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Monday, August 8, 2011

What a Flimsy Reality!

There is another way of writing about my topic today. In almost any other format it is a better way. I plan to talk about my suspicions about the nature of the non-material world. In another context I would do this by documenting the original publisher of the germ of every thought and observation I use to build my conclusion. I would provide comprehensive footnotes and I would address the primary objections that occur to me (I would also cite the originators of those objections). I would do that if I were writing a lecture or a formal paper. But this is a "heaven and earth questions" blog post. As such, I try to structure my writing as a conversation; partly because I think that make it a more engaging read for most people, and partly because I am way too lazy to implement the full scholarly rigor that an academic paper or lecture would require. Whether this is a good or bad thing, I have noticed one advantage that has risen out of it. This format allows me to write up and thereby work through ideas before I have them entirely worked through - it works as a great half step on the way to an academic paper.

More preamble! - this topic is, in some ways, focusing on one aspect of a larger topic I have been working on trying to develop a different way of understanding pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism. The more I research and read, the more I find myself in agreement with what I understand to be a pre-modern mind set toward philosophy and theology. I do want to make a distinction between the descriptive (the model in itself) and the prescriptive (my sympathy for one approach as the model would describe it). This post will be focusing on certain implications I draw from the pre-modern outlook as I understand it through the (new?) model. Also it could just be a poor attempt to justify some sort of odd contemporary neo-platonism.

As I have said in another post, I believe that pre-modern thinkers began with metaphysics. That is to say, they began with statements and arguments about what life, the universe and everything are really like. So far as I can tell, nearly everyone who did this was influenced by Plato's theory of the forms which (in a bare bones way that will certainly not cut the mustard if you ever find yourself in my PHIL101 class) basically claims that there is a world behind the physical world of our senses in which the essences or patterns or archetypes or abstractions exist. Something my students have a lot of trouble getting is that this "world of the forms" is more real than the physical world.

I am sympathetic to the difficulty. First, we are conditioned to think of the objects of our senses as the most real things there are. Even metaphysical relativists who like to go around talking about "my reality" and "your reality" - an absurd notion so far as I can see - tend to at least treat the physical world as a fundamentally shared, base line reality. On top of this, every time we run into a world "on top of" or "behind" the physical in literature or the media, it is nearly always presented as shadowy and/or ethereal; we get the sense that it is less real.

The only exception that springs to mind is C.S. Lewis The Great Divorce, which portrays people in purgatory/heaven as looking and functioning somewhat like ghosts because their environment is more real than they are. So he sort of inverts the popular portrayal. This sort of thing comes out in a few of his other works (notably his angels in the space trilogy and especially the ecstatic cosmic dance scene in Perelandra) But then, Lewis described himself as a pre-modern (De Descriptione Temporum) and seems to have been something of platonist as well.

But if I am going  to explain Plato, much less recommend co-opting part of his worldview, you need to understand that the world of forms genuinely is more real, it has more being, than the physical world. If it helps, you might try following Lewis' approach and imagine the physical world as ghostly in comparison to the world of the forms. Once you have this settled in your head, you will be in a much better position to understand the pre-modern approach.

Things in this world are merely things of seeming. Of course there is some reality to the world of seeming, things really do seem this way or that way. But if we can begin to think and talk about the world of being -  a world which this one reflects - then we can begin to get at understanding. Thus, "what is a human?" is a far more interesting question than "how does the blood circulate?"; "what is justice?" is far more profound than "did she hit him without cause?".

Furthermore, the greater reality of the world of forms is actually a really great thing for all of us. Anything which has a soul, has a connection to the world of forms and (to mix my philosophers and bring in our old buddy Aristotle) pretty much everything that lives or has lived has a soul of some sort. In fact, everything that has any being at all is thereby anchored in the world of the forms from which the seeming of existence gets its start (Plato would have said "emanates"). Basically, everything physical that you think of as real is based on its greater reality in the world of forms. Although the aspects of it that we tend to focus on are probably not its more "form-ish" aspects. 

Now I take this understanding of two worlds and I am inclined to modify it by denying the separation (that's not new people have been doing it at least since Augustine). I do not think that there are so much two worlds as that there is one world, many aspects of which we are not in the habit of experiencing. We pretty much orient ourselves around our senses. But that doesn't mean that there aren't aspects of reality that our senses just aren't designed to pick up. And if those aspects of reality are more profound, are more fundamental to our identities and being than the physical aspects we are so preoccupied with then it might just be worth thinking about them. 

This is one reason I have been so sympathetic to the pre-modern understanding of life, the universe and everything recently. Rather that assuming that our senses give us as much reality as there is and trying to be content with that (modernism) or assuming that what our senses give us isn't even real so that ultimately there is no real reality (postmodernism) I find myself much more persuaded by the idea that our senses communicate some of reality but that there is so much more to it. Maybe there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.

P.S. I decided to make this a purely philosophical post. Next week I intend to post on what I see as the religious/spiritual implications of all this.


  1. That last post is a link, by the way.

  2. Yeah I checked it out, good stuff. I read "On the Nature of Things" in my masters program. I actually enjoyed it a lot. I was struck that he takes a modern approach to cosmology. I think that while he does seem to share a reductionist assumption with the moderns (and therefore not with Plato et. Al.), he still fits as a premodern because he begins with coslmology rather than epistemology. That may not be the case, he may have simply accepted a certain epistemology as his starying point, but i don't think that comes through in the poem.