How is reality constituted? The answer to this question is incredibly important for so many things. The word “constituted” in this context may not be familiar to some. What I mean by constituted is how and what causes things to be the way they are and act the way they do.
The question of why reality is the way it is has been a perennial question for thousands of years. We can even think about early hominids posing this question in their own way because if they understood why things happen the way they do, that gave them a survival advantage as well as meaning.
Over the millennia there have been many formulations to answer this fundamental question but here I want to focus on a couple that have had a significant impact on thinking and living. They are materialism (physicalism) and metaphysical idealism (Mind is fundamental).
First, materialism. The idea of materialism may have first arisen around the sixth century BCE in what is now known as India. At that time there was a Charvakan school of thought. These philosophers were perhaps the first materialists because one of the things they postulated was that all there is, is matter and it has “svabhava” or self-nature (own-being). In other words, matter has an intrinsic nature that produces the world we see. Today this self-nature is thought of as properties such as mass, spin, charge, etc. Apparently, this line of thinking made its way into early Greek thought probably through the Persian trade routes because about a hundred years later materialist, atomistic thought emerged most notably by Democritus. In atomism it is claimed that reality is constituted by atomos, small indestructible elements which have intrinsic properties and when combined in various ways produce the variety we see. This particular characterization of reality caught on in the West and eventually led to a dominant view in science and other disciplines including theology.
Essentially, this means that reality is constituted autonomically with no intent or freedom. Things just do what they do. This also means that everything in this reality is just an automaton including human beings. A common analogy used to describe this is a machine, just mechanistically and mindlessly doing what it does. This view became and still is a dominant worldview.
However, this materialistic view was not without its detractors. There were those both in the East and West who rejected this view. In the East, there were various formulations that asserted mind or consciousness is fundamental to how reality is constituted. In early Greek thought, as examples, Anaxagoras and Plotinus offered alternative views to the mindless paradigm. Anaxagoras did not reject atomism, per se, but claimed that what animated atoms was not a self-nature but nous or mind. Plotinus also posited the primacy of mind, “For there is for this universe no other place than the soul or mind”.
So, we have these two competing metaphysical positions on how reality is constituted. How might they be evaluated for their verisimilitude (appear to be true)? Here it is very important to admit that metaphysical speculations are always underdetermined. There is no unquestioned evidence or argument to be had. Therefore, humility is in order. However, there can be reasons why one or the other position is more compelling than the other.
When it comes to metaphysical arguments various criteria for verisimilitude are offered. They include things like parsimony, explanatory power, consilience with empirical evidence, coherence, logical rigor, completeness, and so on. These can provide weight to a position and are an important part of the mix for one position or the other. While materialism has been a dominant worldview for centuries, recently there has been considerable questioning of this position particularly regarding what philosopher of mind David Chalmers called the ‘Hard Problem’ of consciousness and also with the advent of quantum mechanics. I won’t go into that here because I want to focus on a different approach — intuitions.
An Argument from Intuition
Intuitions are what might be called a general or gut feeling about something. If we have an intuition, we may not be able to know all the details for why we have it but it still has an impact on us. They offer a way to assess things without having to go into all the minutiae. They are informed by the myriad of experiences, cultures, knowledge, relationships, and everything else that comes to bear on our lives. They may not be overly explicit but are still an important part of how we perceive ourselves and our place in the cosmos.
So, what are some powerful intuitions that most people have that relate to the question of how reality is constituted? These are not just sporadic intuitions. They have been and remain ubiquitous for all of human history. Here is my take:
- That there is meaning and purpose to life
- That we have free will (could have done otherwise)
- That there are objective moral truths
- That we can relate in some way to ultimate reality
Since these intuitions are prevalent and compelling, even for many materialists, there have been concerted efforts by materialists over the centuries to affirm some of them. Do any of these materialistic arguments work in affirming things like free will, meaning, purpose, and objective value? In short, No. The reason comes back to how reality is constituted. If reality is constituted autonomically (no intent or freedom) then any argument for these intuitions is vacuous because automatons don’t have any of them. They just do what they non-intentionally and purposelessly do.
The question then is, is there a way to affirm these intuitions within a science-friendly and rigorous ontology (about being)? I think there is.
No Laws and No Chance
Materialism asserts that there are natural laws and perhaps chance that constitute reality. As I’ve said before, that leads to a reality where none of the intuitions can be affirmed. But what if there are no laws and no chance in how reality is constituted? What if every event in the cosmos is free and intentional? This includes both the regularities and novelties we see. No autonomics whatsoever. If that is the case, then all those intuitions can be affirmed. But how?
This is where a metaphysical leap must be taken. If reality is constituted freely and intentionally it follows that there must be a free and transcendent constituting agent. Why transcendent? Because that which does the constituting isn’t identical with that which is constituted. It must transcend what it constitutes.
Next, I will lay out what I think is a reasonable ontology where those intuitions can be affirmed. If there is a free, transcendent constituting agent what should we call it? The obvious answer is God. On the website, I have many essays on theology but for the purposes of this essay, I’ll just give a brief summary using a couple of Venn diagram metaphors to illustrate the ontology. Then I’ll suggest how this ontology can affirm those intuitions. (Here’s a link to a more detailed explanation of the ontology)
The first diagram illustrates a monism. There is only God and everything is within God. It also shows what I call a divine idealism where this reality is a mental creation or imagination in the Mind of God. The reason I posit a divine idealism is for two reasons. First, it is the most straightforward way where intention constitutes this reality. Second, it avoids the mind-body problem that has been much debated throughout history.
In the second diagram, I show the relationship between God-as-transcendent and God-as-living (finite existence). Since this is monistic, everything is in God’s mind and as such everything in this reality is an aspect of that Mind. This means that God lives each life including not only humans but everything else. Another metaphor I use to illustrate this is Author/Story where an author creates everything in her/his mind including the worlds, the environment, characters, and events. Great examples of this are J. R. R. Tolkien’s narratives where he creates (all in his one mind) worlds, settings, environments, characters, and purposeful narratives. In all these parts of the narrative (roles) he faithfully “lives” each role in his mind according to their situation. Applying the metaphor to theism means that God lives every life.
How the Intuitions are Affirmed — Divine Sharing
With this ontology, it’s easy to see how the intuitions can be affirmed. With an aspect monism, each aspect has by definition, a share of various attributes of God-as-transcendent (freedom, meaning, purpose, and objective moral sensibilities). However, it is important to make a distinction between God-as-transcendent and God-as-living. God-as-transcendent is unconstrained while God-as-living is constrained. The finite existence of this reality stems from the constraints imposed upon it. This constraining has been described in theology using the term ‘kenosis’ or the self-emptying of God to live finite existences. This means that any share of God-as-transcendent with God-as-living will also have constraints and there will ambiguities and uncertainty.
As an example, we can readily see this with our biological limitations as well as the limitations of our knowledge and understanding. If we look at what science does, it describes some of those constraints as the regularities within which reality operates. In the divine idealism I have described, science is really about characterizing what divine mentation looks like to us. I mention this here because I said that this approach is science-friendly. Nothing in science, as science, is rejected. What is rejected is an inference toward a non-intentional, autonomic cosmos.
You may have noticed in the second Venn diagram that I include things like elemental particles and ecosystems. So, as aspects (God-as-living) everything has a finite share of those attributes in the intuitions. Everything has a share in the meaning, purpose, free-will, and moral sensibilities of God-as-transcendent. I stress the word “everything” because the shares aren’t just for human beings or other animals. However, each share occurs within the constraints each aspect finds itself in. So, how those shares can manifest themselves in reality depends on the type of aspect (fundamental particles, bacteria, plants, ecosystems like weather, human beings, and everything else). Each has its own individual constraints within which those shares can be manifested.
Another crucial point to make is that each aspect of God-as-living is somewhat independent from God-as-transcendent because each has its own finite share of freedom. So, this is not a dictatorial situation like we find in Calvinism where God-as-transcendent determines everything. Each being has the freedom to make certain decisions that may or may not align with what God-as-transcendent would want. That is part of what living finite lives means.
The final intuition I mentioned is that we can relate to ultimate reality. With God as the constituting agent, that means everything (God-as-living) is in a relationship with God-as-transcendent.
In order to affirm those intuitions, the claim or idea that reality is constituted by laws and perhaps chance (all non-intentional and autonomic) must be abandoned. Instead, reality must be constituted freely and intentionally in every event. This leads to the assertion that God is the constituting agent and every event is free and intentional in the Mind of God. Because everything is an aspect of God, everything has a finite share of meaning, purpose, free-will, and objective moral sensibilities. This also means that everything is in a divine relationship.