Friday, June 26, 2009

“The Story of Philosophy”, Will Durant

Mind over Matter

How does knowledge arise? Have we, as some good people suppose, innate ideas, as, for example, of right and wrong, and God, - ideas inherent in the mind from birth, prior to all experience? Anxious theologians, worried lest belief in the Deity should disappear because God had yet not be seen in any telescope, had thought that faith and morals might be strengthened if their central and basic ideas were shown to be inborn in every normal soul. But John Locke (1632-1704), good Christian though he was, ready to argue most eloquently for “The Reasonableness of Christianity,” could not accept these suppositions; he announced quietly, that all our knowledge comes from experience and through our senses – that “there is nothing in the mind except what was first in the senses”. The mind is at birth a clean sheet, a tabula rasa; and sense-experience writes upon it in a thousand ways, until sensation begets memory and memory begets ideas. All of which seemed to lead to the startling conclusion that since only material things can affect our sense, we know nothing but matter, and must accept a materialistic philosophy. If sensations are the stuff of thought, the hasty argued, matter must be the material of mind.

Not at all, said Bishop George Berkeley (1684-1753); this Lockian analysis of knowledge proves rather that matter does not exist except as a form of mind. It was a brilliant idea – to refute materialism by the simple expedient of showing that we know of no such thing as matter; in all Europe only a Gaelic imagination could have conceived this metaphysical magic. But see how obvious it is, said the Bishop: has not Locke told us that all our knowledge is derived from sensation? Therefore all our knowledge of anything is merely our sensations of it, and the ideas derived from these sensations. A “thing” is merely a bundle of perceptions – i.e., classified and interpreted sensations.

You protest that your breakfast is much more than a bundle of perceptions; and that a hammer that teaches you carpentry through your thumb has a most magnificent materiality. But your breakfast is at first nothing but a congeries of sensations of sight and smell and touch; and then of taste; and then of internal warmth and comfort. Likewise, the hammer is bundle of sensations of color, size, shape, weight, touch, etc; its reality for you is not in its materiality, but in the sensations that come from your thumb. If you had no senses, the hammer would not exist for you at all; it might strike your dead thumb forever and yet win from you not the slightest attention. It is only a bundle of sensations, or a bundle of memories; it is a condition of the mind. All matter, so far as we know it, is a mental condition; and the only reality that we know directly is mind. So much for materialism.

But the Irish Bishop had reckoned without the Scottish skeptic. David Hume (1711-1776) at the age of twenty-six shocked all Christendom with his highly heretical Treatise on Human Nature, - one of the classics and marvels of modern philosophy. We know the mind, said Hume, only as we know matter: by perception, thought it be in this case internal. Never do we perceive any such entity as the “mind”; we perceive merely separate ideas, memories, feelings, etc. The mind is not a substance, an organ that has ideas; it is only an abstract name for the series ideas; the perceptions, memories and feelings are the mind; there is no observable “soul” behind the process of thought.

The result appeared to be that Hume as effectually destroyed the mind as Berkeley has destroyed matter. Nothing was left; and philosophy found itself in the midst of ruins of its own making. No wonder a wit advised the abandonment of the controversy, saying “No matter, never mind”.

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