Responding to Thomas Talbott: On Why I Think There is a Material World

Christian philosopher Thomas Talbott recently criticized The Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) in what looks to be an article he might submit to a philosophical journal. I would hope if he does, the editor would include my response if he wants to fully inform his readers. I plan on responding in some detail to his essay in a series of posts. This is the first one.

I find it amazing that philosophers like Talbott propose things that they do not accept in order to criticize the OTF. I mean, really, for all of his verbosity he thinks like I do that there is an external material world. I taught philosophy. I know what it's like to argue that there isn't a material world (i.e., Idealism). I did it every semester whenever I taught an Introduction to Philosophy class. It was fun to do. It takes students by surprise as they struggle to find reasons why they think otherwise. It was, to use, Talbott's own phrase, "a pedagogical device." [See page 24, footnote 23]. Apparently then, Talbott is stuck in a pedagogical mode, which he states as follows:
As any good teacher knows, a less than fully accurate statement will sometimes reveal more to beginning students, or do more to nudge them in the right direction, than a fully accurate statement will when the latter would be unintelligible to them. As I have elsewhere put it: “like many teachers, I often find myself saying things to beginning students that I would prefer them to reinterpret (perhaps even to discard) as they mature into more advanced students. (p. 26)
Being pedagogical just won't do here. Either he believes there is an external material world or he does not. If he does, then why bother with this an an objection at all?

My reasons are similar to Dr. Johnson's as interpreted through G.E. Moore. In what has been dubbed the G.E. Moore Shift, Moore argued that he's more sure he has a pencil in his hand than that the skeptical arguments to the contrary are correct. There are other reasons, plenty of them. One of them is simply that it makes no difference at all if there isn't a physical universe. There ought to be some sort of difference between propositions if we are to make sense of them as different propositions. Occam's Razor does the requisite work after acknowledging this. Another reason is science itself. How can we conceive of it working without an external material world? Why do we need brains, a liver, lungs, and organs of any kind? Why does surgery save us from death if these organs are not real? How does a doctor prescribed pill heal us if there is no material body? What then causes us to be healed if the pill doesn't do it? Where's the mechanism for producing a healing effect from a non-physical cause? To argue there is a spiritual reality that heals us means we do not need to take the prescribed pill at all.

Why is it I also have the experience of moving about from place to place? Who is moving about if I am not the one doing this? How can there be a change of scenery if I do not have a physical body that moves about? And who or what guarantees that when I step outside my house day after day it always has the same physical characteristics? Why should our experience be the same every time we look at an object unless there really is a physical object and a physical world? Who or what guarantees that what we experience is uniform and consistent?

The burden of proof is therefore laid squarely on the back of anyone who denies this. But there is no way anyone can deny an external material world since one must presuppose it for the sake of the arguments. After all, these arguments require physical evidence of some kind, so where are we supposed to find this physical evidence if it doesn't exist? Why not just dispense with the physical evidence altogether and simply assert that an external material universe does not exist, since if this is the case, the physical evidence is irrelevant?

Even scientists who argue for a holographic universe, who think our experience is nothing but a hologram, do not deny that a universe exists, because they base their conclusions on the physical evidence. How is it possible to argue there is no external material world from evidence that cannot exist given the denial of an external material world? This would be utterly contradictory.

It seems to me the only people who argue there is no external material world are believers like George Berkeley who used it as an empiricist argument to God's existence. Occam's Razor does it's work here on this score too.

How would such an Idealist be able to exclude the possibility there isn't a totally different kind of reality beyond the spiritual one, or an even more different reality beyond that one, and so forth at that point, potentially leading to an utter solipsism? That's why Occam's razor stops these kinds of questions with the simplest explanation rather than adding on entities endlessly.

Talbott says,
With respect to his [me, John's] belief in an external physical reality, the perspective of an outsider would be that of many Hindus, an idealist, a panpsychist, a panentheist, or perhaps even a philosophical skeptic such as David Hume. So if Loftus should subject his own belief in an external physical reality to the Outsider Test, then he would need to examine that belief at least as skeptically as an idealist or some other outsider might examine it. And yet, one searches in vain for the slightest hint of doubt on his part or even for a willingness to examine an outsider argument against physical realism (of which there are many). (page 24)
I think I have dispelled this criticism of his. It is utterly without foundation. Why oh, why does he assume otherwise? Does he expect me to say everything I know? That's an utterly unreasonable request. This is why, when we criticize someone's viewpoint, we must always use the principle of charity, something for which it appears Talbott does not think I deserve throughout his essay.

And if he thinks for one moment that as an outsider I must take an outside stance to skepticism, science or reason then he should propose a better alternative. As I have said, skepticism is a filter that adults use to help us sift out the wheat of truth from the chaff of falsehood. We cannot doubt that filter!

The bottom line is that Idealism is religious in nature, it has the burden of proof given the G.E. Moore Shift, it fails the tests of science and reason, it is unnecessary due to Occam's Razor, it is utterly contradictory, and it potentially leads to solipsism.

Talbott also argues that because David Hume was looking for and did not find certainty when it came to an external material universe, the self, cause-and-effect and God that I should likewise be skeptical that there is an external world (assuming Hume did). But Talbott should know that the quest for certainty died soon after Hume. Certainty is an unattainable goal. For Talbott or anyone else to suggest that I might possibility be wrong about an external world then all I can say is "so what?" Probability is the only thing that matters. Until he gives me a reason to think I am probably wrong then I'm not changing anything I think. We're always talking about probabilities not certainties. And we're not in his Introduction to Philosophy class either. He should own up to what he really thinks on this issue. I have provided my reasons, just as I did about the Matrix movie which he agreed with me about. That there is an external world passes the outsider test of skepticism.

Only religious people would think otherwise, and only a philosopher would use this to make an argument against the OTF, which is one reason so many people, mostly scientists, eschew philosophy as vacuous.

Talbott, if you want people to respect the philosophical disciplines then please, do it better than you do. You're making the rest of us look bad.

Stay tuned, more to come.