Ideas vs. Matter

What is the stuff that makes up reality?    Is our reality constructed primarily by ideas, with thoughts being actualized as physical experience?  Or is reality made up of matter, stuff that combines to form the world we experience?

As anyone who has had a dream where you have become aware that you’re dreaming can tell you, dream reality seems real and “external” to the self while one is in it.   It operates under different rules, of course, but that simply means its a different reality.   It is possible that our reality is a kind of dream too.   Moreover, quantum physics gets so weird at the subatomic particle level that nothing in science gives any particular reason to favor a materialist explanation of reality over an idealist one.

Of course, in our daily lives the world appears to be material.  It seems external to us, imposing its form on our minds, meaning that ideas follow matter rather than vice-versa.   Yet this could be illusory.    From Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to films like The Matrix and lucid dreams, there are many ways to imagine that what seems to be an external material world is really something else.

A pragmatist would look at this question and likely say “what does it matter?”  If you can’t tell whether or not it’s a world of ideas or a world composed of matter, then why even worry about the question?   Whether its your ideas or the nature of reality that causes a body to fall to its death if it jumps off a cliff, they key conclusion is the same: don’t jump off a cliff.

However, the two different approaches open up very different causal mechanisms.  If ideas are the stuff of reality, then changing how we think affects what happens in the material world.  At an extreme, an idealist version of reality would see ones’ experience in the world as reflecting one’s subjective state — you externalize the internal.   Or it may not be so subjective, we could be experiencing something reflecting group consciousness.   For British cleric Bishop Berkeley, reality was simply God’s dream.  We make the rules in our dreamscapes, God makes the rules in his.

To a materialist, what one thinks matters only insofar as it affects action.   A more optimistic person may take a risk or be more resilient, and that might make a difference.    Yet at base we are victims of fate, with fate being the material cause and effect which could bring unforeseen disease, disaster, or despair.  Ideas and positive thinking might help us bear the burden of a material world where we control only a small portion of our destiny, but they can’t halt the forces and substances in motion in the world.

If one decides to view the world from a materialist perspective, one sees the self as an entity — and if one is honest to oneself, an insignificant entity — in a world of forces and elements that act without regard to the human.   Moreover, other humans are in similar conditions, evolved forms of life designed to compete for scarce resources and try to survive as a species.  Such a world is filled with pain and danger, and most obnoxious of all — death is inevitable.   In the grand course of time we have a small bit to fill, and what we do will be forgotten, perhaps far more quickly than we imagine.  To find joy and meaning in this sort of existence is difficult.   It is far more likely that the flames of envy, greed and despair will engulf us, or that we’ll become depressed by how hard it is to be appreciated and recognized.

From the materialist perspective, the current age is bizarrely contradictory.   We have material opulence, but we’ve jettisoned the traditions, customs, and religious beliefs that protected us from the meaninglessness of existence.   Myth, dogma, and custom could unite a community and create an illusion of meaning, enough to make this existence tolerable.   We embraced the power of reason and it has given us material opulence alongside tremendous psychological obstacles to happiness.

The idealist perspective makes possible a very different outlook, but one with its own problems.  First, if ideas create reality, then the “stuff” of the world isn’t important, and it’s not all that clear if death is a permanent state.   After all, we awaken from our dreams but dream again the next night.   What if this life is like that?  If we’re in Plato’s cave, we have only the shadows to go by, we do not truly understand the greater reality, except perhaps by looking inside ourselves.

If ideas are the stuff of the universe, then we may actually be masters of our own existence.   Reality may be unfolding in a manner that our minds shape, even if subconsciously.   The positive side of that perspective is that it liberates us from death and gives us rather than the force of nature control over our fate.  Of course, the negative side is that if we’re responsible for our successes, we’re also responsible for failures — is the rape victim, the genocide victim, or a person who suddenly loses his or her job in a recession to blame for what happened to them?   To be sure, that’s the same issue that often trumps religious thought — would a loving God really allow all this?

If we view the world through a materialist lens, we have little control over our destinies and they may have no meaning, but at least we aren’t to blame when we’re victimized.  If we use an idealist lens there is a chance at meaning and control — and even eternal life — but we might end up “blaming the victim.”

I’ve convinced myself that the stuff of reality is ideas, with matter being a symbolic representation of the ideal.   Is it a “dream of God,” are we part of some pantheistic ideal, grasped by Plato,  Plotinus and Berkeley?   Do Eastern religions and their notions of karma get closer, with desire being the source of all human pain?  I don’t know.  I don’t think a radical subjective notion that each reality is wholly self-created makes sense — as entities we share a world, so I suspect ‘blaming the victim’ is also misguided.

Of course, I may be grabbing onto this for the same reason someone might refuse to entertain the idea his or her religion might be fantasy: it gives me a sense of control, contentment and hope.   A materialist might smile and say, “you have your fantasy, your myth, I hope you feel better with it.  I prefer to deal with the reality that life is insignificant and my time here slight.”   Yet, of course, neither materialism nor idealism can be proven accurate, it’s simply a call each of us can make if we choose to think about such things.  Perhaps wishful thinking motivates my perspective, but the level of uncertainty is such that we can’t say one perspective is more probable than another.

What I find odd — and maybe telling — is how our culture privileges a materialist world view and denigrates an idealist perspective.   The former is associated with reason and reality, the latter with new age mysticism and fantasy.   Ultimately, though, each is an interpretation of a reality which operates by rules and laws whose source remains unknown.

And I do think there is one very logical reason to reject radical materialism.  The question “why is there something and not nothing” contradicts the possibility of the world being simply a material “accident” with no deeper meaning.   The only way that there should be something rather than nothing, is if there is something meaningful beyond the world of appearances.   That logic seems inescapable, the existence of a world means there must be something more, something not purely material.   God?  Spirit?  Ideas?    Something like Plotinus’s “The One?”   No one knows,  perhaps we can’t know in this world.  But we can believe.

  1. #1 by renaissanceguy on November 21, 2010 - 13:28

    Very interesting. Of course, I agree with a great deal of it. You have done a good job in selecting and detailing the relevant points. Bravo.

    The Christian worldview, as most Christians hold it, is that reality is a mixture. The material word is real and its laws are set. However, there is a non-material realm existing before it, giving cause to it, and sustaining its continual existence.

    I think that one way to realize that the material world has objective existence is that people pretty much report that they perceive it the same. In fact, when certain people do not perceive it the same as others, we can often explain why. For example, people with epilepsy or migraine often experience an aura that is hallucinatory. People can also hallucinate by taking drugs. If the material world had no objective existence, I think it would be pretty difficult to do science.

    It seems to me that such a world would be unpredictable and chaotic. Then again, we would not realize that it was unpredictable, since we would have no reference point of order to compare it to. Then again, our ability to make predictions (even as simple as a book that is let go will fall to the floor) makes me suspicious that the material world has real, objective existence.

    As you say, we could conclude that we share the illusion, but that seems, on the surface, untenable. We all have distinct identities, at least that is how it feels to each of us. I suppose that you could argue that that is part of the shared illusion.

    You wrote, “Yet at base we are victims of fate, with fate being the material cause and effect which could bring unforeseen disease, disaster, or despair.”

    Yes, many circumstance occur that are beyond our control and that affect us in ways that we consider unfortunate. However, the opposite is also true. Look at your own life. You have a good job, a nice home, a family. Those things did not happen by fate, as you define it, but by actions that you and others took decisively–somewhat in opposition to the natural “fate” of the world.

    I’m sorry that you see human beings so doomed. That view doesn’t seem to fit your own experience.

    You said that humans are “. . .evolved forms of life designed to compete for scarce resources and try to survive as a species.”

    Did you notice that you used the word designed? I’m just saying. . .

    I don’t know about the concept of trying to survive as a species. We certainly appear to be designed to do that, but people seem to have little to no concern about the human species as a whole. We kill each other in wars and murder each other. We do things that have the potential to wipe out all life, including human life. If any creature seemed self-centered, it is human beings.

    “In the grand course of time we have a small bit to fill, and what we do will be forgotten,”

    Nobody has forgotten John Lennon or Michelangelo or Alexander the Great.

    But even if I ignore famous people, I can think of ways that ordinary people are remembered. My sister Jennifer is still remembered by several hundred people. They not only simply remember her, but they care about honoring her memory and carrying on her legacy. Even if a person only matters to one other person, he or she still matters. True, they are not likely to be remembered three generations or more after their death, but they won’t care anyway. Maybe that’s an important guiding principle. We can matter a lot while we are alive, and if we want to matter, we should strive to do so while we can. After that, it is inconsequential anyway, since we will be dead and will not care.

    I think that blaming the victim is a consequence of certain idealistic views of reality. However, it is not true of the Christian worldview that combines materialism and idealism. Since human beings are separate beings, we can fully blame the perpetrator and not blame the victim at all.

    It is not true, though, that we who hold a biblical worldview must blame God for bad things that happen. Human beings are so fickle when it comes to this problem. On the one hand, we expect God to stop generic “evil,” and we expect him to stop the evil that other people do. But we do not want him to stop us from doing whatever we want. We blame him for things that human beings choose to do, either individual or collectively, but we balk at the commandments that he has given us (natural law?) because they hamper our will and make us feel restricted.

    So, God tells us not to murder. People commit murder anyway. Then we blame God for not stopping it. At the same time, we do not want him from stopping us from doing whatever deeds we feel like doing that are immoral. I can imagine him telling humanity, “Make up your minds. What do you want the rules to be?”

    You wrote: “Myth, dogma, and custom could unite a community and create an illusion of meaning, enough to make this existence tolerable.”

    How do they make existence tolerable if they are only an illusion? If I thought that my particular myths, dogma, and customs were only creating an illusion of meaning, I woudl ditch them in the blink of an eye. In order to be useful, to make existence tolerable (or better), they must be true. Therefore, it is the duty of every thinking person to answer the question that Pontius Pilate put to Jesus–“What is truth?”

    It is not enough to believe in something just for the sake of believing it. Something we believe in has merit and value only to the extent that it is worth believing–to the extent that it is true and beneficial. I could believe that I can fly unaided across the Pacific Ocean, but it will do me absolutely no good, and, deep down, I realize that it is not true. I can instead beleive that an airplane is able to transport me across the Pacific Ocean, and that belief will benefit me, because it is true.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on November 21, 2010 - 13:43

    Quick response now (more later). Since I ultimately reject the materialist world view, that description of us as victims of fate and doomed does not describe my world view. Taken from the post it sounds like it, but I was describing how the world looks from a materialist perspective. I do NOT see humans as doomed. Sorry for the confusion. When I describe different perspectives I tend to write in the voice of that perspective. I need to be more clear when that is not my voice!

  3. #3 by Mike Lovell on November 21, 2010 - 16:53

    Well how about this scenario. Our dream world and our ‘reality’ are actually reversed. Our dreams are the real world, and we’re bombared with so much chaos, that we find ourselves functioning erratically in a search for finding our path of existence in a multi-plane/dimensional world. Our ‘real lives’ as we know them, are the imagination attempting to gain some semblance of control, and certain images and ideas may integrate into both aspects. But essentially, our real life, is a creation by us, sort of like the video game, The Sims. And like most consumer products, we have the control to end the simulation ourselves (hence suicide), or can choose to play the game until the end as guided by preset parameters, until our version is obsolete and crashes (the idea of planned obsolescence), resulting in our deaths by what we deem as natural causes or old age.

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on November 22, 2010 - 00:44

    RG – Intersubjective agreement about reality is a strong piece of evidence that there is something real. However, it also would happen if this were “God’s dream” (as per Bishop Berkeley — who had a Star Trek: Next Generation character named after him), or if this was a kind of “shared dream” where we had agreed on the basic framework.

    We could all be part of the same “whole” even as we experience reality from different perspectives. Think of a body, many cells doing separate jobs yet somehow connected. The analogy isn’t perfect, and I cannot imagine (nor would I want) my identity being lost, but there could be connections.

    I don’t agree with the materialist perspective I was describing, so I mostly agree with your response to that. I agree in part with your view on life’s meaning going on (again, much of what you’re arguing with is my description of the ‘cold materialist’ perspective — I didn’t make clear that I was describing a view I did not agree with). In fact, I’d argue that each action (thought?) plays a role in making the tapestry of existence. Remembered or not, I believe our acts are as consequential over time as those of Alexander the Great, even if they aren’t direclty noticeable.

    I won’t go into religious belief here — clearly it’s a viable world view — but it’s interesting that the Roman Catholic Church has tried to merge idealism (Augustine’s neo-Platonism) with materialism (Aquinas bringing in logic and Aristotle). “Reason and Faith,” is their goal.

    Mike – I’ve had some posts playing with the ‘life as a game’ idea in the ones under “Quantum Life.” The idea that the dream world is the true reality is intriguing!

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