The Empiricists Were Right

June 12, 2008

Locke, Berkely – hiding behind the globe – and Hume.  More and more, I think they were dead on correct.  Thought and ideas are all based on sensation, experience.  How could it be otherwise?  We deceive ourselves into thinking differently because we have developed language to such a high level of abstraction that it appears to have lost its moorings in lived experience.  Have you ever seen the King of France? asks the modern analytic philosopher.  No, there is no king of France anyway.  So how could you even have the idea of it..?  And so it goes on.

Still, language is manipulating bits of thought, idea-objects, modules, whatever, that all go back to experience.  Our thinking is permeated with experiential imagery, reflections of the direct empirical nature of even the most abstract thinking:

I see what you mean.
Do you follow me?
Where are you with this problem now?
I feel I am close to a solution.
This concept is a perfect fit with that one.
I can’t find my way with his ideas.
That is approximately true.

Philosophers tend to dismiss this type of speaking as mere metaphor, but I would contend that all thinking is metaphorical.  Metaphor is the tool of abstract thought, the means by which concrete experiential thinking – figuring out how to get out of a tight fix without using any words at all in the real world – can be transformed into a lightening quick abstract tool of analysis.  It uses the same techniques, and we are only beginning to understand what they are and how they evolved.  Which brings me to Berkeley’s disguise.

The map, I have come to believe, is fundamental to human thought.  It is the simplest, most common, and most ignored thinking-tool we have.  To map something is to abstract it into thought, yet it seems completely natural and simple to use a few lines to convey the notion of real space and location.  Just so, we map everything from reality to thoughts about reality.  If we figure out how maps work, something that is not at all obvious once you examine it, we will learn a lot about how our minds think.  It’s a long way from cogito ergo sum – Descartes was NOT an empiricist!


Epistemic Solipsism of the Present Moment

February 17, 2008


The philosophic point of view that nothing can be known to exist (and perhaps nothing does exist) beyond the “sense impressions” we are having right now… Reading this page… And who are we? Are we only thought balloons of somebody else’s mentality? Am I sleeping on the operating table of the evil Doctor Galvani, dreaming you dreaming me? Am I a brain-in-a-vat?

Richard Sala, “My Father’s Brain”

And how do I know that you are not all robots, cleverly mimicking the patterns of human behavior. Give you a Turing Test?! After all, some people seem to be barely human. Perhaps we need to cut open some people to find out. Or peer into their heads/brains/minds.

Nothing exists, but the clear mirror of mind, reflecting…nothing.

And then there’s Philonus, of course, the one chatting with Hylas in the dialog by George Berkeley (and nattering on about drainage). You know, the philosophical conversation that proves that “to be is to be perceived.” Nothing exists when we don’t see it or hear it (trees falling in the forest and all that) but for the mind of God, who is eternally watching. As Bertrand Russell relates in his History of Western Philosophy:

There was a young man who said “God”
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”


Dear Sir:
Your astonishment’s odd:
I am always about in the Quad,
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed byYours faithfully,GOD.

Berkeley intended his philosophic works to be a refutation of atheism and of materialist science. He was particularly annoyed at the glorious reception given to Newton’s theories, especially that of universal gravitation, which was, after all, an occult force, or a force acting at a distance. (How in heaven’s name could one object ever act upon another without any physical contact!!?) No one had ever seen it! No one knew how it worked! They just believed in it because it made so many things simpler.

Did George Berkeley have the last laugh? The university was named for him, and Hume, another man with some wonderfully subversive ideas, did say of his work that it admitted of no refutation…but, alas, carried no conviction. There’s a backhanded complement for you. As for Samuel Johnson, he kicked a dirt clod and pronounced, “I refute him thusly.” Just so do the running dog lackeys of the empiricist scourge support their simpleminded theories of the nature of the world.