Welcome to Module 2
Lesson 1: Appearance and Reality in Western thought
Buddhism & Quantum Physics
Lesson 1: Appearance and Reality in Western thought
During the course of this lesson, you will:
- Follow the development of the concepts of appearance and reality in modern and ancient Western philosophy;
- Learn about how these concepts shaped the birth of modern science.
This lesson explores the development of the concepts of appearance and reality in ancient Greek and European philosophy, and their role in the evolution of scientific thought. This lesson summarises the fundamental stages of this development, starting with Plato and other ancient Greek philosophers, and continuing with more recent European philosophers (such as Kant and Husserl) and the birth of modern science.
1a. Plato and the Origins of the Reality/Appearance Dualism
Western philosophy, the foundation of modern scientific thought, was largely influenced by Plato’s division of reality into two fundamental domains: the sensible world and the world of intellectual things – later called by Immanuel Kant the phenomenon and the noumenon. In this division, Plato (428-7 to 348-7 BC) believes that sensible things (the objects or phenomena that appear to our senses) are nothing more than the copies of intellectual things (the so-called Platonic Ideas, or noumena, which are basically a generality of the specific, sensibly existing things in our visible world). In other words, the sensible phenomena of our world only exist as the manifestation of transcendental ideas, concepts, and mathematical entities.
According to Plato, a sensible table can have different shapes and uses – for example, a low or a high table, a round or a square table, or a marble or a wooden table. One can think of small, high, round tables only used for drinking glasses during a reception, or long, rectangular, study tables that are used in most peoples’ houses as a dining table. In this way, we can understand that when we say ‘table’, this does not yet specify the exact table, although most people will understand what we mean by it. According to Plato, this general ‘meaning’ is generated by an Idea of the Table. This Idea is not like a sum of all the individual tables and their possibilities. Rather, it is the universal Idea that is the essence of all tables, undefinable in words, yet existing in all our minds as the underlying reality of each particular, sensed table.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) too believed that reality incorporates certain generalities, such as mathematical forms. He believed that science was based on these mathematical forms, thus taking science away from the changeable, sensible world and situating it closer to Plato’s notion of the world of Ideas. This idea of science was carried on all the way to modern times, for example by Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), who describes the ‘Nature of the Physical World’ as having two realities: the nature of the sensible table in your room, with colour and material, and the ‘scientific table’ which is “mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed.” [The Nature of the Physical World, page 2 of the introduction by Eddington himself]
1b. Heraclitus & Democritus: Appearance & Reality in Ancient Greece
However, not all Greek philosophers shared the same view of reality as those of Plato and Aristotle, making a distinction between an intelligible and a sensible reality. The concept of reality described by Greek philosophers is not always easy to understand; this is partly because of the subjective interpretation of translations of ancient texts. For instance, a famous statement by Greek philosopher Heraclitus (540-480 BC) is often translated as ‘Nature loves to hide’. Following this idea, Western scientists and philosophers from Galileo to the Romantic period have discussed reality as something that is veiled, behind ‘ordinary reality’ – a bit like a mysterious book, written in mathematical or esoteric symbols that needs to be deciphered. Interestingly, Pierre Hadot (1922-2010) translated Heraclitus’ statement as ‘What is born tends to die’. This translation suggests that Heraclitus thought of reality as continuously changing (a concept that resonates with the Buddhist idea of impermanence) rather than as a ‘veiled’ realm that exists objectively behind our visible reality. This radical shift can also be found in the writings of both Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who both emphasised the importance of change and the impermanent nature of reality, and denounced the idea that there is something like a veiled reality behind the appearance of our everyday world. Another statement that has led to several interpretations of reality is attributed to Democritus (460-370 BCE): ‘Sweet exist by convention, bitter by convention, colour by convention, atoms and Void (alone) exist in reality’. Democritus believed that features of the world beyond appearance (such as atoms) could only be inferred through reasoning based on what appears to the senses, and advocated for not losing sight of the essential connection between the sensible things of the world and our experiences of them, and our reasoning, deducting mind.
1c. The Birth of Modern Science: Newton, Kant, and Husserl
All of these ancient philosophical ideas had a profound impact on western thought and on the development of modern science. Isaac Newton (1643-1727), one of the fathers of modern physics, developed a new concept of science that has shaped the way that both scientists and philosophers of the 18th century and onwards investigated reality. According to Newton, we should not formulate a hypothesis of the essential nature of the world. Instead, we should reason about phenomena and the patterns that link them through mathematical laws, without speculating about the so-called ‘deeper’, or more fundamental nature of phenomena themselves.
Another key figure in the development of western thought was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). This German philosopher described the idea of the objective and the real as two independent concepts. While ‘objective’ is a universal, inter-subjective connection between phenomena (hence Kant’s use of the word phenomena), reality, in itself, is independent of subjects (and therefore Kant called it noumenon). This is why Kant would argue for the famous ‘Ding an Sich’, which literally means the ‘thing in itself’. This thing in itself corresponds to what Kant would term the world of the noumenon: a reality that exists independently from the perception of the senses. In other words, Kant brought the original Platonic distinction between the world of the senses and the world of the Ideas back in a modern form, albeit with significant differences.
Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), the founder of the philosophical discipline called ‘phenomenology’, countered this interpretation of the two worlds by Kant while still using the distinction between the reality of things and those of appearances. Husserl used the two German words Real and Reell to further decipher the nature of reality, whereby real is similar to the world of objects and things, the mode of reality of things, and their fundamental nature. However, in contradistinction to Kant, Husserl argued that lived experience of those things, that which he called Reell, is what is undoubtedly existent: the lived experience of the appearance, according to Husserl, cannot be questioned, while the real (the world of objects) can be doubted (for example: how can we know if an object is real or a dream, real or a hologram, etc).