How Can We Be Sure of What We Know?

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What is happening?The idealistic philosophy is similarly unsatisfactory for expanding our knowledge of physics, biology, medicine, criminology, historiography, and philosophy. Philosophical idealism has a certain attraction for some Sufi leaning philosophies.

What is happening?You may have seen a very absorbing presentation by the popular Turkish scholar Harun Yahya, entitled “Secret Beyond Matter” (see here). And you might have noticed a similarity between his argument and the one presented by the idealist philosopher George Berkeley, who argued that, philosophically speaking, we are incapable of proving the existence of any reality outside of our minds. I am sympathetic to Harun Yahya’s overall project – of pushing modern science and humanities to expand their intellectual horizon and of promoting general Islamic education through creative media – but regarding this particular issue, I did not find him very convincing. I believe that the criticism that Shaheed Baqir al-Sadr made against Berkeley’s Philosophical Idealism in his wonderful book Our Philosophy (see here) also applies to Harun Yahya’s argument. Below, I do not get into the specifics of Yahya’s presentation; I only discuss the overall framework of his argument that I believe is very close to philosophical idealism. I do encourage you to watch his presentation. Later in this piece, I touch upon the implications that this theory may have on our understanding of ourselves and the things that happen around us.

“I Think, Therefore I Exist” – Really?

First, let me discuss Rene Descartes, because Harun Yahya starts his presentation by posing a problem similar to that of Descartes. That is, can we distinguish a dream from reality? In other words, how do we really know if anything exists outside of our brains when we do not have a direct “touch” with the essence of that outside world except through the signals that our physical senses send to our brains? For illustration, Descartes uses a piece of wax which is exposed to heat: We get different perceptions, different feelings, of its solid and liquid states through our five physical senses, but the actual “thing” that is changing its physical state with changing temperature, we do not have a direct access to that essence or existence. Descartes pushes the argument further and poses a scenario: What if there is no reality out there and all that we consider to be reality are just signals artificially created and sent to our brains? For the purpose of illustration, imagine the mechanistic web or system in the movie The Matrix, where individual brains were fed with signals suggesting an artificial, virtual reality. What if there is just one brain imagining all of that virtual experience? How can we be sure of what we know about reality?

Descartes’ thesis builds upon his famous Cartesian method of doubt, in which he becomes skeptical about the truth of all of his beliefs, not taking any reality for granted. From this point zero, he constructs an argument for, first, his own existence, then God, and all other external reality. The very famous argument cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I exist”) was proposed in this process. However, this argument has some serious logical flaws. In Our Philosophy, al-Sadr argues that Descartes pre-supposes the “individual being” who is doing the thinking and also pre-supposes the “law of causality” as an objective reality through the application of which Descartes connects the action of “thinking” to the individual “being”. Al-Sadr states that Ibne Sina, or Avicenna, already presented this argument and criticized it “as being unfit as a method of scientific evidence for the existence of the human thinker himself” a few centuries prior to Descartes.

Descartes may not have been very successful at the solution, but the problem and the method of doubting reality that he constructed became quite popular, especially with the skeptics. Harun Yahya uses such a skeptic argument at the beginning of his presentation to problematize the empiricist scientific method or the material-istic theory of knowledge. The empiricist method presumes material objects to have an objective reality with real substance and governing laws. Following Descartes, Harun Yahya also argues that we cannot be sure of their existence. The alternative theory of knowledge that Yahya presents is very similar to Berkeley’s Idealism, and equally problematic.

“To Exist Is To Know” – Perhaps Not!

Now, let me discuss Berkeley’s Idealism, however, at the risk of simplifying it too much. Like Descartes, Berkeley questions our ability to know and validate any reality outside of our individual minds. He gives an illustration on the following line: Take two buckets of water, one with very hot and the other with very cold water. Put one hand in the hot, the other in the cold water. Now put both hands in a third bucket with water at room temperature. Each hand will feel different temperature of the same water because of its previous experience: the water will appear cold to the hot hand, and hot to the cold hand. But, is the water in the third bucket really hot and cold at the same time? On the basis of this apparent contradiction in sense perception, Berkeley argues that we cannot rely on the validity of our senses and any scientific knowledge built upon them. This is yet another construction of the skeptic argument, similar to Descartes’. Al-Sadr points out that Berkeley even goes to the extent of denying the objective existence of water when he draws out that contradiction in his little experiment. For him water is nothing but a name that we give to our sense perceptions.

To resolve this skeptic problem, Berkeley presents his Idealistic theory of knowledge. For Berkeley, “To exist is to know, or to be known.” Existence of a thing has a different meaning in his philosophy, which is basically the idea or knowledge of that thing in our mind or soul. The source of that knowledge is God, who causes this idea or knowledge in our minds. Berkeley is vague in what exactly does he mean by “existence”, but if we try to understand his philosophy by reading it in its extreme idealistic terms, reality is but a continuous creation of perceptions or knowledge in our mind caused by God. Harun Yahya also appears to be arguing the same thing in his presentation.

But the fact that there can be error in the way we perceive nature does not automatically mean that nature does not exist. Rather, it is the fault of our sense perception and perhaps also of our inductive reasoning if we are not able to reconcile the different temperatures we get from the same water. In fact, the contradiction itself can be an argument to prove that there is an external reality (water) outside of our mind from which we are receiving mixed sense perceptions. While making this point, al-Sadr goes into a lengthy discussion on the problems with Berkeley’s theory in the second chapter of his book, under the sub-heading “Philosophical Idealism”. Al-Sadr’s solution to the skeptic argument is a Realistic Theory of Knowledge which is different from both a narrow empiricist (material-istic) epistemology – quite prevalent in modern science today – as well as philosophical Idealism. Al-Sadr elaborates this theory further, particularly its application in the domain of history and society, in his book Trends of History in Qur’an (see here). The Realistic theory of knowledge accepts the possibility of an external world outside of individual minds along with its natural and metaphysical laws. It is also open to the possibility of vast and limitless realities beyond the material dimensions of the universe. I highly recommend you to read these two works for details.

Flawed Logic – So What?

Let me discuss a couple of problematic implications of philosophical idealism. This, I hope, will also highlight the relevance of this debate, especially for the students of science and humanities.

Consider the following illustration. You may have seen the movie The Matrix. Recall the scene in which Neo meets a young boy who bends the spoon by changing the idea or knowledge of that spoon in his (boy’s) mind; Neo also sees this change. If reality only exists in one’s mind, then the spoon should only bend for the young boy. But since Neo also sees this, then either Neo is also part of that young boy’s imagination, and therefore the boy is able to manipulate Neo’s perceptions, or the two are experiencing a collective dream, but which has some objective dynamics and existence, outside of their individual minds, and the boy is merely manipulating those dynamics through his mind power. However, in case one argues that Neo is also part of the young boy’s imagination, this leads to a philosophical position known as Solipsism, which states that “the only thing that exists is my mind” or “my mind is the only thing that I know for sure exists”. Even God becomes merely a proposition – some would say, a mental construction – in this philosophical position. I believe that Berkeley and Harun Yahya both fall into this philosophical trap in their proposed theory of knowledge.

A very basic question that could be asked to the Idealists is that if we eliminate “I” or “consciousness” from the equation, does that mean the whole existence would not exist anymore? Is that the right way to think about reality for the purpose of building our scientific and historical knowledge? Albert Einstein once said that, “I think that a particle must have a separate reality independent of the measurements. That is, an electron has spin, location, and so forth, even when it is not being measured. I like to think that the moon is there even if I am not looking at it.” But, following Berkeley and Yahya, if we assume that reality does not have an objective existence, we may not be able to study it from the perspective of objective nature and laws. The idealist theory of knowledge also does not provide an independent criterion to distinguish true propositions from false propositions we may have in our minds; for example, the idea of God vs. the idea of a pink unicorn. Hence Berkeley’s idealism doesn’t help much either in solving the skeptic problem of validating knowledge.

Consider another implication. God, no doubt, is the ultimate explanation for all occurrences in the world. God is the originator and sustainer of all creation. But the Idealistic perspective does not give us any objective criterion to differentiate between various occurrences, so we can increase our systematic knowledge of science and history, something toward which the Qur’an frequently draws attention of those who reflect. (See, for instance, verses 2:164, 88:17-20, 7:185, and 50:6 in the Qur’an.)

For example, the tragic Katrina and the catastrophic earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam both may have happened because God allowed, or caused, them to happen. But can we move beyond this general statement to understand how Katrina and Bam may have similar or different natural and/or meta-physical causes. Does the idealistic perspective give us any direction? And, further, can we demand an objective criterion or test from those idealists who like to call Katrina a wrath of God but consider the Bam earthquake as just a natural occurrence. (Or, those for whom both were punishments of God. Or, those for whom both were just natural occurrences, albeit caused by God.) Granted, many times calamities befall on people because of their wrongdoings. This general statement or metaphysical law is endorsed by the Qur’an. However, this statement by itself cannot prove that a specific calamity in a certain area happened as a form of punishment from God. The calamity could very well have been an effect of a natural process. (The strain caused by underground tectonic plates, for example. Granted, the calamity could still be interpreted as a punishment. But it could also be a form of God’s test on a people. And there can be many more such interpretations.) The idealistic perspective does not help much with making any such scientific or discursive distinctions. The realistic perspective at least would not allow any blank statements to be taken as decisive explanations, even if it may not always explain the meta-physical dimensions of such natural calamities.

The idealistic philosophy is similarly unsatisfactory for expanding our knowledge of physics, biology, medicine, criminology, historiography, and philosophy. Philosophical idealism has a certain attraction for some Sufi leaning philosophies. But this theory of knowledge does not take us very far in terms of developing a unified perspective of reality (material and non-material) and advancing human knowledge and capacities.

For a comparison of the Idealistic and the Realistic perspectives on the topic of “fate and destiny” see Shaheed Murtadha Mutahhari’s book,
Man and His Destiny (see here). On biological evolution, see Mutahhari’s The Qur’an and the Nature of Life (here) and Shaheed M. Hosseini Behishti and Shaheed M. Javad Bahonar’s Philosophy of Islam (here). You may also want to read Allama Muhammad Hussain Tabatabai’s marvelous book Usoole Falsifae va Ravish-e-Realism (The Principles of Philosophy and the Method of Realism), available in Farsi.

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