The Bishop and Me
So I think there is a mind independent noumenal world out there, but we are each isolated in our own private phenomenal worlds. I believe that the noumenal world is an Nth Dimensional static object with nothing like time, change or motion. It is one thing and not differentiated into individual things like tables and chairs. We, and everything that exist subsist within the noumena--we are part of it, and everything in our phenomenal worlds supervene upon the noumena. Our subjective experiences--the phenomena--are grounded in this external reality and it is that objectivity that makes it possible for us to communicate. Though our individual phenomenal worlds are isolated, the phenomenal worlds of the individuals within a community are sufficiently similar that we are able to communicate with one another. The process of assimilating our native culture is the process by which our phenomenal worlds are shaped and so people within a community share experiences (in the sense that they have very similar experiences).
But if we are forever locked away from the noumena, why think that it even exits? My answer is precisely the description above. We need some external, mind independent reality to ground our shared experience and for the development of things like language. Because the noumena is external and independent it can explain the extreme similarity between your phenomenal world and mine. The fact that we are isolated from the noumena explains why our phenomenal worlds differ. We each literally live in separate worlds, but the closer we are in culture, personality, and past experience, the more similar our phenomenal worlds are. We have each encountered people who see things pretty much the same as we do, as well as people whose thoughts and perceptions are so foreign that we think they must be from another planet. Though the noumena provides a grounding and some stability, it is so different from that which we perceive and conceptualize that it does very little in the way of providing interpretation and the noumena can be experienced in an extraordinarily diverse variety of ways.
I see science as a sort of search algorithm trying to get closer and closer to the noumena by trying to find the most general and objective characterization of our phenomena. Though I think it is impossible in principle that we ever access the noumena, we can use scientific inquiry to try to strip away the rich and varying textures we project upon it until we find the most fundamental features of our phenomenal worlds, features shared by all perceptual minds. And this is as close to the noumena as we can get.
There is a third world in my picture and that is what I would like to call the interface world (I get the term from Stephen White's "interface diagram" in the Humean argument for skepticism). The interface world is the one of common sense realism. I would like to say that of the noumenal, phenomenal, and interface worlds, only the interface world is not real. The noumenal world is the external objective reality of the noumena and it is real in what I think is the most common understanding of that term (though it is inaccessible). The phenomenal world is also real, though I have yet to figure out what I mean by that. It exist within the noumena and supervenes upon it. It depends on the noumena for its existence in an asymmetric relationship as the noumena does not depend on phenomena for its existence.
By contrast, the interface world has things like tables and chairs, and they are all mind independent objects. It is the world that most people believe in. It is the world of planets that go on circling the sun long after all minds that perceive their existence and motion have passed through the sands of time. It is the product of us projecting our phenomenal ordering of the noumena outside of our minds. It takes its independence from the noumena but retains all of the phenomenal character we infuse it with. But as the noumena is not in itself differentiated into objects and has no time or motion, it cannot be this interface world. And as the phenomenal world thoroughly depends upon our cognitive operations for its existence, it is not the interface. And so the interface world is error. It does not exist. It is the utter and complete fallacy of common sense.
Now, what is this noumena, and what justifies my believing in it? Aaron Hoitink was pressing me on this issue after my talk on Friday. My answer to these question is above, but he pointed out that the god hypothesis is just as compatible with all the facts I appeal to in my abductive arguments. Doesn't it bother me that my answer is no better than the god answer? Do I have any reason to prefer my answer to George Berkeley's idealism? Couldn't this all just be thoughts in the mind of god?
I have given this a great deal of thought and decided that it doesn't matter in the least. Since we are locked away from the noumena, there is very little we can say of its nature. But the principle I would like to try to invoke is that we should say of it as little of the noumena as is necessary such that it can fulfill the grounding role I want it to play in my metaphysics. And this has some interesting consequences, I should think.
I have always thought of the noumena as material, but different from the way we ordinarily conceive of matter, for we think in terms of particles and their motions in time. But in the timeless character of the noumena these particles are but frayed strings in the fabric of the universe, woven together in a variety of complex patterns which we project our concepts onto in the process of object generation. What do we mean by 'material'? The more I think on it, the emptier the concept becomes. One name I am certain I have not heard mentioned in the two years I have been at Tufts is Baruch Spinoza. When I studied him as an undergraduate I was very moved by his many great insights. He denied that there were two substances--mind and matter; thinking and extended. There is but one substance--god--and everything is unified together. All that exits is god and what we call mind and what we call matter are just aspects of god conceived through two distinct attributes. God has an infinite number of attributes through which it could be conceived, but mind and matter are the two accessible to us.
Now Spinoza is deep and my recollection and understanding is shallow, but the more I think on these matters, the more I see it as parallel to my own metaphysics. Is the picture I have attributed Spinoza substantially different from my own view?
Berkeley's idealism eliminated the material substance leaving us only with thinking substance--phenomena. All that exists are thoughts in the mind of god. But god's mind is external to and independent of us. Is this characterization substantially different from my own characterization of the noumenal/phenomenal world distinction? Our minds are within the mind of god--within the noumena. The mind of god is external and independent, as is my noumena. What difference is there between the Bishop's idealism and my own metaphysics? I ask again, what do we even mean by 'material' and what does that add to our metaphysical picture?
So does it bother me that my argument for my metaphysics is completely compatible with it all being god? No, for I do not see two hypotheses. I see two sets of completely compatible and translatable labels for the same thing. The Bishop may be know for saying "to be is to be perceived" but if you take this to mean the world disappears when you close your eyes, you are mistaken, for the all seeing perceptive eye of god is ever present. Kinda takes the bite out, doesn't it? My noumena and Bishop Berkeley's "mind of god" seem pretty damn similar to me.
So perhaps you might find this bothersome because you find god bothersome. This is certainly understandable because god has been a pain in all our asses of late. But let us be cautious with what we mean by god. Remember that the noumena is in principle inaccessible. Calling the noumena god does not make it any more accessible, nor does it change it in the slightest as best as I can tell. Remember my tack on Ockham's Razor when it comes to the noumena. Let us not attribute anything more to it than is necessary for the explanations in which we employ it. What do you find troublesome about god? Is it that He is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, etc, etc. Is it that He loves you and watches over you? Is it that He has a mind like ours? Is it that He favors the Israelites and smites thine enemy? I will just say that each of these characterizations adds to the concept of god, more than is necessary for the explanation. And to substantiate such attributions, one must give independent arguments. Following my principle one must find elements of the phenomenal world that need or suggest these attributes in the noumena to justify making the attribution.
And that is why I am not worried. I would like to thank Aaron for pressing me on my metaphysics, for the challenge and the thinking have forced me to greatly advance my development and understanding of the view I wish to advocate.