Matter and Models

June 24th, 2016
in history, macroeconomics

by Philip Pilkington

Article of the Week from Fixing the Economists

What if all the world’s inside of your head
Just creations of your own?
You can live in this illusion
You can choose to believe
You keep looking but you can’t find the woods
While you’re hiding in the trees

— Nine Inch Nails Right Where it Belongs

Follow up:

In two previous posts (here and here) I have been dealing, directly or indirectly, with the philosophy of Bishop George Berkeley. In the second post in particular I have become a little uneasy that my aim may have seemed to have moved too far away from the general content of this blog. In order to remedy this I hope here to tie those discussions back into these more general concerns here.

In doing so, however, I must assume assent on the part of the reader that is likely not going to be forthcoming but in the most rare of cases. This assent that is assumed is that the reader, like me, agrees with Berkeley’s ‘immaterialist’ or ‘subjective idealist’ philosophical stance. Or, put another, way: they agree with Berkeley and I that matter does not in fact exist. (The best breakdown of this argument, which I think iron-clad, is still Berkeley’s Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous).

Now what, I ask, is the key objection to the notion that matter does not exist? I think that the strongest is, for example, that if I take an instrument of some form and destroy certain parts of my brain my perceptions will be entirely altered. Does this not then prove that matter trumps ideas/perceptions? Not really.

In fact, this is identical to the arguments that Berkeley uses in his texts — I think of, for example, those in which he asks whether the hotness of a fire is internal to the object itself or merely a sensation. Examined properly, of course, it is merely a sensation. This is most clearly shown in the following passage from the Three Dialogues:

Phil: Can any doctrine be true if it necessarily leads to absurdity?

Hyl: Certainly not.

Phil: Isn’t it an absurdity to think that a single thing should be at the same time both cold and warm?

Hyl: It is.

Phil: Well, now, suppose that one of your hands is hot and the other cold, and that they are both at once plunged into a bowl of water that has a temperature between the two. Won’t the water seem cold to one hand and warm to the other?

Hyl: It will.

Phil: Then doesn’t it follow by your principles that the water really is both cold and warm at the same time — thus believing something that you agree to be an absurdity?

Hyl: I admit that that seems right.

Phil: So the principles themselves are false, since you have admitted that no true principle leads to an absurdity.

From this simple thought experiment we can see clearly that ‘hotness’ and ‘coldness’ are not, in fact, present in any object itself but are rather ideas caused by sensations. Yes, we can formulate a manner of measuring temperature neutrally or quasi-objectively by deploying, for instance, a thermometer. But this is a rather artificial construction. It gives us a reading, but it does not actually tell us about hotness of coldness which are only ideas formed as the result of sensations and which are primary with respect to any numerical value we try to give to temperature.

Back to our example of brain damage. Is this not entirely the same? In truth if we use an instrument to cause ourselves brain damage what we are doing altering our capacity to produce sensations and ideas. But there is no reason to suppose that something called ‘matter’ exists in doing this. This is because, as Berkeley stresses time and again, the denial of the existence of matter is not the denial of the existence of what we might call ‘reality’.

It is perfectly true that damaging certain centers of the object we perceive as the brain will lead to sensory and 'ideational' deprivation. But we no more have to assume that matter exists to accept this than to accept that matter exists when the object we perceive as the flame of a fire causes a sensation of hotness when the object we perceive as our hand is placed in it.

This gets to the heart of what the common prejudice in favour of matter is really all about — and this, in turn, is where we can tie Berkeley’s philosophy back into the general concerns of this blog.

What is really going on when people think of matter is that they are attempting to model their reality. When I think of a flame burning my hand by heating up the atoms and molecules within it, I am really constructing an imaginary model of what I think to be going on. I am trying to detach myself from my immediate perceptions and look at myself, as it were, from a third person or God’s eye perspective. I am, to reduce this somewhat, trying the impossible task of turning myself into the object of my own perception.

This may, in some circumstances, be rather useful. But we should recognise that it is a wholly artificial construction and purely an exercise in imagination. In truth, no such third person perspective can be attained that is not a construction of our imagination. If we put our hand in the fire, it burns; if we damage our brain, we lose certain sensory and ideational capacities. That is all. Any attempt to understand this from a third person perspective — that is, any attempt to model this — is a completely secondary construction that is based wholly in our imagination.

The common misconception that matter actually exists is to explained in this way: it arises from a cognitive bias in the Western mind. Westerners have been taught — brainwashed, in a sense — to think in terms of models. They have been taught to conceive of their reality not immediately, but 'mediately'. This, in and of itself, can lead to scientific progress, but it can also lead to mass delusion: to begin to mistake imagination for experiences; models for reality.

‘Matter’ is but the imaginary construct that Westerners have come up with to ground their model-oriented tendencies of mind in some sort of objective reality. But when examined carefully, as Berkeley so masterfully did in his Three Dialogues, it turns out to be an empty delusion; an artificial construction set up and built into our cultural prejudices in order to have us assent to a certain, highly imaginary way of thinking.

Thus all the errors that we find in, for example, economics and the social sciences are really grounded in this belief in matter. What we refer to as ‘scientism’ is actually the mistaken belief in matter which is wholly synonymous with our attempts to gain a third person or God’s eye view of ourselves. Such acts of imagination, again, can be useful and constructive but when we fall into habits of thought that accept these acts of imagination as objective reality we completely and utterly delude ourselves.

It is such delusions that generate the most truly absurd aspects of economics today. It is the belief — for it is nothing but a belief with no ground — in the existence of matter that leads us to try to construct models and then mistake these for reality.

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