Thoughts on Empirical Idealism

I was practicing some Cartesian mediation a few weeks backby which I mean that I was laying in bed late into the afternoon thinking about philosophy in an attempt to convince myself that my desire to stay under my warm covers was somehow productive. At the end of my lapsing in and out of deep thought and shallow sleep I immediately grabbed my phone and jotted down some thoughts on Empirical Idealism that, upon review, aren’t as incoherent as I was expecting and promptly took a nap.

Anyway, here are the thoughts.

Idealists deny the possibility of knowing anything independent of the mind and some go as far as to say that nothing exists independent of the mind. If the idealist is right, perception is entirely illusory if interpreted in the light of a materialist (who acknowledges only the existence of a material world) or a dualist (who accepts the existence of both the material, mind-independent world and that which is posited as existing solely within the mind)the idealist’s perception is more a sensation, or experience of some kind…although, any term I can think to use seems to imply that there is a thing I am sensing or experiencing. So I’m going to put myself in the shoes of the idealist and imagine burning my hand on a hot stove. Ouch. Now the stove exists only in my head. The burning sensation is all in my head too. Also there is no stove.

Woah.

What makes me think I have a hand, anyway? That’s in my head too. Also I don’t have a head. I’m just an incorporeal mind.

Whatever the case, the tree falling in the woods, if the idealist is believed, does not make a sound if no one is around to hear it; because it doesn’t even exist: Nothing exists that is not perceived (in the idealist’s weird, not-perceivey sense of the word).

I wonder if the modes through which we perceive (or experience whatever sensation) would, in the light of the idealist, make something more or less real. What I mean is, if a tree falls in the woods and I hear it, I have the idea of a sound of a falling treethat is the whole of what exists, a sound of a falling tree. If I were also able to see the tree falling, would the sound and the image be two separate ideas? Or part of a whole idea (i.e. the falling tree)? Would the addition of this second sensation make the falling tree more “real” in some sense?

What if the tree fell without me hearing or seeing it and struck me deadhow could this be? Surely, I can’t perceive that which makes me unable to perceive it simultaneously with its killing me (the terminus of all perception, I imagine). If its existence is contingent on my perceiving it, then surely there is no way this unperceived tree could kill mebecause nothing non-existent can kill me. That vexes me.

I wonder then about false beliefs and if they are possible in this idealist frame. What if I perceive the recording of a falling tree but misunderstand it to be the sound of an actual falling treeis my cognition or interpretation of this sensation separate from my perception? Maybe that’s begging the question. But where is the line between my perception of a thing and my interpretation of that sensation in the mind of the idealist? I ask because if it’s all happening in my mind, why is it that I have a partition between my perception or sensation and interpretation or cognition? Can I feel a thing and not know what I’m feeling… or how I’m feeling? There’s not really a what to feel, only a feeling. But how could I be mistaken if all that exists is what I perceive and there is no objective, mind-independent truth that exists concerning the matter?

If idealism is true, how can I believe it?

After typing down these thoughts into a post, I have to wonder, are empirical idealists trolling?

Old Writings on Existence

Parmenides
My first experience with philosophy was through my study of theology and apologeticsI had initially wished to become a powerful and learned Christian theologian when I first set out on my scholarly pursuits. 

The first experience I can recall of a secular approach to philosophy was through a work of Parmenides. I was reading the fragmentary poem On Nature and reflecting on its implications when I wrote (on September 1, 2009) what would be my first philosophical essaywhich I had shortly afterward separated into two parts.

The first part of my essay deals with the notion of that which is and that which is not. The second part was a further look into the fallibility of the senses at perceiving what is. The essays are both very amateur, but I am about to endeavor in the most advanced philosophy class I have ever taken and I felt it would be a good exercise to look back at what I used to think and what I think now to prepare myself for how I might change over the course of the next few months. I wasn’t familiar with any philosophical jargon and wouldn’t understand until years later that the first solely philosophical thought I would express would be on the topic of epistemology.

The following are my essays with the fragment of Parmenides’ poem that moved me to begin writing. After rereading it, I haven’t changed any of my phrasing, only a few typos (with spelling and punctuation) that I felt could not be overlooked. I also can’t help but notice that I never cited anything back when I was writing for myself and it’s possible that I plagiarized, or at least paraphrased, a quote that had greatly impacted me from The Matrix near the end of my second essay. 

Existence I: Argument for Parmenides

For never shall this prevail, that things that are not, are.
Thinking and the thought that it is are the same; for you will not find thought apart from what is, in relation to which it is uttered.
For thought and being are the same.
It is necessary to speak and to think what is; for being is, but nothing is not.

We cannot think of what is not, and thus cannot speak of it. Also, that which can be thought of, or spoken of, must exist.

The Chimera, the mythological offspring of Typhon and Echidna, having the body of a lioness, a goat’s head protruding from it’s spine, and a tail which terminates in a snake’s head — a creature, such as this cannot exist. It is impossible for the anatomy of a lioness, a goat, and a snake to be merged into one being in the likeness aforementioned and this impossibility can be further expanded on to say that a living creature of this sort could not be born of another beast.

It wouldn’t be foolish to say then, “I can think of it, speak of it, describe it in detail. I can even draw a picture of it. Does that mean it exists? Such a claim is ridiculous, and would surely disprove what you said! If it cannot exist, yet I can think of it: I can think of what is not.”

This argument is based on the assumption that existence is merely something that exists in a tangible state of being. If that is the case, then the only things that exist are what we can understand with our senses, but what of thought? What of imagination? Ideas exist in a state of intangibility and can even become tangible by sharing them through words. But still the idea itself exists only within a mind.

The Chimera exists, because the parts which make it up exist. A lioness exists, and therefore can be thought of and spoken of. The same is true for the snake and the goat. Because the parts exist, we are able to assemble it using our imaginations. This is because our thinking of things is object dependent.

Now take into consideration the entire spectrum of colors. Every color that you have seen and can recall are made of different combinations of other colors, with the primary colors being Red, Yellow and Blue. There is no color that can be created without using a combination of these primary colors and no colors combined outside of themselves can recreate them.

Imagine now, a forth primary color. A color composed of neither red, yellow, or blue, which when added to any of them would create entirely new colors. You cannot.

Existence II: Argument for Reality

All color is is a sensation on the eye as the result of the way an object reflects or emits light, with black being the absence of light and white being the entire spectrum of colors being merged into one.

Light, is merely electromagnetic radiation whose wavelengths fall within the range to which the human retina responds. White light consists of an equal mixture of all visible wavelengths (colors) and can be separated to yield any color which we can perceive. This is not to say that other colors do not exist, but simply we can only see within a very limited range, between 390 angstroms and 740 angstroms. For a long time this spectrum was all that we knew of. It is still all we see, but with our ever-expanding knowledge of science and the development of spectroscopy, it is clearly not all that exists.

So is existence merely what we can perceive? Has what existed changed simply because we now understand it? Of course not.

Take into consideration a blind man. He is unable to see, he is completely sightless. His eyes do not recognize light and because of this, he does not see color. Try to explain to him the color of the sky or the difference between red and blue. He cannot fathom it because he cannot sense it. His perception of reality is entirely different than our own, but what exists has not changed.

What can be perceived has no bearing on what actually exists and to think that we can know all of what exists solely based on what we can perceive is foolish and vain. If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain and all of the same sensations can be recreated, demonstrated and simulated within a computer.

Reality is what exists. But who can know it?