How did Stove get Berkeley wrong?

Let us explore a little further how David Stove got Berkeley so wrong. As you may recall, he summarized one of Berkeley's arguments for idealism as follows:

"You cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind, without having them in mind. Therefore, you cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind."

But Stove had to add a step to Berkeley's argument to make it stupid: "without having them in mind." The actual argument is that you cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind, period. What Berkeley is noting in the passage Stove cites is that when you attempt to have trees-without-the-mind in mind, you fail. And that failure is inevitable. "Trees-without-the-mind" is a mere abstraction, and to mistake mere abstractions for things that can actually exist is what Whitehead called "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness."

"Ah," the materialist-minded may say, "but what about the billions of years before conscious evolved, and the universe consisted only of matter?"

Well, science itself is an abstract world, and it makes use of other abstractions such as "matter apart from all consciousness." But there is no scientific evidence that there was a universe without consciousness for any length of time, ever. How in the world would science "demonstrate" this? With its consciousness-o-meter? Idealists have forwarded various handlings of this issue of parts of the world, whether temporal or spatial, without human consciousness: Berkeley, for instance, held the whole universe is always in the mind of God, Hegel had his concept of Geist, Bradley the absolute, and Whitehead proposed a form of panpsychism, where all bits of "matter" experience the world.

20 comments:

  1. What does it mean to say that "Trees-without-the-mind" is an abstraction? Does it mean humans form the thought "Trees-without-the-mind" by abstracting certain details away from the thought "Trees-perceived-by-mind"? If that's what it means, then why is it fallacious to believe that there can exist some referent of that thought in reality? How does the manner in which a thought is formed by humans affect what does or does not exist in reality?

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    1. No, by abstracting from the actual experience of trees.

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    2. OK, but whether you classify it as a thought or an experience, we're still talking about mental phenomena, right? So the mental phenomenon known as "the thought of trees-without-mind" is formed by abstracting from the mental phenomenon known as "perceiving a tree".So my question still stands: how does the manner in which a mental phenomenon is formed affect what does or does not exist in reality?

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    3. "we're still talking about mental phenomena, right?"

      No, I am talking about actual trees, not "mental phenomena."

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    4. The tree is an actual physical object, but the experiencing of the tree is an occurrence in the mind, isn't it?

      But regardless of that, the fundamental thing I still don't understand is how the manner in which the thought of "trees-without-mind" is formed can possibly affect the question of what does or does not exist in reality.

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    5. No, the "physical object" is merely an abstraction from the real experience of a tree.

      'how the manner in which the thought of "trees-without-mind" is formed'

      No such idea can be formed, so there is no question of what manner it is formed in.

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    6. "No, the "physical object" is merely an abstraction from the real experience of a tree." OK, but now we're getting back to what I asked you earlier: what does it mean to say that physical objects are an abstraction? Does it mean that the idea of physical objects is a thought that is abstracted from sensory experience? If that's how it means, how does the way in which the idea of physical objects is formed affect what does or does not exist in reality?

      For instance, suppose you meet someone on the street who says to you, "I believe that there are things that exist which no one has ever experienced." How does the manner in which he has formed that belief affect the truth of whether there ARE things that exist which no one has ever experienced?

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    7. No, I mean the "physical object apart from experience" is an abstraction from REALITY, not from "sensory experience" or anything of that sort. The problem your having is this: you are insisting on forcing what I am saying into a dualist framework, but it is not going to fit!

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  2. "No, I mean the "physical object apart from experience" is an abstraction from REALITY, not from "sensory experience" or anything of that sort." But you just said in your last comment "No, the "physical object" is merely an abstraction from the real experience of a tree." Now, you're saying it's not an abstraction from an experience?

    But in any case, my confusion isn't about what physical objects apart from experience are an abstraction from, but rather what it means to say that they're an abstraction at all. Does it merely mean that the thought of them or the belief in them is an abstraction from something? If that's all it means, then who cares? How does that affect whether there actually are physical objects apart from experience in reality?

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    1. "Now, you're saying it's not an abstraction from an experience?"

      No, I am saying the exact same thing in both cases: the world is a world of experience.

      "what it means to say that they're an abstraction at all."

      It means that in reality the subject and object are never apart. When can only separate them conceptually, e.g., as abstractions.

      "Does it merely mean that the thought of them or the belief in them is an abstraction from something?"

      No, no, no. I am saying "the physical tree apart from experience" is nothing BUT an abstraction. I am not saying someone had some abstract thought about a physical tree that exists on its own.

      Shall I try again? "The problem your having is this: you are insisting on forcing what I am saying into a dualist framework, but it is not going to fit!"

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  3. "It means that in reality the subject and object are never apart. We can only separate them conceptually, e.g., as abstractions." OK, then the question becomes, what is the justification for saying that the subject and object are never apart in reality?

    "I am saying "the physical tree apart from experience" is nothing BUT an abstraction. I am not saying someone had some abstract thought about a physical tree that exists on its own." I know what it means to say that an idea is an abstraction, but I have no idea what it means to say that a tree is an abstraction. Isn't abstraction a mental process by which we form certain ideas?

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    1. "OK, then the question becomes, what is the justification for saying that the subject and object are never apart in reality?"

      Reality. Just check for yourself.

      "but I have no idea what it means to say that a tree is an abstraction."

      I did not say a tree is an abstraction! It is not. It is real.

      The abstraction is the idea of the tree apart from experience.

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    2. "Reality. Just check for yourself." I'm not sure what you mean by that. How can I possibly check for myself whether objects and subjects can ever be apart in reality? Whenever I perceive an object, it's being perceived by a subject, namely me, but how do I know that there aren't other objects that are going unperceived or maybe even objects that are imperceptible?

      "The abstraction is the idea of the tree apart from experience." I'm confused. When I asked you whether it was the thought that was an abstraction, didn't you say "No, no, no."? In any case, if you're saying that the idea of the tree apart from experience is an abstraction, how does that have any bearing on whether there actually are trees apart from experience?

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    3. "How can I possibly check for myself whether objects and subjects can ever be apart in reality?"

      You can try to see if this idea is even conceivable, and, following Berkeley's argument, realize it is not.

      'When I asked you whether it was the thought that was an abstraction, didn't you say "No, no, no."?'

      No: I said there is no "them" apart from the abstraction.

      Let me try one more time: "The problem your having is this: you are insisting on forcing what I am saying into a dualist framework, but it is not going to fit!"

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    4. "You can try to see if this idea is even conceivable, and, following Berkeley's argument, realize it is not." But what is Berkeley's argument for it being impossible that object and subject can ever be separate in reality? Is the argument merely that the human mind cannot conceive of this state of affairs?

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    5. Is your argument that there are no square circles "merely" that the mind cannot conceive of them?

      If you are claiming that the inconceivable can exist, we'd best stop now, since philosophy is all rubbish in that case.

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  4. I completely get this argument. Because thought is experience there can be no world outside of experience (i.e., the mind).

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  5. Gene, would you mind (no pun intended) commenting on this musing of mine...?

    While I was speaking to a philosopher at my philosophy department at Texas Tech, I was startled at what seemed like an implicitly Idealist claim that Hume makes for the Problem of Induction: because we can logically conceive of, say, the sun not rising in the morning, or something going down instead of up when we throw it, it doesn't follow that the laws of nature are necessary; they could be otherwise.

    Of course, everyone understands Hume's point who has taken an intro to philosophy course. What I don't understand is how people can say that we can't have things in the world that we cannot conceive of (or things that we understand to be manifestly impossible, such as something being there and not being there at the same time at the same place), but that reality is completely independent of the mind. If this were so, why would anyone be persuaded by not only the Problem of Induction, but also simple logic? Logic presents itself to us as being obviously correct; we cannot appeal to logic itself as its justification - that would be circular. Instead, we have an awareness - a mental state - that it is correct. We then assume that these mental states are not only correct, but that they are good guides in determining how the world is.

    But we then say that reality has no dependence upon the mind. This is beginning to seem more and more absurd to me. Am I missing something here? Or is the claim that Hume is making - and that logicians and others who use logic in determining what can or cannot exist - fundamentally making an Idealist claim, even though they do not know it?

    Unlike many dualists, who see the mind as a sort of prison that we cannot trust, I am beginning to see it as the greatest clue to objective reality that we can have!

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  6. By the way, Gene, thank you for replying to my question with this post; it cleared up a lot for me! This post is fitting in another "piece" of the puzzle.

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