• Philosophy 101 (philpapers induced) #6: External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

    So having posted the Philpapers survey results, the biggest ever survey of philosophers conducted in 2009, several readers were not aware of it (the reason for re-communicating it) and were unsure as to what some of the questions were. I offered to do a series on them, so here it is – Philosophy 101 (Philpapers induced). I will go down the questions in order. I will explain the terms and the question, whilst also giving some context within the discipline of Philosophy of Religion.

    This is the sixth post after

    #1 – a priori

    #2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

    #3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective

    #4 – Analytic-Synthetic Distinction

    #5 – Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

    This post is about a the world which exists, or doesn’t, outside of our heads, so to speak (or more accurately, externally to our minds).

    External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

    Accept or lean toward: non-skeptical realism 760 / 931 (81.6%)
    Other 86 / 931 (9.2%)
    Accept or lean toward: skepticism 45 / 931 (4.8%)
    Accept or lean toward: idealism 40 / 931 (4.3%)

    This is quite a fundamental question. Is there a real world which exists beyond our thought? Are we just living in some kind of Matrix style existence?


    Idealism is the position that everything which exists is just thought, and that there is no external reality. Thought is existence. Well, in actual fact, there are two slightly different ways of looking at idealism. One sense is anti-realist, that there exists only subjective mind, that existence is experiential and incorporeal. The epistemological approach is slightly different in that we should be skeptical of an external world, and that the mind has primacy. We cannot know things in themselves, as Kant claimed, since we are interpreting through our subjective senses and filters. Kant claimed, indeed, that idealism was “the assertion that we can never be certain whether all of our putative outer experience is not mere imagining”.[1] On the other hand,  Objective idealists make claims about a transempirical world, but simply deny that this world is essentially divorced from or ontologically prior to the mental.

    Bishop George Berkeley was big on reviving this movement from the anti-realist stance. As wiki states in comparing the positions:

    As a rule, transcendental idealists like Kant affirm idealism’s epistemic side without committing themselves to whether reality is ultimately mental; objective idealists like Plato affirm reality’s metaphysical basis in the mental or abstract without restricting their epistemology to ordinary experience; and subjective idealists like Berkeley affirm both metaphysical and epistemological idealism.



    In this context, skepticism states that the world can never really be known in its true form, which is actually sort of what Kant was claiming. We cannot know things-in-themselves (dinge-an-sich). Now, it would be interesting to look in the meta-analysis of the survey to see how people defined this since skepticism as an epistemological approach to the world, is sound in a Cartesian sense. What I mean by this is if we take knowledge to be indubitable, then the only thing we know is cogito ergo sum, that the thinking entity exists. In that way, we are in some way warranted to be skeptical, to at least some degree, of everything else. This approach that we should abstain from dogmatic claims to knowledge was recorded by Sextus Empiricus and called Pyrrohnian skepticism in reference to the philosopher Pyrrho from about 300 BCE. As wiki explains:

    Whereas academic skepticism, with Carneades as its most famous adherent, claims that “Nothing can be known, not even this”, Pyrrhonian skeptics withhold any assent with regard to non-evident propositions and remain in a state of perpetual inquiry. They disputed the possibility of attaining truth by sensory apprehension, reason, or the two combined, and thence inferred the need for total suspension of judgment (epoché) on things.[2] A Pyrrhonist tries to make the arguments of both sides as strong as possible. Then he asks himself if there is any reason to prefer one side to the other. And if not, he suspends belief in either side. According to them, even the statement that nothing can be known is dogmatic. They thus attempted to make their skepticism universal, and to escape the reproach of basing it upon a fresh dogmatism.[3] Mental imperturbability (ataraxia) was the result to be attained by cultivating such a frame of mind.[3] As in Stoicism andEpicureanism, the happiness or satisfaction of the individual was the goal of life, and all three philosophies placed it in tranquility or indifference.[3] According to the Pyrrhonists, it is our opinions or unwarranted judgments about things which turn them into desires, painful effort, and disappointment.[3] From all this a person is delivered who abstains from judging one state to be preferable to another.[3] But, as complete inactivity would have been synonymous with death, the skeptic, while retaining his consciousness of the complete uncertainty enveloping every step, might follow custom (or nature) in the ordinary affairs of life.[3]

    The point of interest here is that even if we are skeptical of the external world, all of our psychological mechanisms presuppose its existence. Pragmatically, we believve it is there. Try existing only mentally without sleeping or eating…

    Non-skeptical realism

    This is Greek for “That shit’s real. True dat.” The world exists, and we ain’t skeptical about it. It appears that, by a comfortable margin, most philosophers adhere to this position.

    The creators of the survey included this commentary on the above question:

    We asked this one partly because of its centrality in the history of philosophy, and partly because we were especially interested in data about how many philosophers accept the “old, dead” positions that supposedly no-one accepts these days. Skepticism and idealism are often treated as gateways to reductio in contemporary discussion, for example, rather than as serious contenders for the truth. We would have liked to have an option for a view on which the external world is somehow mind-dependent without this being idealism (e.g. social constructivism), but we couldn’t find a good accessible generic term here. Of course we expected a big majority for non-skeptical realism, but we were interested to see whether there would be a good number of skeptics and idealists out there

    This is overwhelmingly the position of the respondents to the survey, and, it seems, most philosophers around. I suppose there is a difference between what one pragmatically believes and what one can prove (as knowledge). We pragmatically believe there is a real world out there, that the Correspondence Theory of truth is, well, true. But we can’t necessarily prove it, so in some ways, there is an element, however small, of skepticism.

    Theists sometimes adopt this approach in what Stephen Law calls “going nuclear” in saying that thought, or rationality, has primacy and empiricism and science supervene on it, but that one cannot use rationality to prove the power of rationality since that is a circular scenario. Yeah, but you use it every day, so get over it.

    Anyway, I’m now going to punch myself in the face to test whether the world is just constructed of thought and ideas from my mind.

    Ouch! Jesus, mate, that fricking hurt….!


    [1] Immanuel Kant, Notes and Fragments, ed. Paul Guyer, trans. by Curtis Bowman, Paul Guyer, and Frederick Rauscher, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 318


    #1 – a priori

    #2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

    #3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective

    #4 – Analytic-Synthetic Distinction

    #5 – Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

    #6  – External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

    #7 – Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

    #8 – Belief in God: theism or atheism?

    Category: EpistemologyFeaturedPhilosophySkepticism


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce