In Defense of Objective Idealism
(Author’s note: This essay was written some ten years ago and may not reflect my current views in every detail although it does still represent the general tenor of my thought.)
This essay is not a technical exposition of the doctrines of objective idealism. What I want to do in this essay is make vividly real to you the problem to which I think objective idealism is the best solution, and tell you why I think that.
In Dropping Ashes on the Buddha [pp. 20-21], Stephen Mitchell [that page will appear in a new browser window] reports an exchange between Zen master Seung Sahn and a student in which Seung Sahn holds up a watch and asks, “Is this watch outside your mind or inside it?”
I suppose most people would give the same answer the student gave — namely, that the watch is “outside” the mind. But this superficially obvious answer is fraught with problems.
For as Seung Sahn himself asks, if the watch is “outside” my mind (which is inside my head), how do I know it’s a watch? Does my mind dash out of my eyes, run over to the watch, and then trot back to my head with a report?
On the other hand, if the watch is “inside” my mind (which is inside my head), I seem to have an equally insurmountable problem. For then there doesn’t seem to be any “real” watch “out there” — just the “mental” watch inside my head. And for that matter, how do I know my “head” is real?
I drove myself nuts with this question when I was in high school. I distinctly remember sitting on my back porch one night, staring at the moon, trying to decide how I could possibly have knowledge of such an external object when my thought/image/idea of that object was nothing more than an event inside my brain.
Stop and think about that for a moment. Pick out an object near you and look at it — say, your computer monitor. Is it outside your mind or inside it? If it’s “outside,” how is it possible for you to be experiencing it or thinking of it? Isn’t there some sense in which it must be “in” your mind in order for you to know it? And on the other hand, if what you know is nothing more than a mental construct, where is the “real” monitor? Is there one? How do you know?
I love paradoxes. Good paradoxes are more than just interesting mental diversions; the best of them are “incongruities in the structure of the Matrix,” clues that our current intellectual world isn’t all there is, hints about the nature of the real reality underlying the world of our thoughts. And this particular paradox is just such a hint. It raises deep and fundamental questions about the relation between thought and object, between mind and “external” reality.
Is the watch inside my mind or outside it? Must it be one or the other?
And here’s a closely related problem. When are two things the same? The reason this is “closely related” is that we’d like to know when the “object of my thought” can be the “same” as the real, really-out-there object of which I’m thinking. Is this possible even in principle? Or am I stuck inside what John Locke called an “iron ring of ideas”?
There’s a paradox lurking in this question too. For how can two things be the “same”? If they were the same, they’d be one thing, wouldn’t they? So if they’re really two, mustn’t they be different?
Careful how you answer. If your answer is “yes,” then you’ll need to be very careful how you answer the other question, the one about whether the watch (or your computer monitor) is inside or outside your mind, which is really about the relation between thought and object. If you give the wrong set of answers, you’ll back yourself into a corner, trapping yourself into the view that the “object” of your thought can never be the same as the real, really-out-there object. Then you’ll be stuck inside your head forever, with no evidence that your “head” even exists.
Here’s an easy way to see why. Think about something that happened yesterday. Now, an event that occurred yesterday isn’t here any more, and your thought of it is happening now. Is your thought somehow reaching into the past, or into some eternal realm, to “make contact” with yesterday’s events? If not, then how can you say that you’re thinking about yesterday? If yesterday isn’t literally present to your thought, then you must agree either that (a) the object of your thought can be “the same as” yesterday’s events even though they’re not really identical, or that (b) you’re not really thinking about yesterday’s events at all!
What has all this to do with objective idealism? Well, “objective idealism” is, at bottom, a philosophy holding that there is no dichotomy between thought and reality, that the Real is thought-and-object together in inseparable unity, that — to borrow a phrase from F.H. Bradley — our thought isn’t seeking anything foreign to itself.
Here’s why it resolves the two paradoxes I’ve mentioned. First, its answer to the question “Can `two’ things be the same?” is a resounding NO — if “two” things are really identical, they are one thing. (Technically this doctrine is called the “Identity of Indiscernibles,” and I think it’s the proper solution to the problem of universals. But I told you in my opening paragraph where to go on this site for further discussion of those issues.)
But for objective idealism, this answer doesn’t leave us stuck “inside our heads,” out of cognitive contact with “external” reality. Why not? Because the Real itself is already the sort of stuff that can be “in” a mind. There is some literal sense in which the “object of my thought” really is the really-out-there “objective” object of which I’m thinking.
On the approach I’m taking here, there are really two and only two alternatives to some form of objective idealism. The first is to deny the Identity of Indiscernibles and say that “two” things can be the same without being identical. (On some “looser” readings of the meaning of “sameness,” this is clearly true anyway.) The second is to say that we can have knowledge of things even if they’re not literally “present to our thought” — i.e., we can think about yesterday perfectly well even if our minds don’t literally make any sort of “contact” with past events.
I don’t find either of these alternatives plausible at all, and you can read my other essays to see why. But you should be aware that these alternatives do exist and that other philosophers have defended them — sometimes very ably.
But let’s suppose you’ve read my other essays and I’ve persuaded you on both points — namely, that when “two” things are identical, they literally share some common property that is literally present “in” each of them, and that when we think “about” something, that something is literally present “in” or “to” our thought. Now what?
Well, that tells us something very important about “objective” reality. It tells us, as I suggested a few paragraphs back, that the Real is actually made up of the sort of stuff that can be “in” a mind — that mind and Reality are “internally” related. (Again, see my essay “On the Rationality of Theism” for a discussion of what “internal relations” are.) We can’t conceive, and there can’t be, any “reality” entirely and altogether apart from Mind.
Where do we go from here? Objective idealism comes in different “flavors,” of which some are superficially more “rationalistic” and even “intellectualistic” than others (though I think this is largely a matter of emphasis).
One view, which I share, is that all of reality consists of experience. Timothy L.S. Sprigge provides a thorough defense of this view (called “panpsychism”) in his excellent book The Vindication of Absolute Idealism. (“Absolute idealism” is another name for “objective idealism.” The Absolute is what idealists like to call “unconditioned” Reality, and theistic idealists — of whom I am one — identify the Absolute with God.) Rudy Rucker’s Infinity and the Mind includes a good short exposition of this view (pp. 183-184 in the Princeton edition), from which the following is taken:
Perhaps it is reasonable to suppose that there really is only one consciousness, that individual humans are simply disparate faces of what the classical mystical tradition calls the One.
But we can go farther than this. The essence of consciousness is, really, nothing more than simple existence, I am. Why should the possession of this sort of consciousness be denied to anything that does exist? Aquinas has said that God is pure existence unmodified. Is it not evident that there is a certain single something — call it God, or the One, or pure existence — that pervades the world as it is? Consider the Zen phrasing of this: The universal rain moistens all creatures. Or think of the world as a stained-glass window with light shining through every part.
To exist is to have consciousness. . . . Existence is, finally, the only thing required for consciousness.
Another view, which I also share, is that all of reality is really one single, overarching, coherent, intelligible system. This view is shared even by idealist philosophers — e.g. my personal favorite philosopher, Brand Blanshard — who would disagree with (or at least be unpersuaded by) the “panpsychist” view set out in the preceding few paragraphs. But in the final analysis, this view holds that the Real is “internally related” to Mind in another (or is it “another”?) way: what is ultimately real is, in principle even if not in practice, intelligible to reason. (And this view in turn depends on a view of “reason” that I explain at some length in chapter 8 of Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality.)
There are other variations too, but I won’t try to discuss them here. (For example, I hold that reality consists ultimately of a single Mind in which the entirety of the “physical” universe is a single coherent thought. But the idealist J.M.E. McTaggart was an atheist who believed that reality ultimately consists of individual “spiritual substances” related to one another through love.) The heart of the matter is this: objective idealism, in any of its forms, holds that the Real is neither something “outside” the mind nor simply “inside” it. To Seung Sahn’s question — “Is this watch outside your mind or inside it?” — it answers, “No.”
In closing, a couple of caveats are in order. There are arguments against objective (or absolute) idealism, and I don’t mean to imply that every non-idealist in the world has simply misunderstood idealism. But sometimes people reject idealism based on misunderstandings of what it means.
Sometimes people think, for example that idealists believe the entire world is only in my own “mind.” This isn’t true; in fact this sort of subjective idealism is possible only to someone who thinks that objective reality is not at least contiguous with mental experience. Again, sometimes people think objective idealists reject the existence of “matter.” This isn’t true either (at least not necessarily); I personally would say that physical matter is entirely real but that its real nature is as an activity in the Absolute or Divine Mind. (But there’s a fine and perhaps indiscernible line between the view that “matter is unreal” and the view that “matter is really mental.” And it’s not one I’d want to argue over very much.)
At any rate, what I’ve tried to do here is to set out, in what I hope is clear and accessible fashion, why I think some version of objective idealism is needed in order to account for the very possibility of knowledge. It seems to me, in short, to be the only way to deal with the paradoxes that arise when we divorce thought from reality.
And the visceral realization that the “world” and your “mind” are not-two is at least a lot like, and I think actually is, a mystical experience. If you really “get” what I’m driving at here, you might enjoy Douglas Harding’s underground spiritual classic, On Having No Head, about which you can learn by visiting the website of The Headless Way. [That page will appear in a new browser window.]
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