Metaphysical Idealism and Materialism: Practice vs Theory

Metaphysical idealism is the viewpoint that had dominated the world of philosophy for centuries. The notion ‘thought’ used to be at the core of philosophical arguments, but today the paradigm has changed and many of the modern philosophers prefer materialism to metaphysical idealism as a method. Nevertheless, metaphysical idealism* still has importance considering its role in history.

* Metaphysical idealism is shortly known as idealism. Since there are other viewpoints called idealism (e.g., ethical idealism and political idealism), I used the long form in the title. Henceforth, I will also mention it as idealism.

Painted by Onur Can Duman

The philosophical position of idealism is that the first and the most important element of existence is thought. Idealists suggest that reality can not be found in the outer world, and the only place to look for the ultimate reality is the mind. According to them, the outer world can not exist without the existence of consciousness. In other words, the objects in nature do not exist independently of our perception.

In a nutshell, the assertion of idealism is “Existence is a product of the mind, and the Universe that -we think- we perceive is actually an illusion.”. What do you think? Is this life really an illusion created by our minds?

Materialists say no to this question. On the contrary, they suggest consciousness is an illusion that arises from the interactions of matter. Their argument is that the perception of mind is just a result of our brain activites, and it can not be considered as a reality on its own.

The main reason why many thinkers prefer materialism is –the general opinion– that we can experiment on matter, but not on the mind. Usually, the value of a theory is determined by whether its hypothesis can be experimented. I truly believe in science and experiments, but I see a little problem with the definition of ‘what can be experimented’:

In spite of appereance, what we directly experience is the perception of mind. We perceive the outer world secondhand, via our minds. This means, what one really experiments is what is sensed in the mind. In terms of precedence, the practice of mind is the genuine practice.

At this point, it would be helpful to briefly remember the views of some important ancient philosophers:

According to Parmenides of Elea, the knowledge obtained by senses is deficient, and we can truly absorb things only by thinking. Parmenides was the first philosopher who gave priority to the mind, but the one who deserves to be called ‘the father of idealism’ is another ancient philosopher, Plato.

Plato claimed that objects we see in nature are only counterparts of the “forms”, which are the true, primordial and timeless essences of entities. The physical world is imperfect, because it is a shadow of the perfect realm of forms. The forms are what truly exist, and we can only absorb them through the mind. They can not be found in the physical realm.

Plato’s theory of forms changed the world of philosophy, which had evolved in more of a materielist way until then. After him, metaphysical idealism became the primary method for thinkers to examine reality. Many famous philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant and Hegel built their philosophies around idealist arguments.

In more recent times, materialism has been on the rise again with the influence of new scientific discoveries. The fact that scientists were able to experiment on matter in more detail gave rise to the idea that consciousness also can be explained only with the help of the experiments in the physical world. Since then, thinkers have been divided into two groups like sports fans. The common idea is that you can either be a materialist or an idealist, there is no other way.

Do we really have to choose one? Not necessarily if you ask me. In my opinion, ‘the ultimate equation of everything’ has to include both mind and matter notions. My argument is that matter and the mind bring one another into existence simultaneously. Let me explain why I think this way…

When George Berkeley said “To be is to be perceived.”, what he meant was that entities can not exist without a perceiver. Well, I agree that it is kind of absurd to say “Things do not exist when we do not see them.”. However, he might have had a point:

Discoveries in the field of quantum mechanics show us that when there is no observer, a subatomic particle exists as ‘a pack of potentials’ instead of existing as ‘a visible, material entity’. When the entity is not observed, it exists as invisible potentials in many different positions.

Thanks to physicists, we now know that there is another way of existence other than existing clearly: Existing potentially.

We can not count an object that has not been perceived yet as a ‘categorically existing entity’, because in order for something to certainly exist, it must have been realized and known by someone. For example, the Moon certainly exists, because we have perceived it, right? Its existence is clear.

An undetected entity can not be counted as nothing neither, since “being nothing” is impossible. A thing can not be nothing. So, there is only one option left for an undetected entity: It has to be existing potentially, because it can neither exist clearly, nor as nothing.

Berkeley was not completely right, but he was right on one level:

The mind does effect the state of existence. It turns a potentially existing entity into something that exists categorically. Therefore, consciousness is not just a result, it has a more fundemental function in terms of existence.

On the other part, the existence of the mind would be impossible without the existence of matter. If we could not perceive anything, there would be nothing to define or to think about, and consciousness would not be possible without the thinking process.

It is a fact that no one can be 100% sure of the existence of matter. There is always a chance that it all is a dream. However, even if the material world is an illusion, its importance in the equation remains the same. Real or not, matter somehow exists and lets us have consciousness.

Likewise, although we can not see our minds, we all know that they exist. In practice we do experience consciousness, and even if the mind is an illusion, it is an illusion that has a remarkable effect on existence.

Some thinkers do not consider ‘information which can not be experimented’ as a subject for philosophy, but I think they forget the fact that neither perceiving nor experiments would be possible without the sense of self. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” is still irrefutable, and existence of the self still is the only thing that one can be 100% sure of. The fact that the brain helps the mind emerge does not mean that the mind is a fictional thing.

I understand and support the commitment to science, but I also think that it is a little early to label the studies of some of the greatest philosophers as “nonsense”. In many of today’s theories there is no room for the mind notion, but in practice, the only thing those theoricians ‘certainly experience’ is the mind. I think, the ones seeking the answer to the puzzle of consciousness must not ignore their subjective experience of mind.

In addition, today, the definition of existence has changed. One of the main subjects of modern physics is probability, and we now know that there is another way to exist. I think that it could be a little hard to give meaning to this new concept of existence without the creativity and imagination inherited from idealists.

Radical idealism is not the right method if you are in search of precise information, that is for sure. As Carl Gustav Jung once said, “Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.” (Let us ignore the fact that he did the opposite of what he had said.). A theory of reality, which had been developed using only idealist methods, and conflicts with the data acquired by experiments, would not be able to give us the correct answers.

At this point, I would like to touch on a major problem of idealism. Through history, most of the idealist thinkers have hidden behind the God notion when they could not explain things. Many of them had been influenced by religions and assumed that there is a conscious and superior creator.

Unlike the mind, God is not something that we can experience, it is a hypothetical notion. In my opinion, what has restrained idealism from being scientific is the common mistake of assuming that there is a metaphysical being, the existence of which can never be proven. On the other hand, Baruch Spinoza’s definition of God was very different and more ‘scientifically acceptable’ than the others. You can check out my blog post “Spinoza’s God | The Sameness Of God And The Universe” for more information.

All in all, I think that neither metaphysical idealism nor materialism alone can lead us to the ultimate solution. The equation of the truth can not be discovered if the ‘experiential existence’ of one of the two fundemental notions (mind and matter) is ignored or trivialized. Unless all points of view are taken into consideration, something will always be missing in the formula.

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