On Perspective

What is perception? And what is the connection between perception and the corresponding reality posited in naïve realism? This question was of great interest to many important Enlightenment thinkers and is reflected in the many novel approaches they took to the problem and is passed down to us even today in postmodernist doubts about perception and its connection to an objective reality. Among these, Leibniz, Berkeley, and Hume present us with a wide swath of philosophical approaches to the question that not only offer a diversity of perspectives, but can also provide a critique of each other as well. An evaluation of them would prove useful in considering our own beliefs about perspective and how we came by them.

Leibniz

For Leibniz, ontology is perspective; in the form of discrete units of being he called monads. The individual monad is the realization of one of an infinity of divine perspectives on the creation. Each of these is coordinated by the creative power of God so that all events, while represented by a distinct and causally independent perspective, nevertheless correlate between the individual perspectives realized in each monad. Thus, each monad is an independent world unto itself, operationally distinct from one another, and united only in a common bond to the divine will.1 Leibniz expresses this relationship by saying:

Thus God alone constitutes the relation or communication between substances. It is through him that the phenomena of the one meet and accord with the phenomena of the others, so that there may be a reality in our perceptions.2

Thus, the only proper causal relationship that exists is between the individual monads and the God who formed them. It is understood that all of our perceptions are immediately derived from God and constitute the only external contact possible for a monad. Additionally, these perceptions are not only derived from God, but are themselves a reflection of the divine essence and will, which explains how we are able to know all other substances in the universe.3 All other so called relationships are causal in name only, being rather an increase of phenomena in one substance with a corresponding decrease in the second substance, as dictated by God.4

Although there are no causal links between phenomena, it remains possible to predict future states based on the knowledge that all events perceived are functions of a monads essence. This means that each monad recapitulates within it all known phenomena,5 both of its own experiences as well as all attendant circumstances, of past, present and future. Because of this, it can be said that each monad exerts its power upon all other substances by virtue of their being present in its being, and is in turn acted upon by them through participation in their essences.6 As a consequence, the essence of any substance is understood to consist of nothing more than its perceptions and their changes.7 It is therefore impossible for a substance, or monad, to have no perception, since the end of perception would necessarily mean the end to the substance it constitutes.8

It is the distinct character of the various perceptions, varying in strength and clarity, which lend the individual monads their uniqueness.9 Because of this, each monad can reflect the same universe, whilst simultaneously doing so in a distinctive manner.10 Thus, while each essence carries with it the totality of all sensations, only a small portion of these can be attended to by the soul at any one time. It would thus be almost impossible to have a completely shared perspective on any one phenomenon, let alone all phenomena, due to the variety of possibilities presented to the individual.11

Berkeley

Berkeley believed human knowledge to be derived from perceptions of the senses, observations of the mind, or memories and imagination, which is itself a reconstitution of the first two.12 And whereas Leibniz had arguably but one mind, that of God, Berkeley allowed for multiple minds, since for him the mind was the basis, or principle, upon which perception existed.13 There could be no sensations or impressions unless there was a mind in which to impress them upon. Nor could there be any of the other mental activities that made up human knowledge without a mind to bear these impressions and allow for their manipulation and recombination.14 Thus, while for Leibniz existence was perception and the mind of God, Berkeley understood existence to be but one substance, the mind as a foundational substance, and its’ perceptions, in a secondary, conditional existence, subsisting in the mind.15

This is what he meant when uttering his famous phrase, esse est percipi, for since the mind grounds all existence, anything that did not subsist in the mind had no existence.16 He argued this position by pointing out that all we can know is our perceptions, of the various senses, or else of memories of those perceptions.17 But if sensations and the ideas founded upon them are all that can known, then how is it we can justify a belief in something existing outside of our perceptions, such as any underlying, yet unperceived, reality behind our perceptions?18 The error of naïve realism lies in the mistaken notion that the mind is somehow capable of extracting the imperceptible substance from our perceptions of the object, and so to discover what was not in their perceptions by means of those very same perceptions in which they failed to discover it.19

Berkeley thereby not only eliminates the problems associated with dualism, as displayed in the difficulties of coordinating interactions between the material and mental in the Cartesian system, but eliminates distinctions between primary and secondary qualities as well, for without an external substance to anchor the primary substances in, they are necessarily grounded in the same substance as the secondary qualities, namely the mind.20 Beyond this, even should their be mind independent substances, this would change nothing with regard to our knowledge of the world, since these imperceptible substances would lie outside the realm of the knowable, and so such a theory would propose elements that for all intent would serve no purpose within the ontological system and do nothing to expand our knowledge of the world beyond what is already attained in a system without them. Additionally, it would potentially create problems when trying to account for various phenomena in which there are clearly perceptions, but without any underlying material substance, e.g., dreams.21

Sensations and ideas functioned as inert elements within Berkeley’s immaterialism, as their content is dictated solely by what is perceived. It is only the mind that is active, performing various operations upon the perceptual objects available to it.22 Yet clearly there is a cause behind these sensations, since there is an unbroken succession of them, often with unanticipated content.23 But with nothing but the mental as a source which to attribute them, it becomes necessary to propose a governing mind; one governing the phenomena we perceive, which for our purposes may be called God.24 It is in these sensations which reality exists, pouring forth from the overseeing mind, and from which all other mental phenomena are derived.25

Hume

Hume proves to be an interesting contrast to Leibniz and Berkeley, a skeptic to their believer. For while all three agree that our knowledge must begin with perception, Hume questions our capacity to extend our knowledge beyond it, and so throws the whole metaphysical project into question. He begins his analysis with the drawing of a simple distinction between our perceptions. The first class are what he calls impressions, which can be further broken up into the external sensations and the internal passions of the mind. These are characterized by their immediacy and vivacious character. The second group of perceptions, named ideas, are memory, imagination, and the like. Being derived from the reconstituted elements of the previous class, these lack the force or intensity of the former.26

These recollected perceptions are based on the minds repertoire of impressionable experiences, which presents a clear limitation to the mind for creativity, since no idea can be produced which is not already present within the mind from sensations of one form or another.27 The principles that connect the ideas derived from these perceptions are fairly simple and can be classed into three broad categories; resemblance, contiguity, and causality, and typically work themselves out as some combination of one or more of these principles.28 These principles are applied to two general classes of reasoning, deductive (Relations of Ideas) and inductive (Matters of Fact). Deduced ideas are known through an analysis of the content of the ideas in question, whereas inductive reasoning is about matters that must be compared to outside observations in order to know the truth of them.29

It is this latter family of ideas that seems to operate solely under the principle of causality. There seems little argument that this is in fact how we can take our knowledge beyond the mere registering of sense perceptions and make predictions based on them; we make causal connections between one observed event and a succeeding observed event. For no one knows the causal relation between an object without having first observed it, or by drawing an analogy between it and observations of similar objects.30 And yet our perceptions have no necessary connection between them that we could point to as justification for our causal predictions. It is based neither on a priori knowledge, for we do not know causality but by experience, and yet experience, which is composed of perceptions, fails to give us the necessary link since there is no guarantee that similar perceptions be succeeded in similar ways. Rather, it is only by a matter of convention that we are able to draw analogous comparisons with current perceptions and past experience and so assume a parallelism in our conclusions.31

Conclusions

While Hume is certainly best known for his questioning of causation, each of the philosophers brings it, and the naïve realist perspective that underlies it, into question. For Leibniz, the monads have causally isolated, having “no windows” through which to interact with one another. And Berkeley completely abandons any connection between one perception and any causally predictive by relegating the existence of phenomena to divinely supplied perceptions. But Hume perhaps was the most consistent of the three, for he saw that if we really are to limit ourselves to perception, than reason has no recourse but to note each perception as a distinct, independent phenomena. Steps beyond this were marks of inconsistency and a sort of back door attempt at regaining the lost substance of naïve realism.

But is his conclusion the right one, that we ought to give up on the metaphysical enterprise altogether and confine ourselves to the pragmatic philosophy he advocates? I have to admit to finding Hume’s argument a compelling one, but at the same time, he seems both entirely too pessimistic regarding both the capacity of human learning as well as the importance of the speculative aspects of philosophy. A quick perusal of Hume’s dismissiveness towards certain philosophers or the abilities of science would appear to indicate that he has taken what seem to be his own predispositions too far in the direction of matters of fact with clearly insufficient basis. Perhaps a better approach would be to keep grounded in Humean pragmatisms’ awareness of reasons limitations while allowing for the speculative to push the boundaries, if not of knowledge of reality, than at least our perception of it. Who knows, it may just lead us to even more successful customs and habits than the ones we have currently. And this in itself would seem to constitute a rejection of the passive mind these philosophers advocated in favor of one that is a dynamic actor; shaping, and not just being shaped by, the world perceived around them.

1Discourse, sect. 14

2Discourse, sect. 32

3Discourse, sect. 28

4Discourse, sect. 15

5Discourse, sect. 14

6Discourse, sect. 9; Monadology, sect. 14

7Monadology, sect. 17

8Monadology, sect. 23

9Monadology, sect. 60

10Monadology, sect. 63

11Discourse, sect. 32

12Principles, part I, sect. 1

13Principles, part I, sect. 2

14Principles, part I, sect. 3

15Principles, part I, sect. 7

16Principles, part I, sect. 6

17Principles, part I, sect. 3

18Principles, part I, sect. 4

19Principles, part I, sect. 5

20Principles, part I, sect. 9

21Principles, part I, sect. 18

22Principles, part I, sect. 25,27

23Principles, part I, sect. 26

24Principles, part I, sect. 29

25Principles, part I, sect. 33

26Enquiry, sect. 11,12

27Enquiry, sect. 13

28Enquiry, sect. 19

29Enquiry, sect. 20,21

30Enquiry, sect. 24

31Enquiry, sect. 29


Bibliography

  • Ariew, Roger, Eric Watkins, ed. “Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics.” Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998.
  • Ariew, Roger, Eric Watkins, ed. “Leibniz, The Principles of Philosophy or the Monadology.” Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998.
  • Ariew, Roger, Eric Watkins, ed. “Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge.” Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998.
  • “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” Wikisource, The Free Library. 7 Sep 2009, 00:18 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 4 Nov 2009 <http://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=An_Enquiry_Concerning_Human_Understanding&oldid=1216888>.

The Truth of Clouds

Clouds are interesting creatures
Whose character is quite distinct
When watched from far away
But when observed from closer up
Its essence grows more indefinite
Until at last the truth is found
There is no cloud at all to find
Instead some vapors high in the sky
But is the truth found just in that
That clouds are phantoms borne on high
To fool the human mind and eye
I would rather say instead
That truth and being are greater than
The mere collection of constituence
And how we seek to corollate
Determines which of these truths we find
As the object that lies before our eye
Who can say with such certitude
That the cloud is not the real
While the vapors serve just as parts

The world goes round

The world goes round like a spinning top
Precariously balancing on a tight string
Which binds it to the Sun since eons past
And quietly its gyral motions slacken
Too slowly for our fleeting lives to know
But one day after our memory has passed
The top shall fall and the world end
But with no one to witness this final state
Can it be said that the end has come
Or had it happened long before then
And it simply took the world that long
To recognize the truth of it?

My life – The Hegelian Dialectic

Have you ever felt like you’ve been here before, a certain scenario or life situation? I’ve recently come to see this in my own life, a sort of spiraling repetition, where the incidentals change, but the fundamental narrative, and the outcome of that narrative, never changes. I’m not sure what to make of it, but I seem incapable of escaping the loop of doubt, inquiry, and discovery, only to doubt once again.

It began the moment I questioned my Pentecostal upbringing, which was induced, ironically, by the excessive, in your face sort of Pentecostal/Charismatic atmosphere of CFNI. I couldn’t believe that Christianity, or God’s will for Christians, could be so erratic and cultic in it requirement for followers to blindly accept any doctrine a self-professed prophet of God tried to pass for the Word of God. I began to actually think about what I believed and the basis for that belief.

I don’t think I ever gave Pentecostalism a fair hearing before abandoning it, although to be honest, I doubt it would have made much of a difference considering the rest of my life. I went headlong into Reformed theology, studying, debating, writing, and reading materials. I briefly considered Lutheranism, but only for one visit before something else, Orthodoxy, began to grip my imagination.

Now, I didn’t want to just leave without listening to any and all arguments against leaving Reformed Christianity (and Protestantism altogether), so I elicited a great many attempts, both on-line and in real life, to dissuade me from making this decision. I met with a pastor at my Presbyterian church, sent emails to them, had numerous on-line discussions, and read a good many articles critiquing Orthodoxy from a Reformed/Protestant perspective.

Of course, the problem with such an exercise is that a change of this magnitude doesn’t just involve some changes to what doctrines I held, but to the very perspective that determined which of them were true. It does no good for someone to try and convince you that the couch is red when you see it blue, and as long as no major inconsistencies arise, there really is no way of arguing you out of such a position. You can only disbelieve yourself so much without doing serious damage to your ability to believe anything (I’ve been there, it isn’t pretty).

So, all of the well intended attempts of my Protestant friends and associates did little to dent my enthusiasm for Orthodoxy. Now, of course, Orthodoxy itself was in a perfect position to do some damage, and it did, but it couldn’t touch the idea of Orthodoxy (it’s fairly easy to separate reality from the ideal one carries around in ones head. Excuses are easy to come by). I stopped attending the Orthodox church due to the realities on the ground (both in the church and my own domestic situation), but it was only when a supposed friend of Orthodoxy, ecclesial history, turned on it and stabbed it in the back did I find myself without an anchor and drifting dangerously towards the rocks of unbelief.

So here I am, bottomed out on the shoals of agnosticism with the shoreline of atheism clearly in sight. And once again, I prepare to hear out my Christian friends as they attempt to dissuade me from making what is obviously (to them) the most disastrous decision I could ever make, to leave the faith (or at least to allow myself to drift away). I admit I embark of this schedule of discourse with no small amount of trepidation, for I see in it the very same scenario working itself out that I have already experienced before, a scenario that has a rather obvious conclusion.

I can’t not do it, that would be to give up without even trying, but I have no idea what I could do to change this recurring narrative in my life. I see the cliff, but I don’t have a clue where the break lever is, and so I proceed towards my own ruin, whether I wish it or not. I am so sick of writing emails detailing the complex theological, philosophical, sociological, or whatever other flavor of intellectual difficulty I am currently experiencing. I can count at least four separate and distinct times that this has happened, all without doing the least to change my course. Do I really want to do it again?

No, I do not. It is especially painful this time around because this is not a direction I would have chosen for myself. I feel like a man who has lost control of his own thinking, and it is taking him places he would rather not be.

So far, it seems as though the advice has been to stop thinking. And I think this cuts to the root of my problem. I don’t know if I want to give up thinking. It is such a part of me, of who I am and who I see myself as, that to stop thinking is something akin to stop being me. There is a certain survivalist instinct that kicks in, that says “no, I don’t want to die”. Is it my sinful nature? What am I going to do with my life up until this point? I am in the later stages of a degree in philosophy, should I stop? And if I stop, which should I do in its place?

And more to the point, wouldn’t this non thinking strategy simply be lying to myself and others? Would I be pretending to believe something I really didn’t? It seems to smack of intellectual dishonesty, and just because you put the word “intellectual” in front of it doesn’t make it any less dishonest.

Perhaps, though, I am already taking the right steps. I continue to do most everything I did while still believing in God and Christianity. What better way to figure this out, to really resolve it for myself, than to continue in an environment of faith? I think the answer to my dilemma has to be patience, for it was patience, a willingness to wait and see, to test my ideas more thoroughly before acting upon them, that could be the significant point of difference between this time and place, and the dreaded experiences of my past.

There can be no rushing into this thing, especially something as momentous as a move from faith to unbelief. Thus, while it remains true that I do not believe, there is no guarantee that this will always be so, and if I am to be honest in my desire to believe again, then it should be obvious that the only course of action available to me is to remain steadfast in the community of faith, to weather the storm and to see what will come to pass.

If no one’s offended…

I’ve had the opportunity to discuss (or argue) racism twice last week, once online and afterwards with some offline acquaintances (friends).  After reflecting on these discussions, I realized that there was a fundamental error occurring in these discussions, by both myself and the people I was conversing with.

What I noticed occurring was a sort of confusion about the nature of racism, a sort of equivocation regarding its meaning and identification. I believe that all of the participants, if asked directly to define racism would have offered similar definitions of the term, but when it came to practical application, another definition seemed to constantly intrude into the conversation.

Here are some common definitions of racism:

  • The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others – American Heritage Dictionary
  • the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race – Oxford English Dictionary
  • Any action, practice, or belief that reflects the racial worldview — the ideology that humans are divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called “races,” that there is a causal link between inherited physical traits and traits of personality, intellect, morality, and other cultural behavioral features – Brittanica Concise Encyclopedia
  • any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, religion,descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life. – UN International Convention on the Elimination of All of Racial Discrimination

What would then happen is that, quite early into the conversation, racism would change from a relatively objective notion of the matter, such as the above, into a much more subjective definition, one that claimed racism to be, essentially, whatever would be considered legitimately offensive to a person of the race in question. There are not one, but two fundamental errors contained within this definition, and yet I have seen this very theme displayed again and again, not only in conversation, but in media reports and analysis of race and racism (this is of course anecdotal. I would need to do extensive sociological research to determine the actual pervasiveness of this meme within American society).

A number of corollary errors are derived from this core reinterpretation, including:

  1. That association with the race in question somehow invests you with authority to judge whether something is racist or not. This is essentially the “black friend” defense, although it can come in a number of forms, including adopted children, spousal relationship, and in an extreme case, even membership in the racial group being considered. The logic behind it is that if racism is whatever offends, then it is a question of whether offense occurs, and this can only be measured by those associated with the group being potentially offended. My own self doubts about recognizing racism were the other side of this same coin, since I was concerned that I was taking offense where Chinese (or Asians in general) would not.
  2. That one can be “too sensitive” about racism. Of course, if offense is the measure of racism, then the concern about being “too sensitive” is an imperative in assessing whether the reaction is “appropriate” or “compensatory” to the offending material. This also constitutes the second defense against racism, namely that the offender judges the reaction to be “excessive” when weighed against what they perceive to be only a slight offense (if it is judged to be offensive at all). Again, this sort of evaluative process makes sense only when we are looking at racism as giving offense.

One way to get a sort of objective perspective on whether we have incorporated this definition of racism from the surrounding culture is to consider our reaction to the following question: If an act or belief causes no offense to anyone, at all, could it still be racist? I believe that many if asked that question would experience at least some cognitive dissonance, since by now it should be obvious that the answer is yes, a belief or act can (at least hypothetically) be racist without leading to anyone being offended. What discomfort is experienced is a result, though, of our conditioned thought patterns on the issue of race, conditioning we are constantly inundated with by the surrounding culture.

This “misconception” of racism is itself part of the ongoing racist program of self-deception that is promoted in the United States, and is a racist belief in itself. It is racist because it denies that the experiences of people of color have any grounding in reality, but are rather merely matter of perception (what is offensive to one person is not necessarily offensive to another), perhaps one that could even (and/or should even) be corrected. Thus, the problem is not with the racist society, and certainly not with the racists themselves, but with the people who “see” racism.

Given the pervasiveness of this view of racism, it becomes clear that when discussing racism, an important key to maintaining focus on racism, and not becoming distracted with reactions to racism (or worse, to confuse these reactions with racism), is to keep actual racism at the forefront of the discussion. Without this kind of vigilance, these deeply ingrained memes will easily take over the discussion, and cause it to hopelessly descend into a morass of irrelevant subjectivism.

A special thanks to Restructure for helping me along with this.

Eternity or not

Scott has a very thought provoking post over at his Spiritual Jabberwocky. I’ve been wanting to comment on it for some time now, but have been struggling with what to say. I feel the answer has been there, staring me in the face, but I been having some difficulty discerning the pattern.

First off, let me say that both House or Eve are wrong in this matter. Eternity doesn’t negate the here and now, nor does a lack of a afterlife. It isn’t a question that lends itself to wrong or right answers as much as it is a perspectival Rorschach test. Everyone has the same data, but it is what we bring to this data that is the determining factor in our arrangement of it.

Our actions are valued in accordance to whatever we assign them. An eternal perspective comports eternal significance to actions, but another approach could measure actions by how their impact carried beyond them and into the lives of others. Narcissists have a different means of valuation. But in all of these cases, their actions have meaning, value. It is only if we insist that our system of valuation is the correct one, the only one that has legitimacy, that we come to doubt the relevance of other methodology.

The driving factor here is what is important to you? If hope in the afterlife is a deeply held belief (for whatever reason) then we are going to be inclined to draw from it meaning for our actions (both particular acts and life in general). However, different ideas will produce different justifications.

In the case of House, he has found meaning in making this life, the only one he believes he has, as full and rich as possible. Yes, he’s bitter, but he still believes there is something he can do, if not to make his life better, than at least the lives around him. His cynicism is more a shell than the core of the character, and it is why we watch (or at least why the shows frequent viewers continue to watch), because at times we share his bitterness, but we also need the hope he symbolizes as well.

I actually think that the whole question of whether eternity is necessary for meaning is a very good test for latent religiosity (not to be confused with religiopathy). I say “latent” because one can have the substructure of faith while having lost any overt religious beliefs. Of course, being in such a situation is transitory, a moving from one thing to another (even if it is an abortive move that is never fully realized).

I’ve been wrestling with this period myself, although where I am at in the passage is difficult to ascertain. At times recently I feel as though I have turned a corner, and that some of the undergirding religiosity has started to fall away, or has at least adjusted to the changes in explicit beliefs. I’m not certain about this though, and I have been taking actions that would retard such a move. I don’t feel like I can really make a full transition, and so I expect to wander this path between worlds for at least a little while longer.