IN the last blog we investigated the somewhat bewildering range of positions on ultimate reality. So, it is now time to narrow things down. And to do that we will be eschewing dualism, or at least remaining agnostic about its truth, simply because of the seemingly unsurmountable problems it has with how two different substances can interact with each other. No doubt its proponents have a way of resolving these problems but that may be for another blog. For now we will be concentrating on trying to determine whether Idealism of Materialism is true – and of course if one or the other is found to be true then dualism falls by default. Helping us through this enquiry are two thinkers – James Tartaglia with his book Gods and Titans, which promotes Idealism, and Anil Seth in Being You, in which he promotes Materialism.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Tartaglia begins with a plausible account of materialism, which is also where he started as a philosopher. What makes Materialism seem obviously true, he writes, is that we are living in a ‘physical world out there which exists independently of us’. Furthermore, with the rise of science we have an excellent description and explanation of this physical world. And while there are still some philosophers out there who believe there are immaterial things like minds and gods, or God, this is ‘obviously old-fashioned, superstitious nonsense: there are no spooky, immaterial things floating around in the physical world’.
It is true that this is a plausible account of ultimate reality and it is one that has held sway for the last 100 years or so. But it is at this moment that Tartaglia makes a startling claim: “This is just one big misunderstanding. You can pick holes in anything…but there is nothing to be said for any of the above.”
His most important attack is one that he takes to be the materialists’ attempts to ‘discredit our natural, subjective understanding’ of our experience – although, as we shall see later, this criticism does not apply to all materialists.
But Tartaglia makes the point that if there really are immaterial things like minds then it cannot be right, as the materialists suppose, to ‘think of them floating around in the physical world’. He continues: “Any philosopher who ever seriously contended that minds or experiences were non-physical was not thinking about them objectively, but rather subjectively – in terms of the subject who has them.”
Tartaglia’s positive argument for Idealism begins with: “Each of us lives through a stream of conscious experience, which is intermittently interrupted by sleep, and then, eventually, permanently ended by death.” It then gets a little more complicated because he argues that the stream of consciousness is all that our lives consist in.
“Everything we know or care about either enters into our experiences or else we believe in it in order to make sense of of what does.” Science, far from describing Ultimate Reality, simply describes and explains what we experience not experience itself. “Experience is all we can be sure of has independent existence. The key difference from materialism is that ‘idealism thinks of ultimate reality as something within each of our experiential perspectives, while materialism does not’. So, for Tartaglia, them, ‘ultimate reality is to be found within each of our individual experiential centres’.
Interestingly, Tartaglia argues that we need to see that ‘mathematical physics does not describe the world we see and touch, but it is rather a means of predicting and controlling our experiences of that world’ and we ‘need metaphysical beliefs rooted in the concrete reality of experience, rather than the abstract predictions of mathematics’.
This argument is intriguing because, as we shall see in the next blog, Seth argues the same point from a materialist’s position except that for him this predicting and controlling that the brain does just is our consciousness.
There are at least four main problems with Tartaglia’s position. One is, as we see here, he assumes that materialists have to deny our individual subjective experience and consciousness to maintain their position; as we shall see this not necessarily true. Secondly, he also assumes that the only alternative to idealism is the objective world as unveiled by science. But there is another reality that he ignores and this is the noumenal of world-as-it-is-in-itself of Kant or the Will according to Schopenhauer, which is, for them, forever beyond the knowledge of scientists or individual experiences.
At the risk of drifting into politics, it could also be argued that Tartaglia’s vision of Ultimate Reality draws us away from the world into our solipsistic selves and downplays our engagement with the world.
It is also odd to suggest that if there is an immaterial mind then it has to exist outside of the physical world. Far from solving the problems of how anything immaterial can exist in a physical world, this simply pushes the problem one step back and risks splitting Tartaglia’s insistence on mono-idealism into the Cartesian dualism he rejects.
In the next, and final, blog in this series on Ultimate Reality we shall look at a modern take on materialism and see if it can solve the problems of Tartaglia’s position and counter some of his attacks on materialism.