QR 1.2.1. Idealism vs. Physicalism

Western science began with Aristotle, who was a student of Plato who was a student of Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher who lived when that word meant literally lover (philo) of wisdom (sophia). Plato argued that physical matter forms came from pre-existing ideal forms that exist apart from them, a position later called idealism. Aristotle did not deny this but taught that Plato’s forms were abstractions of physical things, so their causes were to be sought not in the abstract world of forms but in other physical things. Western science then developed from Aristotle’s view that the causes of the physical world were to be found in itself, while western religion sided with Plato, that a non-physical God caused all things. It’s vivid depictions of a heaven and hell beyond this life dominated thought in the west for the next two thousand years until recently science rose to challenge this view.

In the West, some held to Plato’s original idea that the physical world is like shadows flickering on a wall, e.g. Gnostics saw the world as a lie, created by a demiurge who was ignorant of the original reality. In the East, the same idea survived better as in Chan Buddhism a universal essence of mind creates the observed world like bubbles on a sea, and in Hinduism the physical world is Maya, an illusion created by God’s “play” (Lila). Yet at any time, whether in science or religion, only a tiny few ever truly believed that the physical world wasn’t real in itself.