THE first move here following on from the last blog is to is to give a brief definition of Ultimate Reality – and are there are two possibilities. The first is that it is whatever the universe is in itself regardless of our position within it. Secondly, it is what ever presents itself to our understanding regardless of our position within in it. Another important distinction to make is the difference between Ultimate Reality and metaphysics – the latter being the method by which we develop our understanding of Ultimate Reality rather Ultimate Reality itself.
In the last blog we looked at the history of materialism and idealism. So, we now begin with a closer look at what these terms mean. It could be argued with some cogency that the most basic or the purest form of materialism is physicalist materialism, which bases its position of Ultimate Reality as being whatever the discipline of physics asserts Ultimate Reality to be. A variant of this is what is often called emergent materialism within which there are certain complex entities like minds that, while they have their origins in the brain, are not wholly reducible to it.
Of the first type Rex Wilson writes in Philosophy, Neuroscience and Consciousness that ‘conscious properties must somehow be properties of physical things’. Of the second type neuro-philosophers, writes Wilson, argue that although ‘conscious properties’ remain within the ‘framework of science’ they nevertheless retain an ‘open-minded willingness to refrain from inferring that conscious properties are also reducible to micro-physical properties of neural events’.
Turning now to idealism, one of its most important aspects is the concept of an essence both in the abstract and the concrete. So, in this sense, according to many idealists at least, there is the universalism of humanness – or a type – of which all humans are tokens. But many also argue that there is such a thing as concrete essence which relates to a specific class of things like humans or dogs – and because this is, unlike the fixed abstract universal, dynamic and developing it can accommodate the individual. It is likely that these two concepts can be merged as when abstract universal humans rights apply very concretely to individuals.
One of the other aspects of idealism is that the mind cannot be reduced to the brain or a higher level of reality, like consciousness, to the firing of neurons in the brain. In fact idealists go further to argue that while matter can be explained by the mind, matter cannot explain the mind. Indeed, idealists like Arthur Schopenhauer, following on from Immanuel Kant, argue in his The World as Will and Representation that the ‘world is my idea’. That is the ordinary everyday phenomenal world is created by our brains and the world beyond our representation of it – the world as Will as he put it – must forever be beyond our understanding, although it can at least be inferred to be undifferentiated.
In terms of Ultimate Reality many idealists either believe that it rests in the everyday, solipsistic experience of each individual, as Scottish philosopher David Hume of Bishop Berkeley believed, or, at the other extreme, there lies the pantheistic idealism of Baruch Spinoza. Most philosophical idealists, however, attempt to steer a middle course between these extremes.
The third aspect of Ultimate Reality is dualism whose adherents claim that the mind is a non-material entity that not only cannot be reduced to the brain but doesn’t even have its origin there. This distinguishes it from emergent materialism and those idealists who claim that Ultimate Reality is nothing other than purely non-material, although it can come close to thinkers who try to find a middle way. The distinctive aspect of dualism is that they believe that there is indeed a material world in which resides the brain, but the brain is is not part of the immaterial world of the mind. In this sense, then, Ultimate Reality is made up of these two entirely separate and unconnected substances, although it’s not clear whether the mind can be described as a substance as such.
Rene Descartes, of course, is the best know exponent of dualism in the modern era, although it was Gilbert Ryle in the 20th century who memorably and disparagingly dubbed Descartes’s immaterial mind the ‘ghost in the machine’ in his The Concept of Mind.
Karl Marx is often thought of being a pure materialist but as Karl Popper notes in his The Open Society and its Enemies there is a sense in which he too can be described as a dualist. In the third volume of Capital, for example, he clearly equates the Kingdom of Necessity with the material world and humanity’s interaction with matter. But his idea of the Kingdom of Freedom, even though it has its origin in the Kingdom of Necessity, nevertheless transcends it when it breaks away into the immaterial world of the mind beyond the drudgery of material machinations. Not a pure dualist, then, because of the link with matter but Marx does seem to think that Ultimate Reality, is ultimately, dualist. Perhaps Marx could be seen as one of those thinkers adopting a middle way, which, of course, is very far from his political thought!
In the next blog we look at ways of narrowing the field down, to make it more manageable in an attempt to work some sort of conclusion.