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.

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Path to idealism