One of the perennial questions that thinkers dating back to ancient times have speculated on is, what constitutes reality? Perhaps this is an obvious question that would arise from the abilities of hominids to develop the concept of cause and effect. If everyday causes and effects can be discerned, does this not raise the issue of ultimate causes as well? Apparently it does. Who knows how far back this question was thought about but modern theories seemed to emerge at least by the sixth century B.C.. At that time there was a Carvakan school of thought in what is now known as India. These philosophers were perhaps the first materialists because one of the things they postulated was that all there is, is matter and it has “svabhava” or self-nature. In other words matter has an intrinsic nature that produces the world we see. Today this self-nature is thought of as “properties” such as mass, spin, charge, etc. Apparently this line of thinking made its way to early Greek thought probably through the Persian trade routes because about a hundred years later materialist atomistic thought emerged most notably by Democritus. In atomism it is claimed that reality is constituted by atomos, small indestructible elements which have intrinsic properties and when combined in various ways produce the variety we see. This particular characterization of reality caught on in the West and eventually led to the predominant view in science. However, this “svabhava” view was not without its detractors. There were those both in the East and West who rejected this view. In the East the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna developed his sunyata concept or “emptiness” saying that nothing has an essential independent nature but only a conditional or relational existence. The term for this is often “dependent co-arising” in Buddhist thought. (To me this has are remarkable similarity to quantum theory concepts of nonlocality and emergence) In early Western Greek thought the rejection of atomism was more subtle. Anaxagoras did not reject atomism, per se, but claimed that what animated atoms was not a self-nature but nous or mind. Anaxagoras is considered by some to be the first panpsychist. Plotinus also posited the primacy of mind, “‘For there is for this universe no other place than the soul or mind”.
Perhaps the most forceful attack on the svabhavan atomism came later with the Idealism schools of thought in Germany and England. They maintained that what constituted reality was, in fact, mind or perception. George Berkeley was one of the most notable of idealistic proponents. He was considered by Schopenhauer as the father of Idealism. Berkeley shows his view that the mind and perception are primary in his famous statement, “To be is to be perceived or to perceive”. Although Berkeley and his “subjective idealism” fell under considerable criticism for being unable to account for common experience, he later became more of an absolute idealist by attributing our perceptions to God.
A parallel strain of criticism also came from forms of panpsychism that date back to early Greek thought, predominantly Heraclitus. Most notably among modern proponents is the philosophy of Alfred Whitehead. Whitehead was a contemporary of Einstein and even developed his own physical theories. Later in his life he forged off into speculative metaphysics and founded process thought which today finds many adherents among philosophers, theologians, and scientists. Whitehead claimed that reality is constituted by occassions (events) of experience. Like the quote below from Stapp, Whitehead rejected the enduring substance view of reality in favor of the event model of becoming.
There have been other critics of svabhavan materialism, but materialistic atomism has maintained its prominence among many thinkers because it has proved a helpful framework within which to do science. It’s hegemony continues to this day among many scientists. The twentieth century with the advent of quantum theory, however, called into question its scientific validity. In quantum theory a complete description of the properties of fundamental elements cannot be determined until a measurement is taken. This is not an epistemological restriction but an ontological one. This introduced the concept of the observer in how reality is constituted. In other words, it is the mind of the observer and what they are measuring for that effects what is observed. This interpretation of quantum mechanics is called the Copenhagen interpretation. While this still remains the most prominent interpretation of quantum mechanics, it was not without its detractors either. The most prominent was Einstein with his famous statement, “God does not play dice.” Even so, the essential element of the observer in constituting reality remains foremost within mainstream quantum physics.
Here’s a couple of citations that are representative of the criticism of a svabhavan worldview:
Berkeley Physicist, Henry Stapp states:
An important characteristic of this quantum conceptualization is that the substantive matter-like aspects, have dropped out. The theory is about: (1) abrupt events, each of which is tied to an experiential increment in knowledge; and (2) potentialities for such events to occur. Events are not substances, which, by definition, endure. And the potentialities have an “idea-like” character because they are like an “imagined” idea of what the future events might be, and they change abruptly when a new event occurs. Thus neither the events nor the potentialities have the ontological character the substantive
matter of classical physics. Yet the predictions of quantum mechanics encompass all of the known successes of classical mechanics.
In Measurements and time reversal in objective quantum theory, Purdue physicist F. J. Belinfante goes even farther to include God his interpretation:
If elementary systems do not “possess” quantitatively determinate properties, apparently God determines these properties as we measure them. We also observe the fact, unexplainable but experimentally well established, that God in His decisions about the outcomes of our experiments shows habits so regular that we can express them in the form of statistical laws of nature….this apparent determinism in macroscopic nature has hidden God and His personal influence on the universe from the eyes of many outstanding scientists.
I think there is a great significance to Belinfante’s statement regarding regularity. A common criticism of divine action schemes is that God supposedly acts “in the gaps”. This criticism usually flows from the svabhava mind set that regularities result from the intrinsic properties of matter. However, as Belinfante rightly suggests, the regularities found in nature need not be thought of as mindless but rather as the purposeful and faithful “habits” of an intentional God creating space where both regularity and change make life and flourishing possible. This and the worldview it offers completely overturns the “god of the gaps” argument.
So what constitutes reality? It is an important question for theology because it says something about God and how God relates to the world. It should be remembered, however, that scientific theories will probably never be able to answer the question definitively because of the nature of the problem. As they said in the movie the Matrix, “How deep does the rabbit hole go?” Scientific theories on the fundamental constitution of reality will continue to be offered. Recently new theories like superstring and quantum loop theories have been proposed but have not made much progress. For theists who intuit that God does act intentionally in the cosmos perhaps it is enough that those intuitions are reasonable and even may be preferred by scientific theory. What science can do is inform those religious intuitions to help us better understand the mind and nature of God.