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The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.
How do I become Baha’i?

How to Decide What’s Really Real

David Langness | Nov 11, 2016

PART 2 IN SERIES Realism vs Idealism

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Nov 11, 2016

PART 2 IN SERIES Realism vs Idealism

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Being an idealist is not being a simpleton; without idealists there would be no optimism and without optimism there would be no courage to achieve advances that so-called realists would have you believe could never come to fruition. – Alisa Steinberg

If you live long enough, chances are you’ll start thinking of yourself as a realist.

Life has a tendency to do that to us. When we have to swallow enough bitter-tasting doses of reality, we slowly start to realize that this world is far from ideal. As that process occurs, we can begin to believe that idealism belongs only to the young and naïve. Battered and beaten down by the cruel realities of reality, we inevitably let go of some of our ideals. Sound familiar? If you’re a mature adult, it just may.

In that process of exchanging our ideals for realism, though, we lose something important. When idealism fades and realism takes its place, we forfeit our enthusiasm, our hope and our optimism. This terrible trade-off can even turn us into cynics.  

But what if realism—that functional, utilitarian way of looking at the real world—is completely and entirely wrong? What if realism isn’t real at all? What if realists mistake the false for the real?

How is that possible? To explain, let’s look at the philosophical definitions of realism and idealism, as opposed to their dictionary definitions.

In philosophical terms, realism says that matter—the physical universe that surrounds us—is tangible and therefore real. If something is sensible—meaning we can perceive it with our five senses—then it exists, according to the philosophy of realism. That fits with the usual contemporary definition of practicality and pragmatism. I can see it, I can touch it, therefore, by definition, it is real.

Idealism questions that conclusion. In philosophy, idealism originated with Plato, who said that our thoughts and ideas shape reality. Realism, by contrast, began with Aristotle, who suggested that reality has an absolute existence independent from our thoughts, ideas and consciousness.

So the philosophical, Platonic definition of idealism presents us with a completely different viewpoint—it says that our all-pervading consciousness, not matter, constitutes the ground of being. Idealism holds that consciousness forms the most basic and most permanent fact of nature, and that the entire cosmos is grounded in and pervaded by mind and intelligence:

The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment. – Bernard d’Espagnat, French theoretical physicist, in The Quantum Theory and Reality.

Here’s how that works: the science of quantum mechanics proves that the basic components of every physical object—the tiny particles called quarks (pronounced qworks) that comprise the building blocks of all matter—do not actually “exist,” at least in a conventional sense. These sub-nuclear particles can’t be seen or measured—we only know about them as a result of how they influence their surroundings. Think about that for a minute. Those basic building blocks of matter straddle the line between matter and energy, just like light straddles the line between a particle and a wave:

What quantum mechanics tells us, I believe, is surprising to say the least. It tells us that the basic components of objects – the particles, electrons, quarks etc. – cannot be thought of as “self-existent.” – Ibid.

Quantum physics, d’Espagnat and many other theoretical physicists have concluded, also proves that an ultimate reality exists, completely independent of space and time.

So what does all that have to do with our personal feelings of idealism or realism in the real world? It suggests that physical objects—the things we think of as “real”—actually have no lasting reality at all. No material object lasts forever. Everything decomposes. What seems solid isn’t, either in space or time. Things are ephemeral and temporary, even though our senses fool us into thinking they’re permanent.

In fact, our senses themselves reveal what’s truly permanent: our human consciousness. Our consciousness, both individual and collective, has an eternal reality—which means it will endure forever. This wooden desk I’m sitting at exists today, but it will eventually decay and disappear. By contrast, our human consciousness, the Baha’i teachings confirm, will always exist:

…praise be to God, the world of existence does not culminate here. If this were so, existence itself would be sterile. There are many worlds of light. For even as the plant imagines life ends with itself and has no knowledge of our existence, so the materially-minded man has no knowledge of other worlds of consciousness.

But some there are who have found divine intelligence and have obtained spiritual understanding. They have the real sight. They know of the other worlds. That is why the prophets of God forfeited this world, renounced everything material and gave their hearts to the heavenly world. Were there nothing after death, Christ would not have accepted the cross; the prophets of all time would not have sacrificed their lives. They were in touch with the celestial world and they overlooked this transitory life. This is the fruit of the tree of creation – to be freed from the darkness of the planet in order to enter the worlds of light. This is the object of existence; this is the fruit of the tree of humanity. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 123.

The human spirit has a beginning but no end: It endures forever… Our meaning is that, although human souls are originated, they are nevertheless immortal, enduring and everlasting. For the world of things is a world of imperfection in relation to that of man, and the world of man is a world of perfection in relation to that of things. When imperfect things reach the state of perfection, they become everlasting. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 173.

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  • Mg Thar Bu
    Aug 29, 2018
    As a philosophy student,I understand everything written here.I want to read and learn more!
  • Camilla Chance
    Nov 12, 2016
    Hear, hear!
  • Melanie Black
    Nov 11, 2016
    "walk the mystical path with practical feet." Some older Baha'is or members of other Faiths may see realism from a spiritual perspective. I studied physics and realized there was a spiritual dimension there. Others study the same science and are materialists to the core. I am impressed by your breadth of knowledge and experience.
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