Why Don’t We Like Idealism?

spirits!The word "idealism," when understood as the metaphysical position "everything is ideas" rather than some kind of optimism or high goal-setting, carries a lot of baggage with it that I hope we dispelled in the episode.

To repeat: it's not solipsism, i.e. the notion that I (or my mind) is the only thing that's real, and so everything must be an idea in my mind. No, for Berkeley, other minds (and God's!) are just as real as mine.

It's also not subjectivism, in that while there are some ideas that we can change according to our whim (those of imagination, for instance), for the most part, the ideas we find ourselves with change in lawlike ways: if I move my head this way, the scenery (a set of ideas) moves the opposite way, and then I can move my head back and have more or less the original view restored. Objects don't just disappear when I close my eyes or leave the room for a second unless there was a mundane physical cause for this.

It's also not mysticism: Despite my song choice (listen to "I Am the Cosmos" here!), I am not the cosmos, nor are my ideas part of me. I gave Berkeley a lot of criticism in our discussion for not explaining how me having an idea and God having that idea before me and somehow giving it to me works, but I think Berkeley would say we shouldn't be surprised by that: most of God's creation is not amenable to observation, and all we need to understand is that a) I experience what it is to have an idea, and so for a mind in general to have an idea, all the time; that's about as clear as clear can be, and b) God must exist as objective grounding for all these ideas. I am not (according to my experience) the objective grounding of ideas, meaning that my whims or desires or evident actions are obviously not the basis of the stability and lawlike character of experience referred to above. So there is a God (or some other objective ground), and it is not me, nor are the ideas themselves God, because God is unchanging whereas ideas seem to change all the time.

It's also not relativism: God is the objective ground of these various ideas, which He relates in lawlike ways, and so, on questions of fact where two people disagree, they're likely just referring to different aspects of a thing, or rather different ideas which are normally grouped together as a thing ("The oar is bent!" "No, the oar is straight!") and so are in a sense talking about different things. In the same way that everyday utility could still allow us to say that one person is right and the other is wrong about the oar (the oar, in most circumstances, as when we measure it, comes out straight), we can say that, e.g. the blind man is wrong if he says that there's no silent cheetah hurtling at his face if the impending scratchy impact shows us that that was the case.

Randians, in particular, should really like idealism for the way that it avoids all of the above. Berkeley, like Rand, says that we have a knowing faculty that allows us to get at reality itself, and not just appearances, and that knowledge is a matter of discovering objective facts. Someone like Popper might say that a real respect for objectivity requires acknowledging skepticism and trying to become "less wrong" through attempted falsifications of hypotheses, but that would be tantamount to Kantianism: to saying that the world in-itself is ultimately unknowable. Berkeley and Rand say well, of course there are aspects of reality that will inevitably remain unknown for practical reasons, but that does nothing to impugn the validity of the objects of my immediate experience. There are of course other reasons Rand would reject Berkeley (like the God part), but he's A-OK by this standard so far.

So why does idealism remain icky? Foreign to our modern, scientific viewpoint? Something to be avoided by the philosophically sophisticated? For the one thing, it seems to violate Occam's Razor: isn't it more likely that the causes of our many sensations of a thing is just the existence, as a real, objective thing, of that thing? ... And not that the thing is just a cluster (even an objectively existing cluster) of ideas? What holds the ideas together? Well, God does, according to Berkeley. Theists often claim that God is the simplest explanation, because God is unitary, ultimately simple, but clearly this doesn't satisfy the scientific demand for simplicity, because we can't say how God gives us ideas or holds them together in clusters or makes them otherwise lawlike. We can't use this God hypothesis to predict what will happen next, though we can use the observation of orderliness to make such predictions (induction!).

So I'm interested in hearing from you folks. Do we have any idealists in the listenership? Theistic or non-theistic ones? Convince me that this loathing of the term "idealism" and everything associated with it is just a prejudice of the sort that Berkeley argues against! (i.e. the prejudice in favor of material objects, a concept he ultimately finds incoherent) I personally have much less difficulty with various forms of pragmatism that throw away the thing-in-itself merely because there's nothing useful we can say about it than I do with a view like Berkeley's that rules out skepticism seemingly by fiat.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Image note: I got this from "Lanes of Love," but don't know its original source.


  1. says

    Timothy Sprigge (1932-2007) was a very interesting proponent of a nature-based, panpsychic, anti-time & immaterialist (whew!) schema where everything that exists has a certain level of consciousness, and there is no such thing as matter. He is also notable for some very interesting arguments about environmental ethics, notably to the point where we should include nonbiotic elements of the environment (i.e. rivers, streams, deserts, other places of ‘natural beauty’) when making our environmental decisions.

  2. Jonathan says

    You appear to rely on Occam’s razor, itself an assumption which we know is largely incorrect in the hard sciences http://scienceblogs.com/developingintelligence/2007/05/14/why-the-simplest-theory-is-alm/ and also to dislike the inability to explain cause and effect between God and our ideas, which is reasonable but presupposes they would be subject to such cause and effect analysis. If there is a God, it is not necessary that he follows such laws. Scientific method is fabulous but it is a subset of knowledge/philosophy.

    I always find the Dan Dennett’s amusing on this subject as they go so far to deny anything they cant nail down with science as to deny there is anything to consciousness or the experience of consciousness at all. I once heard him say that if a scientifically articulate ‘Mary’ that had never seen red but had all its properties explained to her suddenly gained her eyesight, she would learn nothing by actually seeing red. This also reminds me of those that deny we have free will itself handily dismissing it an an illusion. Well, what is to stop me calling that an illusion of an illusion.

    We can only be conscious of all our theories, well, through our consciousness. In this sense I am sympathetic to Berkeleys attempts to try and hang a theory together on its productswhich even if you refute, well, you are using this consciousness to do?! But sure, at the end of the day, I am unpersuaded to the extent B takes his theory but do think it ought to give pause for thought to those who dont wonder a little more at consciousness itslef, further upstream so to speak than the scientism that obsesses modern culture..

    • M. Hunt says

      Dude. I don’t think that link questioning the applicability of the Razor does what you think it does.

  3. qapla says

    Very interesting blog post. I’ll have to think about this a bit more.

    I really enjoyed the podcast discussion on Berkeley even though I don’t really ‘buy” any of it.

    First I don’t see how he isn’t a subjective idealist.
    I don’t see how he over comes the skepticism of Descartes or even of Kant.
    I don’t see how he over comes “atheism/agnosticism” i.e. doubt or lack of belief in his version of “God”.
    I’ve read the entire Bible (and Qur’an) and that is not the concept of God I got from the scripture(s).
    God took clay (matter) and breathed the breath of life (soul/spirit) into “man”.
    Kind of right at the beginning.

    Now I actually find the various versions of idealism fascinating from ancient Greek pantheism to Advaita Vedanta.

    The “problem” or one of the many with these versions of idealism is when we talk of “matter” or the physical universe as described by modern physics it explains and provides predictability. As soon as one invokes some version of “God”(s), “immaterialism”, a dualistic “mind/consciousness” separable then one has the obvious problem and burden of explaining what is this “God”,”immaterialism”, “mind”, “spirit” ?

    What is it ?
    Where is it?
    How does it work?
    What is it made of ?
    Who created it?
    Who created that creator?

    Berkeley can not make the move “God has always been” because the physicalist can say the physical universe has always been.

    It’s a non-answer. It’s like saying the ground of all being is turtles.

    So I think Berkeley raises or discusses great philosophical ideas but he is really a religious apologist using philosophy to justify and prop up theology. He wants to take the real questions off the table so to speak for what seems to be religious reasons.

    It reminds me of the saying “philosophy is questions that can’t be answered and theology is answers that can’t be questioned”.

    And there’s just the obvious problem with Berkeley’s idealism that was mentioned in the podcast and that is it doesn’t provide anything or change anything about science or morality than Descartes or even Kant.

    And I actually liked that something nice was said about Descartes. It is easy to over look his great contributions to philosophy and science. When philosophers or scientists make “mistakes” it moves both forward. And I would acknowledge Berkeley’s contributions to both also but he ultimately creates more problems than he solves.

    We might as well be in the Matrix or all be a computer simulation in the computer of an advanced alien race. Or all be holograms in their holodeck.

    And then the computer program or holodeck computer would be God and our creator.

    But who made the computer programs?
    What is it?
    Where is it?
    What is it made of?
    Who created it?
    And where did they come from ?

    The second millennium B.C.E. The so-called “Song of Creation” in the authoritative Vedas ends with the following radical doubts:

    “Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
    The gods came afterwards with the creation of this universe; who then knows whence it has arisen?”

    “Doubt is the origin of wisdom”
    ― René Descartes

    “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”
    ― René Descartes

    “The great figures I love the most are ones who continue constantly to question. They may decide for sure that they don’t believe in God, but they don’t decide for sure that they really know what the universe is all about. They decide for sure that questioning is for them.”

    Jennifer Michael Hecht from a great podcast on a great book “Doubt: A History”


    much respect

  4. qapla says

    On further thought about Berkeley and rereading over some stuff a few things stand out. I’m just going to cut paste for time sake instead of just rehashing the same things.

    wiki “George Berkeley”

    As T.I. Oizerman explained:

    “Berkeley’s mystic idealism (as Kant aptly christened it) claimed that nothing separated man and God (except materialist misconceptions, of course), since nature or matter did not exist as a reality independent of consciousness. The revelation of God was directly accessible to man, according to this doctrine; it was the sense-perceived world, the world of man’s sensations, which came to him from on high for him to decipher and so grasp the divine purpose.”


    wiki “Subjective idealism, or empirical idealism”

    “This form of idealism is “subjective” not because it denies that there is an objective reality, but because it asserts that this reality is completely dependent upon the minds of the subjects that perceive it.”

    “Immanuel Kant responded by rejecting Berkeley’s immaterialism and replacing it with transcendental idealism, which views the mind-independent world as existent but incognizable in itself.”

    “Thinkers such as Plato, Plotinus and Augustine of Hippo anticipated idealism’s antimaterialism with their views of the inferior or derivative reality of matter. However, these Platonists did not make Berkeley’s turn toward subjectivity. Indeed, Plato rationalistically condemned sense-experience, whereas subjective idealism presupposed empiricism and the irreducible reality of sense data. A more subjectivist methodology could be found in the Pyrrhonists’ emphasis on the world of appearance, but their skepticism precluded the drawing of any ontological conclusions from the epistemic primacy of phenomena.”

    “The first mature articulations of idealism arise in Yogacarin thinkers such as the 7th-century epistemologist Dharmakīrti, who identified ultimate reality with sense-perception.”


    This was also in Advaita Vedānta, the mystical teaching of Hinduism, “The manifold universe is, in truth, a Single Reality. There is only one Great Being, which the sages call Brahman, in which all the countless forms of existence reside. That Great Being is utter Consciousness, and It is the very Essence, or Self (Atman) of all beings.”

    This Brahma is ever known to Itself and constitutes the reality in all individuals selves, while the appearance of our empirical physical individuality and materiality is credited to avidya (ignorance) and māyā (illusion).

    Which seems a lot like the point about “claimed that nothing separated man and God (except materialist misconceptions, of course).”

    “Generally, medieval Christian mysticism had at least three stages, variously described, in the union-consciousness: quiet, essentially a prelude to the union with God, full union, and rapture, the latter involving a feeling of being “carried away” beyond oneself.”

    Again a great blog post and great podcast about an interesting thinker. That I wouldn’t have otherwise paid attention to.
    That’s why I love philosophy/wisdom.

    much respect

  5. qapla says

    Wow! An after thought about Berkeley’s idealism is the question of evil. If there is no outside materialistic system and it’s all in or is God’s mind then all natural disasters, deaths, sufferings, etc. are/is caused, allowed or God’s will. “I got cancer because I was a bad person” quite horrific.

    I can see why so many don’t like Berkeley’s idealism.

  6. says

    Doesn’t it seem that the sciences and rational inquiry in general operate as if idealism is true? The goal is to study mechanisms in the phenomenal world and those mechanisms’ underlying principles, right? So presumably, you could still study mechanisms and principles IF either the world were destroyed, we were all brains in vats, or there were only minds and ideas AND the phenomenal world of our first person experience remained intact. If the latter were still the case, whether there are external objects and events doesn’t seem to make much difference to the enterprise of the sciences or just plain rational inquiry.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Phenomenology is a later historical development that–to start with anyway–used as its key insight Husserl’s epoche, which is to say that we’ll describe experience without saying either way whether the objects experienced are mind-independent or not. It’s supposed to suspend the debate between realism and idealism.

      Of course, later phenomenologists didn’t have that, so you could think of phenomenology–describing experience–as continuous with empiricism. However, per our upcoming Bergson episode, a key insight of phenomenologists is that empiricists have misread atomism into experience: we don’t, says Bergson, experience a stream of discrete perceptions, of “raw sense data” or anything like that. So Husserl and the rest of them are going to say Berkeley is wrong in considering an object to be a bundle of perceptions; however, you might not think there’s that much difference between a “bundle” and a “transcendental synthesis” or whatever kind of bullshitty sounding terminology a phenomenologist wants to use.

      So to repeat, the division is mostly for historical reasons.

  7. John Ottens says

    It seems like idealists would justly be able to say that Occam’s razor in fact cuts the opposite direction. It’s really not any simpler to say that our impressions are caused by certain material objects which are unprovable and unknowable (not to mention unnecessary), than to dismiss such objects as the product of a sort of metaphysical prodigality.

    And of course, for any problem we may have with the idea of God causing impressions in our minds, we’re going to have at least as much difficulty with the idea of the material world causing impressions in a mind. With God, at least we’re dealing with a consciousness acting on a consciousness, so even if the process is mysterious or obscure there’s still an element of plausibility to it. But how would unconscious beings communicate themselves to consciousness? How does mind comprehend mindless objects? How can immateriality enfold and understand matter?

  8. Phil says

    It is one way of getting around dualism. Instead of positing it is all matter you could say its all mind. But if you asked me what it is the world is like? I would say it like mind and matter.

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