IT’S a big question. Perhaps the biggest that humanity can ask itself. And it’s one that also feeds into our sense of meaning as we shall see. Whatever the answer is, indeed whether there is an answer at all, helps to explain and locate our place in the universe, or multi-verse.
Even asking the question ‘what is reality?’ says something about the universe itself because it means that creatures have evolved in it – homo sapiens – who are here to discuss the question in the first place – a phenomenon that is sometimes called the anthropic principle.
There are two main strands of thought when we talk about ultimate reality that come under the titles ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’. Simply put materialism states that the world is entirely made up of material objects without remainder. So, no immaterial or supernatural entities. Everything is contained within the material world – even consciousness. Idealism, in contrast, holds that the immaterial, like the mind and, yes, consciousness, or spiritual, like deities, are at the core of the world and crucial to our understanding of it.
It might be helpful here to give a brief history of the two approaches. It should be pointed out, firstly, that materialism is not a new idea.
In Western philosophy it can be traced back to Greek thinkers of ancient Athens like Leucippus and Democritus, who were born in the 5th century BCE. Famously, Democritus asserted that ultimate reality consisted of atoms. Epicurus followed and he argued that, although the universe was indeed made up of atoms, there was an indeterministic element to them. According to him atoms fall to earth is parallel lines, but change is explained by chance deviation, causing them to collide.
Materialism largely disappeared from the scene with the rise of scholasticism but was revived by the Catholic philosopher Pierre Gassendi in the 17th century and then by the thoroughly materialistic philosophy of thinkers like Thomas Hobbes (incidentally, Hobbes was born in Warminster and there is an early copy of his magnum opus Leviathan on display in the town’s library).
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection boosted materialistic thinking. A key figure in 20th century materialism is the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle who famously castigated Descartes for his dualism, dismissing his immaterial mind as the ‘ghost in the machine’. He also argued that the traditional problem associated with materialism about reducing the immaterial kind to the brain was really only a pseudo problem because they shouldn’t have been separated in the first place. A modern day materialistic philosopher is Galen Strawson who holds that ‘we are wholly physical beings’.
Idealism also has an ancient history in Western philosophy at least can be traced back to thinkers like Plato with his Theory of Forms or Ideas.
Unlike materialism, this way of thinking flourished during the medieval period, although St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century did have a materialistic streak in him. As Denys Turner notes in his Thomas Aquinas – A Portrait, although he equated the intellect with the immaterial soul he did at least acknowledge that ‘the human intellect is deeply rooted in, not separate from, the animal and vegetative live of a human person’.
Idealism in its purest form is represented by Bishop George Berkeley in the 18th century for whom the phenomenal world of hard objects only exist while they are being perceived by a subject equipped with sense organs. Later in the 18th century Immanuel Kant tried to find a synthesis in which he replaced Berkeley’s ‘subjective idealism’ with ‘objective idealism’
Kant argued that in his Critique of Pure Reason that the human self creates knowledge from sense impressions on which we impose certain universal concepts, which he called categories. This process creates the world as we know and understand it beyond which lies the world as it is in itself, which is forever and necessarily beyond our knowledge.
Arthur Schopenhauer idolized Kant but also corrected and stream-lined many of Kant’s arguments including reducing his rather cumbersome categories to just three -time, space and causation.
Having given this brief history and introduction to materialism and idealism the next blog will delve deeper into the various nuances involved. It can sometimes feel as though this is an either/or situation – one is either a materialist or an idealist. And although this fundamentally true, there are many degrees to consider with some arguing that there is a range of views from extreme to moderate materialism, which is also true of idealism. Then, of course, there is dualism, which has been touched upon here but not, as yet, explored.
This is going to be a long four-blog journey but one that is, hopefully, worth the ride. At this stage it cannot be stated what the conclusion will be, or even whether there can be a conclusion. So, fasten your seat-belts and get ready for an exploration into – ultimate reality!