QR 1.2.1. Idealism vs. Physicalism

Aristotle 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 followed Socrates to argue that the physical things we see are based on pre-existing ideal forms that exist apart from them. 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. Science based on outer observation developed from Aristotle’s view that the causes of the physical world were to be found in itself, while religion based on inner belief sided with Plato that something non-physical caused it. Orthodox religion’s vivid depictions of a heaven and hell beyond this life dominated thought in the west for the next two thousand years until 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.