Abdul Shahin Philosophy 3000 Final Paper
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Philosophy 3000: Metaphysics
Professor: Malowitz (4/2/2012)In philosophy, the topic of knowledge and the philosophical branch of epistemology can be a very confusing and tricky subject. In the book, The Problems of Philosphy, by Bertrand Russell, we will focus our discussion on Russells view of immediate knowledge and sense data and how it compares with Bishop Berkeleys idealist ontology (the idea that the material world is mind dependant.)
Chapter one of The Problems of Philosophy begins by Russell asking the question: Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain no reasonable man can doubt it? (Russel, p.7).
Although the question seems simple at first, Russell quickly assures readers of the actual complexity behind the question itself. To the traditional non-philosopher, the question, what knowledge truly exists beyond reasonable doubt? would normally give rise to a great magnitude of answers, such as: the sky is blue! and my house is white! However, Russell uses his example of a table to articulate the actual complexity of his question and we immediately realize why this question is so puzzling to many Philosophers. According to Russells example, he explains that the table before him is brown, shiny, smooth, cool and hard. He also goes onto say that anyone else seeing this table would agree that the table had these qualities (Russel, p.8). However, as Russell goes on to explain, an immediate problem arises as one tries to come up with a more precise description of the table. Certain qualities, such as the color and texture of the table will begin to vary depending on the light reflected on the table and the angle and scope of the table observed. Using this example, Russell is able to draw the distinction between appearance(what things seem to be) and reality (what they really are). According to Russell, no two [people] can see from exactly the same point of view(p.8) Therefore, when going back to the example of the table, we know that depending on our point of view, the color, shape and other qualities of the table are subject to change from person to person. We also must take into account, an individuals eyesight, and their ability to distinguish color (whether it be hindered or not). Thus, even the most self-evident and obvious assumptions in our everyday lives must be taken under reconsideration. One begins to wonder, would it be correct to label the table as the color brown if there are many other colors associated with it? The answer is obviously no.
It then becomes apparent that objects, such as the table( in Russells example) do not have a fixed set of qualities such as hardness, shape and color that defines them in reality, since all of these qualities are subject to change depending on ones own interaction and view of the object. On page 11 of The Problems of Philosophy, Russell writes: the real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known. This leads Russell to question the kind of object the table is and if a real table truly exists. To help answer his questions, Russell comes up with the term sense data. According to Russell, what is immediately known is given the name of sense data(p.12) and resembles the things immediately known through our senses (such as textures, smells, tastes and sounds). Thus, when one sees a red object, the redness, or the red color of that object is considered the sense data (which is what we are immediately aware of). Being aware of this color however, is the sensation and it is distinct from the sense data itself. Thus, if we want to know anything about the object, such as its shape, color or texture, we must derive them from the sense data that we associate from the object.
From here, Russell explains that the table he has used in his example is considered a physical object since matter is a collection of all physical objects. Therefore, his questions about the table can be restated as: is there any such things as matter [physical objects]? and what is its nature?(p.12)
This brings Russells attention to the Philosopher Bishop Berkeley who proposed an answer regarding the existence of matter. During his lifetime (1685 1553) Berkeley was considered an idealist who believed there was no such thing as matter at all and that the world itself was dependant on nothing but minds and their ideas. This belief goes hand in hand with the Latin term: esse is percipi which means, To be is to be perceived. According to Russell, Berkeley denied matter in a sense that it was something that does not depend on the mind but occupies space and is radically incapable of any sort of thought or consciousness.(p.13). However, at the same time, Berkeley did not deny the existence of sense data, but instead, believed that sense data was mind-dependant. In chapter 4 of The Problems of Philosophy, Russell begins to discuss the topic of Idealism itself. He defines Idealism as "the doctrine that whatever exists or at any rate whatever can be known to exist, must be in some sense mental."(p.37). In other words, Idealism is a proposal which states that the physical world is somehow dependant to the mind itself. It is important to note that Idealism does not contradict with the answer to Russells question on the existence of physical objects. It is agreed that physical objects do exist independently and they differ from sense data. It is also concluded that physical objects correspond with sense data. The problem between Russell and Berkeley however, lies on the question of the objects nature. Are physical objects mind-dependant or independent? According to Russell, Bishop Berkeley was able to argue that sense data cannot be mind-independent and must be in some way, in the mind (p.38). This is because ones sense data would not exist if his or her ability to sense were somehow hindered. For example, a blind person would not be able to sense color. Russell seems generally agree with this notion.
Berkeley then went on to argue that sense data is the only thing one was sure to have an existence from our own perceptions. Since it was agreed that sense data existed in our minds, Berkeley concluded that all things that could be known exist in a mind. Thus, Berkeley believed that the physical world was mind-dependant and any object or thing not in a mind does not exist. To prove his point, Berkeley uses the example of a tree and says there is nothing that leads one to believe anything real about the tree except from what we perceive from our ideas. Therefore, the trees being consists in being perceived (p.39). He goes on to say that the tree will still exist even if we close our eyes because God continues to perceive the tree even if we dont. According to Berkeley, the tree stays as a permanent idea in Gods mind and therefore will continue to exist. Berkeley goes on to say that all our perceptions partially participate with the perceptions of God, which in turn, explains why different people have somewhat different perceptions of the same object. Therefore, to sum up Berkeleys argument, Berkeley believed that existence depended on the mind of God (or a divine being). To refute Berkeleys argument, Russell discusses Berkeleys use of the term idea. As Russell explains, the term idea is a name given to anything which is immediately known(p.39). Therefore, sense data, such sound, color and taste fall under this category. The term idea according to Berkeley, also applies to things remembered or imagines.
From here, Russell attempts to refute Berkeleys argument by stating that it consisted of a good many fallacies(p.40). The fallacy that Russell claims to have spotted in Berkeleys argument seems to be his use of the word idea. Russell claims that Berkeleys use of the word idea to explain the concept of a tree being in the mind is ambiguous. This is because an idea is in effect, thought of as something in someones mind. Therefore, if Berkeley was so say that the tree is composed entirely of ideas, it would be logical to say that the tree is entirely in minds. Russell takes this claim further by using the act of bearing a person in mind as an example (p.40). Bearing a person in mind simply means that there is a thought of the person in our mind and is very different from a person actually being in our minds. Therefore, if Berkeley was to argue that the tree itself had to be in our minds, it would be the same as saying the person one bears in mind (the person thought of) is in our mind. The other fallacy found in Berkeleys argument, Russell claims, is the failure to acknowledge the distinction between the thing which we are aware of (such as the color, shape or size of the table) and the actual awareness itself, the mental act of apprehending the thing, when it comes to the word idea (p.41). Russell argues that although the mental act of apprehension is mental, there is no reason to assume or determine that the thing apprehended is mental. He continues to argue that color is not in the mind because the color depends on the angle and point of view of the recipient. Therefore, Berkeleys view that color is in the mind itself was a result of confusing the thing apprehended and the act of apprehension (since either of these two could be considered an idea). In other words, the perceiving act is not the same as the object perceived and the failure to realize this concept lead to the fallacies in Berkeleys argument. According to Russell, the perceiving of the tree is mind dependant but the tree itself is mind dependant. Thus, because of Berkeleys fallacy, Russell concludes: whatever we can apprehend must be in our minds.
Despite disagreeing with many of Berkeleys beliefs of mind-dependence, Russell was able to get some type of answer to his initial questions. It is evident that both Russell and Berkeley agree on an answer to Russells first question and conclude that the table and physical objects in general do indeed exist. However, when it comes to the actual nature of the table or a physical object itself, there seems to be a significant difference of opinion between both of their views. Thus, when it comes to the topic of knowledge and the nature of matter itself, the questions to be answered are indeed very challenging ones.