iSoul In the beginning is reality

Tag Archives: Realism

Philosophical realism

Philosophical realism, or simply realism, is a philosophy that begins where we all begin: with our common sense, our common everyday experience. When Samuel Johnson famously dismissed Berkeley’s idealist philosophy with his “I refute Berkeley thus” and then kicked a rock, he was asserting realism in contrast with idealism.

There are basically two kinds of anti-realist philosophy: idealism (or ideology) and materialism (or naturalism). Idealism begins with an idea that is asserted to be the principle of reality. Materialism begins with physical matter and everything is asserted to be reducible to this matter (or nature).

Realism as a philosophy began with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the three leading lights of classical thought. Plato’s realism of Forms was rather extreme but his student Aristotle taught a moderate realism with a duality of form and matter. Plato’s realism motivated Neo-Platonism in later ancient and early medieval times. When Aristotle was rediscovered, his realism motivated Scholasticism in the Middle Ages.

The Scholastics were limited in their understanding of Aristotle and ended up giving him a bad name so that the early moderns opposed all things associated with Aristotle. Ironically, people such as Francis Bacon who assailed Aristotle also incorporated key elements of Aristotle in their own philosophy.

Modern realists include the American philosophers C. S. Peirce, W. V. O. Quine, M. J. Adler, and Thomas Nagel. While they mostly lack a religious faith, they are not inimical to true religion. Their realism puts them at odds with many of their contemporaries and closer to true religion than might appear at first.

Realism is an open philosophy, contrary to the anti-realist philosophies which have decided what reality is from the start. Realism is open to reality, however that may turn out to be. Realism is consistent with the common sense that people in general have and so is a way of engaging people in a common pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Appearance and reality

There’s a common idea that science shows appearances are often wrong.  It is said science shows that earth is not flat, the sun doesn’t go around the earth, and that life is not designed, all despite appearances to the contrary.  I think this is a mistaken view of what science has done.

Surveyors work with a flat earth model that works just fine for most purposes, and the sun’s motion relative to the earth can be described geocentrically.  Newton’s laws work fine for many purposes despite their being superseded by general relativity.

What happens is that theories are extrapolated (or interpolated) too far and they break down. A theory is superseded by one with a larger scope but the old theory may be valid within a restricted domain.  What Niels Bohr called the correspondence principle is the idea that a new theory should reproduce the results of older well-established theories in those domains where the old theories work.

So the problem is over-extrapolation (or over-interpolation).  Too often people make overly broad claims for a theory.  But until the limits of a theory are found, it may not be clear what the scope of the theory really is.

What is the scope of Darwinism?  As far as I can tell its scope is “life” as a single category, without differentiation of kinds organically or temporally.  This is a very narrow perspective, one that does not support the grandiose claims made for it.  And it is not helpful in understanding different kinds of life, particularly human life, or the age of the earth.

The Bible uses the language of appearances.  This is perfectly acceptable.  The Bible also gives God’s perspective, which is not a theory but something that theories can aspire to.  This is essentially what theologies do.

Nature is not out to trick us with deceptive appearances.  Old theories that worked still work.  All theories are limited.

November 2013