Thursday, March 25, 2010

Why I am a Berkelian/Edwardsian Idealist

During my spring semester, freshmen year, I was sitting in my history of philosophy II course, listening to Dr. Jim Spiegel discuss John Locke's theory of perception: We experience the world in terms of primary qualities and secondary qualities. Primary qualities would include bulk, figure, texture, and motion. Secondary qualities would include colors, smells, tastes etc. All qualities are experienced by humans who derive ideas from them, simple and complex ideas.

A question about how humans experience the world should naturally come up about the world itself. There needs to be something underlying these qualities, upholding them. Locke called this underlying thing a "material substratum." It is non-experiential and non-observable. Locke postulates that it exists because there needs to be something underlying all these qualities. They can't just sit out there without anything upholding them. How else can they have regularity and unity?

Locke's Doctrine was heavily critiqued by a bishop, an Irish bishop, named George Berkeley. (note: Berkeley was a man of the church, Locke was not and in fact was unorthodox. Theologians should take special not of that point! Irish people should take note that Berkeley is Irish.) Berkeley attacks Locke (And representationalist realism) on two key points. First, why do we need to postulate that there is a material substratum? Locke's make-up of the world (ontology) includes: minds, ideas and substratum. Berkeley argued that there is no need for a mysterious material substratum because its purpose is fulfilled by God. He upholds the universe by his thoughts. Unity and continuity in the physical world can be explained by saying that they are God's thoughts and their existence stems from him as ideas. Second, Berkeley attacked Locke by saying that you don't even know anything about this material substratum. If everything is known by experience, how do you know this thing exists? You can't in Locke's system.

So, according to Berkeley, the reality is made up of minds and ideas. There are two types of minds, finite and infinite minds. There are two types of ideas: real ideas and imaginary ideas. Humans are finite minds. God is an infinite mind. A real idea would be an idea that is contained in the mind of God and an imaginary idea would be an idea that we make up in our heads (imagine sci-fi horrifying monster.) Real ideas are public, imaginary ideas are private. A real idea would be the black phone right next to my computer screen. These ideas stem from God.

That's not too bad, esoteric and irrelevant to our regular lives, but wait. The repercussions of this is "esse est percipi," (To be, is to be perceived.). What? In order to exist, you must be perceived. That's odd. That means if a tree fell in the woods and no one perceived it hitting the ground, there would be no sound of it falling and in fact, there would be no tree. The reason, though, that we find trees laying on the ground with the appearance that they have fallen from their standing position is not just because you or some other finite mind perceived them. Rather it is because God perceived them, as an infinite mind, they did fall and with a noise.

In order for ideas to exist they must be contained in a mind. Ideas are mind-dependent. The physical world is made up of ideas and so the physical world is mind-dependent. It may appear that an idealist is a relativist (claiming their are no absolute truths) because all ideas are mind-dependent. That's not true. (Get it? hehe) For one, the idealist is making a universal claim about reality in actuality. For another, the only thing that is different for the idealist as opposed to the representative realist, is that the world is made up of all ideas. It does not say that all ideas are relative to the observer. It says the world is made up of ideas and is mind-dependent. My experience of reading this experience is similar to yours. The reason being, we are observing the same ideas which are God's ideas. (the black color against the white screen, the squiggly lines, the meaning derived.)

In my next post I will offer some more detailed objections to Bereklian idealism.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Prodigal God, Book Review

Recently I finished the book "The Prodigal God" written by Tim Keller. Keller is a pastor at Redeemer in New York City. He has written one other book, "The Reason for God"It is also a very good book.

"The Prodigal God" was written by Keller after hearing his seminary professor give a sermon/lecture on the parable of the prodigal son years ago. It is a short book, and one could read it in a night or two. Keller analyzes the parable from three different perspectives. First, the lost and repentant younger son, second, the proud elder brother and lastly, the loving father. I'm not going to go into detail about the contents of the book because I don't have it in front of me right now. I will say that Keller turned my understanding of this parable upside down. He says that most people will see this as a story of a father forgiving his son for rejecting him. (I would be one of those people before reading this short book.) Keller claims there is more to what Jesus was saying then meets the eye.

Jesus was telling this parable while discussing/arguing with the pharisees about various issues. It is among a couple of other parables. The context Jesus gives this parable and his audience deepens the meaning its meaning two-fold. First, Jesus is using it to reprimand the Pharisees for being "elder brothers." They are not willing to go into their father's house to celebrate the return of their lost younger brothers. Second, look how deeply the younger brother has offended the father and the father's response to this offense.

My general feeling about the book: if you haven't read it, read it! It's short and easy. It deepend my understanding of this parable and helped me better understand myself in relation to fellow Christians. This parable has special power for evangelicals today. We are often the elder brother in this story who aren't willing to step in the house of God with those who have spit in our father's face. We won't worship with them. Why not? Keller gives a poignant and very critical answer that we need to hear.

So read it if you have not already. It's worth two-three hours of your time.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Teaching to the Present and the Future

Tonight, for my Classroom Management Course, I interviewed a student teacher from Taylor. One of things we talked about was making the content relevant for the student. She is Math Education, and I am Social Studies Education so two very different subject matters. Both are very important for students in today's world. One thing that she noted about history was that one of her students told her history became interesting once he realized how much it effected the decisions that we make today and how helpful it is to predicting the future.

One the key importance about the discipline of history is that it helps us make decisions about the past. Yet, how can this be put into the classroom?

One way is to teach about the past and point out how it is effecting the present. This can be hard. "Who cares about what is going on Iraq today, much less 3000 years ago," says the naive student. Students, and people in general, don't care about what is outside of their immediate environment and does not bring about pleasure. According to Aristotle, failures at living the good life. Kierkegaard called this the "aesthetic life style." One who lives like this wants to be entertained and lives chiefly for pleasure. Their focus: the immediate environment around them.

How do you pull an aesthete out of his/her egotistical life? You take his immediate surroundings and make it bigger. You work with them to realize that we are a global society, what goes on in Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Kenya and where ever is important to their lives.

For instance, all students should be caring a lot about what is going on in Iraq right now. 1. We have American soldiers there. 2. Most the oil reserves are in the Middle East. Specifically, Iraq has 112 billion barrels. You want to drive home after school? Start paying attention and learn where the fuel you burn comes from and what that place is about. (By the way, the link to PBS is very interesting. Worth looking through.)

Another way to help students realize how important history is, is to relate to their personal life. I think biographies are extremely important here. The testimonies of Christians has been extremely helpful for my life, and I believe that if historical figures (good and bad) are taught in detail in the classroom, students will begin to realize the importance of history. [Just a thought: imagine being in a U.S. History course where it's all taught from the perspective of a specific individual in time. So what was the American Revolution like to Andrew Jackson and what it was like for a German Hessen. How could would that be!]

So there are two ways that I have come up to help students realize that history is important for their lives.

One last thought: be exited about your topic. I love history and if students see that in me, hopefully some of it rubs off. (This was one other thing that I got from my interview.)

"You have to know the past to understand the present."
Carl Sagan

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Problem of Personal Identity - Why it Matters (with a note on Descartes)

In Philosophy of Mind, there is a problem called "the problem of personal identity." How is it that "I" am the same person through time though every seven years, my body is made up of completely different matter? Descartes (and probably all/most of dualists) says that personal identity is found in the unchanging non-extended, indestructible mind/soul/spirit. This thinking thing is ontologically (ontology has to do with being of the nature of a thing) distinct from body and are radically different substances.

The problem with Descartes attempt to solve the problem of identity is "the interaction problem." How does the body and mind interact with each other if they are causally distinct. Other philosophers have given numerous answers from answering yes, no and maybe to trying to redefine the problem and/or becoming monists (the belief that human beings are composed of only one substance. Hegel, Berkeley, Leibniz, Spinoza, Dawkins, Hitchens, Nagel are some monists.) A second problem for Descartes is that it makes personal identity irrelevent to the body. This can be understood as a sub-problem of the interaction problem. If the mind and body are distinct from each other, isn't personal identity then irrelevent for the body? What is the connection? Hence: the interaction problem.

Why does this matter? 1. Descartes brought about David Hume who brought Kant and Hegel who brought about Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Marx who brought communism, socialism, existentialism and a bunch of other fun things that cause problems and solve problems. 2. I am being tested over this is about 2 hours. 3. It shows how finite we are. Whatever answer we give, it automatically restricts us to a certain view which seems to inevitably brings about problems.

In conclusion, do you agree with the picture?