The Foundations of Reality

What Do We Know for Sure?

Most people go through their entire lives without giving any thought to philosophy or pondering the basic nature of reality. These seem, to most, to be impractical, abstract studies, of no importance to them. And yet many people, particularly many in the scientific community, do subscribe to a basic philosophy, without ever thinking about it or really even being aware of it. Their philosophy is materialism; they believe that the basic foundation of reality is matter, or, in the parlance of modern physics, mass/energy/space/time, the observable, measurable physical universe. Of course, they cannot really define matter; they can only describe it. They believe that consciousness is merely a secondary manifestation of this basic reality, with the human brain being a kind of electrochemical computer. Of course, this means that there is no God, no afterlife, and no moral absolutes.

The opposing view is philosophical idealism, the belief that the most basic reality is mind/consciousness/thought/spirit/soul. I use these terms interchangeably and have no patience with hair-splitting distinctions that lead to unnecessary confusion in a subject that is difficult enough to begin with. Most people consider mind to be a vague, abstract concept, somehow less “real” than matter. They think this way because, subtly and not so subtly, they have been programmed to think this way. We have all been programmed, but some of us are trying to break free from the reigning paradigm. Idealists cannot define mind or spirit any more than materialists can define matter, and we believe that the physical universe is a kind of dream (but far more real than the nocturnal experiences we normally call “dreams”). The mind creates and maintains the physical universe by thinking it.

To understand all of this, we need to ask ourselves what do we really know, absolutely and beyond question? Ask a materialist and he is likely to point to some solid object like, say, a table, and perhaps pound on it for emphasis. “This is real,” he will claim. Aside from the fact that quantum mechanics assures us that the table is not exactly solid, it is fair to ask the materialist how he knows with absolute certainty that the table is real. He is likely to say that he knows because he can see and feel it. But how does he see, and how does he feel? He will claim that when he touches the table, nerve impulses travel up to his brain. He sees it when light reflects from it, enters his eyes, and causes them to transmit the image to his brain. But it is fair to ask him how he knows beyond all possible doubt that physical light reflects from a physical table. How does he know for certain that he has nerves and eyes and hands and that his consciousness is produced by a physical brain? Ultimately, the materialist (if he is even willing to attempt to answer the question) will state that he “just knows.” But the word “know” means to think something with absolute certainty.

In other words, all he knows is that he thinks there is a physical table; he thinks that he has hands, eyes, and a brain. In fact, all any of us know is that we think. Far from being a vague, abstract concept, thought, or mind, is the only thing any of us can be absolutely sure of. The physical universe may or may not be real and independent of our minds, but thought certainly is real. Yet people persist in accepting on faith that the physical universe out there, whose independent existence is unproven, is somehow more real than thought, which is the only thing we really know exists. Isn’t this backward reasoning? On the face of it, isn’t the reverse much more likely?

And there are many other reasons for believing that mind is the prime reality. For one thing, well-documented paranormal experiences can be readily explained if we accept philosophical idealism, but do not fit within the narrow framework of materialism. Then there is synchronicity, the strange clustering of like things and events in space and time, studied by Carl Jung and Arthur Koestler, among others. And many aspects of quantum mechanics seem to indicate that thought may affect matter at the subatomic level. Then there is the phenomenon of beauty. A materialist can explain why a man considers a healthy young woman to be beautiful, for that ensures the continuance of the species. A green river valley could be seen as beautiful because it is a good habitat, a place where people can survive.  But why is a sunset beautiful to most people, when it offers us nothing conducive to our survival, or a storm-swept beach, or a glaciated mountain peak that is actually dangerous to climb? Lions and tigers look beautiful to most people, but they are deadly. And beyond even “ordinary” paranormal experiences are inexplicable events like the recent (4/15/15) fall of earthworms in Norway. Conventional explanations are laughable, but suppose at certain times consensus reality, for some reason, breaks down, and we collectively dream an apparent absurdity. In addition, there is considerable evidence supporting intelligent design—as opposed to neo-Darwinism—and intelligent design requires a Designer.

If idealism is the correct philosophy, consensus reality is the only way to explain why (in a very general sense) most of us perceive basically the same reality. If we did not, we would be utterly unable to communicate and interact with one another. But for this to work, all our individual minds must be subconsciously connected at a higher level. This means, then, that there is a single, universal mind of which we are all part. Like bricks in a wall we all retain our individual existence, and yet we are also part of something far larger. It would appear that the Western religions like Judaism and Christianity, which insist on the existence of God, a true Supreme Being, are correct (it is not my purpose here to promote any specific dogma). Yet the Eastern religions, insisting on our being interconnected, are also right. Perhaps the following parable will make all of this a bit easier to understand.

Imagine that you attend a play in which only one character at a time appears on stage, but all the parts are played by one incredible actor, aided by equally incredible costuming and makeup. Sometime later you attend another play also starring this one actor and no one else, but several characters at a time appear on stage—all of them magically played by this one actor. Then, looking about at your fellow audience members, you realize that he is also playing each and every one of them…you are beginning to recognize certain unchanging traits. In a state of shock you rush out to the lobby, where you catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror, only to discover that he is playing you as well. Paradoxically, you are an individual yet not an individual, and there are many people but only one.

The implications of idealism are numerous. Not only must there be a God, but some sort of afterlife or reincarnation, for we are not physical beings vainly imagining that we have immortal souls, but souls dreaming that we have bodies. When we die, that particular dream may end, but not the dreamer. We may remain asleep and dream another dream (reincarnation, or a particularly nightmarish dream might be a Hell or at least a Purgatory), or at least partly awaken (a heavenly afterlife). And if there is a Supreme Being there can be moral absolutes.

We are programmed to believe that reality is digital, or binary: real or unreal. But if we accept philosophical idealism, it becomes apparent that there can be different degrees and kinds of reality—analog, not binary. A daydream is less real than a vivid nocturnal dream, which is less real than our waking experiences. These, in turn, may be less real than the awakened state souls may experience in a heavenly afterlife. In that afterlife, perhaps souls progress to higher and higher states of consciousness.

But our consciousness may not only progress up or down to higher or lower levels; it may also progress “sideways.” In other words, we may sometimes, in an altered state, view reality not from a higher vantage point but simply from a different one, perceiving the universe from a different angle, so to speak. This may explain many paranormal experiences and visits to paranormal realms, alternate realities, neither more nor less real than the one with which we are more familiar, but simply different. The denizens of these realms (ghosts, angels, demons, fairies, and at least some UFO entities) are also neither more nor less real than we are, but simply different. Philosophical idealism may in particular help us to understand some of the “high strangeness” UFO experiences where the experiencer actually seems to be in a world slightly different from this one, even before he is “abducted,” a world where everything, not just the UFO and its “occupants,” seems subtly changed.

Another point worth mentioning: the laws of physics apply to our usual level of reality. But they may change over time, and they derive from the higher laws, the laws of consciousness. In alternate realities, different laws may hold sway. And in the higher realm, the realm of the spirit, there is no space or time, for these are artifacts of our limited consciousness. So, for instance, telepathy may not involve a “signal” taking time to travel through space, for all our minds are connected beyond time and space. Civilizations proceeding our own may have understood this, at least to some degree, and employed a science more akin to what we call magic.

Scientists pride themselves (and some of them are very prideful indeed) on being tough-minded and skeptical, accepting nothing on faith but questioning everything and rigorously testing every hypothesis. Would that this were so, for the scientific method is a priceless tool for seeking truth. Yet many, probably most, of the people who today call themselves “scientists” are not really scientists at all, by their own definition of the term, nor true skeptics. They are true believers in the status quo paradigm approved by the masters of the corporations, governments, and universities who sign their paychecks and give them their research grants. They are the high priests of the new religion some of us call “scientism,” a faith based on an unquestioning belief in materialism. Of course, the biologists and geneticists among them are neo-Darwinists.

At the very least, a true scientist would admit (especially to himself) that he cannot know for certain that the physical universe is the most basic reality, and act accordingly. And if (as I believe) idealism is correct, our current crop of “scientists” will never be able to explain things at the highest level. Perhaps this is why basic physics is in such a mess, with every new discovery contradicting current theories and physicists scrambling to modify the details of the theories without changing their basic beliefs. They are like architects adding new floors on a building with a weak foundation. Perhaps it will take the collapse of our civilization for us to begin anew with a new science with a new foundation.

By William B. Stoecker