Posts tagged ‘infinite regress’
As I wrote in my post on the history of Idealism, Idealism asserts that what is most real and/or accessible to us humans are our ideas or thoughts about the world, and it is an open question to what degree those thoughts actually correspond to an outside reality.
Now G.E. Moore set out to refute Idealism in his essay of 1903, and his basic criticism is surprisingly simple—that is, if I understand him correctly. Essentially, he is saying that Idealism would lead to an infinite regress, and if Realism cannot be supported, then neither can Idealism.
If you haven’t read the essay, this explanation is probably not yet very clear. Let me try to spell it out more.
Perhaps his refutation can best be illustrated by saying that G.E. Moore is using the same basic argument against Idealism that Bertrand Russell and others have used against Theism, which is the old question, “Well, if God made the world, then who made God?” God as an explanation for why the world exists, said Russell, doesn’t explain anything, because you are still left with the question of why God exists. You have only pushed the question back one level. Better not to push at all, otherwise you would land in an infinite regress. The Leibnizian question, “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” is unanswerable for us humans, and the belief in God does not solve it. We are still left to ask, “Why does God exist rather than nothing?”
Now, it might be said that God is a more fitting end point for the ultimate mystery of existence than a material universe, and personally I am actually inclined to think so, but here I’m only using it as an example for how G.E. Moore tries to tackle Idealism. He basically says to Idealists, “You wish to push back our perception of reality one level by pointing out that all we have of reality is our awareness of it, and therefore we can only affirm our awareness rather than the reality itself. Well, but then how do you know about your awareness? Of your awareness you are also merely aware, so why not doubt the validity even of your awareness? And then you could doubt the validity of the awareness of your awareness, ad infinitum. Better stop at the outside reality than go down that infinite road of an explanation that ultimately explains nothing.”
To use G.E. Moore’s actual words: “[T]he existence of a table in space is related to my experience of it in precisely the same way as the existence of my own experience is related to my experience of that. Of both we are merely aware: if we are aware that the one exists, we are aware in precisely the same sense that the other exists; and if it is true that my experience can exist, even when I do not happen to be aware of its existence, we have exactly the same reason for supposing that the table can do so also. When, therefore, Berkeley, supposed that the only thing of which I am directly aware is my own sensations and ideas, he supposed what was false; and when Kant supposed that the objectivity of things in space consisted in the fact that they were ‘Vorstellungen’ having to one another different relations from those which the same ‘Vorstellungen’ have to one another in subjective experience, he supposed what was equally false.”
At first this seems like a good point, but I am not sure that G.E. Moore is right. Does he really refute Idealism as such or only Berkeley’s Idealism, and perhaps even a straw-man Berkeley at that? The popular conception of Berkeley is that he said: “Being means being perceived. Therefore, when I am not looking at the tree over there, it isn’t there.” This caricature of Berkeley’s Idealism ignores the most important ingredient of his philosophy, namely God. For Berkeley, God is always present everywhere and perceives everything, and therefore everything is real because it derives its reality directly from God.
So yes, G.E. Moore does refute Berkeleyism, but only the popular conception of it that leaves out God. Moore is correct to say: If you think that things in the outside world do not exist when you are not perceiving them—if perception is the only reality that exists—then you also need to say that your awareness does not exist when you are not thinking about the fact that you are aware of things.
But does this refute Idealism as such? Does this change the fact that I can be much more directly aware of my awareness than I can be of the outside reality? I don’t think so. I can only perceive the laptop in front of me through my five senses: I see its bright screen, I feel the keys on my fingertips, I hear its sound of the fan, I can bend over it and smell the warm metal and plastic; I can even stick out my tongue and taste it. All of this information is transmitted by neurons to my brain and interpreted there in a certain way because my brain is wired to perceive reality in a certain way. What exactly is this laptop apart from my perceiving it?—Well, that is quite a different question from the question of my immediate perception. I am aware of the laptop, but what is the laptop apart from my awareness? A difficult issue, and one that the best philosophers and scientists in the world keep grappling with.
In contrast, in order to be aware of my awareness, all I need to do is to think: “I see, I touch, I hear, I smell, I taste something that I call a laptop.” No one can tell me that I am not having these sensations and that I construe these sensation into the concept “laptop” because sensations and mental constructions are subjective and non-debatable. Perhaps I am hallucinating, perhaps the objective reality of this thing called laptop is radically different from my perceptions, but my perceptions and the concepts in my mind are still real. As far as I am concerned, they are the most real and most accessible things in existence.
Therefore, contrary to what G.E. Moore said, my awareness of the laptop does not stand in exactly the same relation to the laptop as my awareness stands in relation to my awareness. The first is the relation between something subjective to something objective; the other is simply the acknowledgment of the fact that I am having a certain subjective experience.
For me, G.E. Moore has not refuted Idealism. But perhaps I misconstrued his argument and, while criticising him for attacking a straw-man Berkeley, have erected a straw man myself? I have a hard time believing that such a philosophically highly educated man as Moore fell prey to misrepresenting Berkeley and am rather inclined to think that I am misrepresenting Moore. If so, I would welcome more objective input.
In this post, I talked about the overall Christian worldview in the Chronicles of Narnia, with its principles character being of course Aslan, the Story Writer within the story.
This story writer I will now attempt to define more closely. And I think the best way to get to know him is by starting with the negative definition: what Aslan is not like. By so doing, I shall set to work like a sculptor who takes a slab of rock and chips off everything that does not belong to his envisioned piece of art. With each stroke of the hammer, the form of the actual sculpture will become more defined.
The first bold stroke of the hammer, which will drive the chisel deep into the rock and wedge off a considerable part, is the issue of polytheism. C. S. Lewis did not believe in one god among many. Aslan is not the “local deity” of Narnia, because then he could hardly be its creator.
Lewis understood that gods without a capital “G” cannot possibly have created all that exists. Only a self-existing Being is capable of doing so, and a “local deity” is not self-existing. Its existence is always derived from something else. If such a being created the universe, he (or she or it) would himself be living in another universe, and the question would be who (or what) created that universe. And so we could go on indefinitely and never reach an answer. This is a well-known issue in philosophy and has often been called the “infinite regress.”
For this reason the gods do not, in fact, deserve the high name of “God.” They are only “gods” in the sense of “immortals” or “super-humans,” but not in the sense I am trying to define. They are not ultimate existence. They are not the basic Fact from which all other fact-hood is derived. Even supposing there are such gods, they would be mere products of something higher and included within it. If Zeus bodily appeared on our doorsteps today, our search for ultimate reality would still not be over.
More “hammer strokes” in another post.