Archive for July 13th, 2011

Why am I an Idealist?

I am an idealist.  I’m not talking about foreign policy or international relations (Wilsonian idealism), but rather philosophical idealism.   What does this mean?  It means that I see ideas as the essential “stuff” of reality.  There are many forms of idealism (just look it up on Wikipedia), and rather than categorize myself I want to explore why I hold this position — not explain why, but explore, since I’m really not sure myself why I think as I do.

To the realist/materialist there is a reality “out there” made up of things external to the self, which one has to navigate in order to survive and thrive.    Most realists see the external world populated by many individuals like oneself, and life involves learning to interact with others, cooperate and sometimes fight.  At a practical level, there isn’t much difference between how one would live life as a materialist/realist and an idealist.   Experience is what it is.  If I jump off a cliff I can injure or kill myself, regardless of whether reality is made up of matter or ideas.   Poverty, war, disease, pain and sorrow are experiences that are as real and valid regardless of ones’ philosophy.

Most people in our culture are realist/materialists.  It seems to be how the world operates; our language and way of thinking are geared towards such an approach.   For me to reject that for idealism seems odd.   Yet since experience is something processed in the mind, the nature of reality is an open question.    A dream reality seems real — one appears to have a body and there are objects apparently external to the self — but its all in the head.  We also have developed virtual reality games, holographic images, and other ways that hint at the possibility that one can have an experience that seems to be enmeshed in a world of external entities, but is actually contained in a computer program or beams of light.

Moreover, without going into the scientific detail, it’s harder to hold on to a materialist/realist view of the world and make sense of modern physics than it is to have a more idealist perspective.   The paradoxes around time, basic particles, the nature of space-time, how light operates, etc., are immense.   Well established principles such as non-locality (one particle can instantaneously impact another, which should be impossible) and quantum tunneling defy common sense views of reality.   Probably the best author (and someone who is a realist/materialist) about this is Brian Greene, and his books The Fabric of the Cosmos and The Hidden Reality.

OK, if you read those with an open mind you might say that my view is plausible, but so many questions are open that idealism isn’t self-evidently the best alternative.   So why do I believe as I do?

William James noted that peoples’ beliefs are often less about how they analyze reality and more a reflection of personality.   Perhaps my personality predisposes me to this kind of world view.   As a child I was naturally religious, reading the Bible by age 12 and taking prayer and faith seriously — much more so than my parents.    As I grew I became skeptical that one religious teaching could be right, but kept the sense of spiritualism.   Even my choice of music — Styx Grand Illusion, Yes, Supertramp, Alan Parsons Project, Kansas, and the Moody Blues, venture towards more mystical takes on reality.  The cynical realism of punk rock didn’t appeal to me, while traditional hard rock like AC/DC and Van Halen always seemed fun but shallow.  (And Grunge?  YUCK!)

Maybe by my nature I am drawn more to spiritual ideas (which link well with idealism) than material ones?   That is a bit disappointing if true — if we’re all sort of programmed to have particular world views through our personality, then how free are we?   Are people Republican, Democrat, libertarian or radical by dint of their personalities?

And what is it about my personality?   When I do personality tests a few things stand out.  I’m very non-judgmental (I’m radically on the ‘perceiving’ side), I easily accept both change and uncertainty, and I’m optimistic.  I don’t carry grudges, tend not to dislike people, and tend to be a bit dreamy and escapist.   I see those things as good, but my optimism can drive friends crazy, and my escapism probably has cost me life opportunities.

Perhaps the most important aspect of my personality that lends itself to idealism is that since a young age I’ve had a profound belief that I am in charge of and responsible for my own life.  I can blame no one else when things go wrong, I have to adapt and make do in circumstances I dislike, changing them if I can (figuring out when I need to adapt and when I can change things).   I view my success, happiness and joy as my responsibility and no one else’s.   This is a hard view to hold with a materialist/realist world view.

First, there would be the guilt attack — oh, that’s easy for a middle class American white male to believe, I’ve been born into comfort, taking responsibility for that is easy — but does that mean third world children born into a war zone are equally responsible?   Such guilt attacks usually come from within — how can I hold such a view, isn’t that arrogant and self-serving?   From an idealist point of view, though, its far more complex.   Managing life conditions is difficult, and material opulence can hinder joy and happiness and create illusions of false success.

Second, a realist world view makes such self-responsibility seem at best a delusion.  Drunk drivers, cancer cells, terrorists, and the ill winds of chance are there to threaten my life conditions.   To a realist/materialist life is a struggle, one has to compete and be on guard at all times — who knows what the world or other people might throw at you!   It makes more sense to see oneself as a victim of circumstance with a realist/materialist world view.  One has the responsibility to respond to what life brings, but life might end up a joyless struggle regardless of ones’ efforts.   My optimism and belief in personal control would be seen as a delusion, one likely to explode in my face someday when a true crisis hits.

Perhaps.   But its not like I haven’t had my own challenges in life.   If it’s a delusion, it might be one that is psychologically useful, giving me a positive attitude and a belief I can handle what comes my way.   Then again, maybe judging world conditions and ourselves on primarily materialist standards is misguided.   After all, my belief in control is not one of the individual self against the world, but of myself connected spiritually to the world; to me that’s the source of strength and opportunity.   It’s not me against the world, but me with the world.   That’s the kind of paradox (I’m responsible and can blame no one else, but that responsibility is based on a spiritual connection to everything else) that my personality has no problem holding.   To others it’s contradictory and downright corny.

Ultimately I can’t know if my idealism is correct.  It feels right at an intuitive level; I don’t believe I could convince myself to think differently.  My way of engaging the world and interpreting reality is part of who I am, it’s not something I can simply change or be talked out of.   And that’s a bit disconcerting.  I’m not sure why I think like I do, nor can I imagine thinking in a fundamentally different manner.   I suspect that’s also true of people who have a far different world view than I do.   I’ll have to ponder this further…