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Dr Johnson and the Stone

by David Seaman


James Boswell in his Life of Johnson described this conversation between himself and Samuel Johnson that happened towards the end of 1763:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, 'I refute it thus.'

It is possible that Johnson was attempting to disprove immaterialism by the physicality of the stone and its action on his foot. But Berkeley would have had no problem countering this argument — to the immaterialist the stone and foot and the action between them were all mental perceptions and certainly no practical demonstration could show otherwise.

Instead maybe the clue to Johnson's meaning is in the nature of the refutation. Although a man of words he choose not to answer with more "ingenious sophistry" but instead demonstrated by action that man is a participant in reality and not primarily an observer. Such a philosophical stance has nowadays been labelled pragmatism, and was developed by the American's Charles Peirce (1839-1914) and William James (1842-1910) with Richard Rorty (b 1931) being a more recent supporter. Pragmatists believe that reality is discovered by active participation in the world. This means that the immaterialist vs materialist dialectic is bypassed by the claim that both subject and object are constituted from experience, and there is a bottom up approach to discovering reality compared with the top down "pure reason" approach of analytic metaphysics.

An important assumption is that we have direct access to reality and not just to a representation of reality (in particular Rorty is much concerned with the rejection of representationalism). There is a laudable aim here, the discovery of practical knowledge is an essential part of human understanding of reality and is the source of all scientific knowledge. However the lack of anything on which to base a system of values means that pragmatism is left with a sort of post-modern account of truth. Truth only matters as far as there are practical consequences of that truth (this is paraphrased from Peirce's "Principle of Pragmatism") or "Truth is just the property that all true statements share" (Rorty discussing pragmatism in the introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism). For a pragmatist there is nothing interesting to talk about in the concept of absolute truth and they claim that all metaphysical attempts to do so have failed. However the orderly nature of the world means that the discovery process can be undertaken with integrity, so it is still possible to talk about scientific or historic truths in a mundane but useful sense.

Berkeley would have supported the empirical aim of gathering knowledge but would have considered truth to be in the hands of God and certainly not have considered pragmatism to be a genuine attack on the intellectual basis of his metaphysic of immaterialism. If Johnson had wanted to succeed in his refutation of immaterialism he might have followed Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and combined a pragmatic approach to epistemology with a materialist metaphysics. A monist materialist believes that reality consists only of an actual volume of space that persists through time and contains at various places some actual substance labelled matter that obeys physical laws (the materialist will of course also have some a priori truths).

In the 17th and 18th centuries there was a practical difficulty in being a monist materialist since there appeared to be no place for God (Hobbes was attacked as an atheist although he clearly wasn't — in fact God was one of his a priori truths). There was also the substantial difficulty of accounting for how a world made out of only matter could contain the mind.

Moving forward to the beginning of the 20th century we come to Samuel Alexander (1859-1938) who in Space, Time and Deity gave a modern account of how the mind could emerge from the physical (Alexander even managed to introduce an emergent God in his metaphysics, but this is very different to the Judeo-Christian God). Emergence is the idea that higher laws and properties can be generated from the complexities of a lower layer, and that these laws and properties are irreducible to the properties of the lower layer. This is a commonplace in science, for example Boyle's Law, that describes the relationship between pressure and volume of a gas, emerges from the actions of the individual gas molecules but is not reducible to the properties of those molecules. Alexander argued that the properties of matter emerge from a physical substratum and eventually the mind emerges from the properties of matter. The irreducibility of emergence is central to this argument, although the mind is entirely made of physical matter it has completely new properties that are not related to the properties of the physical layer.

The claim that the mind can emerge from the physical is of course controversial. It seems unlikely that one could prove prove that it is logically possible for this to occur (science might come to the rescue, if something is shown to be scientifically possible it is sure to be logically possible). On the other hand several philosophers have tried to show it is logically impossible for some aspect of mind to exist in a materialist world: examples are Kripke and Jackson (see below — there is a useful summary in Chalmers). In a typical argument Frank Jackson attempts to show, through the example of a scientist who has always lived in a black and white world, that qualia (such as what it is like to see red) do not supervene on the physical. But it seems possible that these complex arguments underestimate the power of emergence. The irreducible laws and properties that appear in an emergent mind can be considered to generate something like a mind-body dualism whilst still maintaining the advantage of the causal connection between the mind and the physical layer.

So I will assume for now that it is possible to accept that the mind can emerge from matter (especially since this is surely no harder than accepting Berkeley's busy God, or Kant's noumena, or the teleology of Hegel's objective idealism). It is then necessary to ask whether materialism has an answer to immaterialism.

The central argument for immaterialism is that everything that is perceived is a perception and that there is no way of pinning these perceptions onto anything that can be defined as knowable matter. All descriptions of the properties of an object become descriptions of perceptions and the matter itself becomes redundant. In reply, the emergent materialist says from her point of view the matter is surely necessary since without it there would be no mind. And her description of perception is certainly coherent: the properties of an object emerge from the physical matter making up that object and are causally transmitted to the emergent mind by the physical laws (it could be suggested that the properties of the object emerge not in the object but in the brain or mind, but this does not alter the basic argument since the causal relationship with the object still exists). Finally when dealing with truth there are no extra problems with materialism. The space and matter exist and it is always possible to make judgements that are either true or false about the matter and its properties. And since mind emerges from matter it is also possible to make similar judgements about mind (even if many of these truths are unknowable in practice).

The conclusion here is that it is probably possible to construct a materialist metaphysics to rival immaterialism, but of course this in no way refutes immaterialism. In any case I suspect Dr Johnson would not have wanted to follow this road to its finish, but he would probably have not have been happier with all the consequences of pragmatism. Analytic metaphysics leads to several mutually incompatible outcomes with no apparent way of deciding between them. The alternative is to reject the premise that the ultimate nature of reality is open to the powers of logic and reason. Fortunately, this pragmatism does not lead to anarchy but to an ordered world that we can with integrity discover for ourselves. But if the pragmatic approach discovers an ordered world why cannot analytic metaphysics find the cause for this order? That is the tension between empiricism and reason.

References and bibliography

Alexander, S. (1920) Space, Time and Deity (Macmillan)
Berkeley, G. (1710) Principles of Human Knowledge (Penguin Classics)
Boswell, J. (1791) The Life of Samuel Johnson (Penguin Classics)
Chalmers, D. J. (1996) The Conscious Mind (OUP)
Hobbes, T. (1651) Leviathan (Penguin Classics)
Jackson, F. (1982) Epiphenomenal Qualia (Philosophical Quarterly, 32:127-36)
James, W. (1904) What is Pragmatism (from Writings 1902-1920, Library of America)
Kripke, S.A. (1980) Naming and Necessity (Harvard University Press)
Rorty, R. (1992) Consequences of Pragmatism (University of Minnesota Press)

© David Seaman 2004

E-mail: drseaman@sandlings.com