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Existential Realism

Why We Can Have Justified Confidence in Knowledge We Gain From Experience

by Scott Cherry


Reality exists, at least as an idea. It seems to be something that everybody can talk about. Plus, a course that is called Theories of Reality could hardly have any meaning or merit if there were no such thing as Reality.  Western philosophers, at least, seem generally to assume or presuppose that Reality exists, as do I. The main question of this course and of my inquiry is, therefore, is What is Reality? or, what is Reality like? As a thought experiment, if you wanted to describe Reality what would you say?  A simple definition that I distill from the consensus of Western philosophy is the way things really are.  But one could also say that Reality is the way things seem to be to most people.  But you pretty much have to presuppose that Reality exists before you can start talking about anything else. If, as in some forms of Buddhist philosophy, everything is an illusion, then the way things are or seem to be to most people within the illusion is Reality—especially if the features of the illusion are basically the same for everybody and if there are no apparent alternate realities that are readily accessible to most people. Already this is getting tricky.  But if everybody has his or her own Reality with different properties then we can hardly talk intelligently about a thing such as Reality.  For a moment we can substitute the word condition for Reality.  Imagine a condition in which every person—or every 100 people—had a divergent experience of Reality. Well, then, there would be no Reality, only realities. Life as we know it would be impossible. Thankfully, Reality is not so divergent. The reason philosophers over the ages can and have expended so much energy into the questions of Reality is due to how much consensus there is among people all around the world on their experience of Reality. This consensus combined with the constraints of Reality is what I am calling Existential Realism.

In my view, Plato was right to believe there are two layers or dimensions of Reality, which he called substances: the visible, material one and the invisible, immaterial one. That’s why Plato is known as a dualist (not to be confused with the kind of dualism that Descartes and others espoused, the separation of mind and body). He and his pupil Aristotle agreed on this but their agreement was limited.  Fundamentally, Plato believed that the material world was inherently evil and the immaterial good, while Aristotle made no such associations.  Also, Plato believed that human beings were ‘trapped’ in the material world by their five senses and largely ‘blind’ to the Good of the immaterial world.  Aristotle, on the other hand, was not so preoccupied with the invisible realm. Rather, he was more interested in what could be perceived with the senses. But what they especially did not agree on was what Plato called the “forms”.  He posited that behind every material thing in the world was an immaterial archetype or form.  Thus there was a form of the set of all trees, one for the set of all horses, one for all animals, one for every particular species of animal, one for justice, and one for all that is good, which was the highest one. For Aristotle, there could be no such thing as a form, and he had very cogent arguments for why not. Rather, every particular thing in the material world constituted its own unique substance.  The point is, the master and his start pupil had some very significant disagreements about some of the fundamental properties of the nature of Reality, but not about everything.  Their views were not so divergent as to be mutually exclusive or unintelligible to each other. Again, they both were dualists. They both believed in the Good and in virtues such as justice and courage. So they both believed that they and all humans live in a material world with a coexisting non-material world, and Reality consisted both of things you could see and things you could not see.  The master emphasized the importance and goodness of the latter while the pupil emphasized the former.  Further, from their writings we can know, and safely assume, many significant things about their lives and experiences within their community. It should be evident to us that both Plato and Aristotle subscribed to life in this dualistic world with what I will call existential entailments.  These are things that, in my view, comprised their lives and the life of every philosopher.

Existential Entailments

1) Plato and Aristotle seemed to agree that they existed and each had a self; they lived in a material world that was perceivable with the senses and with the mind; 2) Despite that, they agreed that there existed invisible, immaterial things that enabled them to think rationally about both the visible and the invisible dimensions—logic/reason, and math among other things.  They also agreed (or presupposed) that 3) Logic itself entails laws of thinking that, if not inviolable, provide the mind with a kind of cognitive scaffolding upon which reason and all meaning depends, such as the laws of non-contradiction and causality; 4) that meaning seems to exist, e.g. definitions of and propositions about things; 5) that words and language seem to exist, first as the ability to think with words and statements in the mind, and then the ability to speak them audibly (due to speech-producing organs and sound) and/or to write them visibly using symbols; 6) that sound and symbols seem to exist; 7) that perception is a real experience and seems to constitute the collection of all information about the material world for further cognition, including beauty; 8) that many things besides themselves seem unquestionably to exist, both sentient (other people) and non-sentient; if it was an illusion or a deception by an ‘evil genius’ it was one that they shared with each other and with many (i.e. most or nearly all) other people within their conscious awareness; 9) that even though there is a non-material world, they and other people consisted of perceivable matter and lived within the material world, and were therefore subject to all its natural and physical laws (known or unknown)—such as gravity, light and darkness, sound, fluidity, weather, temperature, laws of energy and motion, entropy, and the whole gamut of biological laws such as nourishment and excretion, wellness and illness, age, reproduction, sleep, death, etc.; 10) that communities seem to exist. They seem to vary in size from small to large—the family, the village, the city, and the republic, the last of which Plato wrote his life’s master work by that name. Many human beings seem to prefer communities because of the benefits they can provide, but these can vary greatly due to the measure of virtues practiced by the common people and the leaders, and structured into laws by them; 11) that objective morality seems to exist; and finally, but not exhaustively, 12) that contentment and happiness seem to exist—Eudaimonia. Both Plato and Aristotle wrote about this and believed it was both attainable and desirable, but is not necessarily attained by everybody.  Certain personal qualities and life practices lead to them, and others lead away from them.

These are examples of existential entailments, but only some of them.  Taken together, plus others, they are what constitute what I am calling  Existential Reality. More simply put, Plato and Aristotle seemed to share a belief in living. They believed in life, but not life only—living.  Based on all we know about their teachings and their lives, they agreed, explicitly and implicitly, that they existed in a context that was both material and immaterial. This context afforded them and other human beings (and all living creatures) with conscious experiences that that were both intelligible and describable through language with the mind and emotions, and could produce a broad range of pleasures and pains, happiness or unhappiness.  They were also aware of constraints. In short, their existential context, or Reality, required them to live and function within a structure of life consisting of limitations and boundaries, as well as opportunities. Humans beings, for example, do not fly like birds or swim like fish. Further, due to their universal desire to experience pleasure and happiness, and to avoid pain and unhappiness, humans must do certain things to attain them and not do others that impede the attainment of them. These are existential constraints. All human choices and behaviors yield outcomes—good or bad, desirable or undesirable.  In view of this existential context, or structure, or system, one’s philosophy of Reality is irrelevant, or secondary at best. He/she must live within it according to its rules. 

*Look for part 2 next early next week. 

  • 1 April 2019
  • Author: Scott Cherry
  • Number of views: 457
  • Comments: 1
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1 comments on article "Existential Realism"

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Steve Schlichter

4/9/2019 3:32 AM

Nicely done, Scott.

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