Six versions of reality

What is real? What things truly exist, and what things are part of our lives only due to our own imagination?

Most of the college classes I teach are world history surveys, but occasionally I get to teach a comparative religions class or an introduction to philosophy. In the latter, the students and I explore the question of what is real. We consider the three views of reality that are commonly held in western philosophy, but I also raise three other views of reality that accompany the usual three views.

One view of reality is called materialism. In this context, materialism is not dedication to money and the things money can buy; materialism is the belief that nothing is real unless it is scientifically detectable. Materialists do not believe in God. They do not believe in angels, demons, or djinn. They do not believe in a human soul or spirit. Anything that might be considered a human soul or mind is regarded as a function of material events. Materialists do not deny the existence of intangible qualities such as love or justice, but they point out that love and justice cannot be described apart from the interaction of material beings. For love to exist, there must be a lover and a beloved. Both those individuals can be studied scientifically to find material explanations for the experience that is called love.

Another view of reality is called idealism. In this context, idealism is not dedication to a cause with the firm conviction that it is right and will prevail; idealism is the belief that only minds and ideas are real. What people experience as the material world does not consist of material objects, but of ideas that have taken a tangible form or expression. Idealists like to show that the material world and its rules are logically impossible. For example, motion is impossible, because to reach point A I must first reach point B which is halfway there; to reach point B I must first reach point C which is halfway there; in the end, I must travel through an infinite number of points before I can arrive anywhere. Idealists express the concept of “mind over matter.” They say that the problems we perceive are part of our thinking, not part of the real world. When we change our thinking, we can overcome sickness, poverty, sorrow, and any other problem that we think exists.

A third view of reality is called dualism. Dualists believe that the material world is real, but they also believe that the world of ideas is real. Dualists speak of God and creation. They speak of the human soul or mind and of the human body. They describe reality as the intersection of the material and the spiritual. Many western thinkers are dualists. Opponents of dualism sometimes describe the dualist view of a human being as “a ghost in a machine.” They refuse to accept a universe with two sets of rules; they are convinced that either matter is truly real or spirit is truly real. The opposite, they say, is only imaginary; it does not really exist.

A fourth view of reality denies the existence of both matter and spirit. While this approach is rare in western philosophy, it is often encountered in Hindu and Buddhist thought. The senses seem to perceive a material world, but the Hindu or Buddhist says that world is only an illusion. The Hindu or Buddhist goes on to say that the sense of mind, of thinking, or of the sense of a self is also an illusion. The practice of both religions involves the effort to escape both illusions—to stop thinking of the human body and the material world as real, and also to stop thinking of the human mind and the immaterial self as real.

Along with these four possibilities—and anyone who acknowledges the first three should really make room for the fourth as well—I have suggested two more possibilities to my students. Both are variations on dualism, but in each possibility one reality is more real than the other. One is the source of the other, and the second cannot exist alone—it is contingent on the first.

In the first possibility, the material world is fundamentally real, but the world of mind and spirit is also real. Mind and spirit cannot exist, though, without matter. Whatever we define as mind or spirit or soul is real, but its cause still comes from the material world. No mind could exist without a body to house that mind. God can exist, but he requires the material universe in which to exist; without the universe, according to this possibility, there could be no God.

In the second possibility, the spiritual world is fundamentally real, but the world which is scientifically observed is also real. Matter cannot exist without spirit. All that we perceive in the material world is the result of a spiritual origin. God is spirit, but he called the material world into being and still interacts with it. He is responsible for the laws of nature, but he also has the power to break those laws whenever it pleases him to do so.

All six of these views of reality are internally consistent and are capable of interpreting the universe without contradiction, based on the presuppositions of each system. Thinkers can compare the systems and debate them, but each requires postulates that proponents of the others might not be willing to grant. As far as I can tell, though, the final system (in which the spiritual world is fundamentally real and the material world is real but contingent) best matches the universe as described in the Bible and in traditional Christianity. J.

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