let us begin by assuming that there is an objective world standing totally apart from experience. If we can imagine that there is such a world with many objects in it, it is surely even easier to imagine such a world with only one object in it. So let us do that: we posit a world containing only one, solid sphere of "stuff" (whatever stuff it is you want to posit inhabits this world standing apart from experience).

Now, let us consider what it means for something to "exist." I will happily claim that the chair I am sitting on as I write this post exists, and that my claim is "objectively" true. Why do I claim this? Well, I can see the chair. I can feel it. I can smell it. I can sit on it. And I can invite you into my room here, and I am confident that you, too, will see this chair, that you, too, can feel it, that you, too, can sit on it. I gladly proclaim that this chair exists, and "objectively" exists, because we can see its color, feel its texture, be happy when it supports our weight when we are tired and choose to sit down, and so on. The "external" world is real, it exists, and it is the very world you and I experience every day. In short, it is a world of experience.

But what of this posited sphere in an "objective" world standing entirely apart from experience? In what sense does it "exist"? Does it have a color? Well, no, it does not, because colors only exist in the interaction between subjects and objects. Does it have a feel? No, again, and for the same reason. Does it make any sounds? Of course not. Can someone, perhaps, grab it, and throw it at someone else? Well, no, because we have posited that it exists in a world totally divorced from experience.

And thus, if we can grasp the significance of these considerations, we see that the idea of "objects" entirely divorced from experience is a mere abstraction, and while abstractions certainly exist in a sense, their existence is completely parasitic on the world of concrete experience from which they are abstracted. In the world in which we actually live, we never find a bare subject, entirely without objects of which it is aware. Nor do we ever find objects which are not objects for some subject.

Let us be good empiricists here: We come to consciousness to find ourselves in a world of objects of which we are conscious. It is not ridiculous to analyze certain aspects of our experience as "subjective," and other aspects as "objective": we can make distinctions based upon the degree to which our experiences are more or less accessible to others. Such abstractions can be useful. But as abstractions, they are always derivative of the concrete totality of experience from which they are abstracted. A map of Connecticut can help us drive around that state. But to claim that a map of Connecticut can exist independently of there being a real Connecticut from which it is abstracted is absurd: one may have a piece of paper upon which a bunch of lines are drawn, but those lines are not a "map of Connecticut" unless they are abstracted from a real, concretely existing place called Connecticut. Similarly, distinguishing the "objective world" and the "subjective world" can at times be useful, but to posit that either can exist entirely independent of the other is lift an abstraction above that from which it is abstracted.

33 comments:

  1. Well, I guess what was tripping me up was that Oakeshott claimed the idea of a world apart from experience was self-contradictory. That's a very strong claim, much stronger than saying we don't have any reason to believe in the existence of such a world, or even claiming that we have strong reasons for thinking it doesn't exist. If we are talking about ontology, not epistemology, then I don't think either Oakeshott's original remarks or even your more sensible explanation really goes to establish that point.

    The metaphor of the lady/rabbit reinforces my impression here. Whatever one might say about the lady/rabbit image, one wouldn't say that seeing the lady was somehow self-contradictory.

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    1. "Well, I guess what was tripping me up was that Oakeshott claimed the idea of a world apart from experience was self-contradictory."

      Which is the exact same thing I am claiming.

      "much stronger than saying we don't have any reason to believe in the existence of such a world"

      It is always tempting to recast idealists ontological arguments as epistemological ones!

      "your more sensible explanation"

      If you think what I am saying is more sensible than what Oakeshott is saying you definitely haven't gotten either of us yet, since we are saying the same thing.

      "Whatever one might say about the lady/rabbit image, one wouldn't say that seeing the lady was somehow self-contradictory."

      And you've missed the point of this, too. I am saying you are in the position of the person who hasn't yet seen the rabbit, and I am trying to figure out how to show it to you.

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    2. Let's try it this way, Blackadder: Would you agree that it is self-contradictory to say that something is a map, but not a map of anything at all? (Tolkien, of course, mapped Middle Earth, but if you asked him what he was drawing a map of, he would say, "A land I have imagined," not "Nothing.")

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    3. Sure. A map has to be a map of something.

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    4. And would you grant this holds for abstractions in general? A blueprint must be a blueprint of a house, even if the house is only in the architects imagination at present?

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    5. I'm not sure. Justice, for example, is an abstraction, yet it doesn't bear the same relation to a particular just act as a blueprint of a house does to the house.

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    6. Well, if you are a Platonist about justice, then it is NOT an abstraction: IT is the actual thing upon which just acts are based. If you are NOT, then why is it different than a blueprint?

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  2. I am trying to understand how idealist philosophy fits in with the theory of evolution.

    The theory of evolution claims that animals developed senses because they gave their possessors a greater ability to survive and reproduce than without them. If we accept that objects do not exists outside of our perceptions of them then we seem to lose the foothold that allows perceptions to get started.

    The very first perception must have been the perception of something and that something must have existed prior to the perception of it (unless one claims that the object just sprang magically into life with that first perception).

    How would idealists deal with this apparent problem?

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    1. Rob, first of all, I have not ever spoken of "perception."

      But there are several routes to meeting your objection. There is, for instance, Whitehead's, which is to posit that all of reality is experiential: electrons, for instance, experience protons in their vicinity, and respond to this experience by approaching them as closely as they can. (This is often termed "panpsychism.")

      Or there is Berkeley's route: God experiences all of reality, all the time, and was there experiencing it before the first living being arose.

      Both routes are fully compatible with the theory of evolution, which I don't for a moment doubt to be largely sound.

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  3. I think "perception" and "experience" are the same thing as far as my comment was concerned.

    Need to think a bit about those 2 answers as they both seem a bit mystical to me.

    Do you have sound reasons for rejecting the more obvious (to me at least) view that evolution is an algorithmic process that produces both "objects" and "experiencers of those objects" as part of its output ?



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    1. 'Do you have sound reasons for rejecting the more obvious (to me at least) view that evolution is an algorithmic process that produces both "objects" and "experiencers of those objects" as part of its output ?'

      Well, certainly: algorithms are something that run on computers, or that humans might execute themselves. They certainly are no part of evolution. And how can evolution produce objects? What is it working with to "produce" them?

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  4. I think one can make a very strong case for evolution being describable as a algorithmic process.

    see http://www.homodiscens.com/home/embodied/mortalis_astonishing/dangerous_algorithm/index.htm


    (Though I'm guessing Dennett is not your favorite modern thinker)

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  5. 'And how can evolution produce objects? What is it working with to "produce" them?'

    Well it certainly seems to have produced lots of living things that have in turn produced lots of other objects.

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    1. No, rob, living things like, say, animals are produced when a mommy animal and a daddy animal "do the nasty."

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    2. You said earlier that "algorithms are something that run on computers". I assume you would accept that your blog page is displayed on my monitor as a result of algorithms running in various locations.

      It would be kind of odd then if you were to say "No rob, my blog page is produced by me moving my fingers up and down on the keys on my keyboard - algorithms have got nothing to do with it".

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    3. Kind of odd, perhaps, but basically true: not that "algorithms have nothing to do with it," but that certainly no algorithm has ever "produced" anything: what produces my blog page is my typing combined with a very specific set of computer instructions running on a very specific computer. That code may be said to "embody" an algorithm, but it was that code which produced this post, and not "an algorithm."

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  6. Gene, Thank you for taking the time to put down your thoughts on these matters. I appreciate it and appreciate these discussions. I will take some more time to think about your views in particular and the idealist views more generally. I have some Kantian sympathies, so maybe that will inevitable cause frictions (perhaps the result of UPenn, but I'm contrarian by nature, and no simultaneous Rawlsian sympathies).

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  7. "they are always derivative of the concrete totality of experience from which they are abstracted."

    I'm still not sure what you mean by "the concrete totality of experience." Whose experience? An aggregation of the experiences of all subjects that ever existed? Only all human subjects? Only human subjects that exist at this given moment? Only current human subjects that share similar concepts? Or are you talking about each individual subject--the center of their universe of experience--and this reality is whatever the subject encounters in a stream of consciousness? If that's the case, there are a boat-load of questions, first of which is a seemingly inevitable solipsism. I thus have a huge problem with this approach: the foundational notion of a "concrete totality of experience" is obscure to me, and this is my problem with Hegelians: much abstraction, little content.

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    1. "'m still not sure what you mean by "the concrete totality of experience." Whose experience? An aggregation of the experiences of all subjects that ever existed? Only all human subjects? Only human subjects that exist at this given moment?"

      OK, you just keep positing the subject-object split as fundamental, and then wondering how what I am writing fits into it!

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    2. What is "the concrete totality of experience"?

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    3. Hume, what am I supposed to say here, other than, "Well, look around you: it has been right here in front of you all the time"?

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  8. Gene,

    Are you suggesting that consciousness (or "experience") is a fundamental element of the universe, akin to matter or energy (or, perhaps, space or time), and that therefore it does not make sense to conceive of it as being limited to the private perspectives of sentient beings? I.e., that living things may partake in it, but so do all other things? If so -- and I know this is not the direction you were heading in -- but would you say that, for example, the notion of psychic phenomena would be prima facie much more plausible under this metaphysical view than under competing views, which hold to a strict subject-object divide?

    As someone who's somewhat sympathetic but not yet convinced, I'm just trying to see if I'm on the right track in understanding your idealist worldview.

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    1. Mike B., not sure about psychic phenomena; let me think.

      But here is a position somewhat like mine:

      "As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter." -- Max Planck

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  9. No one's ever been to Jupiter. But we know it exists, and we know there are thunderstorms on Jupiter. Are you saying the thunder on Jupiter don't make a sound?

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  10. But as abstractions, they are always derivative of the concrete totality of experience from which they are abstracted

    Are they really?

    The language of physics is maths.
    Maths is completely abstract.
    'Concrete' is an outmoded metaphor, as physics is revealing that the 'stuffness' of stuff is an illusion, a way for our primitive consciousnesses to deal with why different particles do what they do and the patterns of phenomena that result.
    But the notion of the 'concreteness' of the particles themselves is just us being stuck in our primitive and erroneous sense of 'stuffness'. Have we not reached the point where we can ditch it and say that all phenomena can more parsimoniously be thought of as abstract? Thereby ditching the dualism of (matter/energy)/(mathematical law)?

    It would also tidy up the problem of the objective existence of the not yet observed, observation or interaction being simply like the 'bringing into the equation' of new variables, or conversely the result of said equation. The as-yet-unobserved have a kind of dark potential realness, like the answer to an unsolved or not yet formulated problem.

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  11. But as abstractions, they are always derivative of the concrete totality of experience from which they are abstracted

    Are they really?

    The language of physics is maths.
    Maths is completely abstract.
    'Concrete' is an outmoded metaphor, as physics is revealing that the 'stuffness' of stuff is an illusion, a way for our primitive consciousnesses to deal with why different particles do what they do and the patterns of phenomena that result.
    But the notion of the 'concreteness' of the particles themselves is just us being stuck in our primitive and erroneous sense of 'stuffness'. Have we not reached the point where we can ditch it and say that all phenomena can more parsimoniously be thought of as abstract? Thereby ditching the dualism of (matter/energy)/(mathematical law)?

    It would also tidy up the problem of the objective existence of the not yet observed, observation or interaction being simply like the 'bringing into the equation' of new variables, or conversely the result of said equation. The as-yet-unobserved have a kind of dark potential realness, like the answer to an unsolved or not yet formulated problem.

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    1. "'Concrete' is an outmoded metaphor, as physics is revealing that the 'stuffness' of stuff is an illusion..."

      Right. What is concrete is experience.

      "Have we not reached the point where we can ditch it and say that all phenomena can more parsimoniously be thought of as abstract? "

      Absolutely the reverse of the truth!

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    2. But I would have thought this was more in line with your idealism.

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    3. But I would have thought that more in line with your idealism...

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  12. Does it have to be mind? Can it not simply be math?

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  13. Does it have to be mind? Can it not simply be math?

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    1. Cause math can exist without minds, Burly?

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    2. It can if one feels that maths is not so much invented as dicovered. This would fit with your idea that what is concrete is experience. To 'do' or 'discover' math is to experience it, i.e. to bring it from the murky realm of the potential into the concrete.

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