Notes for Class Twelve: The Nature of Reality
I. Metaphysics is the study of topics that are considered after or beyond questions dealing with
physical issues. Instead of asking questions such as, How much does a thing weigh? it asks what it
means to say that a thing is real. It also tries to determine whether it makes sense to think of some things
(e.g., numbers, minds, ideas, natural laws, etc.) as real as sensible objects like tables and books. It also raises
issues about questions that are beyond the physical such as: Does the universe have an order or purpose? Is
there life after death? Do human beings have souls or are they only bodies? Are humans only highly
developed animals? Do computers think?
The study of the nature of reality is also called "ontology," which literally means the "study [logos]
of being [ ontos]." Since what it means for something to be or to be real is an issue beyond what is
physically accessible, ontological questions are metaphysical. Metaphysics includes not only the study of
being and reality but also the study of specific kinds of beings (such as minds). Metaphysics in general and
ontology in particular are both interested in providing a "logos," a rational explanation for
II. Mythos and Logos: A rational explanation differs from a mythic
explanation insofar as myth provides an account or story about how things come to be as they are. A rational
explanation of something does not require that we know why the thing is that way; it only requires that we
understand how that thing makes sense in terms of our experience of nature. It does not ask why there is
anything at all (including nature), because to do so would require us to appeal to yet another principle of
explanation, and that would generate an infinite regress.
Mythos, on the other hand, attempts to explain the natural world ultimately by appealing to
supernatural or divine forces. For the mythic mind, the act of recounting the myth or casting a spell
reinvokes what it means to say that something exists in the first place. Myth identifies things as real without
attempting to justify such identifications. A mythic pronouncment is thus not the natural speech or act of a
human being; it is the supernatural speech or act of the gods.
By contrast, a rational or "logical" explanation tries to justify why something is the way it is by appealing to
things in nature that are not themselves questioned but are simply accepted as the way things are in nature.
Myth identifies those unquestioned things for us and provides us with our understanding of what
logos (logic, meaning, reason) is.
Ultimately, there is no rationale or justification for myth because it is through myth that
reason itself is identified. That is, myth does not "explain" how things are as much as it simply
reveals how things are. Apart from such a revelation, it makes no sense to try to talk about things.
Some philosophers (e.g., Nietzsche) object to the metaphysical attempt to provide a totalizing, eternal,
uniform picture of reality. Others (positivists) argue that metaphysical speculation is meaningless since it
cannot be falsified and is not true by definition. To such objections metaphysicians often reply that the
attempt to understand the nature of reality is not concerned with being true as much as with being helpful in
making sense of life.
III. Views on the Nature of Reality:
A. Materialism: reality consists of only physical, material bodies in motion. Life is a physico-chemical process and mind and thought are only electrochemical activities of the brain. Mental events are
physical processes that are determined (like other material things) by laws of nature. Mental states (including
intentions, fears, and beliefs) are only brain states or inclinations to behave in certain ways. "Mentality" is a
by-product (or "epiphenomenon") of brain (or neural) activity. Intelligence is the evolutionary result of
chance events in the development of the universe. There is no purpose or plan in the development of the
- Materialism: only material bodies are real.
- Critical Naturalism: only natural, physical things are real, but they are not reducible to bodies.
- Idealism: only minds and their ideas are real.
- Dualism: material bodies and immaterial minds make up reality.
- Pluralism: no single substance is ultimately real; rather, there is a multiplicity of real substances.
- Naive Realism: "real" is a function of how we speak about the world.
Objections to Materialism in general:
- 1. Behaviorism: all statements about minds, mental life, or mental events can be expressed
in terms of behaviors. Otherwise, such terms are nonsense.
- Hard behaviorists (e.g., Skinner) say that there are no such things as minds, mental events, states, or
processes; there are only bodies in motion (behaviors). Mental vocabulary is misleading and should
be deleted from our speech. Just because we speak about ideas and intentions, that does not mean
there are such things. For clarity's sake we should abandon such ways of speaking. Beliefs in
freedom and moral dignity are out of touch with the scientific reality. Objections: Unlike
my account of other minds, I do not explain my own mind by observation of my behavior. Also, the
vocabulary of intentional states would have to be modified in a non-common sensical way.
- Soft behaviorists claim that there may be minds and mental events and processes, but we don't need
to think that they are real since a behaviorist methodology can account for everything that is
interesting about them.
- Logical behaviorists (e.g., Gilbert Ryle) claim that the mental or intentional refers to ways of
behaving. It is OK to speak of minds and use mentalistic terminology (contra Skinner) as long as we
recognize how such talk, like talk of bodies, is not a claim about their reality apart from their logical
status as modes of behavior or dispositions to behave. To talk of bodies is to describe certain
observable behaviors that we identify as things. Minds are not such things (ghostly or otherwise)--that would involve the "category mistake" of thinking of bundles of characteristics as being things;
minds are only ways of describing bodily activities. Nonetheless, we should maintain the logical
distinction between the mental and the physical: without such a distinction (based on the
manner of behavior), we could not distinguish between intentional and accidental behaviors.
- 2. Mind-Brain (or Neural) Identity Theory: contrary to hard behaviorism, there are real
mental events; however, they are not macro-level behaviors but rather micro-level, neurological
events. Mental states and processes like sensations are simply brain states and processes. What it
means for someone to have an idea or experience an emotion is obviously not the same as
understanding that a neuron is firing in the brain--both are intelligible in terms of their own domains
of discourse. But even though they mean something different and are spoken of differently in our
language, they both refer to the same neurological event.
- (1) if thoughts do not have the spatio-temporal characteristics of neurophysiological events, then how
can we say they are the same or refer to the same thing? [Answer: maybe we simply need to
get used to a different way of speaking.]
- (2) Even if we recognized that mental states are correlated with brain states, that would not
prove that they are identical, and there would be no way to falsify (and thus make scientific) the
theory. [Answer: eliminative materialism: ways of speaking not based on
materialism are old-fashioned and need to be eliminated. Rorty: our linguistic expressions (e.g.,
about pain) have meaning and truth value only in terms of their places in discursive networks or
language games that permit explanation and prediction. However, pain does not seem to be limited
to particular language games or theories; so eliminative materialism seems to be unable to fulfill its
aim of eliminating all mental expressions.]
B. Critical Naturalism: reality consists only of nature and natural processes. In contrast to
materialism, naturalism does not reduce life and human activity to the physicochemical processes of the "hard
sciences" (physics, chemistry, biology), but it does say that all events (including "emergent" or evolutionary
qualities such as human activity) can be explained fully in terms of other sciences (e.g., the social sciences:
psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, political science). There is no need to introduce
supernatural or spiritual elements to explain existence.
- (1) If materialism is correct, then even materialist philosophy is nothing other than the motion of
matter. It can hardly be said to be "true" or to "explain" anything, then, for an explanation
of something (seemingly) would be different from that which it claims to explain.
- (2) If there is no purpose in the universe, then there would be no purpose in trying to prove that there is
no purpose--which is exactly what the materialist tries to do.
- (3) Certainly, to say that I have a thought is not the same thing as to say that a neuron fires in my brain--but that is what the materialist seems to say.
- (4) Reductive materialism (the attempt to give a purely physical description of so-called mental states) is
somewhat unpersuasive regarding emotional states and really unpersuasive regarding social or legal
states (e.g., being married). Why should everything be reducible to physics?
C. Idealism: Mind/Spirit and ideas are the only things that are really real.
- (1) Though the notion of emergent levels of reality may describe how consciousness came
into existence, it does not explain why there is consciousness in the first place (other than to
attribute the development of higher forms of life to chance genetic mutations--which doesn't
- (2) If human behavior exhibits purpose and value, why can't the same be said for the rest of nature too?
- (3) A naturalistic picture of reality is barren, devoid of the variety and beauty we encounter in
- (a) Subjective idealism (Berkeley): reality is what we experience of things, for we have no
idea what it would mean to talk about reality apart from the reality that we perceive: to be is to be
perceived or to perceive. [Objection: this seems to make reality depend on the individual
- (b) Objective idealism: all reality (including individual minds) is an expression of a
universal or absolute Mind. The world of changing, material objects is merely a fleeting image of
Intelligibility or Mentality itself--what Plato calls the realm of the Forms. Mind (or Mentality itself)
is what makes the universe orderly, intelligible: in fact, Mind is the intelligibility of the universe, the
means by which it is conceivable as some thing in the first place. Through Mind, evolution
is not merely a process of random, chance variations, but rather is a process whose aim is
revealed in the success (not simply, the survival) of the fittest. The universe has a purpose, goal, or
direction: in short, it exhibits a teleology. Guiding the universe is a purposive mind, God.
D. Dualism (Descartes): there are two kinds of things that are real: mind/thought (mental or
spiritual things) and body/extension (material things). Mental things can be known only through
introspection (first-person accounts); physical things are known through sensible observation (third-person
accounts). My knowledge of other minds is based on their behavior; but my knowledge of myself is not.
Introspection reveals the reality of mental things that are accessible only privately. Because the mental and
the physical can be conceived as distinct, it is possible that they are distinct. At least conceptually
there is no reason to think they are necessarily united; so it is possible that at the dissolution of the body, the
soul or mind survives in some afterlife.
- (1) Idealists believe that, because human beings think in terms of mind and purpose, then the
universe must be that way; but that is mere anthropomorphizing (reducing everything to human
- (2) Idealists forget that, while structure or form is part of what things are, there is matter too; for
there is no such thing as a form or structure without it being a form or structure of some matter.
- (3) Talk of minds or spirits is unnecessary if we can explain what we observe in material terms alone.
According to Gilbert Ryle, dualism endorses a "ghost in the machine" view. It is based on the "category
mistake" of thinking of a thing in terms of a category in which it does not belong: here, the mistake is
thinking of the soul/mind as if it were a thing like a body.
- (1) how is interaction between a purely spiritual and a purely material thing possible?
- (2) if mind is known only introspectively, how do we know that others have minds?
- (3) if the mind is influenced by the body (which itself is completely determined), how can the mind
E. Pluralism: reality includes a plurality of different kinds of things. According to Aristotle, things
are distinguished as being different substances, each with a different essence (or "form") that makes it be the
kind of thing it is, and the material that comprises each individual member of that kind or species is what
distinguishes it from other members of the same kind.
F. Naive Realism: the variety of things (e.g., symphonies) cannot be reduced to one or two basic
kinds, and the best way to address the issue of the basic ways of speaking of reality is to notice how ordinary
language distinguishes things and how they are ordinarily characterized. One "real" world is no more real
than another if both are part of ordinary discourse. According to J. L. Austin, the point of referring to what is
real is not to identify reality but to distinguish how we normally differentiate between what is real and what is