On Philosophy

May 11, 2006

Why Materialism is Preferable to Idealism

Filed under: Cutting Edge Philosophy,Idealism — Peter @ 4:55 pm

David Hoffman, author of Visual Intelligence (amazon), is preparing to present a paper detailing a new version of idealism, and I have had the privilege of reading an advance draft of that paper. I will not link to that draft here, out of politeness, and because I do not have permission, but it is sufficient to state that I cannot refute the formulation of idealism presented within it, and may it be possible to refute it at all. However Hoffman’s paper does not refute materialism either, and thus we are left with two theories, conscious realism (Hoffman’s idealism) and materialism, both of which purport to explain the world, and both of which cannot be right. To decide between them we need to rely on other techniques, specifically Occam’s razor and falsifiability.

First though let me give you a brief overview of conscious realism in comparison to materialism. I have included a couple of quotes below from Hoffman’s draft. I must stress that since drafts change it would be inappropriate to rely on these quotes for anything professional.

The argument for conscious realism follows from basically a single premise, that the content of our experiences is created by consciousness and not by “the world”. I wouldn’t dispute this point (although some philosophers would), since materialists such as myself would argue that “the world” is simply a meaningless arrangement of physical elements. From this he concludes that: “Something does exist whether or not you look at the moon, and that something triggers your visual system to construct a moon icon. But that something that exists independent of you is not the moon. The moon is an icon of your MUI, and therefore depends on your perception for its existence.” So far both idealism and materialism are in agreement. “The something that exists independent of your perceptions is always, according to conscious realism, systems of conscious agents. Consciousness is fundamental in the universe, not a fitfully emerging latecomer contorting the senseless face of matter.” This part of the conclusion is not warranted by the premises, because the trigger of the moon icon in my perception could equally likely be the meaningless physical description of the world as it could be interactions between conscious agents. However even though it is not warranted it is not necessarily wrong and thus our need other tools to decide between materialism and conscious realism.

Let us consider how the theories in question might answer a question such as the following: “Why do we all perceive the moon in basically the same way?”. Materialism says that there is a single real physical reality, which affects us all in the same way, thus resulting in a similar concept of moon being triggered in us all (although not the same concept, for example some people see the face and some the rabbit, we must assume the trigger is modified by the physical make-up of the brain). Hoffman would have to answer this by asserting that all the conscious agents are interacting, constantly, to ensure that they are all triggered in a similar fashion, and that this interaction is preserved throughout time, and that the interaction would be modified if something happened on the moon to change its appearance, maintaining the illusion of a single physical reality. You can see then why we might prefer materialism because of its simplicity, for in Hoffman’s view there must be interaction between conscious agents concerning every aspect of “the world” that they agree on, and that these interactions must be altered appropriately if there are changes in “the world” in a way that makes the world seem consistent and independent of us. Thus Occam’s razor would lead us to materialism. Additionally materialism has the ability to be falsified while conscious realism does not. (i.e. we would conclude that materialism was false if different concepts were triggered by the same material substance when there were no differences between the minds in order to explain why they were triggered differently, such as past experience.) For these reasons I am compelled to accept materialism as a working hypothesis over conscious realism.

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