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4.1: Materialism and Idealism

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    Metaphysics Overview

    Metaphysics deals with what is real. What do all things that are real, in some way or in any way, have in common that makes them real and otherwise not?

    Have you ever heard or said any of the following:

    • Are you for real?
    • Really!
    • No kidding!
    • For real?
    • Is it really true?
    • Get real!
    • Are they real?

    Well, just what is meant by "real"? If all things that are real constitute "reality", then what is "reality"? What does it mean to be real? Is there a reality? How would we know it? This is the stuff of metaphysics. When someone dies and a survivor wonders whether or not souls are real they are entering into metaphysical thinking as soon as they begin to think about what exactly it means to be real.

    Physical objects are real. Or at least most people think that they are real. Ideas are real. Relationships (taller than, older than) are real. They are all real but, they are not real in the same way. What do they have in common that makes them real? You check out something to determine whether or not it is real. A testing process is used. The testing involves the use of the senses, physical objects and measuring devices. But are all things that are real detectable by means of such physical devices? This is a metaphysical question.

    Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that could be of significance to humans as they must deal with claims about things and state of affairs about which they wonder: "Are they real or not?" At the beginning of the 21st century philosophers are exploring alternatives to the post-modernist view that would restore some notion of there being a reality. It is too soon to discern which traditions in philosophy may reassert themselves and in what form, to displace the discredited postmodern rejection of the idea of a single reality.

    At the beginning of the 20th century there was a movement in philosophy called linguistic analysis that held that most, if not all, of the most basic problems confronting philosophers and humans were the result of language problems and once they were solved with a method of clarification the human problems would be solved as well. This has not proven to be the case. Some but not all of the problem with the idea that there are "multiple realities" may very well be a problem with language and the sloppiness with which people use it.

    Let's consider the idea of "multiple realities". At first glance many will agree that there are multiple realities. But when asked exactly what is meant by that claim there are different ideas. There is a need to clarify the meaning of the term "reality". As with many words there is more than one meaning and to switch from one to another in a conversation or an argument is to invite problems. In philosophy this problem is known as equivocation.

    Multiple Realities and Multiple Meanings

    Meaning 1

    Let’s start with what is perhaps the oldest and most important meaning of the word "reality."

    Reality 1 = the sum total of all that is real.

    This is the total sum of all things that exist and are experienced no matter what or where they are. These would be real things as opposed to imaginary or illusory.

    Now there is a universe and it is composed of galaxies and they are composed of solar systems and they have planets and moons and then there are asteroids and comets and throughout it all there is dark matter and energy and dark holes and the forces of the universe: gravity, electro-magnetic, strong and weak. This universe occupies and constitutes space. It has three dimensions of length, breadth, and depth. Add the dimension of time and the entire space-time continuum is reality 1. Thus reality 1 is the total of all real things that are space-time continuum.

    Now if there should be more dimensions than the four of the known space-time continuum, well then reality 1 would consist of the sum of all those dimensions. String theory holds for many more dimensions than the four of space-time. If there should be other universes with their own galaxies and solar systems, etc...then reality 1 would be the total of all those universes and dimensions. Reality 1 is singular. There is only one reality 1. Whatever is real and exists makes for reality 1.

    Meaning 2

    The word reality is sometimes used not in the sense of meaning 1 or reality 1 but in another way.

    Reality 2 = a person's experience of reality 1

    With this usage each person has a unique and individual experience of all that is real and those experiences constitute the reality 2 of that person. No two people, not even identical twins, have the self-same set of experiences and so no two people have the same reality 2. Thus there are as many realities 2 as there are conscious beings to experience what exists. Thus there are multiple realities 2.

    It is obvious that the experiences of different people are different and the more different people are so are their experiences and so is their reality 2. So in the sense of reality 2 there are multiple realities 2. Rich people have a different reality 2 then poor people. Tall people have a different reality 2 than short people. Males have a different reality 2 than females and so on.

    Meaning 3

    There is still another meaning for the word "reality" that is operative in discussions about reality.

    Reality 3 = a person's belief about reality 1

    As different people have different beliefs about what is real then they have a different reality 3. So each person holding a set of beliefs about reality 1 has a reality 3. Different beliefs will produce different realities 3. So with Meaning 2 and Meaning 3 there are multiple "realities"

    If in metaphysics the issue is "What is real?" then they meaning of the word “real” and the resulting “reality“ would be the sense of the word using the meaning of reality 1.

    Now with post-modernism there came the notion that since humans do not know with objective knowledge and with absolute certainty what reality 1 is then all thinking about reality 1 is merely about reality 3. Thus, different groups of people have different beliefs about reality 1 and thus there being no set of beliefs that are certain to be true and complete knowledge of reality 1 then there is no reality 1 that humans know and all talking about reality 1 is merely talking about reality 3 and thus there can be and are multiple realities 3 and that is all that humans can do.

    Post-modernism presents the claims:

    • There is no absolute certainty about reality 1.
    • There can be no certain knowledge of reality 1.
    • There can be no objective knowledge of reality 1.
    • All thinking about reality 1 is done within groups by individuals and amounts to no more than reality 3.
    • So, there are only multiple realities 3.
    Questions to Ponder
    1. Is this actually the case that there is no reality 1 and there are only realities 3?
    2. Is there no way to get beyond the relativity of thinking about reality?

    Some think that there is. Let us consider as an example of something that is real and would be a part of reality 1, the planet earth. More precisely, let's consider the shape of the planet earth.

    To begin with we start out with there being only one such planet on which we who are writing and reading or listening to these words are living. If each of us has his or her own planet earth then there is no explanation as to why we are each on the other's planets. So we agree that there is one planet Earth.

    The planet earth is physical and occupies space-time. As there is only one planet earth it has only one shape. The shape of the planet earth is of a multi-dimensional object. It could be something like a cube, saucer, cylinder, spherical shape, or some other three dimensional shape. However, the main point here is that, whatever is its shape, it has only one shape

    If it has only one shape and there are people who think it is a cube and others who think it is a saucer and others who think it is a spherical shape, then they cannot all be correct at the same time. No matter what the shape of the earth is some of those people must be wrong about the shape because the planet earth cannot have more than one shape at the same time. So in reality 1 the planet earth has one and only one shape.

    Different people have different experiences of the planet earth and thus different realities 2. People also have different beliefs about the shape of the planet and thus different realities 3. Some people think that the shape is flat (Flat Earth society members). Some think that the shape is an oblate spheroid. So they have different realities 3.

    Are they equally correct? No, they could both be wrong. This could happen if the one and only planet earth turned out to have a pyramid shape or some other shape beside a spheroid or flat saucer like entity. But the people who think it is flat and those who think it is an oblate spheroid cannot both be correct at the same time.

    So what is the reality 1 about the planet earth? We think that it is an oblate spheroid given the overwhelming amount of evidence that supports that and the evidence that refutes the claim that the planet earth has a flat shape.

    It would be foolish (defying logic and basic reason) to claim that there are multiple realities using reality 1 meaning. It would be obvious to claim that there are multiple realities about the shape of the earth using reality 3 meaning.

    So where are we with all this talk about reality and multiple realities? Well the American pragmatist Charles Sanders Pierce wished to distinguish himself from the other pragmatists because of a few points of fundamental difference with them. Most held that there was no reality 1 and Pierce held that there was such a reality 1 and that humans would develop better and better understandings of just what reality 1 is but never capture it totally and completely. He wished that his own form of pragmatism that held out for such a thing to be known as "pragmatism" but that did not catch on. So we have the postmodernism of Pierce and then the postmodern relativism of the others including pragmatists who want to claim that there is no reality 1.

    It seems that Pierce was more accurate than those others who would go on to promulgate many ideas about the lack of certainty and the impossibility of objective knowledge and truth. The shape of the planet earth is something that humans come to know. Their thinking about is checked against the way that things are. There is a method for checking on the empirical claims of human beings and that method is self-correcting. Science develops over time a better and better understanding of the nature of things and of reality 1.

    We should not accept that there are multiple realities 1 but only that there are multiple realities in the sense of meaning 2 (reality 2) and meaning 3 (reality 3). We would do better to stop using those meanings and to speak more clearly and when we want to claim that there are multiple realities in the sense of meaning 2 (reality 2) and meaning 3 (reality 3) we should make these claims:

    b) There are different experiences of what is real.

    c) There are different beliefs about what is real.

    and not say that there are different realities when all we mean by that is either b) or c).

    Academic Metaphysics

    The term metaphysics originally referred to the writings of Aristotle that came after his writings on physics, in the arrangement made by Andronicus of Rhodes about three centuries after Aristotle's death.

    Traditionally, metaphysics refers to the branch of philosophy that attempts to understand the fundamental nature of all reality, whether visible or invisible. It seeks a description so basic, so essentially simple, so all-inclusive that it applies to everything, whether divine, human or anything else. It attempts to tell what anything must be like in order to be at all.

    To call one a metaphysician, in this traditional philosophical sense, indicates nothing more than his or her interest in attempting to discover what underlies everything. Old materialists, who said that there is nothing but matter in motion, and current naturalists, who say that everything is made of lifeless, non-experiencing energy, are just as much to be classified as metaphysicians as are idealists, who maintain that there is nothing but ideas, or mind, or spirit.

    Perhaps the best definition of materialism is that of Charles Hartshorne (Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers, p.17): "the denial that the most pervasive processes of nature involve any such psychical functions as sensing, feeling, remembering, desiring, or thinking." Idealists assert what materialists here deny. Dualists say that mind and matter are equally real, while neutral monists claim that there is a neutral reality that can appear as either mind or matter. Philosophers generally are content to divide reality into two halves, mind and matter (extended and unextended reality) and do not emphasize such distinctions within the mind half as spirit and soul.

    Popular Metaphysics

    A commonly employed secondary, popular, usage of metaphysics includes a wide range of controversial phenomena believed by many people to exist beyond the physical.

    Popular metaphysics relates to two traditionally contrasted, if not completely separable, areas,

    1. mysticism, referring to experiences of unity with the ultimate, commonly interpreted as the god who is love, and
    2. occultism, referring to the extension of knowing (extrasensory perception, including telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, retro cognition, and mediumship) and doing (psychokinesis) beyond the usually recognized fields of human activity.

    The academic study of the occult (literally hidden) has been known as psychical research and, more recently, parapsychology. Both New Age and New Thought emphasize mysticism and its practical, pragmatic application in daily living, but New Thought discourages involvement in occultism.

    Pure and Applied Metaphysics

    Cutting across the division of the academic and the popular, there is another way of dividing metaphysics: theoretical and applied. This distinction is like the division between science and technology; one describes; the other applies the description to practical problems, putting knowledge to work. Gathering knowledge (or alleged knowledge, critics of metaphysics would say) in metaphysics traditionally is by rational thought; in a more popular understanding, knowledge gathering may be either mystical or occult; in either case the pure (?) knowledge is to be distinguished from the practical application of it.

    Subdivisions of Metaphysics

    • Ontology: What is being? What exists? What is real?
    • Metaphysical Questions: Does god exist? Soul? Mind? Body? Space? Time? Eternity? Potential? Future? Past?
    • Cosmology: what is the origin of reality? Matter? Space? Time?
    • Axiology: what are values? Do they exist? Are they ordered?

    Topics in Metaphysics

    • Minds and bodies
    • Souls and immortality
    • Freedom and determinism
    • Fate
    • Space and time
    • Time and eternity
    • Causation
    • God: being, causation, nature, eternal, nature, existence of evil
    • Ideas or categories
    • Relations properties: are these real?


    Materialism is a tradition of thought in which all things that exist are made up of matter in some way. To update this theory it might be restated that all existence is made up of energy in some form. Matter is a form of energy. All things that exist are made of energy, atoms, molecules, forces and other entities that consist of energy. There are no non-physical or non-material existents.

    Margaret Cavendish-Materialism

    To explain human behavior there is evolutionary biology and sociobiology, which attempt to explain all behavior in physical terms. Humans are conditioned to respond to stimuli. They have basic physical drives and they have the evolutionary drive to continue their species. This explains mating behavior and even the actions of some humans to save the lives of other humans, even at their own expense. It is all about continuing the genetic inheritance, the chromosomal patterns.


    This is the view that the only reality is the ideal world. This would be the world of ideas. It is the view that there is no external reality composed of matter and energy. There are only ideas existing within minds.

    Idealism is the metaphysical view that associates reality to ideas in the mind rather than to material objects. It lays emphasis on the mental or spiritual components of experience, and renounces the notion of material existence. Idealists regard the mind and spirit as the most essential, permanent aspects of one’s being.

    Idealism of Plato

    A well-known exponent of this view was Plato, a philosopher in ancient Greece (428-347 BC). Plato believed that the physical world around us is not real; it is constantly changing and thus you can never say what it really is. There is a world of ideas which is a world of unchanging and absolute truth. This is reality for Plato. Does such a world exist independent of human minds? Plato thought it did, and whenever we grasp an idea, or see something with our mind's eye, we are using our mind to conceive of something in the ideal world. There are a number of proofs of this ideal world. The concepts of geometry, such as the concept of a circle, which is a line equidistant from a point, is something which does not exist in the physical world. All physical circles, such as wheels, drawings, etc. Are not perfectly round. Yet our mind has the concept of a perfect circle. Since this concept could not come from the physical world, it must come from an ideal world. Another proof is that from moral perfection. We can conceive of a morally perfect person, even though the people we know around us are not morally perfect. So where does someone get this idea of moral perfection? Since it could not have been obtained from the world around us, it must have come from an ideal world.

    Idealism of Bishop George Berkeley

    George Berkeley was an Anglican bishop from Ireland who challenged the irrationality of the notion that matter exists autonomously outside the mind as Locke and other contemporaneous empiricists speculated. Berkeley’s immaterialist ontology maintained material substance cannot be real beyond the confines of the mind because inanimate objects do not have the ability to operate as causal agents. It is nonsensical and foolish to designate the causal qualities of humans, or spirits, to inert matter. Only life forces, such as spirits or souls, are able to function causally through perception and are the only substances that really exist. Knowledge springs from perceptions, and because material objects are not causal agents, they unquestionably do not arouse perceptual activity. Berkeley says that only an infinite being may produce and direct causally the perceptions that humans (spirits) have of physical matter. “but whatever power I may have over my own thoughts, I find the ideas actually perceived by sense have not a like dependence on my will. When in broad daylight I open my eyes, ‘tis not in my power to choose whether I see or no, or to determine what particular objects shall represent themselves to my view; and so likewise to the hearing and other senses, the ideas imprinted on them are not creatures of my will. There is therefore some other will or spirit that produces them."

    Does The Physical World Exist? Bishop George Berkeley

    Berkeley asserted that man’s ideas are emitted from the divine, and thus all humans are merely ideas in the mind of God. When he thinks of us, we are begotten and our existence activated. Yet, God still remains ineffable as he is beyond our comprehension. It is ultimately God who causes us to sense the physicality of objects by means of his direct volition. First, he will conceive the idea that we humans sense or perceive an object and then we actually do as he thought. Hence, the effect of God’s mind on the mind of humans is required for sensation to occur. Berkeley explicates that all physical objects are perceived via sensation. Material objects are merely ideas obtained through perceptual activity and their attributes are sensible rather than being physical properties. Sensation is therefore impossible without the presence of ideas or else anything sensed would be unperceived or unthought. In conclusion, Berkeley asserts that all physical things in this world are ideas of the divine.

    Christian Scientist's Idealism

    Christian Scientists generally believe that God is a disembodied spirit who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. They set all being in his mind. He is and encompasses all aspects of existence as he is referred to as “God is all-in-all.” Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, states that due to God’s spiritual nature, humanity (the product of his creation) must also appropriately be spiritual and not material. The concept of additional spiritual deities is excluded because of his “all-in-all” totality. The true universe in its entirety, according to divine metaphysics, or Christian Science, is comprised of ideas that are completely spiritual and fashioned by divine thought, just as Berkeley espouses in his immaterialist views. Therefore, Christian Scientists specify that we as humans are in truth spirits produced by divinity, and in consequence are all incarnations of God. If we ignorantly deny the truth of God’s spiritual existence, it is then that we will mistakenly envision the world in the form of material, as it will be an illusion. All ideas hostile to god’s infiniteness, permanence, and goodness, such as conceptions of death, hell, and evil, are flawed and wicked hallucinations and are not real. God envelops all that is real, and therefore, everything he is (eternal, omnibeneficent, etc.) is justifiably real. Everything else is just mortal error.

    Forms of idealism

    • Skeptic idealism- starts with the thought that there is no proof that there are material objects outside of thought.
    • Problematic idealism- is the belief held by Descartes where we can only hold one empirical truth, which is that I exist.
    • Dogmatic- starts with the assumption that there are no material objects outside of thought and the belief that space is an inseparable condition to all objects and that this space is cannot exist in itself. Thus it also says that all things in this space also cannot exist and are merely images. This is Berkeley's position.

    Since all that we think we perceive through our senses that gives us evidence of a universe beyond our own mind is evidence which exists in our mind there is a problem with verifying anything outside of the realm of thought.

    We could all be merely sets of thoughts in the universal set that is God. God thinks of everything and God’s thought are those things. God thinks of us; of us sitting at our computers, in a room with other people at the same time that God thinks of those rooms and people and computers and that is all that we are: thoughts in God’s mind.

    Philosophy Applications

    In a minimum 2 paragraphs for each question, answer it completely and use evidence to support your opinions from the reading.

    1. What is reality? How do we know?

    Note: This does not mean a view of what is real or a perspective or an individual experience of whatever is real. This question is asking about what is reality itself.

    Think about: What makes something real? What does anything that exists in any way need in order to be real as opposed to an illusion, fantasy, fake? What would you do to determine whether or not something was real?

    1. Can there be more than one reality at the same time?

    Note: This means what is real and not a person's view of what is real. This question is asking if there can be more than one total reality. It is not asking about whether or not people can have different experiences or views of the same reality. This question is asking whether there can be more than one entire reality (universe) at the same time. Granted that people have different experiences and different views what are they of.

    Think about: Is there a single reality that people have different views of? or, are there as many realities as there are different views? Is it possible that there is one reality and some people have correct views of it and other people have wrong or incorrect views of it? Or are there many realities and each group of people can have their own reality? What becomes of the reality of other groups? Are they no longer real?


    Vocabulary Quizlet 4.1

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