Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen:The Real-Ideal Divide

The Real-Ideal Divide


The Real-Ideal Divide

Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen

1. Realism

The philosophy of Immanuel Kant introduced a change in the philosophical and scientific attitude towards mind and its relation to reality.[1] Thus, we can talk about “realism” before and after Kant.

Generally speaking, the most essential and characteristic feature of realism is the notion of a mind-independent existence, which means that individual or a species of things have an existence that is “in-itself”. Realism is a metaphysical position; it is a stance taken of individual mind-endowed human beings towards the world in perception. On the other hand, to deny that something is mind-independent is yet another, however different, metaphysical stance that is called anti-realism or idealism. However, philosophical discourse discloses the fact that we, as philosophers and scientists, tend to choose different specifications for what is to count as “independent of mind” and also in which way this “mind-independent” entity is supposed to exist. There are many metaphysical issues over which realism and idealism have been argued. For example, we have the question about the existence of moral values. Or we have the problem of the existence of souls and minds. More interestingly is whether the past can be said to have been real, or, on the other hand, if the future is real. We tend, nevertheless, to take different specifications for granted and therefore we have a tremendously large variety of senses in which the word “realism” is being used. In order to get a general feeling of the modern sense of philosophical realism, we have to briefly take a look at the “before” and “after” of Kant.

Medieval scholastic realism had two poles: an extreme or exaggerated version and a much more moderate one. These two poles of realism were opposed to “nominalism” and “conceptualism”. Scholastic realists in general did not see “mind-independence” as any essential feature of their positions. In fact the “mind-independence” aspect did not present itself as any feature at all in the debate; it is only in modern philosophy that the aspect of mind-independence becomes an issue. It is the focus upon the aspect of “mind-independence” that marks of the shift from “medieval” realism to our modern versions. Scholastic realists emphasized the intimacy between mind and reality rather than focusing on the issue of having to deal with different “substances”.

The transition to the modern sense of realism came, however, with the philosophy of Kant. Kant saw idealism as the opposing view to realism. For Kant realism was divided into transcendental and empirical variants. Like the empirical realists, Kant was of the opinion that we know about the existence of things and objects in the world. These are things that appear in space and time. The transcendental realist would go further by stating that the existence we claim to know is wholly independent of our perception and predication. Kant would probably disagree with this view since his view was primarily interpreted as stating that knowledge is about things in the world dependent upon perception. However, this knowledge would rest upon nothing else but appearances. This is not knowledge proper.

Thus, we can say that Kant affirms the reality of universal concepts as something “mind-bound”, that concepts are real only within the human mind. We can also distinguish between our universal concepts and sensations. Thus, we have sensations of a particular and floating world and schemata of universals to create order for our sensations. It is the a priori forms of our minds that can be held responsible for generating universal representations. Experience can not yield any basis for our universal concepts, like for instance time and space. Time and space are therefore schemata that arise from our mental organization.

Following Kant, realism has become a multifaceted intellectual phenomenon which gathers around a few core-beliefs like the most important one: the existence of a world independent of our mental acts. Now the problem is not so much that there exists a world independent of our minds. The problem consists of how to establish contact with the world so that we can create knowledge about it; knowledge that contains the “essence” of this world as it is in-itself. For many scientists and philosophers this is important since knowledge about the world should not be tainted with subjectivity.

Among the most influential realist doctrines we find “Metaphysical realism” and “Scientific realism” that somehow have a connection with the doctrine of “Temporal realism”.

2. Metaphysical Realism

The general attitude towards realism presents realism as the view that material things, other humans, trees, stones, mountains and so forth, exist externally to ourselves and therefore also independently of our sense experience and knowledge. There is no problem of accepting this definition; however, it does present us with a problem as it may imply that we (humans) are on the outside looking in on reality. It is this possibility of a “separation” of human experienced reality and a reality that exist “in-itself”, that is, the separation of man and reality that the metaphysical realist takes to its most extreme articulation.[2]

The metaphysical realist believes that man cannot trust his or her senses or other forms of experience in order to conceive of what is really real. The metaphysical realist likes to think that there exists an absolute disjunction between mind and matter. Similarly we find that the difference in definition between the subjective and objective domains of the world is based upon this lack of trust or belief in our experience together with the assumption that the ideas of the mind are subjective and therefore not real. Thus, the metaphysical realist also believes that it is possible to preserve in theory a definitive borderline between concepts, ideas, symbols and “things”, “processes” and “relations between entities” in physical reality so that it can distinguish in an absolute manner between epistemology and ontology. The problem, as I see it, is that the essential ingredient in the metaphysical realist view is that real reality lies outside the reach of human perception and experience. The metaphysical realist is thus decapitating individual subjective experience from the body of knowledge, making the relation between “knowledge of the world” and “the world in-itself”, mysterious. There is a big crevasse between the moderate realist and the metaphysical realist views. The moderate realist states that the world must be something which is prior to our actual experience of it. Metaphysical realism on the other hand goes much further and states that there is a reality which will never be disclosed by experience or by our cognition. The usual explanation for the claim that we will never disclose the really real by our experience and cognition is given in form of the myth that there is “something” in between reality and us as experiencing subjects. This “something” is what makes it impossible for us to perceive true properties. Therefore, there has to be some other and necessary means which enable us to disclose “true” reality. Therefore, the most pregnant problem will be, for the metaphysical realist, to explain the linkage between human knowledge, which must correspond to reality and “reality-as-it-is-in-itself”.

The reason given by the metaphysical realist, in order to account for a knowledge that can transcend our experience and normal everyday cognitions, is to claim superiority for a subjectivity-transcending faculty within subjectivity, namely for a “higher” intellectual faculty that can rise above the coarseness and relativity of experience. The problems arising with this view are, of course, the “internal” dualism imposed on the human mind which divides mind into two different domains that, presumably, have nothing to do with each other. The thing is that one may believe that “higher faculty thought” is not part of the ordering taking place in the experiencing of the actual world since it is not believed to be determined by sense experience. It is thought that this “higher faculty” operates independently of experience. It is a kind of faculty that functions pretty much like any disinterested calculating device opening up for the hidden but fundamental reality by abstraction or subtraction.[3]

The essential and shared belief found in these two viewpoints is that we can isolate what is real from what is mind-dependent. This is extremely difficult, especially if we are dealing with our notion of time. It seems problematic as there is a confusion of objective time with true, ontological time. I will discuss this later on, but for now it must suffice to comment upon the fact that it is hard to see how one can determine any truth about the “ontological” nature of time – whether it is by abstraction or by subtraction – in this manner. We do not – and cannot – “abstract” or “subtract” any real properties of time from our experience – any more than we are able to “isolate” temporal properties, which are properties that are part of our experience as not real. It is hard to see how we can – if at all – “detach” from our subjectivity in the sense of having a mind that comprises consciousness and experiences of both ourselves and the external world, thus placing ourselves very much in this world that we experience. Let us grant that we can “detach” to some extent from what we know is just a product of our own temperament. Nevertheless, every “detachment” is due to our subjectivity and thus is to be found within subjectivity as such.[4]

There is some kind of relationship between certain ideas. There is a mysterious relation between the metaphysical belief in a higher and detached intellectual faculty and the belief in the “existence” of a fixed borderline between “fact” and “knowledge about fact”, that is, between ontology and epistemology.

But as we might be aware of, it is sometimes difficult to separate between what is real in itself and what we know to be real. However, a “borderline” between fact and knowledge of fact emphasizes that knowledge of reality should be true, that our knowledge of things correspond to what things really are independent of any perceiving subject, that is, “objectively”. But since it is difficult to verify or falsify beyond the reach of scientifically extended observation one cannot empty the possibilities that might be hidden for us, for our experience and observation, because we cannot see to the bottom of reality. This means that we have to allow into the domain of knowledge aspects that cannot – at least not at the moment – be verified, but also to allow aspects which probably never can be verified because they are idealizations and assumptions necessary for the intelligibility of the theory. These speculative aspects are justified by other means than observation or procedures like verification or falsification. However, to give these speculative aspects justification, that is, the right to remain as necessary parts of the theory would mean that we have to justify them as possibilities by a detached viewpoint and thus give the justification itself an appearance of being objective. This is factual since the opposite, that is, to give the speculative aspects a real objective justification, would mean to go beyond the reach of human experiencing and scientific observation. Thus, we end up with the fact that we can, as far as these speculative elements are concerned, never go beyond our concepts, that is, to something that should be more fundamentally real than these concepts are themselves.

Hence, we have concepts and ideas, idealizations, rather speculative hypothesis and assumptions that we nevertheless cannot do without in our labor to construct a theoretical picture of reality. We cannot theorize about the world only by appealing to subject-independent “facts”, as these “facts” may be in-themselves. We have to assume something about them. Therefore, knowledge about the world will have to include elements and aspects that are necessary for the intelligibility of the theory. These aspects and elements are themselves not factual in the peculiar sense that the metaphysical realist demands, that is, as subject-independent realities. This means that the “borderline” of the metaphysical realist becomes rather blurred in actuality, and that is further blurred by the separation of experiencing from thinking. Since a separation of human experience, that is, as a method of accessing “reality” as it is “in-itself” is rejected, an appeal to higher faculty thinking cannot save realism. The “thing-in-itself” will still be out of reach since it will still be independent of human knowledge; it is per definition inaccessible.

Thus, we can spot a further contradiction within metaphysical realism. Not only do we have a cleavage between experiencing and thinking as we have a cleavage between a world that we can experience (appearances) and reality (fundamental or microscopic), because the contradiction goes even further. The contradiction is to be found in the core of realism, namely as a contradiction between the view realists have of knowledge as insight, which is a necessary product of a higher intellectual faculty and its outright skepticism about human knowledge per se. This is clearly shown in the belief that our concepts (since there is a borderline between knowledge and ontology) cannot tell us anything which is really true about reality, as it is in-itself. In other words, there is the fact that metaphysical realism believes that we can have objective knowledge about the world seems contradictory. Nevertheless, metaphysical realism seems to be nominalistic. Metaphysical realism is nominalism since it claims that we never can disclose “reality as it is in-itself”; because concepts are “mind-things” and therefore cannot be similar-in-content to anything independent of mind. I believe the conflicting ideas of realism and nominalism to be elements of the ideal basis which constitute theories like “coarse-graining” and “the mind-dependence theory of time”. This schism is found, among other things, in the fact that the necessity of applying the human subjectivity as an inter-connected whole is inescapable in the process of putting together the bits and pieces that make up our knowledge of the world. We always end up with our more or less true concepts. The metaphysical realist cannot justify or perhaps he believes that he is not allowed to justify, what makes the concepts true by appealing to experience. Instead he must appeal to something beyond experience, something believed not to have a human origin. In this view, the content of human consciousness becomes a mystical representation of something that is denied accessibility to us through our usual means of orientation in our surrounding life-world. Thus, there has to be limitations to the human intellect, that is, there are circumstances that tell us that the properties and features of real things outrun our cognitive reach. Essential and crucial aspects of reality are placed outside the reach of human subjectivity. Hence, realism speaks for a position that emphasizes mind-independence as a true feature of the real.

For the more moderate scientific realist the claim for realism is found in the substantive knowledge of the sciences. The problems that scientific realism generally is struggling with are those concentrated around the explication of the ontological status of scientific entities. Such entities can be atoms or the neuron. Connected to this explanatory work is also the problem of discriminating between properties along the explanation of what kind of properties belong to these entities in the first place. Lastly we find that the problem of transforming these theoretical entities into ontological real objects also include some kind of explanation of the temporal development of the states of the entities and their interactions with other entities. The metaphysical realist, on the other hand, finds the basis for realism in the assumption that we cannot achieve complete knowledge of the real, that our means of achieving knowledge are limited to such an extent that we can only talk about a partial access to reality. The metaphysical scientific realist explains knowledge. This includes scientific knowledge by emphasizing our shortcomings when it comes to knowing the real in whatever form it may be.

Nevertheless, it should be clear that whether one is a metaphysical realist or not one would still have the insight that enables one to agree upon experience and thought as not always corresponding with each other. The metaphysical realist has created a cleavage out of this subjective insight. It is the “cleavage” itself that becomes important to this form of realism. However, the definition of what secures the access to the real content of the world is ambiguous. For the realist reality will always remain “in-itself” and this is, of course, different from most descriptions of what we believe reality to be. In this sense reality as it is in-itself will always remain what it is in-itself and as such it will be the secure fundament with which we as scientists and philosophers refer to and thus control and explain our attempts. However, is the realist correct in believing this?

The whole issue of understanding the relationship between thought, experience and perception is complicated. We (humans) will always experience reality in the same manner, this is to say, we will always see trees as trees, and we will always hear birdsong as birdsong and so forth. But the categories by which we determine and describe what we experience do not always have to remain the same whether they are within the individual or within some specific branch of knowledge. What remains the same to experience or sense perception may appear to be different in thoughtful contemplation. This is better understood if we understand that experience has at least two or three levels, that is, from what is perceived as concretely to the abstract. In this sense we can understand that it is not what is sensed which differs as a sense-object in experience, but what becomes in its more abstract form by appearing differently according to changing categories by which we explain and describe the sense-object in knowledge. Time in experience is a disclosure of its specific “nature”, as it is “in-itself”. However, this is not obvious, at least in the context of realism. To most people time appears perhaps to be the same since we all can use tensed language when we talk with each other and thus are able to understand each other. The question of what time is changes according to different philosophical positions. This means that the understanding of the object in question becomes idealized and theory-dependent in different ways according to difference in philosophy. The position that I am mostly opposed to is the form of metaphysical realism, which in the discussion about the nature of time, is better known as “temporal realism”.

3. Temporal Realism

Of the greatest concern to the temporal realist is the necessity of justifying the claim that there exists a tenseless world with no transitory properties and, preferably, no objective distinctions betweennow”, “past” or “future”. Accordingly will the temporal realist argue that all tensed talk are nothing but mere subjective utterances that have no bearing upon the objective determination of the facts located within reality but independent of the perceiving subject. This means that an objective account of the independent real occurrences, that is, the facts can only come about by the use of a tenseless language, like when we apply the distinctions “earlier than”, “later than” or “simultaneous with” to describe the order of the tenseless events. One should therefore attempt to reduce all tensed reporting of occurrences, which are assumed to “be” tenselessly in the subject-independent reality, to tenseless language since “every utterance of any tensed sentence has tenseless truth conditions”.[5] However, the terms “now”, “future” and “past”, and the relationship between these terms, still have a particularly stubbornness. As we will see, they are hard to get rid of even for the realist.

What are the core beliefs of the temporal realist? First and foremost that reality itself has no innate distinctions between “now”, “past” or “future”. They are all subjective distinctions. We are in a sense talking of a “being”, which does not come to be or cease to be. The distinction between now, future and past is irrelevant to the objective account of facts that has to be true whether it is in the past, now or in the future. The metaphysical realist of time does not like or want to take the questions about fatalism or determinism seriously. This means that most temporal realists claim that the future is “open”. The future is real beyond the present or actual state of affairs. That we cannot verify the future state now has to do with the way we perceive the world, that is, with the narrow and restricting or limiting outlook our senses and consciousness allows us to have of the world around us.

Also the temporal realist distinguishes between ontology and epistemology, or perhaps it would be more correct to call it logic instead of epistemology since the realist asserts that future states or events are logically determined.[6] This is, according to Faye, something the realist holds to be necessarily true.[7] However, this would indicate that the borderline between reality and theory becomes blurred. If something is stated about the future at this moment and then becomes verified when it occurs, then it is true. But can we say that it is true if it is true when it has not occurred yet? Logically it is. It is logical to say that a fact will be a fact whether it has occurred in the past at t0, now at t1, or in a future state at tn. Future and past events are all logically determined at any time.[8] The consequence of the removal of the veil between theory and reality is indicated by the assumption that if it is logical it might very well be real. In fact this only states something about the logical “nature” of facts, that is, of logical identity that in the metaphysical doctrine of deterministic universality must be true at all times. This is an ontology of time where the characteristics of experienced temporality are replaced by a “time stretch” that has the characterizing features of being something that “is” and that can be measured. “Being” is that which is spatially stretched out in time, a time that comprises all there is, and “measure” is at what “time” it occurs on the time axis. Time is simply defined differently from that experienced temporality we normally presuppose in our everyday life. Therefore, if “facts” are universal time cannot lapse as a transient, irreversible, asymmetric and heterogeneous ongoing “transformation” of the world.

That the future is real is to say that the future is logically determined. This means, according to Faye, that objective tenses do not exist.[9] That time is divided into different meanings or determinations, as past, present and future depends solely on the existence of a perceiving mind. This, again, is to say that “perceiving minds” are to be considered as obstacles of true insights of reality. Of course, this leads us to the realist point of view that the present constitutes no objective reality. It is the subject-independent that is “true” and “real”. The temporal realist cannot see anything in the world that would indicate to us how we should divide the world into past, present and future. The obvious thing would be to understand human beings as part of reality, but the realist cannot accept this since he rejects that man can access true reality (believed to be beyond experience) through experience.

The confusion of whether one is dealing with descriptions of an epistemological character or a metaphysical statement is again blurred because the knowledge referred too is about the world which exists independently of man. This is a world that is imagined to consist of events which constitute an objective temporal order without sentient beings. Thus the argument brings in the faculty of imagination as some kind of “God’s eye point of view”. This illustrates that we can imagine what the world and its temporal order would look like if it lacked human beings to constitute the present, that is, as “particular events occurring tenselessly at different times”.[10] Likewise, the realist claims that it is hard to imagine what change and becoming might be or consist of if man was absent in the world. The demand is furthermore that change and becoming are the same as “particular events occurring tenselessly at different times”. The application of the word “occurrences” is, for instance, as opposed to “becoming” or “change”, not further explained. Anyway, the ontological statements are not easy to hide in a description that argues that reduction of tenses and the application of tenseless language would serve us better if we needed to represent time, that is, as a constructed relational time-order.

4. Idealism and Misconceptions

It is a widespread belief among realists that idealism is to mean the same as subjective idealism. Furthermore, it is believed that idealism is the opposite of realism; that it is irreconcilable with realism. In the first case idealism is held to be stressing that the world, reality, things etc. are mind-dependent; that ideas and concepts have priority over matter both ontologically and epistemologically speaking. Ontologically speaking is idealism held to be the view that the world is a product of our own mind, that is, of our conceptualizations and/or ideas. This means that nothing really exists which is not dependent on the mind. Hence, physical things are either mental or mind-dependent or could be perceived under certain circumstances. Such “identification” of idealism as subjective idealism may, perhaps, be credited the influence stemming from interpretations of the philosophies of George Berkeley and Immanuel Kant.[11] In Kant’s sense this could mean that human thought and experience always will be determined or conditioned of, and thus limited, to its own reason and its own concepts.

In the second case we often find statements such as in R. J. Hirst, that:

Realism is thus opposed to idealism, which holds that no such material objects exist apart from our knowledge or consciousness of them, the whole universe thus being dependent on the mind or in some sense mental.[12]

The main problem is not that it is realism and idealism that is opposed to each other but realism and solipsism. The metaphysical realist Karl Popper[13] likewise rejects idealism because he identifies it with the “transcendentalism” of Kant and “subjectivism” understood as solipsism. He writes that:

The subjectivist theory of knowledge fails… [because] it naively assumes that all knowledge is subjective – that we cannot speak of knowledge without a knower, a knowing subject.[14]

For Popper this was enough to convince him that idealism is wrong since scientific knowledge is not the personal knowledge of the “knower”.[15] Popper therefore rejected the idealistic theory of knowledge because he identified it as “the subjectivist theory of knowledge”.[16] The weightiest reason for Popper to reject idealism is that knowledge cannot be knowledge if this is something which only goes on in our minds, or as Popper writes:

On this subjective basis, no objective theory can be built: the world becomes the totality of my ideas, of my dreams.”[17]

Since realism and idealism both are metaphysical theories the theory of idealism as “subjectivism” could not be refuted, although the reasons offered by Popper seem good enough for almost anyone to reject this theory. The best epistemological argument in favor of subjectivism states that all I know are my own experiences and ideas. As I will argue later on, idealism is still not necessarily identical to solipsism or subjectivism. As a preliminary to my “synthesis” certain aspects should be emphasized to the understanding of the relationship between the world and mind.

To know something of the world demands the presence of experience, understanding and judgment.[18] This also signifies that knowledge of the world demands that there is some degree of information-exchange between the three fundamental cognitive factors. In this context, that is, of an individual who interacts with his or her surrounding world, we cannot talk about the individual creating the world, nor that he or she “experiences” that he/she “creates” the world. What we do is that we somehow participate in establishing the identity and certainty of what goes on in the world as “knowledge”. To use the language of phenomenology, we “constitute” the world.

Understanding is very much a “creation”. Understanding is an activity, namely of creativity that assembles, affirms or rejects bits and pieces of probable possibilities from experience and perception into the most probable, the most verified. Thus, we are not talking of a creation of the world but of a creation of knowledge of the world. Thus, reality is “understood”, it is “knowledge”: to be “real” is to participate in the understanding of reality. “Reality” signifies nothing other than to be known through creative understanding. However, this does not fuse the “real and ideal”. “Reality” is to be known through experience, understanding and judgment.[19]

It is the dividing line, the absolute border between subject and knowledge of object, between object and subject-independent knowledge that becomes confused or blurred in realistic epistemology. This is due to some confusion about nature, that is, the meaning of the concept of “objectivity”.[20] In one aspect we can apply the term “objectivity” as descriptive of the way the realistically inclined behaviorists understand humans “objectively”. Humans are, in this particular realistic framework, treated as if they had nothing of those qualities, or abilities, or capacities that we normally would say belonged to man, namely that of thinking, feeling and understanding. Another way of “objective” viewing is to imagine what things would be like if there were no humans to watch. We will strive to understand things as they really are and for this reason we can place imaginary brackets around our bias and preconceptions. The objectification of reality, of whether reality is human or non-human, becomes queer once we vulgarize this second sense of “in-itself”. We vulgarize by over-emphasizing the meaning found in the “behavioral-realistic” notion of “disengagement”. The disengagement we feel sometimes is functional or instrumental from a personal point of view. It is perhaps intended to enable ourselves to control our personal emotions regarding our environment and is thus not the “objective” as we first believed since the disengagement most likely carries deep within itself an intention or motive for its application.

The main problem of realism is the uncritical belief in the ability of disengagement; of having the ability to have a “look” from an absolute “God’s eye point of view” for all kinds of things, and thus to be able to spot the real that is hidden within. The “vulgarization” is the notion that one has really “disengaged” and that one has achieved “disenchantment”. That one can disengage in one’s act of thinking about the world, which also “means” an objective disengagement from one’s own subjectivity, may leave the spectator with a belief of having achieved a “pure impression” of the world as it really is. Reality and subjectivity are something that shall be kept apart because subjectivity is defined as the opposite of objectivity. The epistemological distinction between the subject and the world is taken for granted as a distinction which is also real, i.e. a distinction which exists in reality.

5. Synthesis

The opposition of realism and idealism is also an opposition of outlook or attitudes towards science. More precisely is the opposition between naïve realists and naïve formalists. Both positions search for an explanation of nature, both positions have a need to justify their science as a legitimate explanation of the real, that is, it is more correctly to speak of a justification of a stance which is ontological or metaphysical. The surprising thing here is that idealism and realism, in the shape as naïve realism and naïve formalism, have merged into some kind of synthesis. However, this synthesis differs from the one I propose. The peculiar synthesis of formalism and realism becomes evident if we take a look at what differentiates the kind of explanation that these positions offer.[21] The consequence is that unjustified claims are produced concerning the ontology of some entity in question. The alliance between realism and formalism is seen in the efforts to defend a “conceptual primacy to space rather than to time.”[22] Both positions, and this is why we reject this kind of “synthesis”, argue that time, as we know, it is an illusion.

The formalism in question explains nature by referring to eternal forms in nature, forms which ultimately are mathematical or geometrical. According to Mogens Wegener, this seems to be “vulgar Platonism”.[23] On the other hand we have naïve realism with the notion that nature has “something” in-itself, a “something” that is “matter-in-motion”, something non-sensible. What muddles the distinction between these positions is that formalists often use the jargon of the realists.[24] This is seen, for instance, by the way truths shall be independent of experience just like mathematical and logical truths are thought to be. As a consequence space-time geometry is presented as a structure which is immanent in nature itself.[25] Thus, a limit has been transgressed, namely by science itself since statements on ontology have no easy resting place within science; science should abstain from claims about exclusive status for its hypothesis about “fundamentals” as explanations of the essence of nature. Nevertheless, idealizing is hard to get by in science. All “fundamental”, “ultimate”, “supreme” reality is essentially ideal in nature. All idealization is a reshaping of experience. With idealization we strive to give contemplated reconstructions to the qualities of conscious experience. These reconstructions replace the original content of experience and fills in what it lack in actuality, the reason is that experience mainly consists of disagreeable contingencies. What is imagined in this idealizing activity, as a reshaping of experience, seems to be those “things” that are absent in reality; this is an imagination which is reflective and thus directed and guided by a desire that only a metaphysical commitment can initiate. Platonic forms are survivors in formalism because the notion of ideational being has been reshaped by idealization to meet the demands of modern science in those respects where actual experience is disagreeable. What formalism and realism primarily agree on is that experience is contingent, fleeting, momentary and transient, in short: unreliable as a source of knowledge.

Change is instability and when something is insatiable there must be something incomplete about it. There seems to be absence and deficiency. True reality is changeless; it is Being that always remains itself in fixed rest. For “time” this indicates that in nature emphasis is put on the nomothetic features, whereas the generative features are neglected. Although, when we experience time, we have an experience which includes both being and becoming in an unproblematic unity[26]. This unity is dispersed with in the theoretical operation of idealization which is either formalistic or realistic. “Fundamental reality” is changeless and total; its oneness is harmony, it equals symmetry and symmetry is perfection. There are therefore correspondence between levels of reality and degrees of truth: the more fundamental or complete the reality is the more true seems the knowledge that it refers to. To escape the metaphysics, the blatant hypothetical nature of these assumptions, the realist proposes that “it is not the origin of ideas which should interest epistemologists, but the truth of theories…”[27] To know something is to neglect origin and discover whatever is permanent. To neglect the origin of ideas, of say, the origin of our idea about time, is to judge between theories in order to find the best and/or true theory is to believe that one can detach or sustain the cause of impartial, thorough-going and disinterested reflection. This is the traditional philosophy of scientism and naturalism and it is maintained as realism or formalism.

In contrast to this there is another way of viewing a synthesis that sees in the human cognition a practical approach to the world, which constitutes the fundament for a science that is operative and practical and that ultimately yields objective knowledge.

This means that scientific objects and structures are not put up as something that is metaphysically contrasted to the daily experience of man, and which would constitute a realm approachable only by a naturalistic and scientistic rationality.[28] We claim with Hilary Putnam that the metaphysical realist thesis is impossible.[29] Putnam writes:

What I am saying, then, is that elements of what we call ‘language’ or ‘mind’ penetrate so deeply into what we call ‘reality’ that the very project of representing ourselves as being ‘mappers’ on something ‘language-independent’ is fatally compromised from the start.[30]

This point towards a kind of synthesis of the ideal and the real, which signifies a change in the character and function of the ideal “realm”, which we shape for ourselves in the process of understanding. Now the ideal becomes a viewpoint of things that is not God’s eye point view of things but a standpoint from which we can examine existing occurrences.[31] This is a suggestive ideality; possibilities can be seen as capable of being realized in nature. There is no longer any “superior reality” that somehow “exists” apart from the world.[32] This “ideal” has more to do with actual facts than with imaginations. The aim, therefore, must be to come around the problem of how mind and world, subject and object, that are “separate” and “independent”, can, in the words of Dewey, “come into such a relationship to each other as to make true knowledge possible.”[33]

The “fusion” of the real and the ideal does not imply that one has to view the world as dependent upon my perception. It does not imply that the world does not exist independently of my mind. What it says is that all knowledge about the real world is dependent upon someone’s mind, upon someone’s perception of the world and its real contents. Real things are in our conception, that is, as we conceive them, coated with mind-supplied elements and aspects. This means that there are two necessary conditions that meet, namely, that we have the ability to characterize the world and that the world and its “things” are characterizable, that is to say, that the world which is characterizable in the first place is a result of mind intervening.[34]

A theory, which describes reality, is a theory which is based upon reality-descriptive concepts. Again these concepts must be based upon the faculties that we have available to access the world together with what the world may contain. This means that reality, as we know it, through our reality-descriptive concepts, must be based upon perception, “inner” and “outer” experience[35] and thinking. It is on this fundament, together with the world itself, that we can have an understanding, whether it is scientific or common, of what can be said to exist ontologically.

Things we see, hear or touch are at the same time things in themselves and ideas or immediate conceptualizations. If I sit in my garden and look at a tree I see a tree in front of me, but if I close my eyes it becomes clear that I do not need to see the tree to have an idea about it of being present to my mind. I am still aware of the tree without actually seeing it. This “idea” that I perceive of with my eyes closed is an “immediate concept”, one of those many “concepts” on which my sense of reality rests. Thus, my idea of the tree is a recalling of the presentation not a re-presentation of the tree. Re-presentation demands a higher level of abstraction and idealization referring to other strata of experience where mere recalling is supplied with memory. This means that re-presentation appears at later stages when the immediate idea, the thing we see, has become a link in the process of understanding larger portions of the world through the aid of abstractions and idealizations, through generalizations. However, these things we “see” when we use our eyes and which do not disappear when I close them, are dependent on perception and mind. Thus, we are able to connect to things in the world and to stay connected without actually perceiving them. We can “connect” and this can only take part as a conscious act of the individual mind. Perceived things cannot exist as a thing in contra-distinction to the concept or idea of the thing. Things must be identifiable and the world consists of certain kinds of things. Thus, there is nothing behind the world which we access through our senses, experiences, thoughts, theories, practices and sciences. There is “nothing” behind the world which we have access to. That there is “nothing” behind the world we access simply indicates that our understanding cannot venture beyond our concepts. Our concepts are the limit. There may exist something beyond the reach of our understanding but that we cannot know since it is beyond our reach.

However, human individuality presupposes some difference in subjective experience about the world. We do not all experience the same things; we do not all have the same “background” so that we can all judge about the same things in the same way. Thus, when we depart from our immediate experience we have to describe things according to our learning, and/or interests, and/or commitments of whatever shape or form. Our own “outlook” on the world and our theoretical or metaphysical interests determine to a great extent the theoretical approach. It also determines our descriptive and classificatory schemata with which we choose to explain the world.  The more objective a metaphysical realistic theory claims to be, the less in touch it will be with the source that fuels this image with some sense of “reality”. A theory that makes an infusion of ideality into reality as the fundamental starting-ground for its idealizations has preserved the real content of the world, which we can access cognitively. This means that there is a connection between the abstractions and things in the world that we can identify. To identify something and to be able to be identified are two necessary conditions for knowledge. And to identify something is human cognition interacting with that “something” being identified.[36] This means that the world exists independently of my mind but my knowledge about the world does not exist independently of my mind. Neither does my knowledge exist independently of the world. Thus, I am not a solipsist. I am not a skeptic person either, since I believe that the world around me is manifesting itself directly to me as the content of my experience. The world is manifested in my “outer” as well as “inner” experience since I believe that man as a matter of fact is reality and cannot have been made of a different stuff than the rest of the world.

I do not reject the existence of physical objects. What I reject is “ontological dualism” and “materialistic reductionism” claiming to be true statements about reality. Instead these positions are founded upon philosophical notions often connected to metaphysical realism, notions that contain beliefs which have been and still are instrumental in the intellectual movement towards a separation of man and the world into different reality-strata. This is to say, a) “man”, that is, into negative subjectivity in the sense of focusing on appearances and illusions. And b) “world” as matter, or as “fundamentals”, to which everything that otherwise is “appearing” can be reduced, or explained objectively. “Matter” in itself; for instance, can support neither qualities nor quantities without the mind.

By the way we blend notions from both idealism and realism, we must have, as a property of our theoretical foundation, a distinction between conceptual “mind-involvingness” and “explicit mind-invokingness”.[37]

The question of determining the nature of time, “mind-invokingness” would indicate to characterize experienced temporality, as anillusion” would be explicitly “mind-invoking”. According to Rescher, illusions typify the kinds of issues which are of relevance to the thought-processes of beings with a mind: to have illusions there must be “mind-equipped beings” to have these illusions.[38]

In contrast to this we have physical time that mainly rests upon the understanding that there is no time that lapses; that time can be reversed; that time is a structure as symmetrical as that being which the laws of physics represent. In this realist understanding of physical science and its time concept, the time that the physicist operates with seem entirely non-mental: It can be applied as a measure derived from the necessary causal order of the world and is, as such, “time” as an object of physics.

Nevertheless, I believe that there could never be “physical” time in a world without minds. Physical time is an artifact of a certain purposive (i.e. communicative) sort equipped with a parameter on which moment-determined-events are extracted. Such purposive artifacts all invoke goal directed processes of a type that can exist only where minds are.[39] For time to be “physical”, only certain aspects of what we normally understand as time is kept and turned into what we know as the “time axis” or the “time parameter”. In its limited version this “time” is a fabrication that has been given discriminative points of regularity from which dates can be determined and events given a moment in the unfolding process of real-world time. Thus time has been given a specified purpose, an epistemological purpose.

Moment determinations as well as moment discrimination are inherently the sort of things produced and employed by mind-endowed beings. In sum, to explain adequately what “physical” time is we must refer to moment determinations and thereby in turn, ultimately to temporal experience. The point is that to explicate what is involved in characterizing time as “physical time” we must eventually refer to minds and their capabilities; accepting that “physical time” is by its very nature something for people to read of from their watches. Time in physics is thus only an artifact created for a certain sort of “intelligence-involving purpose”.[40] While clocks – unlike illusions – are not mental items, their conceptualization and characterization must nevertheless in the final analysis be cast in “mind-involving” terms of reference. And I believe that this sort of thing may very well be true of all real things in general, since to be characterizable as a real object is to be knowable in principle by intelligent, mind-endowed human beings.

The prospect of perception, experience, understanding, identification, and judgment is crucial for objectivity. To be an object means that it somehow should have an identity, in which it can be separated individually from other phenomena. Hence, all of the above processes are explicitly and fundamentally mind involving processes. Each process is intentional or attention directing. It is the sort of thing that only we humans, to our knowledge, can do. The extreme statement based on temporal realism, that temporal experience is an illusion since we are ignorant of what real time really is, is to relate time to minds in a certain kind of way. Besides of disclosing certain specific purposes and commitments, it discloses the fact that it cannot avoid characterizing time in conceptually mind-referring terms.



Københavns Universitet
, Denmark

About the Author

[1] See for instance Vasilis Politis’ “Introduction to Immanuel Kant”, 1996, Critique of Pure Reason, Everyman. This is not to say that Kant was a realist, it is just to point to a change in what realism is about and which Kant’s distinction about the “thing in itself” and the “thing as it is for me” clearly indicates.

[2] The following account of metaphysical realism rests on the following thinkers and works: Hilary Putnam, 1990, Realism with a Human Face, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. H. Putnam, 1987, The Many Faces of Realism, La Salle, IL: Open Court. H. Putnam, 1983, Realism and Reason, Cambridge University Press. N. Rescher, 2002, “An Idealistic Realism: Presuppositional Realism and Justifacatory Idealism” in R. Gale (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to
Metaphysics, Oxford:  Blackwell, pp. 242-62.  Nancy Cartwright, 1983, How the Laws of Physics Lie, Clarendon Press. Karl Popper, 1983, Realism and the Aim of Science, Routledge.

[3] For an understanding of the “subtraction” viewpoint see Huw Price, 1996, Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point, Oxford University Press, p. 267. See also my paper “Temporalitet og realisme”, Norsk filosofisk tidsskrift, nr. 1-2, 2001, årgang 36, pp. 62-82, for a critique of this viewpoint.

[4] See “Temporalitet og realisme”. I have also treated this question in Jan-K. Berg Olsen, “Some Neglected Aspects in Connection with the Objectification of Time” in V. F. Hendricks & J. Ryberg (eds.), 2001, Readings in Philosophy & Science Studies, Vol. I, Roskilde University.

[5] See Jan Faye, 1989, The Reality of the Future, Odense University Press, p. 90.

[6] Ibid., p. 93.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 95.

[9] Ibid., p. 115.

[10] Ibid.

[11] What I try to say here is that we cannot blame Berkeley or Kant for our way of understanding them even if we may not agree. In the case of Berkeley there are many recent attempts to understand him in a broader context than the “usual” one of solipsism and subjectivism. For an excellent paper on this see: Signe Lykke Aggerbeck, “Realismen i Berkeley’s idealisme”, in A. Ousager (ed.), 1994, Erfaring; Tænkning; Ånd, Forlaget Philosophia, Århus, s.121-142.

[12] R. J. Hirst, “Realism”, in P. Edwards (ed.), 1967, Encyclopedia of Philosophy 1-8, vol. 7, New York– London, p. 77.

[13] See K. Popper, 1983, Realism and the Aim of Science, Routledge, pp. 80-88.

[14] Ibid., p. 92.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p. 82.

[18] See H. A. Meynell, “Metaphysical Lessons of Idealism”, P. A. Bogaard & G. Treash (eds.), 1993, Metaphysics as Foundations, pp. 73-96.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Although this topic of “objectivity” is treated in a later chapter, some preliminary comments are necessary at this point.

[21] See the paper by Mogens Wegener, “Conflicting Ideas of Relativity”.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] See J. T. Fraser, 1990, Of Time, Passion, and Knowledge, Princeton University Press, P. 45.

[27] K. Popper, 1983, Realism and the Aim of Science, PP. 81-82.

[28] See John Dewey, 1948, Reconstruction in Philosophy, Beacon Press, 103-131.

[29] H. Putnam, 1990, Realism with a Human Face, Harvard University Press.

[30] Ibid., p. 28.

[31] See Dewey, 1948:122.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., p. 123.

[34] In this sense I agree with Nicolas Rescher’s “conceptual idealism”. See N. Rescher, 2002, “An Idealistic Realism”, in R. Gale (ed.), 2002, The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics, Oxford:  Blackwell, pp. 242-62.

[35] “Outer” refers to our sense perceptions, while “inner” refers to what we in fact experience when we experience. This is a fuller experience than a mere sense perception since it would include “space” and “time” as strictly defined “frameworks” of the experience.

[36] See Rescher, 2002:242-62.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid. Although Rescher does not talk about time in this particular context I believe we can apply the context at hand to understand the scientific purpose of wanting to have a certain kind of time.

[40] Ibid. I believe that Rescher’s terminology can be interpreted in this way.