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.