Metaphysics (what is true?)

In western philosophy, the answers to “what is true?” or “what is real?” have fallen into three categories. Regrettably, the names for these categories each have different meanings in other contexts. Philosophers seeking to explain what is real tend to be materialists or idealists or realists.

Materialists, in this pursuit, are philosophers who say that only material things are real. In other words, something that cannot be detected and measured and described scientifically does not exist. God, then, does not exist. Angels and demons do not exist; fairies and jinn do not exist. Bigfoot and surviving Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers apparently do not exist, since material and scientific evidence for them is lacking and incomplete. The human mind or soul or spirit, as distinct from the body and its parts, does not exist. What we perceive as our mind or soul or spirit, according to a materialist, is entirely the result of mechanical, chemical, and electrical events within our bodies, especially in our brains.

Idealists, on the other hand, say that reality consists entirely of mind and thought, or of soul and spirit. The material world is an illusion. Dreams, hallucinations, and the tricks of illusionists can be offered as evidence that the material world is not real, since our senses that describe that world can be fooled. Paradoxes about the material world also reveal it to be an illusion. Ancient Greeks demonstrated that motion is impossible, since the fastest runner cannot beat a tortoise in a race if the tortoise is given a head start. By the time the runner reaches the tortoise’s starting line, the tortoise has gone a certain distance; by the time the runner reaches that point, the tortoise has again gone further. Our senses show us that the runner will pass the tortoise, but reason and logic seem to say that passing the moving tortoise is impossible. Reason and logic, therefore, support idealism, a world of ideas where material entities are results of those ideas and do not exist on their own. Goodness, beauty, quality, love: these things really exist. Their reality shapes the illusion which we often treat as the real world.

Dualists hold that material and ideal entities both exist; both are completely real. Science perceives and measures the material world but is incapable of evaluating the ideal world, the world of minds and spirits, the world of thought and feelings. Not every dualist believes in a god or gods; those that do believe generally attribute creation—the beginning and existence of material things—to the divine spiritual Being or beings. Most dualists describe each human being as compound, consisting of both body and mind, or body and spirit. As the material body can be dissected and seen to have various parts, so the ideal being can be sorted into mind, heart, will, soul, spirit, self, and perhaps other categories.

Most people who take time to think about what is real probably conclude that dualism represents the real world better than materialism or idealism. Many professional philosophers, however, have good reasons to opt for materialism or for idealism. Some are skeptical, for example, of the description of a human being as both material and spiritual—the philosophers refer to that model as the “ghost in a machine.” Other options have been considered—one ancient option which stands apart from these three traditional options, and other approaches that acknowledge duality in what is real but still consider either matter or mind/spirit to be the primary reality. J.

4 thoughts on “Metaphysics (what is true?)

  1. This is going to sound all too simplistic, but the idea of what is true occurred to me in the first grade, wondering how we know what we know and other thoughts along the line (i.e. dream vs waking state, etc.). With time, I noticed some writers and movies along the same vein. With time, I realized we do know what is true and real. We’re born knowing, the light showing. Unfortunately, intellect and others create doubt, which if we listen, may cause the troubles and mental illnesses we see today. That’s why I often suggest fishing, camping, crafts and other “real world” activities because it takes people out of their intellectual heads and they can “realize” without over thinking.

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  2. Good stuff, Salvageable. I recently watched a JP clip and he spoke of the literalists/materialists who declare fiction is not real and fail to understand that something can be fiction and yet be true at the same time. There are universal truths in myths, legends, and great works of literature, even when they aren’t true or real. His point being literalism and materialism are too small, woefully inadequate. It made me think of the Bible, about how it reveals itself ,”precept by precept, a little here, a little there..” Also the parables. Are the parables less true if they are fictional tales? I say no, what makes them real is their message and not whether the lazy servant was an actual guy who lived at the time. This matter of what is real and what is true comes up a lot in atheism.

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    • Thanks, IB. I may be able, in the course of this exploration, to discuss the different “Levels” of Truth or reality, in which the Triune God is the bedrock, the ultimate Truth upon which all things rest, and his creation is a reality built upon his existence, and our imagination (or fiction) occupies a different level of reality, and other levels can also be discerned. But one must start with easier ideas before approaching that sort of discussion. J.

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