Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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To cover Idealism's long history and complex ramifications in a short article like this is impossible. But so central is the subject to Christianity that it's worth a brief look.

An important first qualification is to point out some of the things Idealism isn't:

  • It has nothing to do with what are usually called ideals of behaviour. Nor does it concern moral or social ideals.
  • We often speak of young people as "idealistic." By that we usually mean that they have "ideals" - ideas of how they would like the world to be. Classical Idealism is only somewhat connected with this sort of idealism.

The term derives originally from the Greek word meaning "something seen." It was first used by Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) when, speaking of his own philosophical system, he wrote, "Whatever good there is in the hypotheses of Epicurus and Plato, of the greatest materialists and the greatest idealists, is combined here" [in his work].

You may suppose that Leibniz had a good opinion of himself, and that Idealism has something to do with the nature of ultimate reality. The former may not be true, but the latter is as good a place as any to start.

Bertrand Russell, as usual crystal clear in his expression (though by that not necessarily always right), thought that idealism is

... the doctrine that whatever exists, or at any rate whatever can be known to exist, must be in some sense mental ... even if physical objects do have an independent existence, they must differ widely from sense-data, and can only have a correspondence with sense data, in the same sort of way in which a catalogue has a correspondence with the things catalogued. [1]

Idealism remains a position favoured by many to this day - which is quite astounding considering that it's first known proponent was Plato, a Greek philosopher who lived from about 430 to 347 bc. In other words the debate involving Idealists has been going on for some 2 500 years.

Plato's reasoning went something like this:

  • We all know what a straight line is. But who can draw one? Every "straight" line is slightly crooked. We all talk about beauty. But nobody can agree exactly about what's beautiful. Everything falls short of perfection in some way or other.
  • The concept of permanence is important to us all. But the truth is that everything changes eventually.  Boys grow up and men die. But the number 10 can't become the number 11 - so some things don't change. That is, some kinds of "thing"  such as numbers are timelessly true and absolutely permanent.
  • This dog differs from that dog in definable ways. And yet we know intuitively that they are both dogs. So the "dogness" of each dog must be something that doesn't change. This sort of truth is grasped not by our senses but by our intellects. "Dogness" is something which transcends every dog.

In other words, thought Plato, this world of ours can't be described as perfect. Perfection exists, but we can't identify specific instances of it in this world. We may find instances of what appears stable, for example, but not Stability itself. We experience beautiful things in life, but Beauty itself is a concept (which he called a "Form") of which we can't find a perfect instance in real life.

He used a famous analogy to describe what he meant. Think of  things of this world being something like shadows on the wall of a cave. The shadows shift and change, giving us only a partial knowledge of what's real and stable. The shadows are all we have to go by if we want to know what's real and true. They are caused by the light shining from outside the cave. That light represents that which is eternal and unchanging (consider Russell's correspondence between catalogue and what's catalogued).

So the ultimate reality of "Forms" - the only true, real and perfect manifestations of everything - is expressed in our world by mere "Appearances." My dog is an appearance of "dogness" - only the latter being the real thing.

I should make it clear how most people thought of the world in Plato's times. There was, for them, no planet Earth in a vast universe as we know them today. Our world was thought of as in some sense closely linked with another world, a world of gods, demi-gods, spirits and demons. Their world could be visited by humans, and its denizens could visit our world. That is, our natural world overlapped with, or melted into, the spiritual world.

So the proposal that perfect Forms exist "outside" or "beyond" the real but imperfect world we inhabit wasn't in any way outrageous to most people.

It wasn't until modern times that the world of Plato began to be questioned. Before that, his ideas were taken up by Christian theologians. Not unnaturally many of them were educated in a system which accepted Greek philosophy as the norm. Into that was often mixed elements of the other great civilisation of the Roman age - that of the mystical, magical Persian religions.

The outcome is a way of regarding the world with a mixture of Platonic concepts and notions common to religions all over the world. Traditional Christian theology posits our world, into which God intervenes constantly, and a contiguous world to which we repair when we die.

With the rise of a scientific framework for understanding the world and reality as a whole, came the rapid (in historical terms) demise of the traditional two-world theory. While the majority still thought in Christian terms of earth, heaven and hell, from the 17th century onwards in Europe many began to perceive the earth in unified terms.

From that sprang the idea that reality can be described only in material terms, that there is no spiritual dimension impacting the natural world. All that science can address, after all, is what can be seen, heard, smelt, touched and then analysed into its parts. When these parts are, as it were, put together again nothing remains of the supernatural or the spiritual or the human soul.

I'll try here to summarise very briefly the main elements of the modern search for meaning in relation to the Forms and Appearances of Platonic philosophy.

When thinkers began questioning the two-world theory of reality, the first aspect to come under the hammer was the assertion that the physical world exists at all, that there is such a thing as material substance. If they could show that there is no such thing as matter, then matter can't be the basis of what is "real"; and then only "ideas" remain. The increasing tendency of people to focus entirely on the material was at least one force driving thinkers to find new ways of preserving a spiritual or non-material vision of the world.

Something called the "mind" often replaced the religious concept of an immaterial "soul" which relates to the supernatural dimension of the other world. Instead of the Christian idea that the world exists because it is in the mind of God - a favourite teaching of theologians over many centuries - the world exists only in the mind of humans. 

God is taken out of the equation, a move which suited those who saw no future in old ways of defining reality and wished to replace God with purely physical universe. And instead of truth being communicated to us by God through revelation, it waits for mankind to discover it by rational means.

  • Gottfried Leibniz swapped Plato's Forms for something he called "monads." They were independently real substances. What we experience isn't the monads themselves but their arrangement and relative relationships with each other. Time and space are, as it were, the sea in which the monads swim, the air in which they unfold themselves. They seem to be a sort of mental construct we use to experience, understand and arrange the monads. Leibniz' system gets more complicated, of course. But the essential elements are his denial of [a] the substantial reality of matter, and [b] the possibility of true experience via the senses. The senses are vague or immature expressions of the full constructs by which we understand the natural and spiritual worlds. When the senses mature we call the result "reason."
  • George Berkeley took a similar line even further. He reasoned (both closely and persuasively) that what we call material objects are groupings of sensations or ideas. Our mind perceives them then explains and orders them. We thus have only indirect experience of material things. But insofar as material things are perceived, they do exist - and in this Berkeley differed from Leibniz. Berkeley was logical in proposing that it is not possible to conceive of anything existing apart from it being thought of. It follows, one supposes, that things cease to exist the moment we cease thinking of them.
  •  Emmanuel Kant took a more complicated, but no more satisfying route. He supposed that space and time are a priori (given or self-evident) intuitions which are the unquestioned medium for all our thoughts. Our understanding of the world is comprised of categories which exist within time and space.

Without these two aspects, the world would appear a whirl of fluctuating sensations and to make no sense. One important result of this approach is that both we and our material world must be real, since categories don't make sense without time and space, and time and space need categories to be known. But where do the natural world and humanity come from? He thought that a "transcendental Self" had to exist which gives us the capacity to synthesise or order the material world. We know nothing of the "Self" except that it exists. Idealism, he wrote, "always has a mystical tendency."

The many Idealists who followed these three have, it seems to me, developed and expanded the basic proposition that the physical world of experience is to varying degrees understood and ordered by our minds. They have done so in many stupefyingly complicated ways which philosophers find interesting and many people usually neither understand nor need to.

Idealism, therefore, involves proposing in one way or another the existence of some ultimate spiritual reality or mind beyond what appears and seems real to common sense and ordinary sense experience. An Idealistic system of thought solves the ancient question of mind and matter by proposing that mental things, ideas or concepts are primary and that material things are secondary. Idealism therefore rests completely upon the possibility of being able to argue the existence of this spiritual reality either from first principles or from experience. 

The former simply hasn't worked, in my opinion. The proposition that "there is a spiritual reality beyond the material world" is of an entirely different order from the statement that "two plus two equals four" or that "space is a self-evident construct for us all." In other words, I have found no self-evident proposition from which a spiritual reality can be satisfactorily deduced. Nor, if the history of Idealism is correct, has anyone else. Idealism's conclusions seem to me in the event to be assertions derived from other assertions which are plucked from the fertile imaginations of the Idealists themselves.

Experience, being subjective and therefore beyond confirmation, hasn't proved a useful route. I can't experience what you experience, nor you my experience. I can only report to you what I have experienced. Only those who are prepared to accept the testimony of others, or those who themselves apparently experience something similar, get any further this way.

G E Moore and Bertrand Russell, to name only two so-called "realist" philosophers panned Idealism because, they said, it is a misuse of language. In the final analysis we find ourselves  merely saying that "what we experience is what we experience" - a singularly useless conclusion (though, to be fair, their refutation may well have resulted from a mild distortion of the Idealist position.)

Idealism took another knock from Logical Positivists - those who try to demonstrate that "facts" are the only real knowledge, and that these are known only through the scientific method. If that's true, then the material world is ultimately physical and there can be no knowledge of anything other than physical facts. 

It's not possible to discover anything with science about supposed non-physical "truths" like Forms or monads or a Transcendental Self or God. They can't be known because they can't be analysed. They can only be supposed and never proved.

Some think that "postmodernism" holds out promise of a reasonably satisfactory way ahead. One should beware of the "postmodern" label, however, since it is attached to a polyglot grouping of similar theories which don't seem to have yet found definite form. What seems common to the present confused Babel of opinion is, as I understand it, that we give meaning to the physical world. The world doesn't "have" a meaning of itself, nor can we perceive it as it "really is." All we do is give it shape and coherence.

The physical does exist, according to postmodernists. But everything we can understand or say about physical reality is both filtered through our senses (as well as our socio-cultural norms) and given pattern and meaning by the way we are as individuals. Everyone is different to some degree. It follows that "meaning" and "truth" will differ from person to person.

The upshot is that we'll never be able to describe physical reality as it "is." Scientists will describe it one way; engineers another; and the footballer in yet another. The Chinese person will define reality according to the Chinese culture and the European according to a Western background. None of these perceptions is "right." They're just different. There's a sense in which they're all right because they are all given meaning by individual perceptions.

This is a highly simplified rendering of the postmodern tendency. It has been attacked for introducing "relativity" into life. That is, if one follows the postmodern route one can no longer be certain of anything. What we usually call "right" or "good" is no longer sure since what is or isn't true is a product of each individual, or each group, or each culture. There are, for example, no absolute rights or wrongs, only the moral norms of various societies and peoples.

The only thing we can say for sure about reality when we perceive it as a postmodern is that we all agree that something is "out there" and that people can perceive what is "out there." All the rest depends on who is perceiving whatever is "out there."

Some think that the Logical Positivist, Realist and Postmodern approaches demonstrate that there is nothing other than physical reality and the truths which can be deducted from it. This is, I think, a false claim. There is no way of arguing that something doesn't exist as it were "outside" the material universe. To do that one would have to exist in a non-material way and, as far as I know, there's no way of doing that.

Indeed, a modern philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, has argued extremely persuasively that to propose a "mind" or "soul" behind human behaviours and the physical systems we call individuals, can't be rationally sustained.

The debate continues - and will no doubt go on for as long as men and women exist.
[1] The Problems of Philosophy, Williams & Northgate, 1912

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