Most people do not think twice when they hear that "20,000 people were at the basketball game," or "justice was served" at the conclusion of a criminal trial. It might even seem a little bizarre to think there is anything significant about the number "20,000" (or any other number), or the notion of "justice." However, some modest reflection tells us that we are taking a lot for granted when we use these terms. After all, how do we explain what we mean when we talk about numbers and concepts? Is there anything "real" about numbers? Keep in mind that we are not talking about a number of things, like people or basketballs, but the actual number like "20,000." The question of whether numbers or abstractions actually exist in themselves, or in some other way, is the question of metaphysical realism.
What is realism? What is a Christian view of realism?
To formulate a Christian view of realism, we need to know something about it. Any metaphysical position that does not agree with the Bible must be rejected. The two modes of God's revelation to man, special and natural, cannot ultimately conflict with each other. There have been Christian thinkers throughout history that have been realists, anti-realists, and somewhere in between. Christians should view certain types of realism as antithetical to the Bible, whereas other forms are more compatible. The term realism also applies to other areas of study, such as in the philosophy of science. Here we are chiefly concerned with metaphysical realism.
It is difficult to think about realism without knowing a little bit about the problems that it attempts to solve. Good philosophy should deepen our understanding of the world and ourselves. As man finds himself living in the world, certain questions arise. And a major one that has persisted since ancient times is about "the one and the many." More specifically, how can there be things that are one, yet many, at the same time? An example would be something like No. 2 pencils. How is it that when I hold a pencil in each hand they are both the same thing and different? Since they occupy different space and are comprised of distinct physical matter, what is it that makes them each a No. 2 pencil? Realism answers this question by positing the existence of something non-physical, an immaterial essence or universal idea, that each of the physical pencils resembles, replicates, or is otherwise like in some way.
Realism stands opposed to nominalism, which is an anti-realist view. Nominalism holds that there is no immaterial existing thing that unifies our understanding of "pencil." As the previous example hopefully illustrated, realism is concerned with how "particulars" (the pencils) can be understood in light of "universals" (e.g. pencil-ness or Pencil). To put it another way, realism is concerned with how the world might be organized or understood within a framework of non-physical things.
There are many different forms of realism. On one end of the spectrum is the Platonic view, named after the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. In its classic sense, this view holds that universals or "forms" are self-existent in a distinct, non-physical way. (NOTE: For the purposes of this article "essence," "universal," "form," "idea," "abstract object," etc. are used interchangeably.) These are like an absolute yard-stick that exists, but which we cannot see. For example, there is such a thing as "Beauty" by which we say the things we observe are beautiful. The view of a sunset over the mountains is beautiful because it participates in the idea or form of "Beauty." This form does not exist in a tangible way, we cannot touch it. To ask about its location is to misunderstand what it is. But if we are to say that the sunset is beautiful and a bride on her wedding day is beautiful, we must appeal to some objective reality to ground these claims. Otherwise, the term "beauty" seems to lose any relevant meaning.
On the other end of the spectrum is the moderate realist view. This position does not necessarily deny that there are universals or essences, just that such things are not self-existent. In moderate realism, physical things exist as composites of matter and form. This allows for the "form" (e.g. something we might think of as the invisible "shape") of the object to be grasped by the intellect. It is the "form" of the thing that makes something what it is; it is what conveys the essence to us. Physical objects are therefore "real" for the precise reason that they are not merely physical. In any object we typically encounter, there is something immaterial which is common to other things like it. Consider again the example of man. In this case, the Platonic realist would hold that there is a self-existent thing called "Man" or "humanity." Against this, the moderate realist argues that the essence of "man" is abstracted from a particular substance (e.g. a form/matter composite) by the human intellect. There can be more than one "man" because an immaterial essence is not spatially/temporally restricted; an identity in form can exist whereas an identity in matter would entail contradiction. Moderate realism holds that the essence or universal exists in the physical object and in the intellect of the knowing subject, but not in a "third realm."
In the middle of the realist spectrum stands something like the Neo-Platonic view espoused by Augustine of Hippo. In this position, there are things like universals and abstract objects, but they exist within the mind of God. In a certain sense, these things are more "real" than any physical instantiation. Physical objects might still be thought of as imitating or participating in the Divine Ideas. Nonetheless, they are not metaphysically ultimate in themselves. In the classical Platonist view, ideas, abstract objects, universals, essences, and so on do not have any causal power. The universal "Man" does not have any power to create a man or do anything else. This is often taken as a significant problem with the theory. Conversely, the Augustinian view allows for universal ideas to enter into causal relations with us by virtue of our causal relation to God.
Platonic realism seems impossible to reconcile with Christianity. To think that anything except God is self-existent goes against various Scriptures (Exodus 3:14; John 1:1–3; Colossians 1:16–17; Hebrews 1:3). Other forms of realism are at least prima facie compatible with a biblically grounded understanding of God's nature. Each has distinct metaphysical issues beyond those touched on above. For example, the Augustinian view faces questions of how we come to know universal ideas/abstract objects themselves since they are within the Divine Mind. Christians should be wiling to evaluate various positions in realism and form conclusions within biblical boundaries. This study is beneficial and touches on areas of theology that are relevant to key doctrines, such as the Trinity and Incarnation.
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