Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Another Argument for Berkeleyan-Style Idealism

This is from my book Why Christianity is True, Chapter 3, pp. 64-66.

First of all, let’s talk a little more about the issue of consciousness being irreducible to non-consciousness.  I made the argument that consciousness must be traced back to the First Cause, because you can’t get consciousness from non-conscious stuff.  This might have raised a question in your mind:  “If consciousness cannot be derived from non-consciousness, then wouldn't it work the other way as well?  Wouldn't non-consciousness be irreducible to consciousness?  And if this is the case, then wouldn't the First Cause have to have two parts which are irreducible to each other, making him divisible?”

This would indeed be a problem if we were to affirm that consciousness and non-consciousness are completely and ultimately distinct things.  But I don't think that is the case.  (And in fact it can't be the case, because God must be simple/indivisible!)

Since God is a mind (the Mind), and since God is simple, we must conceive of creation as being produced by the mind of God.  In this way, as in many others, God is like an author who writes a novel.  How does the novelist produce the novel?  She does so by imagining a world—full of events, characters, places, etc.—and thus bringing it into being by her thinking of it.  (She will probably then write it down, but it exists in her mind first.)  The world of the novel—particularly before the novelist writes it down—is completely dependent for its existence on the novelist and the novelist's sustaining that world in being by her thinking of it.  We cannot draw any absolute distinction between the existence of the imaginary world of the novel and the author's perceiving of or keeping in mind that world.  To use a phrase from 18th century British philosopher George Berkeley, as far as the world of the novel goes, “to be is to be perceived.”

This is a good analogy for how God creates the world, with a few adjustments:  1. Unlike a human novelist, God can keep the whole universe with all its details—past, present, and future—in his mind at once (and timelessly, since he is outside of time).  He has no need to write it down.  In fact, “writing it down” is a meaningless concept in this context, for it implies a physical being with space outside of himself and other materials—paper and pen—with which he records his thoughts.  God is not in time or space, so there is no place “outside of God” for God to write anything down.  Rather than being simply one being in a reality in which he is surrounded by other objects, he himself is the full context of all of reality.  2. A human world-creation is going to lack much reality and substance, because human imagination is very limited and weak.  When you create an imaginary character, that character is real to an extent—he really exists in your mind insofar as you imagine him.  But he is a mere spectre, a ghost, in comparison to yourself and the rest of the external world.  But God's mind is unlimited and full of power.  When he “imagines” or perceives a world, that world is full of substance and reality from its overall form down to the smallest details.

So what I'm suggesting is basically what the Apostle Paul said about our relationship with God in the Bible, in Acts 17:27-28:  “He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being.”  God created the universe and keeps it in being by his thinking or perceiving of us.  This means that material reality is not some thing that exists ultimately independently from mind/consciousness, but is ultimately a part or a mode of consciousness.  We should not think of a chair, for example, as a totally independent object made of some substance that is irreducibly distinct from consciousness, but as an object existing ultimately in God's perception and thus as an aspect of that perception.  There are not two fundamental substances—consciousness and non-consciousness—but one substance—consciousness—in which is contained the forms and relations of matter.

This makes sense, if you think about it.  If you consider the properties of a material object—like a chair—it becomes apparent that they are dependent for their existence on being perceived.  What are the properties of a chair?  It has texture, color, taste (not a good taste, I presume, but some kind of taste nonetheless), smell, form, dimensions, etc.  All of these properties are defined only in relation to perception.  Texture is relative to the sense of touch.  Color is relative to the sense of sight.  Taste is relative to the sense of taste.  Smell is relative to the sense of smell.  Form and dimension are relative to an observer who is in a particular location.  If you think about a chair, you will notice that the different parts of it, which allow it to be an extended object in space, only exist in relation to a grid, the center point of which just happens to be the center point of your own point of view.  The dimensionality of the chair is made possible only relatively, in reference to your viewpoint, as you look at the chair from your particular location.  This is the case with real chairs, as well as chairs you might imagine in your mind.  Look at any picture or piece of art, and likewise you will see that there is always a point of view implied.  Form and dimension are inseparable from perception and a perceiver.  The very concept of a “material object” makes no sense independent from the concept of the object's being perceived.  Matter, by its very nature, is a mode of perception/consciousness. 31

31  I mentioned the philosopher George Berkeley above.  While I don't agree with everything in Berkeley's metaphysics, I think he was onto something in his development of his theory of “idealism” (not to be confused with Hegelian or Kantian concepts of “idealism” which are a whole different matter).  In his works he tried to articulate and argue for the idea that matter is not fundamentally distinct from consciousness but is an aspect of it.   His Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge and his Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous are a good source for reading more about his ideas on this topic.  Jonathan Edwards, the famous Puritan theologian and philosopher, also developed similar ideas.

For more, see here.

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