In the second episode of my adventures in idea land I meet a painter who believes that he is a portrait. The painter appears as a background actor in chapter 3 of Bernardo Kastrup's book The idea of the world. The chapter is about ontologists, who try to solve problems that (maybe) don't exist. It was also published as a paper in the journal Studia Humana. In it Bernardo aims to demonstrate that, from an idealist perspective, hard problems of contemporary ontologies are thought artifacts of their own making. Idealism would be exempt from these problems of deriving consciousness. Which seems obvious because for Bernardo's idealism, consciousness is a given. It doesn't require any deriving.
Concerning physicalism Bernardo argues that the physicalist's notion, that something must somehow exist outside of his own consciousness, is merely that: a conceptual notion taking place in consciousness. Bernardo then supposes that "the glaring artifact of thought here becomes apparent with an analogy". And that's where I met the painter: "imagine a painter who, having painted a self-portrait, points at it and declares himself to be the portrait."
The physicalist, of course, would complain that he was misrepresented by the analogy: He wasn't a theory but what the theory refers to. The idealist would counter the theory refers to nothing, or at least nothing outside of mind, and could take the epistemological highground. The physicalist could counter that instead of giving mind primacy over phenomenal experiences the first split should be made between phenomenal experiences and the objects they refer to. The idealist would accuse the physicalist of giving imagined outside objects primacy over phenomenal experiences. Whereupon the physicalist may object, that if the idealist values phenomenal experiences so much, he shouldn't give mind priority over them.
Well, I thing we can leave the two to their discussion and consider the portrait in the room. To what nefarious abuse might the analogy of the portrait be conducive?
Remember La Trahison des images: Magritte writes under the picture of his pipe: "Ceci n'est pas une pipe". How do people react to that? Do they say: How obvious, what a platitude? I guess (really, I didn't do a survey) that rather most of them become a little bit befuddled and start to thing about what that means, about how the picture refers to the pipe, and about what the real pipe actually is.
I don't know any (famous) self-portrait, on which the painter wrote: That's me. But the statement doesn't seem so absurd anymore. At least the portrait captures something of the painter: Facial features, her bearing, maybe hints on her character or mood. Would Jorge Luis Borges be inclined to write under his self-portrait "that's not me"? I don't know. But I'm amused by the idea that he might rather have decided to write a story about a painter who thought he was a portrait.
I imagine the painter in the room now as being in a sort of quantum superposition of saying about the portrait "it's me" or "it's not me". If I take a measurement and ask him, in which direction will he collapse? Can I determine the outcome in advance, maybe because it somehow depends on his true nature? What could idealism contribute about the true nature of the painter? I imagine the following dialogue:
Stubborn alter studies his self-portrait.
Stubborn Alter: If I am not the picture, who am I?
Idealist pulls a copy of "The Idea of the World" out of his pocket and reads aloud.
Idealist: "We are dissociated mental complexes".
Stubborn Alter: I am a dissociated mental complex?
Stubborn Alter: Could you illustrate that a bit?
Idealist turns some pages and presents a graphic.
Stubborn Alter looks at the graphic.
Stubborn Alter: That's me?
Idealist: No! You're not the graphic. You are a dissociated mental complex.
Stubborn Alter: Mhm. Is it about the concept? Am I the concept of a dissociated mental complex?
Idealist becomes a little bit agitated.
Idealist: No, no, no. You conflate the concept with the experience. You are not the concept. You are what the concept refers to!
Stubborn Alter crinkles his brow.
Stubborn Alter: Would you please explain again what the concept refers to, exactly?
Idealist: Just! Watch! And! See!
Stubborn Alter remains silent for a moment.
Stubborn Alter: Right. There are a lot of phenomenal experiences. Uhm ... wait ... which one of them is me?
If I don't get too much distracted by figuring out who actually wrote this post, there will likely be a next episode about my adventures in idea land.
p. s. William James thought that the self and its activities belong to the content of experience. In an analogy to illustrate the subjective and objective functions of experience he likens experience to paint. The context of paint spread out on a canvas, with other paints around it, performs a spiritual function, illustrating the subjective function of experience. He doesn't say so, but from that understanding of self and experience, we could easily arrive at the insight that we are just a portrait in experience. And we would than be nothing but the portrait. (see William James: Does 'Consciousness' exist?. The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 1, 18, p. 477-491).