Idealism versus Realism


Idealism says all things we know exist in mind. Realism says that things are made from matter and are exactly as we experience them. There are shades of grey. The realism I mention is really called naive realism, since it makes the naive assumption that things are as we see them. This is easily refuted. Do railway tracks really meet in the distance? When we see the moon in a lake at night, is the moon really in the lake? Our senses deceive us on a regular basis, and we have more understanding of the world when we sanitize our raw sense experiences with reason.

The shades of grey move gradually from naive realism toward idealism. Some doctrines assert that some features of things really do exist – shape being one of them. While other features, color for example, is a product of the mind. There are several ways of slicing and dicing this, but it’s a tedious process and doesn’t throw any light on the fundamental nature of our existence.

In reality, it really doesn’t matter whether we say everything is mind, or everything is matter. Once we have said “everything” then all we have done is put a label on the nature of reality. It adds nothing to say that everything is “X” – where X might be the fire breathed by the soup dragon, matter, spirit, God, consciousness, or whatever the trendy concept of the day might be. How about quantum consciousness.

My own view on this is that of an idealist – it’s all mind. Having said that mind, matter, spirit and so on are just labels it might seem I am contradicting myself. However, there is a hidden gem associated the assumption that it is all mind. If our reality is mind, then we can approach our understanding of things with greater clarity.

The classic example of this is the uncanny way that mathematics and “physical” reality tend to agree with each other. The unexamined view on this is that mathematics is a pure product of the mind. It talks about commutativity, imaginary numbers (based on the square root of minus one), geometries that cannot be detected by the senses but have proved crucial in understanding the world. Physical reality, however, exists outside the mind and is made of matter. Why would these two agree to such a high degree of precision? For those of a mathematical bent Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity agrees with observation to an accuracy of one million billionths. In other words, the distance between Sun and Earth (100 million miles for sake of simplicity) is predicted to an accuracy of less than one-tenth of a millimeter – less than the thickness of a fingernail. And it should be remembered that General Relativity was a pure product of mind – esoteric geometries and Einsteins principle of equivalence (another day).

The unreasonable applicability of mathematics to the “real” world has been the subject of a number of books recently, and yet the answer to this strange phenomenon is simple. So-called “physical reality” and mathematics are both produced by the mind, and so we should expect them to agree. Kant asserted that this was the case., and it was a great insight.

The decision on whether everything is matter or mind turns out to be very important. And I should add that by mind I do not mean brain. Our brain is located in time and space like every other object, and as such is a product of the mind. When we come from the assumption that all is mind we can make sense of the strange relationship between thought and “reality”. It also means that ideas and thought are much more important than the realist, the person who assumes everything is matter, might assume.

Our mind is constructed in a certain manner, and without delving into Kant, our thought is both enabled and limited by the structure of our mind. The best example of this is causality. Our minds are so structured that we experience the world as a sequence of causes and effects. We can’t experience causality physically, the connection between a cause (clapping hands) and the effect (a sound) is the result of a property of our minds.

This argument has raged for millennia and will no doubt continue to occupy minds. For me it is clear-cut. All is mind – please show me something that is not mind and I may change my – “mind”. Ha.

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