The Nature of Reality

Throughout the ages, philosophers have wrestled with the nature of reality.  What is reality?  Can we rely on our five physical senses to accurately convey reality to our minds? Is the sky really blue, or does it just appear so to us?  Indeed, what does blue mean?  Science now tells us that colours appear as they do to us because of the way light is reflected and interpreted by our brains.  So is your blue the same as mine?  Most of us have asked ourselves such questions at some time in our lives.

One of the earliest thinkers to address this subject of the nature of reality was Plato, who lived several centuries before Christ’s coming in the flesh.  In his work The Republic, Plato asks us to imagine a group of prisoners, locked in a cave. The prisoners’ bodies are chained in such a way that they can only look towards the rear of the cave.  Here, in the light of a constantly burning fire, people walk by carrying models of men and animals made of wood, stone and so on.   The prisoners can see the reflected shadows of these things on the wall they face, and these shapes of men and animals are their reality. 

One day, a prisoner escapes and sees the real world, and real people and animals.  He goes back into the cave and tries to convince his friends of this real reality outside: this new world, vibrant with life and colour, so different from that of the cave and the shadows on the wall, which he and his friends have assumed to be real.  But of course, his friends think him insane, and rather than try to escape too, prefer to stay in their ‘comfort zone’. 

If Plato were writing his story today, he would no doubt use television or cinema as his device for the story, rather than shadows on a cave wall.  But whatever the device he might have used, the point Plato seems to be suggesting is that there is an ideal or perfect reality which lies behind our sensory perception and that our perception is somehow limited, or is being distorted by our imperfect human senses.  This philosophy, known as Idealism has been resurrected and developed in various directions throughout the ages. (1) 

Was Plato correct in assuming that the reality we experience might only be a shadow of an ‘actual’ or ‘true’ reality which somehow lies ‘behind’ or ‘beyond’ everything we experience?  It seems to me that we can’t deny the possibility that such may be the case, even if we don’t personally believe that Plato was correct. 

But where might such questions lead us with respect to our Christian faith?  Should we simply accept everything we experience at face value?  Might it even be sinful to question the evidence of our God-given senses? Or, as Christians, claiming to believe in a spiritual realm of angels, demons, principalities and powers etc, are we neglecting our duty in biblical and theological reflection if we refuse to even consider such questions?
It seems to me that we have three main possibilities.  A) All is material (in which case God does not exist).   B) All is spiritual (in which case all material is illusory and does not exist), or C) We live in a Creation which contains both material and spiritual realities. 

From a human perspective, it is impossible to know with absolute certainty which view is correct.  The only way we could know for certain would be if it were possible for us to step outside our own ‘reality’ (like Plato’s prisoner leaving the cave) and see the whole picture from the ‘outside’.  Only God can do this (and he only exists if either view B or C is true).  The latter option seems on the face of it to best fit the biblical data, although there are odd scriptures which could be seen to support view B. (2)    Personally I live with the third view, and speak and act as if this were true, whilst holding in my mind the possibility the view that B may just conceivably be true and cannot be ruled out on the evidence of our senses. (3)   By faith, I accept ipso facto that view A is untrue.

(1) Indeed, even Hollywood has used a kind of ‘reverse idealism’ in the Matrix trilogy of motion pictures.  In the films, reality is much more unpleasant than the seeming reality experienced by human sense.
(2) For example, 1 Cor 13:12;  Eph 6:12. It is also worth noting that the cult of Christian Science has developed idealistic philosophy with a theological system based on this very idea; that the only reality is spiritual.  On this view, humanity is not ‘fallen’ but merely viewing ‘true’ reality through (as it were) the bottom of a glass bottle.  From this standpoint, evil, suffering, sin, pain and so on, are not objectively real but only appear to be so to us.  Most, if not all, evangelical Christians, will distance themselves from such a view, whilst nevertheless recognising that, as Scripture develops, so does the notion of a spiritual realm which lies behind, or beyond our physical understanding.
(3) If such a view – coming from an evangelical – shocks you, I’d recommend you read  A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, by Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753).  There is a current edition by OUP (1998) in their series ‘Oxford Philosophical Texts’.  Idealism is here presented as so reasonable as to be almost impossible to refute, even if we simply cannot accept the conclusions Berkeley arrives at. 

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