Metaphysics (part three of three)

Pure numbers and “natural” laws (such as the law of gravity) demonstrate that thoughts and ideas are not illusions. They exist, even though they are not composed of matter and are not merely the results of material changes in a human brain. Demonstrating that the material world also is not an illusion seems more difficult. Who can show, beyond all doubt, that all of us and the world around us are not the contents of someone’s dream? Or, in a more modern approach, who can show that we are not elements in a computer-generated simulation of reality rather than existing in reality itself?

Already ancient philosophers suggested that the most real of real things are thoughts or ideas. We use the word “table” to identify pieces of furniture that have a similar design and function, even though the tables we experience can be different heights, sizes, colors, and be made of different materials. The same can be said of the words “tree” and “dog.” Other philosophers answer that “table” and “tree” and “dog” are merely invented labels, words that have no meaning apart from the way we use them to categorize real things. This assertion becomes more difficult when we analyze immaterial concepts such as “beauty” and “justice” and “love.” Not only are those ideas real; they impart reality by existing within the items or actions we notice happening in us and in the world around us.

Many thinkers describe a world in which “mind over matter” expresses the philosophy of idealism. Some claim that a positive mental attitude can bring about healing and prosperity. Others point to logical inconsistencies in the material world which we seem to inhabit. Dreams, hallucinations, pareidolia (such as seeing animal shapes in clouds or faces in abstract designs), and illusionists (Doug Henning and David Copperfield, for example) all warn us that the world we perceive might not be the world that truly exists. Many prominent philosophers have taught idealism, speaking against the philosophies of materialism and dualism.

One problem with idealism, from a practical level, is that the world does not always conform to what our minds believe. I trip over a table in the dark because my mind did not think it was there and did not expect it to be there. More significantly, ideas are shared from one mind to another through material means of communication—largely through sight (the printed word) and sound (the spoken word). Idealism seems to falter when offering a comprehensive view of our world. George Berkeley suggested that all material objects are formed by ideas, but that their reality rests in the mind of God. For that reason, we might encounter material objects we did not expect, because God’s mind upholds their reality. This answer appeals no less than the assertion that God has created a material world which is upheld by his power but which is as real as any mind or spirit created by God and depending upon God for its existence.

Immanuel Kant distinguished between the phenomena which we perceive and the noumena which cause those phenomena. All we can know is the phenomena, the perceptions which reach us through our senses. The noumena, the causes of those phenomena, are unknowable. They are as likely to be immaterial ideas as they are to have any material form. Kant would have been fascinated with more recent explorations into subatomic particles. Physicists have found that the raw ingredients of matter are very different from the world we perceive—they do not even follow the rules of Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s physics. Kant would say to all of us today, “I told you so!”

Dualism has many advocates among modern philosophers. Some twentieth century materialists conceded the reality of ideas, but they went on to say that the nonmaterial ideas were not part of a different world that overlaps the material world but has its own rules. Instead, they said that nonmaterial ideas exist as the material world seen in a different way. One example given by those philosophers is the university. One can show a visitor to the university the buildings and grounds, the professors and students and administration and staff, the books and papers and scientific equipment. Has the visitor then seen the university? It exists in all those things, yet it is none of those things. It is an idea that coexists within those things; but it could not exist without those things being present.

A second example would be a sport like baseball. One can show a visitor a bat and ball and glove. One can show a ballpark. One can introduce the visitor to baseball players, managers, coaches, and umpires. One can hand over a rulebook and invite the visitor to read the rules of the game. In the end, the visitor has not seen baseball until that visitor has witnessed part of a baseball game. The game is the real idea of baseball. Its existence, in a way, is beyond any of the elements of the game; yet baseball would not exist without the equipment and players and rulebook.

Given that approach to dualism from a materialist approach, the human mind and soul can be said to exist, to be real, but their reality still depends upon the material existence and survival of the human body and brain. God could be said to exist, but only as a Mind or Spirit that inhabits the material universe and needs that universe for His existence and survival.

A contrary spin on dualism begins with God, a Spirit who has no material form, but Who creates matter and everything that consists of matter. His creation is not an illusion; the material world exists, but it relies upon its Creator for continued existence and survival. Time and space are ideas created by God, as are human minds and spirits and—potentially—other spiritual beings created by the same God. This form of dualism, acknowledging the reality of the material world but making its existence dependent on the spiritual reality, best fits the traditional beliefs and teachings of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. J.


Metaphysics (part two of three)

I have described the three metaphysical approaches usually found in western philosophy: materialists claim that the spiritual and mental world (the world of thoughts and ideas and spiritual matters) is an illusion; idealists claim that the material world is an illusion; dualists assert the existence of both material and spiritual/mental realities in the world. A fourth option logically follows those three. That option is encountered in Hindu and Buddhist thought, but it frequently is neglected by western philosophers. This approach says that the material world is an illusion, but that the spiritual/mental world is also an illusion.

Operating with this fourth perspective, many Hindus and Buddhists use physical exercises to convince themselves that the material world is an illusion. They practice asceticism, denying themselves food and shelter and other comforts, to show that these things are not needed. They also practice meditation in various forms to show themselves that their minds, their thoughts, their selves are also not needed. Some westerners have taken up yoga for self-improvement, but the original purpose of yoga was self-annihilation. Enlightenment comes, not when people find themselves with a better self, but when people realize that they have no self at all.

The problem with materialism—with claiming that mind and spirit are illusions, since they cannot be scientifically detected—is that mind and spirit are very much part of our daily experience. Descartes began his philosophy by demonstrating his existence by the fact that he was thinking, and he was asking questions. “I think; therefore, I am.” Materialists reply that what we consider our thoughts and feelings are all products of our bodies, particularly of our brains. Our senses perceive a world around us, our brains process that information and respond appropriately, and other organs in our bodies sometimes supply needed chemicals for our response to the information we have received about our world. One reaction might be a surge of energy that helps our bodies fight a danger or flee from a danger. And when our brains sense such a surge of energy, they evaluate the information available. (Am I frightened? Am I angry? Am I falling in love? They all feel about the same.)

Researchers have mapped the human brain, showing how different parts of the brain accomplish different kinds of thinking. One part is responsible for mathematical calculations, another part relates to language and communication, and still another part deals with creativity and the arts. It may even be that one part relates to religious perceptions and beliefs. Memories are stored by loops of cells within the brain exchanging impulses: the more those loops are repeated, the better we remember the information stored there. The brain also contains redundant functions. When part of the brain is damaged, therapists help those affected to regain what was lost (mobility of parts of the body, speaking and language, etc.) as other parts of the brain compensate for what was lost. From this research, some philosophers conclude that everything we attribute to mind and spirit actually is generated by chemical and electronic events in the physical human brain.

As an initial response, I point to my desk. On top of the desk is a stack of bills that need to be paid. In one drawer are records of bills already paid and other financial matters. Another drawer has a diary in which I record memories about each day, as well as plans for future writing projects. Also on top of the desk are notes about writing projects in which I am currently engaged. Clearly, that system can be disrupted by a house fire, a tornado, or an unsupervised child. If one of those things happened, I would not lose my mind. I might forget a few things, such as paying for this month’s electricity. I might lose some important records of ideas that I wanted to share with other people. But even if the entire desk disappeared tonight, I would still be able to think, to remember, to create, and to function as a thinking being. If I use a scrap of paper to help me compute a mathematical equation, that would not mean that math would not exist apart from that paper on my desk.

All this is an analogy and not a philosophical argument. But it sets up the proper response to materialism. Granted that our minds and bodies communicate with each other through brains, nervous systems, enzymes, hormones, and other physical things. But the operation of our minds transcends the physical manifestations that science can detect. Numbers exist beyond the physical world, whether we are discussing a number equal to the number of apples on the kitchen counter (two) or the number equal to the relationship of the circumference of any circle to that circle’s diameter (pi, which is approximately 3.14, or about 22/7). Space and time are not material: they measure physical objects, the space between them, and the motion of those objects and other changes in them and among them. If they are not perceived, time and space do not exist. But the perception of time and space does not rely upon human eyes and human brains to exist (nor upon any physical eyes and brains, or mechanical sensors and data processing machines). Time, space, number: these are all ideas that are non-material yet are as real as anything in the material world.

Robert Pirsig (author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) uses the law of gravity to demonstrate the same principle. Isaac Newton first calculated and published the law of gravity, which governs everything from falling apples to the orbit of planets around the sun. Gravity existed before Newton was born, and it worked the same way before he discovered the equation that describes gravity. The law of gravity has no mass, occupies no space, and neither consumes nor releases any energy. It is an idea—an idea that was true and real even before Newton happened upon it and shared it with others. Even if someone were to say that the law of gravity existed in the mind of God before Newton found it, the law of gravity remains evidence that the world contains ideas—reality that is not material and not reduceable to events that happen in the material world. J.

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.

More about philosophy

Philosophy is traditionally defined as the search for what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful. Technical terms for those topics are “metaphysics” (the search for what is true, or real—which is followed by “epistemology,” determining how we know what is real), “ethics” (the search for what is good), and “aesthetics” (the search for what is beautiful, and how we recognize what is beautiful). Some twentieth-century philosophers willingly surrendered these searches to other disciplines that had branched off from philosophy. They conceded the search for what is true to science, accepting that whatever scientists recognize as real should be considered real. They conceded the search for what is beautiful to the arts, accepting that whatever artists recognize as beautiful should be considered beautiful. The question of how we know what is real was bestowed upon psychologists, and the question of what is good was bestowed upon sociologists. After all, perception is done in the mind, and psychologists study the mind. Ethics are governed (if not formed) by groups of people, and sociologists study groups of people.

What, then, is left for philosophy to consider? With philosophy left only as a branch on the limb of “liberal arts,” much of the work of modern philosophers concerns language and communication. This is, indeed, a fertile field to plow and plant and tend. The signs and symbols used to communicate ideas fascinate philosophers. Take the idea of 2, which can also be represented as II. It can be called two or deux or dos or zwei. For English speakers, it must be distinguished from the preposition “to” or the synonym of “also,” “too.” Once considered or communicated, though, this sign or symbol represents a powerful idea, an idea that contains more than two apples or two triangles. Philosophers even ask whether the number two exists apart from two apples or two triangles. If it exists as a pure idea, what makes that idea real? Would the idea of “two” exist without a mind to consider the significance of “two” beyond its representation in any pair of objects in the universe?

These questions restore philosophy’s function as a search for truth. Thinkers trained in a scientific approach may fail to appreciate the importance of determining whether the idea of “two” exists apart from the observer or exists only in the mind of the observer. For that matter, philosophers should ask whether science can observe and measure and comprehend everything that is real. Science does a good job studying those things it is designed to study, but other existing things may retain their being outside the reach of science.

Likewise, sociology is not equipped to determine whether a rule or requirement is good. Observing groups of people all over the world, sociologists might report that nearly all groups of people frown upon murder and stealing. That, in itself, does not make those actions bad. A scientist might weigh each individual in a group of people, then establish an average, or normal, range of weights, with abnormal extremes at both ends of the spectrum, but that would not mean that the median weight was the healthiest weight for those people. A sociologist might closely observe a group of people and count the lies told by those people, then establish an average, or normal, number of lies told each day, with abnormal extremes at both ends of the spectrum, but that does not mean that the median honesty was the most ethical honesty for those people.

In short, philosophers never should have limited themselves to studying language and communication, even though that topic is fascinating. Ancient Greeks made the same mistake when philosophy degenerated into sophistry, promising to teach speakers how to be convincing, no matter which side they took in a debate. The career of Socrates helped to correct that mistake. Philosophers need to keep asking the big questions: What is true? What is good? What is beautiful? Information from other specialties assists philosophers in their search for answers. Scientists and artists, though, cannot replace philosophers in the realm of human thinking. J.

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.