Why idealists say that an object apart from all experience is "a mere abstraction"

Id asked me about this in the comments of another post. Let us consider the question in the context of a house, since that was the object in the original post.

Let us posit a house claimed to be existing apart from all experience, that of humans as well as any universal mind. Now we ask of the person making this claim:

"What color is this house?"

He will have to admit that it is of no color whatsoever, as color is an interaction between an observer and an object observed.

"What is the texture of the house?" we ask.

He will have to admit that it has no texture, since a texture is an interaction between an observer and an object observed. (As Berkeley noted, this kind of thing will be very different depending upon whether a human or a dust mite is answering the question: A surface that is smooth to a human might be mountainous to a dust mite.)

"What sound will the house make when a rock hits it?"

He will have to admit that it is no sound at all, since a sound is an interaction between an observer and an object observed.

"What does the house smell like?"

He will have to admit that the house does not smell like anything, since a smell is an interaction between an observer and an object observed.

"What size is the house?"

He will have to admit that it has no particular size, since a size is an interaction between an observer and an object observed. (If you don't believe me on this, just ask Einstein.)

"And its weight?"

You already know the answer, and again we can consult Einstein on this.

So what we have at hand is a house of no particular color, no particular texture, no particular sound, no particular smell, no particular size, and no particular weight.

That is why we call this a "mere abstraction."

29 comments:

  1. Gene,

    To make the argument even more strong, we could say that even the concept of a house is an abstraction; the abstraction we have from seeing a certain thing of a certain shape, texture, color, temperature, etc.

    I heard a bit ago that all of philosophy could be thought of as being just Epistemology and Metaphysics.

    For those who have read any idealist literature, you might see the subtle but (if my intuitions are right) profound connection between this and Idealistic thought. To wit; it seems as though philosophy itself is based on Idealism.

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  2. You appear to bring in Einstein as a witness for the defense of reality being a "mere abstraction".

    Wasn't he a firm believer in objective reality ? Didn't his theories try and explain how subjective experience and objective reality could be brought into alignment ?

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    1. Say what?! *I* am a firm believer in "objective reality"! I certainly never said reality is a mere abstraction!

      Reality is the world of experience, rob.

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    2. Ok, good point.

      Do you think that your view of objective reality are consistent with Einstein's theories ?

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    3. I suppose there is no reason why not - but doesn't it make the explanation a bit awkward?

      If you're trying to explain why 2 observers have a different views of the same thing then its very straightforward to think about it as being that their experiences are different subjective views of an objective external reality.

      Of course all they know (and all they can ever know) is their perceptions of the "thing" so you can see how they might decide to call these perceptions the "objective reality" .

      But then when they try and explain how 2 people can have perceptions of the same 'thing" the explanation is going to have to be unnecessarily complex for little added value in my opinion as a result of having deemed the perceptions themselves to be objective rather than the "thing" the perception is of.

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  3. (This is the commenter formerly known as Keshav Srinivasan and MathMan, by the way; for some reason I'm not able to post comments here using my usual account, so I'm posting via OpenID, which makes my name appear as "id".)

    I have two independent objections to your post. First of all, I don't entirely buy your point about size and mass, because for one thing, in special relativity, properties like size and mass are well-defined even in inertial frames which no observer happens to be traveling is, so the variation of size and mass is not strictly speaking with respect to observers, but with respect to inertial frames. And for another thing, relativity only says some properties vary based on reference frames; other properties don't, like rest mass, proper length, and spacetime interval.

    But that's a tangential issue. The main problem is that I don't see how any of the things you mentioned makes the house a mere abstaction. Why is it that something which has no particular color, texture, no sound, smell, size, and weight cannot exist in reality?

    Again, I can understand the argument for why the proposition that such a house exists is formed by abstraction from our experiences. But what is the argument that this a *mere* abstraction, i.e. something which has nothing corresponding to it in reality?

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    1. "First of all, I don't entirely buy your point about size and mass, because for one thing, in special relativity, properties like size and mass are well-defined even in inertial frames which no observer happens to be traveling is, so the variation of size and mass is not strictly speaking with respect to observers, but with respect to inertial frames."

      They are "well-defined," sure: as ABSTRACTIONS. They don't HAVE that size or mass except to an observer IN one of those frames. Or if you want, they have infinite sizes and weights: that hardly helps the case that they are not abstact!

      "Why is it that something which has no particular color, texture, no sound, smell, size, and weight cannot exist in reality?"

      Of course it exists in reality! It exists in reality AS a mere abstraction. (Unicorns exist in reality, AS a fantasy. Everything is real if not taken for other than it really is.)

      We are talking about a house here, Srinivasan! If you cannot see why a house of no particular color, feel, smell, size, or weight is an abstract house, I have no clue what else to say!

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    2. "Of course it exists in reality! It exists in reality AS a mere abstraction." OK then, perhaps I phrased my question incorrectly. Let me rephrase it: Why is it that something which has no particular color, texture, sound, smell, size, and weight cannot exist in reality as an actual thing in the physical world?

      "If you cannot see why a house of no particular color, feel, smell, size, or weight is an abstract house, I have no clue what else to say!" Well the claim that there is such a house may be a claim that we form from abstraction from our experiences. But why does that imply that such a house cannot possibly exist on some island somewhere? Why can't it be that there is a house that is observed by no one right now, but tomorrow will be observed by someone?

      Again, what I'm quibbling with is the *mere* part, not the abstraction part.

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    3. "The physical world" is itself an abstraction: if you want to say that your abstract house is a part of that abstract world, I have no problem with that.

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    4. "To exist IS to exist in experience. To be outside of all experience IS non-existence." OK, but that's not just a tautology, is it? It's presumably a substantive statement. So what is the argument for it? Why can't there be things that exist in the observable world that don't exist in the world of things that are currently observed by someone or other?

      Presumay he means that that to merely think about something, to comprehend in the slightest, is to count as "experiencing" it. If you're talking about something that exists outside of experience, then that means you can't conceive of it and therefore its a existence is impossible.

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  4. I have a house and id has a house. They have in common being a house. Is that commonality an element of reality or is it an abstraction, that is an element of information processing with no uniquely defined physical properties?

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  5. OK, apparently neither "reality" not "physical world" is the right term to use for what I'm trying to ask.

    So let me ask you this: consider the world of things which you might potentially observe tomorrow, but which you are not observing right now. Why is it impossible that some of those things exist today but are unobserved by everyone?

    Or do you admit the possibility of there being a house which is a "mere abstraction" at some times but which is observed by people at other times?

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    1. To exist IS to exist in experience. To be outside of all experience IS non-existence.

      Of course I don't think houses flicker in and out of existence. I thought you read the Berkeley-Russell post? That problem is handled in there.

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    2. Or to make the second point in another way: why is Allah called "the sustainer"?

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    3. "To exist IS to exist in experience. To be outside of all experience IS non-existence." OK, but that's not just a tautology, is it? It's presumably a substantive statement. So what is the argument for it? Why can't there be things that exist in the observable world that don't exist in the world of things that are currently observed by someone or other?

      "Of course I don't think houses flicker in and out of existence." Yes, I know you believe that all houses are observed by God. I wasn't accusing you of believing that houses flicker in and out of being observed. I was asking, why is that impossible?

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    4. That would not be existence. Perhaps re-read the Green quote above. I really don't know how to make this point clearer.

      Except I might add that what I am saying is pretty commonplace in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy! You might even say that it took Western philosophy a couple of thousand years to catch up with Eastern thought on these points.

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    5. Here is another try: to say "X exists, but apart from all experience" is to speak meaningless nonsense.

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    6. I can understand if you said that "X exists, but apart from all experience" is a false statement, but I don't see how it's meaningless nonsense?

      Is this a good summary of your argument?

      (1) To say "A house exists apart from all experience." is to say "A house exists with no particular color, texture, sound, smell, size, and weight."

      (2) To say "A house exists with no particular color, texture, sound, smell, size, and weight." is to speak meaningless nonsense.

      (3) Therefore, to say "A house exists apart from all experience." is to speak meaningless nonsense.

      If that is your argument, then what I want a justification for is step 2. Why is it meaningless nonsense to say that a house with no color, texture, etc. is part of the world of observable things?

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    7. Id, I'm not sure that you understand what is going on here with the word "abstraction" =) The point is that something that is abstract requires, for it's very existence, that which is concrete; our idea of a house depends on things like color, texture, smell, size, weight, even space. To remove something from all experience is to therefore render it meaningless in the sense that it could not exist without the world of experience that it is a part of. It is like saying, "imagine number theory - without odd or even integers, or natural numbers." You can't even imagine a house without it taking up space, having a color, having some smell, texture, size, weight, etc, in the same way that you cannot do number theory without the concepts of odd and even integers.

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    8. Good Alex.

      Srinivasan, I'm not sure there is more to say on this. I think I have explained step 2. Look at Green again: you may be looking for a sort of explanation that can't be given for metaphysical propositions.

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    9. "To exist IS to exist in experience. To be outside of all experience IS non-existence." OK, but that's not just a tautology, is it? It's presumably a substantive statement. So what is the argument for it? Why can't there be things that exist in the observable world that don't exist in the world of things that are currently observed by someone or other?

      Presumably Gene means that thought is experience—you're experiencing your thoughts—and to speak of something as "existing outside of experience" is to be unable to think about it at all.

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  6. @Alex Here's my problem: to me abstraction is an activity of the human mind. So to say that a house devoid of color, size, texture, etc. is an abstraction is just another way of saying that the proposition that there exists such a house is a proposition that we formed by abstraction from our experience of houses we've observed. But that's just a statement about us, not an ontological claim about the house.

    What is an ontological claim is to say that it's a *mere* abstraction, i.e. something which does not exist in the observable world. That is the claim that I'm trying to understand the justification for. And I don't see what the reason is to believe that the ontological status of an unobserved house, as opposed to the manner in which the human mind has formed propositions about it, must be dependent on observed houses.

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    1. Your not paying attention to our actual claims, Srinivasan: instead you are reinterpreting them in a dualistic framework, from within which they don't make sense.

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    2. "ontological status of an unobserved house, as opposed to the manner in which the human mind has formed propositions about it, must be dependent on observed houses. "

      For example: who said anything like that?!

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    3. Alex said "The point is that something that is abstract requires, for it's very existence, that which is concrete." I assume that meant that the ontological status of "abstract" things like unobserved houses is dependent on concrete things like observed houses.

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    4. Alex said "The point is that something that is abstract requires, for it's very existence, that which is concrete." I assume that meant that the ontological status of "abstract" things like unobserved houses is dependent on concrete things like observed houses.

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  7. "Your not paying attention to our actual claims, Srinivasan: instead you are reinterpreting them in a dualistic framework, from within which they don't make sense." OK, perhaps that's where we need to start, because you're right, I have been thinking about all this in a dualistic framework. (I guess this is the perils of ideology you always talk about.) I've been interpreting this whole discussion as being about an argument against dualism, but perhaps that's not what the arguments you're presenting are designed to do.

    So let me just ask you straight up, what is the idealists' argument against dualism? Why can't it be that there is a real world full of objects which are unobserved most of the time, but which sometimes send signals to the mind via our senses? Why is that an untenable model of our experiences?

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  8. Would you say that the dualistic framework is deeply ingrained in Western psyches?

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