Path to idealism

A friend of mine suggested I should write up how I came to idealism, which I’ll do here. I’ll note up front that I do not think that I came to it through the best philosophical arguments, possible or actual. Nonetheless, the path itself may be elucidatory of rhetorically strong arguments for it. (It may well also just be a generally uninteresting anecdote, but in either case, the request is fulfilled.) I may as well also explain how I came around to agent-causal libertarianism and agnosticism regarding the existence of divine beings. They all tie together, anyway.

At the end of high school I was a generally stereotypical new atheist with a strong inkling of disillusionment coming out of having strong religious beliefs that fell apart (and were probably of a harmful variety, anyway). Along with this came an eternalist theory of time, incompatibilist determinism, and a general scientism. Ultimately, buying into a third-person methodology probably did a lot of this. When still a Christian, I appealed to revelation that couldn’t be verified with a third-person perspective. I was told that if something didn’t qualify as evidence for others, it can’t qualify for me either. This didn’t knock over the dominoes immediately, but once I internalized it, everything else started to fall into place.

My first semester of college I took two seven-week seminars that met daily. Each of the two professors were brilliant, and the latter of the two a theologian as well. At that point I had two contradictory beliefs in mind: (1) religion and theism are completely stupid and (2) these religious people/theists are brilliant and have thought hard about religion and theism. The latter option won given the stronger evidence in its favor (Dawkins and friends have very condescending things to say, but looking back, I don’t see much substance to those things). Of course, this didn’t defeat my atheism, but it certainly made me believe the alternative is plausible.

My third semester I took a course on ancient and medieval philosophy. In the class we talked about some sort of phenomena (either color or feeling or pain; I don’t remember–for the sake of not writing a bunch of disjunctions, I’ll assume pain) and the professor asked us to explain what they are, more or less. I identified pain as a neural state. I.e. pain is just an arrangement of one’s brain and neurons and maybe some other biological stuff. The professor responded that may have some causal or correlatory connection to pain, but is not itself the feeling of pain. I pondered on this for awhile and the distinction became immediately apparent. (This is when the door to first person methodology opened back up.) From this I inferred some sort of “soul” must exist. I used “soul” synonymously with “mind” or “immaterial self”. While now I know physicalists have a response to this, I did not know that at the time, so I was convinced. With this I became a substance dualist.

The next semester I took a class on early modern philosophy. I appreciated philosophers like Descartes giving me further ammo for dualism, but my focus turned more towards whether divine beings exist (or, specifically, God). Descartes’s Meditations persuaded me pretty well, particularly on how we can get around skepticism. In the Meditations he only gives a natural theological argument, so I wasn’t pushed to any religion, but I did take to deism, though with hesitation. In fact, the final for the class had two essay questions of which we had to pick one: argue for or against the existence of God or free will. Being hesitant on God, I picked the free will option, running the “both determinism and indeterminism are bad for free will so we don’t have free will” argument. (Which in the paper I’ll be presenting in April, I argue doesn’t actually work.)

The following semester (fall of my junior year; also my first semester as a philosophy major) I took a class on science fiction and philosophy in which I had plenty of opportunities to apply substance dualism to all sorts of fun problems. The main thrust of it relied on God mapping souls to bodies. The deism obviously was critical. In the sci fi and philosophy class I found the arguments for compatibilism really compelling.

The next semester (spring of junior year) a few important factors came into play. I took an independent study on early modern philosophy and the PSR. Reading more into Leibniz and Spinoza with their basically panpsychist views probably had some effect. Reading Reid fully convinced me of agent-causal libertarianism. I was already starting to see how compatibilist free will has some problems (like not being free will), but had no way around it, not really getting event causal libertarianism (and universal object causal libertarianism being wacky). ACL filled the hole the best and, to my knowledge, indeed is the best explanation. The door being open to first person experience being relevant to an argument was of course needed for Reid’s argument having any force on me.

In the winter months of my junior year I started reading some work found on marxists.org, in fact just plucking anything that looked interesting and giving it a go. At this same time I started paying more attention to continental philosophy (which isn’t covered super well at Valpo). Most notably for this story, I took a liking to Sartre. Moreover, I found his argument for atheism more compelling each time I read it. Once I was fully convinced of libertarianism, the deism fell out to positive atheism. A long conversation I had with another friend in which he tried to convince me of physicalism was the straw that led me to look at all the problems with dualism. Without God to make the whole thing work, dualism was ready to fall out. Of course, the original point that made me move away from physicalism holds, and since then I’ve found more compelling arguments as well.

This past fall, with physicalism and dualism each unappealing, I started to lean to idealism. A few weeks in, I read Peter van Inwagen’s chapter in Metaphysics in which he reconstructs an argument for idealism and then knocks it down. I found the reconstructed argument far more compelling than the knocking down. (While I’d read Berkeley twice before, neither time was I moved. I couldn’t really understand the texts at the time, either.) Since then I’ve been working on a nontheistic account of idealism. At the same time, I took a class on philosophy of religion. There I learned Sartre was wrong; free will and theism are compatible.

At this point, I’ve acquired more compelling arguments for ACL and idealism. The agnosticism on the existence of divine beings stems from no longer having a strong case either way. Traditional idealism demands theism, but I think this is a hasty move. Multiple people have pointed out that the most apparent problems in my current set of beliefs all go away with God in the picture. I’m hesitant to apply such a powerful fix, inclined instead to believe other options should be explored first (which is what I’m doing now, alongside trying to make the case that what I’m doing totally isn’t monism because there are at least two things). Moreover, as the friend who suggested this post put it, I want an ontological argument for every property of God. So even if there is some being keeping our ideas consistent and explaining intersubjective agreement, that being isn’t obviously omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient, etc.

[Edit 2018-06-23: I noticed this is one of the more popular posts on my blog, so an omission here is worth correcting. I should note that the professor of the early modern class, as well as the sci fi & philosophy, history independent study, and logic independent study (fwiw) is a Berkeleyan idealist. At the time I wrote this, I wanted to avoid sounding like I was just imitating or like he was pushing his idealism on students. Apparently I went too far in the other direction and failed to mention his role at all. As far as my idealism up to the point of writing the original post here, he at least provided a pretty good foundation of what it is and also some of the possibilities. (After all, Leibniz and Spinoza are, in some sense, idealists.) Also, someone smart believing it probably helped me maintain some trust that I wasn’t just crazy as everyone else I knew disagreed.

I might do another post soon to update where I am since I have certainly updated my position since.]

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Grad School Visit #1: Mizzou

(Clarification note written prior to any visits: While I blog about these visits for several reasons (personal reflection, sharing my experiences with anyone interested, maybe someone else accepted but unable to visit will find them useful, etc.) I will note upfront I intend to omit anything I consider negative and also that no inferences should be drawn from any omissions. In fact, I may omit things just to ruin the ability to make inferences. I’ll also omit names. I doubt my blog is read enough to matter, but I’d rather not anyone read these and dislike what they see. Also, the no negative comments rule does not apply to food.)

I flew in Thursday morning, getting in around noon. After settling in, I had some time to wander Columbia before meeting with anyone. The city itself I immediately took to. There’s a lot of food options, a lot of stuff in an easily walkable area, and the level of crowdedness is comfortably low. The place looks pretty nice, and downtown is close enough to the university you can’t easily tell where one ends and the other begins.

The campus of Mizzou itself certainly earned its reputation. I couldn’t explore all of it because it’s huge, but what I did see was beautiful. Many of the buildings are historical, though the newer ones are obviously state of the art. (For contrast, none looked like they were thrown up thirty years ago and left to decay since.) The student center and the union (apparently different buildings) were both packed with things. Lots of restaurants, plenty of places to be, some recreational activities, a two-floor store, etc. The recreation center was named the best college rec center by Sports Illustrated, and for good reason. I found the rock climbing walls and lazy river with whirlpool to be the most appealing features of the rec center.

Regarding the philosophy department itself (right!), I spent most of my time in individual meetings with faculty. I was pleasantly surprised to find more areas of shared interest than I expected. If I were to go to Mizzou, I wouldn’t expect to have any trouble finding support for my interests. One professor and I got so immersed in conversation that our twenty minute meeting consumed the next twenty meeting. Whoops. That much should have been expected as soon as the topic turned to metaphysics, though.

Overall the climate was extremely comfortable. The term seems vague, but it really fits–the place felt like home almost instantly. Sitting in the hotel waiting for my taxi to pick me up, I feel sad to leave. The relationships between graduate students and professors appeared all quite virtuous. I haven’t personally seen any departments where people are really at each others’ throats in a negative sense, but I’m aware they exist, and this department seems to be the polar opposite of that. I couldn’t talk to anyone without them saying good things about someone else in the dept. Moreover, all of the grad students seemed really happy being there. Some went out of their way to say good things. Others, even when I asked, really had nothing bad to say.

The last event of the whole visit was a pizza party at one of the professors’ houses. It was about as pleasant as you would expect a pizza party to be (very). I bounced around for awhile before settling in a small group off to the side talking about metaphysics for a few hours. Seems talking about idealism will get pretty much anyone (quantified over the domain of people interested in philosophy) interested. From there everything from mereology to bodily resurrection to time travel came up.

On my free night (Thursday) I had Shakespeare’s pizza since I actually heard of it from over a hundred miles away. It was good, for sure, though not worth trying to replicate at home with the expensive frozen pizzas they offer. The cheesy fries in the student union were good. The cheese took awhile to get used to, but about halfway in I appreciated the depth of the flavor. The fries were average. I think the pizza at the pizza party was Wise Guys. Also decent, for sure, and it even held its own after cooling off throughout a couple hours of metaphysics.