Blake Thompson (Virginia Tech)

"Begging the Question Against Phenomenalism"

Abstract: Various species of the phenomenalist view have been held by philosophers since its introduction into the philosophical lexicon by George Berkeley. Figures such as Mill, Russell, and Ayer have all precisified the view in one or another way. The truth of the phenomenalist’s position has been a hot button issue at various times in the history of philosophy. The attraction to the position stems from the strength of the negative arguments, originally put forward by George Berkeley, against materialism. However, phenomenalism’s abrasiveness to our everyday and scientific intuitions is, for many, enough to treat its being entailed by any view as a reductio. This presentation will critically examine a common response to phenomenalism. This common response is the rejection of the phenomenalist’s position on the basis of an inference to the best explanation. What is inferred is the existence of “matter”. What it is inferred on the basis of is “sensation”, “sense data”, or “experience”. The issue that I am interested in raising is whether this is a legitimate way to counter Berkeley’s negative arguments. There are two problems with the inference to the best explanation that I want to raise. Both of these problems concern the possibility that the materialist is begging the question in some important respect by means of their inference. The first problems concerns agreement over explanandum. The materialist is positing the existence of “matter” in order to explain the existence of “sensations”. However, his/her opponent takes “sensations” to be explanatorily primitive in much the same way the materialist takes “matter” to be primitive. In virtue of this difference in their explanatory frameworks, it appears that the materialist will beg the question if s/he attempts to explain the existence of “sensations” by any means whatsoever. At best, the materialist and the phenomenalist will simply butt heads over what it is that needs explaining. The second problem highlights a meta-semantic worry. In order for some utterance to be an inference, the terms in the utterance much refer appropriately. In normal cases, outside of their debate about “matter”, the phenomenalist and the materialist will agree on assignments of referents to terms. They will both find the inference that “the ball broke the window” has “ball” referring to a ball and “window” referring to a window, and so on and so forth. Where they part company is in the case of “matter”. This is, after all, precisely what is at issue – whether or not any sense can be made of what the term “matter” is supposed to refer to. The phenomenalist’s position is not, after all, that matter does not exist (though it may be possible to motivate an idealist ontology on the basis of such an argument). His/her position is that “matter” is a nonsense term as it is employed by his/her interlocutor. Thus, the very presumption that the utterance presented by the materialist is a genuine inference may beg the question against the phenomenalist.

Return to conference webpage