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What is the difference between philosophical idealism and philosophical realism?

These key ideas of realism should seem very familiar. Realism is the mainstream everyday view within Western cultures and the mainstream scientific view.

In contrast, idealism is the view that the physical universe is like a dream created by consciousness. It is in consciousness, just as a dream is. We have an individual dream at night; we have a shared dream during the day. Who dreams up our dream during the day? Idealists offer a variety of answers. These can include: God, all of us conscious beings together, and it’s just not known. Regardless of the dreamer, the key idea of idealism is that consciousness is fundamental and does not derive from matter or from physical universe energy.

Samuel Johnson, a famous British writer (1709–1784), was asked how he would refute idealism. Without hesitation, Dr. Johnson kicked a stone “with mighty force” and said, “I refute it thus.” Seems simple enough. But, perhaps, not so fast…realism is facing some major challenges these days. And idealism may offer some solutions. And, of importance to science, idealism may also lead into new areas of productive scientific research.

Samuel Johnson statue idealism
“I refute it thus.” Statue by William Fawke of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) kicking a stone in answer to Bishop Berkeley’s theory of idealism. [Statue by sculptor, William Fawke]
Dr. Johnson held a common misconception of idealism. He thought that it involves the creation of the physical universe in the human mind as depicted in the accompanying  cartoon, As Dr. Johnson readily demonstrated, this turns idealism into a silly idea, But it’s a straw man.

Idealism holds that the entire physical universe arises within universal consciousness, not a particular human mind. If, while dreaming, one kicked a rock, both the foot and the rock would have arisen from the dreaming mind. Similarly, in idealism, Dr. Johnson’s foot and the rock both arise from universal consciousness.

(Note: These are the definitions of “realism” and “idealism” in philosophy. If you are interested in the meaning of these terms in ordinary English, click for: plain English definitions of idealism and realism.)

                                                  CHALLENGES TO REALISM

Realism handily explains the fact that almost all of us see the same world—the exceptions would include people on LSD, people who are psychotic, and such. Realism fits well with the fact that the physical world is lawful and that our thoughts are not capable of changing the laws. Realism seems so natural to us that the wonder is that anyone would doubt it. However, realism suffers from a few big problems.

Challenge #1: Realism cannot (yet?) explain consciousness—the movie running in our minds.

Realism is a great approach for scientific investigation of physical things like human bodies and planets. But what is its explanation for the fact that we have subjective experiences—consciousness? This is referred to as the “hard problem of consciousness.”

First, a quick definition of “consciousness.” It’s the ability to have subjective experiences. It’s the movie playing in our minds, complete with visuals, sounds, smells, tastes, and other sensory information. And also, emotions.*

The philosopher, David Chalmers, coined the phrase the “hard problem of consciousness.” He was contrasting it with the “easy problem” of correlating brain activity with subjective experience: Stimulate one part of the brain, and, suddenly, you’re smelling peppermint. Stimulate another part, and you’re hearing chimes. Neuroscientists who research this type of correlation might not agree that their work is all that easy. Nevertheless, they have been making rapid progress for decades. In contrast, they’ve made virtually no progress on the hard problem.

The hard problem of consciousness is explaining how changes in the brain result in subjective experiences, regardless of whether it’s the smell of peppermint or the sound of chimes—how do electrical impulses in the brain result in an experience, any experience?

Comparing a computer to our brains highlights the problem. Let’s say electrical signals zip through the central processing unit of the computer. Suddenly, a message flashes on its screen: “Insufficient Memory.” Does the computer know the meaning of the message? Does it feel frustrated? Does it feel anxious? I don’t know for sure, but I’m going to say no.

But whether or not the computer understands the message, the human user does. When she reads the error message on the screen and electrical impulses zip through her central processing unit (brain), she understands it all too well and may feel frustration and anxiety.

The Emergence Hypothesis for Consciousness   One hypothesis about the hard problem is that when brains become sufficiently complex, consciousness, that is, subjective experience, emerges. But this doesn’t tell us how consciousness arises. It’s really just the observation that something about nature makes beings with complex brains conscious. We have no idea what the mechanism for this might be. And it’s more like a guess than an observation. We don’t really know if beings with simple brains or without brains at all, like amoeba, are conscious.

Those who favor the idea that consciousness emerges from complex brains propose that when we can build highly complex Artificial Intelligence (AI), we’ll be able to test this hypothesis. Being able to test a hypothesis makes it scientifically interesting. After all, the difference between philosophy and science is that, unlike philosophical propositions, scientific hypotheses can be tested.

There is, however, a problem with the claim that the emergence hypothesis of consciousness can be tested. Since scientists do not know the mechanism for the generation of consciousness by the brain, they are unable to propose the degree of complexity needed. If consciousness shows up with the development of complex AI, emergence will be supported. But if consciousness doesn’t show up, proponents of emergence can always say that still greater complexity is needed. This means that the hypothesis cannot be falsified. Many scientists consider falsifiability as a key aspect of testing a hypothesis.

Challenge # 2: Realism has trouble with the Occam’s Razor test.

Realism can seem the simplest way to look at things. For example, the reason that we see a box is because the box is really out there. How complicated is that? However, realism depends upon an unannounced assumption. The only thing we know for sure is that we have an image of a box in our mind. Per realism, we additionally assume that the reason there’s an image of a box in our mind is that a box resides in an external reality.

Arthur Eddington idealist
Sir Arthur Eddington (1882–1944) was a leading astrophysicist of the early 20th Century and also an idealist. Famously, his observations of stars during a solar eclipse were taken as confirmation of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. [Image source: George Grantham Bain Collection, U.S. Library of Congress, Arthur Eddington – Wikipedia]

Sir Arthur Eddington, an idealist, pointed out the greater simplicity of idealism in that it does not make this assumption. He wrote in his book The Nature of the Physical World that “The stuff of the world is mind-stuff.” He goes on to say:

“The mind-stuff of the world is, of course, something more general than our individual conscious minds…. It is necessary to keep reminding ourselves that all knowledge of our environment from which the world of physics is constructed, has entered in the form of messages transmitted along the nerves to the seat of consciousness….It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character. But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference.”

One could also characterize the inference of a real external world as an assumption. Occam’s Razor says that explanations with fewer assumptions are simpler, and simpler explanations are to be preferred.

Wait!! What?! If the world is being dreamed in consciousness, why is it so lawful? Why does LSD or too much tequila interfere with our perceptions of reality? And, why do we all experience the same world? These are excellent questions. In the section on idealism a little further along, there are some answers.

Challenge #3: Special Relativity

Discoveries made in both Special Relativity and Quantum Physics undermine realism. It’s not that these branches of modern physics rule out realism. It’s just that they make realism harder to swallow.

In Special Relativity, neither objects nor time have the same length for all observers. Here’s an example of how the length of the same object can be a different for two different observers. Let’s say that you’re flying in a rocket ship to Mars at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Traveling at this clip, you pass the Little Prince sitting on his little planet. Let’s say that you measure the length of your rocket ship as you fly by the Little Prince, and he does, too. You might measure it at 40 feet long. But, due to the fact that he is sitting still, the Little Prince would measure it as much longer, maybe 60 feet long.

Special Relativity tells us that the rocket ship can be both 40 feet long to you and 60 feet long to the Little Prince. This is not a visual effect; the same object has two different physical lengths to observers who have two different speeds. This isn’t something we would experience in our everyday lives; it occurs only when objects are moving at a significant fraction of the speed of light.

What kind of pre-existing reality is this? We can imagine a role-playing video game that might work like this—lengths of the same object change depending on which character we’re playing. But a physical universe that is objectively out there? Yeah, OK, we can stretch the meaning of a pre-existing, objective reality to include one where objects are of two different lengths at the same time, depending on your speed…I guess.

Challenge #4: Quantum Physics

Quantum physics also poses major challenges to realism. In 2017, Chinese physicists experimented with two photons, that is, bits of light. The specially-created photons were separated by 700 miles. The experiment showed that the photons were able to instantaneously coordinate their behavior. This phenomenon is called “quantum entanglement.”

According to Special Relativity, no signal can travel across a distance instantaneously. How can one photon instantaneously “know” what another photon over 700 miles away is doing? What kind of reality are we living in?

When people learn about quantum physics, they find out about specific oddities like quantum entanglement. But the most fundamental oddity is its most fundamental premise: Both matter and energy are mere vibrations in an invisible, undetectable medium called “fields.” How does our very impressive, very solid physical universe arise from vibrations in a kind of nothingness?

How does our reality arise from vibrations? [Image source: David Chalmers and Kelvin McQueen, “Consciousness and the Collapse of the Wave Function” (modified to omit a label) http://consc.net/slides/collapse.pdf]

But it gets worse. The vibrations represent a cornucopia of possible physical realities, only one of which becomes the solid reality that we perceive. (If this sentence is baffling to you, you are not alone. It condenses the heart of quantum physics, which is puzzling enough, into one sentence—which is a terrible idea. See the footnote below.**)

Do the oddities of quantum physics mean we must abandon realism? No. Many physicists have come up with interpretations of quantum physics that are based in realism. It’s also true that some of these interpretations describe very odd realities. For example, the Many Worlds Interpretation, perhaps the oddest, describes us as having infinite copies of ourselves in infinite numbers of universes. The desire to salvage realism may be an important reason that the Many Worlds Interpretation is gaining popularity among physicists. But there are other realistic interpretations of Special Relativity and quantum physics that are less mind-blowing.

Quantum physics undermines the solidity of the physical universe. When people learn that quantum physics is based on the proposition that matter and energy are, at bottom, vibrations of questionable reality which shake invisible, undetectable fields, the solidity of our universe loses some of its impressiveness. Thoughts pop up like: Could our physical universe have no more solidity than a dream?

To the dreamer, the houses, the cars, and the monsters all seem completely real. So, too do to the hallucinations of the psychotic and those of someone on LSD. Our minds are quite capable of creating solid reality without any necessity of an independent external world.

Quantum physics may also create wonderings about the mysterious invisible medium for the vibrations of matter and energy: Could the vibrations of matter and energy be vibrations in a new kind of energy that makes up consciousness?

In other words, some begin to entertain the notion of idealism.

                                                    IDEALISM

That consciousness generates the physical universe is a key tenet of Buddhism. When we wake up in the morning after an embarrassing business meeting in which we were buck naked, we say with relief, “Oh, it was just a dream.” When people meditate and wake from the “illusion” of the physical universe, Buddhists say that they are now “awake” or “Enlightened.”

However, idealism is not unique to Buddhism and other Eastern religions. Western philosophers have espoused varieties of idealism for thousands of years. Such philosophers include the ancient Greek, Plato (about 428 BC to 347 BC); British philosopher, Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753); and the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Interest in idealism picked up with the birth of quantum physics in 1900. In 1931, Nobel Laureate, Max Planck, the grandfather of quantum physics, famously said, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.” Other early quantum physicists also expressed an interest in idealism.

For many, it is difficult to form a concept of idealism. They imagine a human being in a body creating the physical universe in their mind. No, this will never do. The human being is physical, which is not the starting point for idealism. Idealism starts with consciousness.

Just to get started with the concept of idealism, imagine an immaterial entity like God having a dream, but a dream which follows sensible laws. One variety of idealism imagines that we’re all in God’s dream.

Idealism doesn’t, however, require belief in God. It could be, for example, that all conscious beings share one consciousness and that we’re all, together, dreaming the universe. Or that there is one universal mind that all us conscious beings are plugged into. How is one universal mind different from God? That’s a question for another time.

In any event, the essential concept of idealism is that consciousness is fundamental. This contrasts with the essential concept of realism that physical matter and physical energy are fundamental. Neither philosophy is required to explain how their fundamental substance came to be. The meaning of “fundamental” is that it is the rock bottom of the explanation.

Idealism, like realism, faces challenges.

Challenge # 1: Why are our thoughts private?

If there’s one universal mind that we all plug into, why are our thoughts private? Possibly, we’re walled off from each other like the personalities of someone suffering from multiple personality disorder. We’re each an “alter,” as the psychologists call one of these personalities. This possibility is spelled out in many journal articles and books by computer scientist and philosopher, Bernardo Kastrup,

Kastrup also notes evidence found by neuroscientists for the reality of multiple personality disorder and alters. For example, one woman who suffered from this disorder had a blind alter and another alter with normal sight. When the blind alter was in charge of her consciousness, the visual portion of her brain recorded no activity. But when the seeing alter was in charge, the visual portion recorded normal activity. This, Kastrup takes as evidence that consciousness can be “privatized.” ***

Challenges #2-#5

There are other important objections to idealism:

  • We’re conscious of many of our own thoughts—if we’re the dreamers, why aren’t we aware that we’re dreaming the universe?
  • If the universe is a figment of consciousness, why can’t we change it or change its laws by our own wills?
  • If the universe is dreamed by a senior consciousness, why does LSD, which affects only one individual’s brain, profoundly alter it for that individual?

All these questions can be addressed by imagining that each of our private minds are alters. They provide a filter so that none of us have identical perceptions. We’re all tuned in to the same radio, but we’re wearing different headsets, some with more base and some with more treble. And no single alter can change the base versus treble for anyone else.

Here’s another objection:

  • If the universe is being dreamed, why is it so lawful?

Each individual human consciousness is a chaos of flashing and zipping thoughts and emotions. And, if anything, it gets worse at night, when dreams can bring us absurd, nonsensical images. Possibly, the source of universal consciousness, in contrast to individual humans, has its act together.

Idealism solves the Hard Problem of Consciousness   Idealism solves the hard problem of consciousness. Consciousness is fundamental— there is no longer a need to explain how it arises from matter: it doesn’t. Matter is dreamed, following lawful principles which can be expressed as equations. Our consciousness lends solidity to the dream just as it does when we sleep or hallucinate.

                               IDEALISM-REALISM, WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?

In the last 300 years, the Western world and the Westernizing world fell in love with Newtonian physics. Newtonian physics has been so successful in bringing us steam engines, toasters, and rocket ships, that we have readily adopted Newton’s view that the world is no more than a construction made of “solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles.” ****

After all, isn’t the success of Newtonian physics good evidence that this foundational premise is correct? No, quantum physics, which is even more precisely correct and more powerful than Newtonian physics, has superseded the Newtonian premise of massy particles. Quantum physics describes a universe of shimmering, jittering vibrations in an undetectable medium. It explains all of Newtonian physics plus has brought us computers, GPS, and, let’s not forget, Facebook! Much better than toasters.

Newton envisioned the universe as a very large clockwork, and that is the way most people, including many scientists, still imagine the universe today. This clockwork universe may seem indifferent, purposeless, and without meaning beyond the next chocolate truffle or bungee cord jump.

Realism has led many into solid materialism with offshoots into cynicism and nihilism as well as overly-enthusiastic consumerism and the ravaging of our environment. While realism has led to a superb ability to end life on this planet in multifarious ways, it has led only to a sub par ability to get along with each other and with the other species on our planet.

                                WHAT IF WE’RE LIVING IN A GREAT THOUGHT?

The 20th-century British physicist Sir James Jeans said in the course of an interview: “[T]he Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.“

 

James Jeans idealist
Sir James Jeans (1877-1946), British physicist, astronomer, and mathematician who espoused idealism. [Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/  wiki/James_Jeans]

Those who think of the universe as a great thought in universal consciousness might begin to wonder if there is some purpose behind the creation of this thought; if human consciousness persists after death; and numerous other questions—the Big Questions. The Big Questions are, at bottom, questions that relate to consciousness.

Some maintain that consciousness cannot be investigated scientifically. This claim is belied by experiments on the neural correlates of consciousness. A good example is the study mentioned above of differences in brain scans between a seeing personality and a blind personality in a person suffering from multiple personality disorder. This is a study of the privatizing of consciousness.

One example of a consciousness study that is ripe for scientific research is near death experiences.***** Hospitals have become so expert at reviving people who “died” due to heart attack that increasing numbers of patients are describing detailed near death experiences. A number of physicians and lay investigators have compiled records of these incidents. But this is a risky area for research scientists to look into. It could be cause for giggling and shunning.

The very subject matter of near death experiences is considered “unscientific.” This is because we are steeped in realism. Recognizing that realism has its challenges and entertaining the possibility of idealism could open doors. It could open doors for scientists to study extraordinary capabilities of consciousness without risking their careers.

 

Footnotes

*A more complete definition of consciousness also includes creativity and the abilities to love and have intentions.

**I’ve tried to explain quantum physics in a few sentences, and if you knew little about it to begin with, you may feel you have even less understanding now! But if you want to know more, I recommend a book by Art Hobson, Tales of the Quantum. It’s a good overview of quantum physics whether you know almost nothing or quite a bit about quantum physics. Hobson, by the way, presents quantum physics from a viewpoint of realism.

***Bernardo Kastrup, The Idea of the World, p. 70

**** Isaac Newton, Opticks, 1730.

***** In near death experiences, patients who have been revived report being conscious after death. Often, they look down from the ceiling of the hospital room and see their dead body being worked on by the medical team. Sometimes, they have experiences of traveling through a tunnel and visiting heavenly realms.