Seeking After a Metaphysics of Mind [Reflections]

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What is engaged here is both a personal project as well as a hobby of mine, and as such is a stipulation of my own thoughts. Given that these thoughts are my own, and at times will be speculative, they must be considered temporary, tentative, and susceptible to change. I will also be returning this article (and subsequent posts) to supplement my thoughts, ideas, and views.

A Personal Project

What follows here in my Metaphysics of Mind is an attempt to tread in the shadows of previous rationalists such as Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant in hope to formulate my own metaphysics of mind. It is my effort to dabble in metaphysics and epistemology in order to determine the conditions which make knowledge for a subject possible (by subject I always mean human beings, unless otherwise stated), how subjects perceive objects in the world, and how subjects form their knowledge about the world from these objects.

This will coincide with a further personal project of mine, that which I’ve titled Collective Principles. In that particular project I seek the areas of collective agreement across the board within philosophy and on behalf of theorists (not necessarily philosophers) who engage the world/reality philosophically. There I determine areas of agreement on which one can build knowledge of the world.

Beginning From a Perspective of Doubt

The Cartesian framework of first principles, despite not being immune to criticism, appeals to me intellectually. Rene Descartes (1596-1650), often recognized as the first of the modern philosophers, proposed a particular epistemological framework within Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) and Principles of Philosophy (1644). These principles are what have established the basis for intellectual inquiry in the following centuries. Descartes’ most significant philosophical contribution pertained to doubt which he employed as a method to obtain truth. He wished to discover a foundational basis which could withstand critical scrutiny, and on which he could also construct knowledge. Descartes discounted whatever he possibly could, and following his method consistently, he found he could doubt that of which most people consider reasonable. This included one’s own sensory experience, the existence of the external world, and the objects within it. There was an exception to this, however, as Descartes reasoned that one could not reasonably doubt one’s own existence for if one did then who would be doing the doubting? This he expressed in the cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), and so Descartes constructed a foundation on which to build knowledge of the self, the world, and God. This Cartesian Method would greatly influence Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) because it demonstrated a method through which one could reduce complex entities into simple components.

Descartes in many respects showed the limits of human certainty pertaining to their perception of the world. Given that the world is dependent on the subject’s sensory perception of it, and given that a subject’s senses could well be mistaken or fooling him or her, it is quite conceivable that the world is not as it appears via the senses. But as Descartes reasoned, in all likelihood he must himself exist, and that this must be the most foundational knowledge of reality and the world the subject could ever have. All else beyond this could be questioned and doubted but not the existing self. But Descartes didn’t leave there as from his foundational first principle he moved to entertain others questions in hope to find a certainty.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) seems to have suggested something similar in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), although he was far less skeptical than Descartes. Given a basic formulation of Kant’s concept of the mind, one is able to deduce Kant’s notion of experience. On Kant’s view, a subject’s experience of objects in the world (which are bound by the pure intuitions of space and time) is a result of a complex, layered interlocking of cognitive faculties acting independently and/or together to perform cognitive tasks. As such, the logical deduction is that a subject’s experience is based primarily in his or her mind, thus the mind being central in that without its faculties and processes there could be no experience of objects in the world for a subject. The world and its objects are therefore filtered through the human mind.

There are additional reflective questions this inevitably raises. For example, if a subject’s experience of objects is bound by space and time (which are deemed to be constructs of the mind) then is there really an objectively existing world beyond the subject’s own mind? In other words, what exists independently of the subject’s own mind, and if we experience objects through our faculties then what are we really experiencing?

Interpretations of Reality/The World

At this juncture philosophers will disagree with one another, and several such perspectives present themselves. A solipsist, for example, can go two ways. One, as informed by Descartes, is the way of uncertainty, namely the view that knowledge of anything external (such as the world or the existence of other minds) to a subject’s own mind is uncertain. A solipsist might go further to make the often deemed radical claim that the world does not actually exist outside of the subject’s own mind.

Another perspective is idealism. It was proposed by the Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley (1685 – 1753) and has its contemporary adherence in the likes of Keith Ward. It is the idea that the world is fundamentally a mental construction and/or is immaterial. Berkeley, for example, denied material existence contending that objects (like tables and dogs) are perceived within the world are therefor only ideas in the perceiving subject’s mind.

Immanuel Kant’s doctrine of transcendental idealism is a further illustrative example of this. As a doctrine, transcendental idealism emphasizes a distinction between what subjects (human beings) can experience (the natural, observable world) and what subjects cannot (“supersensible” objects such as God and the soul). In its most simplest form it says that subjects have cognition of appearances but not of things in themselves. By “thing in itself,” Kant meant a thing standing outside any relation to our cognitive powers. Given Kant’s influence, interpreters have interpreted his doctrine in different ways. One such interpretation is in the way of radical skepticism in that Kant seemed to reduce all objects of human knowledge to representations in the human minds. In essence, this would seem to deny that humans have the capacity to know anything genuine about reality. Other interpreters haven’t been that skeptical and have deduced that Kant didn’t deny the existence of objects external to the human mind, in fact they state that real things must really exist for them to be able to cause representations within the human mind.

Another position, and most certainly the one which commands the most support among contemporary American philosophers (idealism and solipsism possessing extreme minorities) is non-skepticism or objective realism. This is the view that objects really do exist within the world of perception independently of the subject’s mind. The famous western, analytic philosopher of the 21st century Bertrand Russell was an advocate of this view. The contemporary analytic philosopher William Lane Craig is another.

Summary of Views

These are the major views I wish to work with, and for the purpose of my own investigation I find that each possesses some value, and that one need not be an advocate for either to say so. Solipsism, for instance, is a representation, for a lack of a better word, of what would be the case if one were to formulate the question of objective reality in its most extreme form, namely that it doesn’t exist. In other words, as counter-intuitive and surprising it might be, it is theoretically possible that only the mind exists and that everything else were perceive in the world is illusory or simply does not exist. But as most philosophers would say, this is a rather radical position to take. Idealism, moreover, proves valuable in that it suggests a person’s perception of the world is mental, thus locating it within the subject’s own mind. This is obviously true for my perception of the world results from sophisticated mental and cognitive hardware operating in unison to bring about the image of the world I believe I see. Idealism goes further, however, if the proponent advocates that the world is essentially mental as opposed to being material or physical. I believe that this is a step that must be argued for and not assumed. Objective realism also has its value. Its value lies in the fact that it seems to adequately explain my perception of the world in that although my perception of the world is mental, it really is based on a world of objects that exist independently of my mind. The world I see “out there” is really the world as it exists. Like with idealism, given that its technically possible that the world is mental or that it doesn’t actually exist, the objective realist would have to give an argument for believing that objects really do exist beyond my mind.

As such, these are the big questions of metaphysics, some of which we will explore in this series. In our next post I will look at questions of sensory intuition and the faculties of the human mind.

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