Sunday, December 07, 2008

Materialism and Empirio-criticism

I'm currently reading Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-criticism.

I'm about a third of the way through the book. Lenin has devoted this portion of the book to demonstrating that the "empirio-critical" school of philosophy — which criticizes late 19th and early 20th century materialism — is at best nothing more than an elaborate restatement of Berkeley's subjective idealism; at worst it's hypocritical and sometimes mendacious. Lenin's scholarship is meticulous and his analysis is incisive, direct and bullshit-free. It remains to be seen if he offers good positive arguments for materialism.

The fundamental issue hinges on existence, and what precisely we mean by this word.

The subjective idealists have a good point, a point that deserves careful consideration. It is uncontroversial that all of our knowledge fundamentally rests on a foundation of subjective experience, and nothing but subjective experience. Therefore, any concept of an objective, material reality must posit something extra, something we cannot derive from the subjective foundation of our knowledge. The materialist must "bite the bullet" and admit that yes, we are indeed adding something extra to our subjective foundation.

But the subjective idealist must bite his own bullet: he must account for our overpowering and unshakable intuition of naive realism. This intuition might have as little veracity as our intuitions about the existence of God, but naive realism cannot simply be ignored and dismissed as irrelevant.

The subjective idealist, from Berkeley to Mach, says that our "epistemic project" is to organize and predict our subjective experiences, that all "scientific" theories discuss nothing but our subjective experiences. All well and good; even a materialist such as myself will agree to thus restrict our epistemic project.

However, the way in which we organize and predict our experience becomes relevant. If subjective idealism is to be different from materialism, the components of our underlying understanding of experience cannot have certain properties: notably properties that are stable and consistent independent of our subjective experience. Subjective idealism as an ontology must call all properties properties of the mind.

And not just the mind in general, but the individual's own conscious mind: subjective idealism entails solipsism. Pushing any properties to the "subconscious" mind, or the mind of God, or the absolute ideal — anything other than the individual's own conscious mind — adds something extra to our conscious experience. Furthermore, whatever "extra" we add must have the exact same properties as the materialist's objective reality: the materialist intentionally attributes to objective reality the minimum necessary to account for our subjective experience. Any move away from solipsism, and either the materialist and the faux subjective idealist are talking about exactly the same thing and the controversy is merely a choice of label, or it is the subjective idealist who is adding even more than the materialist to individual subjective experience, demolishing his fundamental argument from parsimony.

So the difference between the subjective idealist and the materialist is not epistemic: both must admit the subjective foundation of our knowledge. The controversy is ontological: about what kinds of properties to attribute to the components of our organization of our experience.

Subjective idealism says that the components of our subjective organization of the world, our mental objects, are "bundles of sense impressions" and nothing more. This characterization works well enough as a metaphor; one must charitably assume that the subjective idealist is well aware that our mental processes are more complicated than simple "bundling". And, of course, given that the materialist must admit to the subjective foundation of our knowledge (if not our ontology), she must approve of the idea that our mental objects have a lot to do with our sense impressions. But it's all too easy to take a metaphor literally.

There are some aspects of my experience that I am never surprised about. When something appears red, I never think, "Wait! that's not how red appears!" When I remember something, I never think, "Wait! That's not how I remember it." I just see the color red; I just remember what I remember. If I don't see something as red, I just see it as green or blue or fuchsia; I don't see it as the "wrong" kind of red.

There are, however, other aspects of my experience that I'm regularly surprised about: As I move through the world, I have sense impressions I've never had before: The position of other cars as I drive, the specific locations, colors, smells, textures of trees and bushes when I walk in the woods and so forth. I'm constantly being — in some sense — surpised by the my experiences. I have sense impressions I've never had before: my mental objects as "bundles of sense impressions" do not actually include those new sense impressions. And yet these surprising sense impressions "fit" in various different ways with my pre-existing mental object. They are both surprising in one sense and (usually) unsurprising in another sense.

There are only three choices:
  1. These regularities are already part of my conscious mind and my conscious mind is imposing the regularities on my sense impressions
  2. My conscious mind is randomly creating regularities and imposing them on my sense impressions
  3. These regularities are independent of my conscious mind, and I'm consciously discovering them.
We can exclude the first: If these regularities were already part of my conscious mind, I would be aware of them before I had any sense impressions at all: I could never be surprised by a sense impression. We can exclude the second: There are too many higher-level regularities to the regularities for them to be random. Which leaves only the third option: These regularities must be independent of my conscious mind. The label is irrelevant: whether I label these regularities as "subconscious", the mind of God, the absolute ideal, objective reality, a Cartesian demon, I'm committed to some sort of externalism: my mental objects have properties independent of my conscious mind. And once I'm committed to externalism I might as well be committed to materialism, since materialism is defined to be the minimal externalism necessary to account for the independent properties of my mental objects.

Once we view the debate between subjective idealism and materialism as a debate about the kind of ontology we mentally construct, evidence starts pouring in to support materialism.

My mind constructs elaborate causal histories for my experiences, causal histories that extend billions of years — the same sorts of years that I directly experience — before my earliest memories. I simply cannot appeal to randomness or pre-existing conscious thought to account for the construction of these elaborate causal histories.

My experiences do not automatically conform to my convenience or pleasure; indeed they rarely do so, and never do so without performing what — are from a position of subjective realism — elaborate and pointless rituals. I wish the subjective experience of tasting coffee, I have to experience filling the coffee pot with water, getting the can of coffee down from the shelf, etc. Worse yet, to have the experience of having a coffee pot, I have to go to work, earn money, take that money to a store, etc. Again, I can't appeal to randomness to account for these elaborate rituals.

We are constantly flooded with experiential evidence of externalism and thus materialism. There is simply no way to construct an ontology without giving my mental objects the properties of independence, of the capability to surprise.


  1. We are constantly flooded with experiential evidence of externalism and thus materialism. There is simply no way to construct an ontology without giving my mental objects the properties of independence, of the capability to surprise.

    Interesting. Is it a fair restatement of your argument to say that nothing about our subjective experience makes any fucking sense without positing the existence of external reality?

    My own personal position on achieving logical or empirical certainty on the materialism versus subjective idealism distinction is, Who gives a flying fuck? I don't see how I lose anything by just going with the handiness of materialism.

  2. Is it a fair restatement of your argument to say that nothing about our subjective experience makes any fucking sense without positing the existence of external reality?

    Yes. More precisely without positing some sort of externalism. And once you have externalism, you lose solipsism, which is a necessary conclusion of subjective idealism.

    Essentially Lenin makes the argument (with devastating effect, IMnsHO) that the empirio-critics (Mach, Avernus, etc.) are in the same bind, and simply obfuscate their materialism under a layer of philosophical bullshit.


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