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Foundational Issues (2) – Metaphysics: What Exists?

When we observe reality we seem to observe two things: mind and matter. Throughout history thinkers have referred to these things by different names. I am trying to avoid jargon and I like alliteration so I am going to stick with mind and matter.

Matter is pretty easy to define: it is what we can see, taste, smell, touch, or feel. It is what we can weigh and measure; it is, in short, physical material.

By mind I mean things that have non-physical existence, things that exist, but that can’t be observed directly or quantified: things like human dignity (we all know people have dignity, but where does it physically reside?), the ability to choose (which is called volition and which resides in our will), and love (we can see the effects of love or acts of love, but no one can see the essence of love—it has no taste, no color, no odor, etc.)

We seem to observe both mind and matter, but thinkers have disagreed as to their reality. Some thinkers, we call them Materialists or Naturalists, believe that only matter exists. Mind, they say, is illusory, a product of our imagination. According to this school of thought, our ancestors evolved the idea of human dignity to keep from killing one another, we invented the idea of a free will to control those that did things that harm the species, and love is simply a trick of brain chemistry that developed over time via natural selection to cajole us to mate and care for our young so that the species would continue. This is the dominant opinion today.

On the other hand, there have been Spiritualists or Idealists that have argued that only mind exists and everything we think we see, taste, smell, touch, and feel is, in reality, an illusion. This is a less popular opinion, but major thinkers have held it. Bishop Berkeley, for example, believed that all of reality existed in the mind of God. God ‘instantaneously creates’ a room when we enter it, but that room ceases to exist the second we leave. To the question, ‘if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a noise?’ Berkeley would say, ‘no, because there is neither a tree nor a forest unless there is someone to observe it.’ This idea is not very popular now, but a number of heretical groups have held views similar to it. Various Gnostic groups, for example, have believed that the material world, while it exists, is evil or unimportant. This led to conflicting errors that some groups held simultaneously. On the one hand, if the material world is evil it follows that one must be an aesthetic and deny all physical pleasure; yet on the other hand if the material world does not matter one can be a glutton and sexually immoral because the body is irrelevant. Something like this latter view is with us today.

The Christian view is that there is both mind and matter, that both of these were created by God and are therefore good, but both of them have been corrupted by sin. In the incarnation Christ assumed both a human body and a human soul because both had fallen into sin and both, therefore, needed redemption. Matter is therefore no less holy than mind—both have fallen and both can be used to sin, but both are redeemed in Christ so ‘whether we eat or drink or whatever we do we can do it for the glory of God.’ According to traditional Christian thought, sin is not something that has any existence of its own, rather it is the misuse of something good that God gave to us.

Next week I will write about whether or not ethics or morals are a part of reality.