Argument FOR Idealism
Disclaimer: I am not a proponent of Idealism in any form. In fact, I am actually a Physicalist. This short essay was written as a thought exercise.
Idealism is the most plausible viewpoint of the nature of existence as it is both enforced by an indubitable truth and capable of defending itself against criticism unlike both physicalism and dualism.
The philosophical world has been debating the nature of existence for centuries. Though many ideas have risen to provide explanations for this discussion, it has essentially boiled down to three primary areas of theory. Idealism is a position in which the idea is posited that reality is made up fundamentally of the non-physical. It exemplifies the inability to place proof upon any sort of mind-independent existence and instead embraces the idea that the only thing that can actually be known to exist is the mind and mental entities dependent upon it. It finds rivals in physicalism, which is its opposite that views reality as being solely physical, and dualism, which views reality as consisting of both physical and non-physical existence. In this paper, I will be concerned with idealism and explaining what aspects make it the most logical conclusion of these three viewpoints by using thought experimentation to provide indubitable truth that enforces it along with presenting and countering arguments against it from the viewpoints of both physicalism and dualism.
The strongest argument to enforce idealism can be seen in Descartes’s thought experiment known as methodic doubt. While Descartes is a forefather of modern dualism and advocate of the existence of external objects, which will be a topic later discussed in this essay, he works to provide through his “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences” a strong basis for the concept of the monistic theory of idealism. The process of methodic doubt goes as follows: If I clear my mind of all preconceived bias and begin to doubt everything I’ve once held to be definitive truths, then when trying to apply proof to these once closely held beliefs, I will find that none can be indubitably proven, or at least none physical can. For instance, I may think that a chair exists. I may even think that I know without a minute doubt that a specific chair exists. However, it is impossible to prove without a fraction of doubt that it does. As I continue to doubt, the only thing that cannot be doubted is that I still doubt. This is one of the rare indubitable truths of existence. It then progresses that in order to doubt, I must be able to reason, and in order to be capable of reasoning, I must be able to think. This moves into the concept that in order to think, I must exist. I can imagine that anything else does not exist, but as long as I am thinking, it is impossible to imagine what it would be like for me to not exist. Essentially, as long as I am thinking, I exist. So, while it is impossible to prove the existence of anything mind-independent, it is backed by indubitable truth that I exist (“Discourse” 100–101). After moving through this experiment, it can be seen that the existence of an external world seems to fall flat when faced with a request for irrefutable evidence and instead relies solely on perception, which cannot be completely trusted regarding matters of this sort. This lack of evidence rules out the likelihood of physicalism and removes the physical portion of dualism, which then leaves behind only idealism as the most likely solution as well as the only one being backed by indubitable evidence. Having argued for idealism, I would now like to present rival views from the other previously mentioned theories.
Many physicalists who argue against this idea of idealism will cite G.E. Moore, who argues strongly for the existence of an external world. Moore produces a physical demonstration to prove his point in which he displays one hand while saying that it is a hand, then displays another while doing the like. This then shows the existence of two mind-independent objects, and thus proves the existence of an external world (Moore 165–167). The argument that he produces here, however, is valid but not sound. Indeed if two hands were to exist at the moment that he demonstrated them, that would without doubt serve as irrefutable proof of the existence of an external world as Moore implies that it does. The issue, though, is that the premises that are used, “here is one hand” and “here is another” (Moore 166), cannot be definitively proven. Moore may say that these hands truly exist, but it is still very much possible to doubt their existence. In fact, the previously demonstrated experiment of methodic doubt shown by Descartes does in itself dissect Moore’s proof. It simply does not hold up to the experiment that it is being used to refute. Now, let’s move to another argument against the concept of idealism.
Dualists can argue idealism by using the evidence of external objects presented within the sixth meditation of Descartes’s “Meditation On First Philosophy.” They may cite that “there is certainly further in [individuals] a certain passive faculty of perception… but this would be useless to [them]… if there were not either in [them] or in some other thing another active faculty capable of forming and producing these ideas” (“Meditations” 28). Since the perceptions that individuals receive from objects are more vivid than perceptions that they receive in their mind, they say individuals themselves cannot produce them. They could, then, be formed and implanted by God (or an evil counterpart). However, if that were the case it would attribute a deceptive quality to God. God cannot be a deceiver, ergo God would not deceive people or allow them to be deceived into believing objects existed that did not. The only possibility remaining is that external objects do indeed exist (“Meditations” 26–32). Unlike Descartes’s methodic doubt experiment, there is no indubitable truth to back this proof of an external world. A strong rebuttal to this is that Descartes’s argument against these perceptions being produced by the individual holds no proof to enforce it as, though it claims that individuals are incapable of producing these perceptions, it gives no evidence as to why this is true aside from it seeming unlikely that it would be possible. Secondarily, the argument relies heavily on the existence of a god which, though I will not debate whether that be true or not in this paper as the topic is inappropriate in this context, is a concept that can be doubted as I will now explain. All of Descartes’s arguments for the existence of God basically rely on 1: causality by claiming that every effect has a cause thus meaning there must be a first cause, which in itself cannot be definitively proven (“Discourse” 102–103), and 2: an inability to imagine something more perfect than himself, which can conceivably be done by imagining the opposite of one’s imperfect self (“Meditations” 17). Another issue that then arises with this dualist idea is the problem of a non-physical mind interacting with a physical body. If the physical exists separate from the non-physical, then there must be a bridge in which the non-physical mind interacts with and maneuvers the physical body. However, there is no logical explanation present for how this causal relationship would work. After applying doubt to the argument of dualism, the only remaining indubitable truth is that of idealism.
Idealism is a solid explanation of existence that can use methodic doubt to both solidify the presence of the mind and individual as a being and exemplify the doubt that can be applied to all things outside of said being. Physicalism provides a valid argument against idealism, but proves to be unsound when applied with methodic doubt as it lacks any form of indubitable evidence for the existence of the physical world in which it claims to be the sole form of existence and instead relies on premises that cannot be proven. Dualism is then more successful in that it can definitively prove the existence of the mind in the same way as idealism but fails in giving an irrefutable explanation for the existence of objects outside of it, which works instead to further enforce idealism. Though there are many theories attempting to explain existence and whether it is mind-dependent, mind-independent, or both, idealism can be defended against criticism and thus presents itself as the most logical one.
Descartes, René. “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences.” The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911. University of Toronto. 79–130. Web. 30 April 2016.
Descartes, René. “Meditations On First Philosophy.” The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911. Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 1–32. Web. 30 April 2016.
Moore, G.E. “Proof of an External World.” G.E. Moore: Selected Writings (International Library of Philosophy). Abington: Routledge, 2013. University of Connecticut. 146–171. Web. 30 April 2016.