Saturday, August 29, 2015

Idealism Without God: a must-read paper!

... by the brilliant Helen Yetter-Chappell [forthcoming in T. Goldschmidt & K. Pearce (eds.) Idealism: New Essays in Metaphysics, Oxford University Press].

PDF pre-print available here.

I may be a tad biased, but I can't think of a more creative, ambitious, and interesting paper than Helen's 'Idealism Without God', which manages to improve upon Berkeley's original view in significant respects (especially regarding the nature of perception) whilst depending upon less controversial theoretical resources (as indicated by the title).  It's cool stuff.  A prominent philosopher of mind even declared it, "the coolest metaphysical view ever!"  It should especially delight those who worry that philosophers these days too often lose sight of the "big issues".

The paper's upshot:
Contemporary philosophers are overwhelmingly materialists (at least about the domain of physical objects). I think it’s unfortunate that this view is taken for granted, as idealism both has much to offer and need not be as radical in its commitments as it might first appear. In making the case for taking idealism seriously, I’ve outlined a non-theistic, quasi-Berkeleyan view. On this view, reality is a vast unity of consciousness that binds together the sensory impressions of every point-from-a-perspective. This does not do away with the physical world, but gives a unique account of its nature – one on which the world is fundamentally intelligible. Just as on materialist views, reality is governed by physical laws (the sorts of laws that physicists tell us about, and which it’s clearly not the business of philosophers to dispute). Because reality is phenomenal, we open up the possibility that we can have a very robust sort of direct contact with reality. I’ve offered a view of perception on which (in perception) our minds are literally constituted by threads of reality. If this is right, I can stand in the same relation to the blueness of the sky as I do to the pain in my thigh. 
While the idealist account that I’ve developed faces challenges – particularly worries about quantitative profligacy – it also offers some unique and intriguing benefits: (i) Due to the robust account it gives of our direct connection to reality, it yields an especially strong vindication of Johnston’s neglected epistemic virtue. (ii) It renders reality fundamentally intelligible in a way that materialism does not. (iii) It captures our common-sense intuition that the world is as it appears. While the theory doubtless faces challenges not addressed in this short paper, these advantages are such that the view surely merits consideration. 
In conclusion, idealism is awesome and everyone should take it more seriously.

Read the whole thing!


  1. I suspect that "God" is a "controversial theoretical resource" mainly for two reasons:

    1) It is used as a proper name, which implies a particular individual and normally a particular person.
    2) It has the connotation that there is true religion which speaks about this God.

    Apart from these things, I don't see why positing that e.g. explanation has some in-principle-beginning should be especially controversial, that is, more controversial than any other philosophical topic that people disagree about.

    1. Regardless, depending on fewer theoretical resources is surely a point in the view's favour. Anyone who happens to want to further add God into the picture is free to do so of course. It just isn't forced by this particular view, either way.

  2. "The rough idea is this: We want something outside of our finite minds to sustain objects
    when (finite) minds are not perceiving them, and to account for the regularity of our perceptions.
    But, even for the idealist, this does not need to be a god in any recognizable sense. There is no
    reason it must contain desires, intentions, or beliefs. It needn’t be an agent."

    This basically works by taking two of the traditional divine attributes (complete awareness of the world, and sustaining it in being) and trying to separate them from all the others (desires, intentions, beliefs, agenthood...). But surely, attributing some mental properties to this "something", at least makes it more likely that it also has other mind-like properties?

    In particular, if one believes in non-naturalistic meta-ethics, then why should this "something"---which is admitted to possess something like universal awareness---not also be aware of that? But then it seems that this "something" will, so to speak, approve of some things and disapprove of others. This is starting to look dangerously like Theism...

    I wrote a bit about the potential instability of this sort of not-quite-Theism in a blog post here:

    1. Hi Aron, that's an interesting concern. But I don't think Helen's phenomenal "tapestry" even really has those first two "traditional divine attributes" in the way that you're imagining. It's just a bundle of sensations. So it isn't like an agent with "complete awareness", insofar as this bundle of sensations (i) does not include the non-perceptual states of other beings (our thoughts, hallucinations, etc.), and (ii) also lacks any kinds of thoughts or other propositional attitudes about any of these sensations (in contrast to our ordinary notion of reflective awareness, for example).

      Could one adopt a version of this view in which moral phenomenology is included in the tapestry? Perhaps -- we can imagine such bundles of experiences, I guess, just as we could imagine building pains and such into the tapestry itself -- but it doesn't seem the most natural version of the view. I certainly don't think we're forced in that direction.

  3. Out of curiosity, is she familiar with C. S. Peirce, the originator of American pragmatism? He has a fairly similar view, sometimes calling it objective idealism to contrast it with Berkeley. He is hardly the only one to use that term. The idea of idealism without God in the Berkeley sense has a long history. (One can debate whether a kind of pantheism is inseperable to the view)


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