I have been trying to reclaim (see 1 and 2) the philosophical tradition of ldealism that in the West was first articulated clearly by Plato. Idealism is one of two threads of discourse that attempt to explain the relationship between ideas and our experience of the world around us. The paradox for Plato was that the real world does not contain perfect representatives – no line is absolutely straight, and no horse manifests all the ideal characteristics of horses (fast and powerful, for example). Convinced that the world originated from a source of absolute good, Plato therefore held that the idea of a perfect line or perfect horse was the original, with the physical examples as imperfect manifestations.
To the scientific thinker, this assertion fails to satisfy because it does not specify a mechanism for the manifestation, and therefore cannot be disproved. The solution proposed by scriptural literalists is that the ideals did exist when the Holy will created the world, and were accessible for our appreciation during the inhabitation of Eden. It was through our selfishness and disobedience that the connection with the divine source was sundered. Not only human nature was corrupted in the Fall, but all of Creation.
Reacting against Plato’s idealism, Aristotle advanced the program of Empiricism. From our observation of the world around us, we intuitively recognize similarity between things. We might choose to call some things “dogs.” There is no ideal dog, but all dogs share certain characteristics. Through the mechanism of the syllogism, we can therefore transmit a great deal of understanding by simply designating the type of something. The most famous syllogism is “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” In general form, we might write “All A are B. If C is an instance of A, then C is B.”
Aristotle employed this program to a comprehensive classification of the world around him. The power of classification becomes most obvious in the physical sciences, where saying “an electron is massive and charged” allows us to apply mathematical deduction to predict its behavior. But classification is also conditional: Linnaeus, the inventor of the phylogenic scheme for categorization of living creatures, recognized only plants and animals. Modern biochemistry has demanded the addition of three new phyla, with the consequence that things once considered to be “plants” have been reclassified as “fungi,” which recognizes that all along they actually lacked some of the characteristics of “plants.”
Aristotle recognized that all ideas are abstractions, and so that when applied to a specific instance, information is lost. This should be unsettling – it means that the world is populated by exceptions to our ideas. This is consequential: If a member of a tribe asks you to care for his dog, how do you know which among the dogs is his pet ‘Akela’?
Ultimately, the pragmatic successors to Aristotle re-introduced the concept of moral good to deal with this problem. What is important is whether ideas have practical utility. This has both good and bad consequences: Darwin’s theory of natural selection was used to justify ethnic prejudice in Nazi Germany and in certain parts of America. Against that, we have housing codes that ensure that disasters do not displace entire populations, such as occurred after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco or the great urban fires of the 19th century.
So let us now return to the larger umbrella: I hold that philosophy is the study of the operation of the intellect, which manifests as the capacity to synthesize mental states. Among the sources of mental states, I listed sensation, emotion, thoughts and spirits. Where are ideas in this categorization? They seemed to be related to thoughts, but thoughts can also be random associations without plausible manifestations, such as – Kia Soul advertising not-with-standing – “my hamster is break-dancing.”
As might be expected, the exclusion of ideas from the list of mental states is not an oversight.
I have asserted elsewhere that Idealism reflects an affinity in its adherents for soul-relation. This manifests most powerfully to the mystic as a gift of energy that suffuses moral good with joy. This is the experience that I believe informed Plato’s affiliation of ideas with “The Good.”
Where I depart from Plato is in the belief that all ideas originate from The Good, only to be expressed in corrupt form in the world around us. To me, this is the terrible deficiency of scriptural literalism. It denies us agency in moral progress in the world. In The Soul Comes First, I take this head-on, using paleontology and evolutionary biology to demonstrate that the seven days of creation and the trumpets in Revelation actually correspond to a process of uplift from primitive forms of life towards an intelligent integration that will heal the spiritual wound of selfishness.
The role offered to humanity in this process is to sort through our thoughts to identify those that empower the expression of moral good. This is “the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” and the serpent’s characterization of the Fall in Genesis is a political posture that seeks to delay the perfection of our discernment.
In re-interpreting scripture through the lens of science, I show obvious affinity for Aristotle’s empiricism. Where I depart from his formulation is in the belief that ideas are merely abstractions of experience. Thoughts are those abstractions.
In the model of physics I have offered, I understand the human mind as the interaction of soul with the empirical world through the interface of the brain. In that interaction, our thoughts are temporary modifications of our soul. An idea is a thought reinforced by multiple successful episodes that instills energy that causes the thought to bloom into the world of spirit. An important consequence of this penetration is that the thought becomes accessible to other thinkers. In other words, Plato’s Ideas do not originate from The Good, but rise into the realm of spirit most readily when they serve a moral purpose, increasing the life-time of their subscribers, and therefore gathering ever greater energy through continued application to the survival of living things.
In terms of the framework I have established, with stimulation and combination as the two types of intellectual synthesis: ideas arise from the intellect’s capacity to stimulate thoughts from sensation, and then to combine thought and spirit. Ideas do not originate from The Good, but the strength of an idea is ultimately determined by the degree to which it allows us to improve our moral discernment. When mature discernment is realized in a personality such as Jesus of Nazareth, The Good that seeks to facilitate our healing actually touches the material world, shattering all of our categorizations with consequences unimaginable to the empiricist.
I hope that in this formulation that faith and science recognize the shape of a reconciliation that can organize collaboration that will speed the development of moral discernment, fundamentally changing our relationship with reality, and liberating Life in general from our vicious cycle of angry and ineffectual claims to authority defended by reference to incompatible and ultimately meaningless standards of “truth.”