The Existence of Mind-Independent Physical Objects

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2015. The Existence of Mind-Independent Physical Objects, URL = <>.

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My principal task in this essay is to outline one compelling reason for accepting the view that there exist physical objects that exist independently of minds. This realist ontology contrasts with its nemesis; the various versions of idealism. My main thesis will be that idealism is heuristically sterile; depriving its 'physical object' analyses of the benefits accruing to the theoretically and empirically progressive realist program. This will constitute my positive argument for accepting realism. As a preliminary, I will survey what I think are eight insurmountable problems for idealism. As most idealist accounts rely on a phenomenalist analysis of our 'physical object' talk, I will review how these analyses fail to account for our 'physical object' language and lead to absurd conclusions. It will become clear exactly why phenomenalist accounts fail and how its absurd consequences result from the perversion of realist accounts of physical objects.

Phenomenalist analyses of talk about external physical objects arose principally in the eighteenth century as a posited solution to the epistemic gap between statements about physical objects and their impressions on minds. It was meant to dissolve the 'veil of appearance' behind which material objects hid. They were constructed as a reaction to the realist accounts of the day. For the purposes of this essay, I shall take 'realism' to refer to a cluster of theories that have in common the assertion:

  1. that physical objects do not depend for their existence on being perceived or conceived by mind, and
  2. that there are physical objects.

Following a brief critical analysis of phenomenalist approaches in the next two sections, I will conclude that thesis a. is analytically true. In the final section, I will bring forward what I consider to be strong independent evidence for thesis b.

The most credible forms of anti-realism are idealist theories that deny a. and assert b.; that is, that deny that the existence of physical objects is independent of mind and assert that such objects exist. (I shall take 'idealism' as referring to a group of theories that have in common the denial of the conjunction of a. and b. above, whilst asserting the existence of at least one mind.) I shall argue for the analyticity of a. by way of outlining the objections to the phenomenalist idealist account of physical objects. By saying that a. is analytically true, I mean that the sentence, 'Physical objects do not depend for their existence on being perceived or conceived by mind', is true in virtue of the meaning of the words only.

Book cover: An Idealist View of Life by  S. Radhakrishnan

Phenomenalism is neither necessarily an analytic thesis about the meaning of 'physical object' language nor necessarily idealistic. In particular, ontological phenomenalism negates the analytic thesis by asserting that physical objects are literally composed of ideas, sense-data or sense-impressions.[1] On the other hand, phenomenalism is idealistic only if sense-data, sense-impressions or the objects of sense-experience are construed as being 'mental'. The logical positivists were pivotal here in advocating an ontically neutral rendering of sense-impressions.[2] I will not have much to say about ontological phenomenalism because it has now been largely abandoned by phenomenalists. However, many of the objections to analytic phenomenalism outlined in the next section will constitute severe difficulties also for the ontological version.

The objections discussed next will also be against the general phenomenalist view that 'physical object' talk can be construed exhaustively as talk about sense-experiences, and so will automatically apply to idealist versions. (I shall deal with the eliminative idealist view that 'physical object' statements are not semantically dependent on 'experience' statements and that no physical objects exist; that is, the assertion of thesis a. and the denial of thesis b. above, in the fourth section of this essay.)


  1. [1] See, for example, Berkeley [1710, 1713].
  2. [2] See, for example, Ayer [1971: 71, 162–4, 187].

Copyright © 2016

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