Realism Versus Idealism

Arthur:      Look at the moon! I think it’s made of cheese. Don’t you think so?

Child:         No, Grandpa, I don’t think so.

Arthur:      Look carefully now. It’s yellow and round like cheese. If you look closely, you’ll even see some holes. I say Swiss cheese.

Child:         I see the holes. But I don’t think it’s made of cheese.

Arthur:      What do you think, then?

Child:         The astronauts brought back rocks from the moon. I saw one. So the moon is made of rocks.

Arthur:      They did? You’re sure? Well, I guess I’ll have to believe you.

What a reward! Facing her grandfather’s teasing, the child drew upon her own resources, used her mind and stated her beliefs and reasons as surely as possible. Then she was able to teach something to this imposing man. In the process she found delight in searching for truth and in confident discovery.

Arthur wanted the child to choose a stance of realism – to seek evidence and solid facts about the moon. I (son and father) watched in admiration as he acted the role of outlandish idealist, dreamer, and shallow thinker.

That youthful lesson contrasted realism with speculative thought…we might say, idealism. Philosophy and the search for GSOT are full of such contrasts.

Realism or idealism? It would seem that no distinction in philosophy could be more blatant or fundamental than this one. Let’s take a closer look.

First, a view from the realist camp may go something like this: Realism regards external objects as independently existing, durable, space-occupying, other-excluding things. They are not merely figments of anyone’s imagination.

On the other hand, idealism begins by noting similarity between our sensory perceptions of objects in nature and the responsive thoughts in our minds. Both are ideas. What about the natural objects themselves? Might they have something of the character of ideas? If they do, then thinking about them could become less complicated. Perhaps idealism is not as far-fetched as it looked at first glance. Usually the idealist proposes that objects in the world external to our human minds exist as ideas in the mind of God.

Many realists show scant respect for the idealist camp. To suggest that objects external to human minds exist as ideas in the mind of God, in the viewpoint of realism, is to supplant fact with speculation. They intuit that objects in God’s mind are not “real;” they are just “ideas.”

Our first inclination is to think that almost all people are realists, because almost everyone would say that trees, grass, rocks (even on the moon), etc. really exist and are not mere ideas. But in fact more than half the people in the world believe in a supreme God and also believe that “God is spirit.” Since trees, grass, and rocks may depend on God to think them into existence, in this view the philosophy of most people may be one of idealism, not realism.

If a person believes in God, what happens to the distinction between realism and idealism? Consider the possibility that God, who is supreme over us as well as the rest of the natural world, might so structure the interactions of divine ideas that these ideas produce a virtual reality for humans. God may arrange things so that human perception of trees and rocks is always just as if these objects exist independently, persist durably, occupy space, and exclude other objects. In this way God would never allow a human to perceive an external object as just an idea.

Pragmatic pears for text 2Now let’s ask: First, what are the essential differences between realism and idealism for someone who believes in God? Next, is there a difference for practice? Compare these 2 answers –

  1. God has created objects in the world that really and truly exist in themselves.
  2. God has created objects in the world that do not exist in themselves, but exist as ideas in the mind of God, forming a virtual reality that presents the ideas to humans as independently existing objects.

One might say that there is an essential difference (that is, a difference “in essence”), but these alternatives offer no difference in practice. In the context of theism, therefore, the answers to the question of realism versus idealism form a pragmatic pair. If we hold to Rule #3 declaring pragmatism, then the words “really and truly exist” and “exist as ideas in the mind of God” bear no distinction of meaning whatsoever.

Perhaps, then, the question gets back to whether one believes that God exists. However, “God” in the pragmatic pair shown above need only be conceived as the God of Mortimer Adler or Albert Einstein, whom we met in the last blog. It’s not asking much at all to postulate God in their terms.

If you can’t go that far, perhaps you could imagine that you are a character in a science fiction novel written in an alternative, superior universe…and enacted digitally on super-metacomputer there. Your world has been created by the author, who happens to be an amazing scientist, an innovative genius, and an unbelievably creative computer programmer. What difference for practice does it make if the author has created objects that really and truly exist, or if she has merely created those objects in the context of a virtual reality that exists only in the computer to enact the story? Again I suggest that it makes no difference at all.  I see no difference between the former “true reality” and the latter “completely effective virtual reality.”

Coming back down to earth, let’s look at physics and chemistry, and ask: Is true reality in the particles and wave functions themselves, or is true reality in the laws that govern the expression and interaction of those objects? In ancient times Plato answered that true reality pertained to the laws and not to the instances of laws manifested in the objects around us. Plato’s view added significance to the discovery of scientific laws. Today we make no such distinction. Without invoking God at all, we are quite comfortable that reality includes both the objects and the laws they obey. Moreover, the thoughts in our brains, according to a materialist viewpoint, have the same character as the particles and laws of physics and chemistry.

I am convinced that the distinction between realism and idealism fails the pragmatic criterion. Arguments on both sides of this question are fruitless – “much ado about nothing.” Others reached this conclusion long before I did. Half a century before Charles Peirce introduced pragmatism, Arthur Schopenhauer decried

the foolish controversy about the reality of the external world, a controversy in which dogmatism and skepticism oppose each other, and the former appears now as realism, now as idealism. Realism posits the object as cause, and places its effect in the subject. The idealism of Fichte makes the object the effect of the subject…. Neither of these two assertions could ever be proved, and skepticism made triumphant attacks on both.[1]

We could have reached the same conclusion simply by adhering to Rule #2: The overarching viewpoint is not allowed. How could a human being ever know if some object really and truly exists, or exists as an idea in the mind of God, except that she has a cosmic or Godlike understanding of reality? That kind of understanding is neither available to us nor useful for us.

Grandpa, the Moon can’t be made of cheese, ’cause I don’t see a big Cow anywhere.


Previous post:  Does God Exist?

Next post:  Cause or Will?

Searching for GSOT outline: Home

Photo (cc0, JG) of a moon rock taken at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina 6/28/2016.  

[1] Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Transl. by E.F.J. Payne, Dover, New York, 1969, p. 13.


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