Idealism, Realism, Solipsism and Non-Duality
I recently received an email from a friend asking if my view of non-duality could be considered an idealist or a realist point of view. Before responding, I asked them to clarify what they meant by both idealism and realism, because these terms cover a wide range of views.
They defined idealism as the view that everything exists only in the mind of a perceiver, be that perceiver a human, a dog, a mouse, an ant, a flea, and so on. The rationale for this, they suggested, is that we don’t have experiential evidence for anything outside the mind.
They went on to say that most expressions of non-duality, including apparently my own, seem to equate to idealism, as they defined it.
They then pointed out that if we were really consistent in holding this view, we would have to conclude that only our own mind exists, because, after all, we can only experientially verify the contents of our own individual mind. That is, we would be subscribing to solipsism, the belief that my mind is the only mind there is.
They went on to define realism as the view that reality exists outside and independent of the mind. I’ll come back to realism, but for now would like to explore their definition of idealism.
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I would suggest that this definition of idealism, which equates ultimately to solipsism, is a misunderstanding of what idealism entails. Moreover, it is a mistake to conflate idealism, as defined in this way, with non-duality. Indeed, many intelligent people who would otherwise be open to the possibility suggested by the non-dual understanding, or the perennial philosophy, would dismiss it without consideration on the basis of its association with solipsism.
Even Bishop Berkeley, the 18th century philosopher who is one of the best-known idealists, would not qualify as an idealist under this limited definition, for he believed there is more to reality than the sum total of all individual minds. In order to accommodate a reality outside all finite minds and yet still of the nature of mind, he suggested that that part of reality that is not perceived by a finite mind is contained in and perceived by God’s mind.
In other words, according to Bishop Berkeley, even though nobody may be perceiving the car in your garage, it is still there because it is perceived in God’s mind. So Berkeley was an idealist in that he believed that everything exists in mind, be it a human mind, an animal mind or God’s mind. But he was not a solipsist, because he did not believe that everything existed solely in his own personal mind.
I am not suggesting that I subscribe to Berkeley’s view of idealism, or indeed that most idealist philosophers do. I just want to point out how misleading it is to suggest that idealism necessarily equates to solipsism. In doing so, I would like to rescue the non-dual understanding from this limited and misleading definition of idealism in general, and from any association with solipsism in particular, for solipsism is an extreme and rare form of idealism which very few people take seriously.
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Let us consider a broader and more accurate definition of idealism. Idealism is generic term that covers a broad range of philosophical views, all, in one way or another, suggesting that Mind (with a capital m), consciousness or spirit is the ultimate reality.
I use the word Mind synonymously with consciousness here on purpose, for this is the way it is often used in philosophical circles, although in non-dual teachings a distinction is often made between mind and consciousness.
For instance, in some expressions of the non-dual understanding, we hear statements such as, ‘the mind appears in consciousness’ or ‘the mind is known by consciousness’. In these statements, the mind (with a small m) is considered something other than consciousness, albeit appearing in it and known by it, like a fish in the ocean. I use such statements myself in the early stages of the investigation. In this case, mind refers to the finite mind, namely thoughts, images, feelings, sensations and perceptions.
However, later on in the investigation it is necessary to resolve this apparent duality between mind and consciousness, and to recognise that the mind – that is, the activity of thinking, imaging, feeling, sensing and perceiving – is not just known by and appearing in consciousness, but is the very activity of consciousness itself.
Mind is, as such, not really like a fish that appears in the ocean; it is the very activity of the ocean. It is more like a wave than a fish! In this case, consciousness is understood as the essence, nature or substance of the mind.
These two ways of using the word ‘mind’ are perhaps responsible for some of the confusion around the ideas of idealism, solipsism and realism, and their relationship to non-duality. However, I would expect one who is interested in these matters in relation to non-duality, and particularly one who writes or speaks of them, to be sensitive to and tolerant of these two possible meanings of ‘mind’, and to understand each in the context in which it is used.
If we consider the finite mind a series of thoughts and perceptions, appearing in and known by consciousness but distinct from it, then the suggestion that reality is ideal or mental would imply that it constitutes only thoughts and perceptions. In this sense, as we can only verify our own thoughts and perceptions, solipsism is indeed implied.
However, if we understand the finite mind not as an object or series of objects appearing in and known by consciousness, but as the very activity of consciousness itself, more like a wave in the ocean than a fish, then idealism takes on a much broader meaning.
Idealism, in this case, suggests that reality is of the nature of consciousness, not simply of the nature of the finite mind. In other words, idealism suggests that reality is extended beyond the limits of the finite mind but is still within unlimited consciousness, as a modulation of it.
I would suggest that this is closer to the normal understanding of the meaning of idealism. In fact, I would go further and suggest that to conflate idealism with solipsism is not only to misrepresent it but to tarnish it unreasonably by association.
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Let us leave idealism and consider what is meant by realism. Realism is a general term that suggests that reality is independent of the finite mind, that is, independent of our perception of it.
Materialism is one possible consequence of this view. In this case, matter is considered to be the stuff out of which everything that exists outside the finite mind – namely, the universe – is made. However, materialism is by no means the only or even the main implication of realism. It is simply an extreme version of it, just as solipsism is an extreme version of idealism.
It is quite possible, for instance, to consider reality to be independent of its being perceived by a finite mind and yet, at the same time, to be contained within and to be the activity of infinite consciousness. In this case, like Plato, Plotinus, Kant, Schopenhauer, Jung and numerous others, one would be an idealist and a realist.
In this case, both the outside world and the finite mind that perceives it would be activities of the same consciousness, and the universe as we know it would appear as a result of the interaction between these two segments of consciousness. I would suggest that this is the understanding expressed in the non-dual traditions or the perennial philosophy.
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With that as a background, I can now answer the question that my friend originally put to me, namely, whether I am an idealist or a realist. And the answer is that I am both. I consider that reality is a single, infinite and indivisible whole, whose nature is consciousness or, in traditional religious language, spirit, and whose activity is perceived, from a localised perspective, as the universe.
I consider that the finite mind – that is, each of our minds or whatever other minds may exist – is that localised perspective. In other words, I would suggest that the finite mind is a localisation of infinite consciousness, within infinite consciousness, through whose agency infinite consciousness perceives itself as the universe.
This view satisfies the criterion of idealism, that reality is of the nature of consciousness or Mind, as well as the criterion of realism, that reality is extended beyond the limits of the finite mind. Thus, this view does away with the need to place idealism and realism in opposition to one another.
More importantly, it satisfies two intuitions that most people have (at least in certain moments, even if they may not formulate them in these terms): first, that there is more to our self than a collection of fleeting thoughts, feeling, sensations and perceptions; and second, that we are ultimately one with the universe.
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My friend then asked me to elaborate further on my understanding of idealism, and on what I consider to be the relationship between the finite mind and infinite consciousness.
The best analogy I know for this is that of a dream. Each of our finite minds is a unified field, albeit a limited one, and a dream is nothing but the activity of that mind. When we dream at night, our mind simultaneously imagines a dreamed world within itself and localises itself in that world as an apparently separate subject of experience, from whose perspective it views its own activity as the outside world, that is, the dreamed world.
In other words, in order to manifest the dreamed world within itself, the dreamer’s mind must overlook its own unified nature and divide itself, or seem to divide itself, into two parts, a subject that perceives and a multiplicity and diversity of objects that are perceived.
When the dreamed character looks inside their self they find thoughts and feelings, that is, their mind. These are personal and private, and the character seems to have at least a degree of control over them. When they look outside their self they see a world that is shared and over which they have almost no control. Their mind seems to them to be fleeting, insubstantial and constantly changing, whereas the world seems solid, stable and reliable.
Believing their mind to be limited to the content of their thoughts and feelings, they realise that the world must be made of something other than mind-stuff, and they give it the name ‘matter’. This is reinforced by their noticing that when they close their eyes, they no longer perceive the world, and when they reopen them they see the same world. From this they conclude that the consciousness that is seeing the world is located just behind their eyes, that is, in their brain.
They begin in this way to build up a picture of a material universe that gives rise to their body, which gives rise to their brain, which in turn gives rise to their mind. And from their perspective this seems reasonable.
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However, when the dreamer wakes up, they get an entirely different picture. They realise that the consciousness with which they, as the dreamed character, perceived the dreamed world was not only not located in their head. Indeed, it was not located anywhere in the time and space in which the events and objects of their dreamed experience seemed to be taking place.
They realise that their own mind had imagined the dreamed world within itself and, forgetting that it was doing so, entered into its own dream as an apparently separate subject of experience from whose perspective the activity of their own mind appeared as the dreamed world.
I would suggest that this is an accurate analogy for the relationship between us, as apparently individual people in the waking state, and infinite consciousness. In fact, I would suggest that it is more than an analogy. I would suggest that the relationship of the dreamer’s mind to the dreamed character and the dreamed world is a microcosm of the relationship of infinite consciousness to each of us and the world we perceive.
In other words, I would suggest that infinite consciousness is the ultimate reality, and that its activity appears as the universe when perceived from the localised perspective of each of our minds.
The only difference between the dream of a finite mind and the imagination or activity of infinite consciousness is that a finite mind localises itself as a single subject of experience within its own dream, and infinite consciousness localises itself as numerous apparently separate subjects of experience, that is, the finite minds of all humans, animals and whatever other finite minds there may be.
As such, the universe as we know it owes its reality to infinite consciousness and its appearance to the mind through which it is perceived. Each of our finite minds, being an apparent limitation or localisation of infinite consciousness, views the activity of infinite consciousness from its own limited perspective. Therefore, our mind confers its own limitations on whatever it perceives, just as one who wears orange-tinted glasses sees orange snow. The orange-tinted glasses do not create the snow, but they do render it in a way that is consistent with their own limitations.
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We could say that the world is, in the words of William Wordsworth, ‘half perceived, half created’. That is, the reality of the world is extended beyond the limitations of our own individual mind and is prior to it. Indeed, our own individual mind emerged out of it, as a localisation of it. In that sense it is perceived by the mind. However, the appearance of the world that we perceive is ‘created’, in the sense that it is determined by the limitations of the mind through which it is perceived.
The universe is, as such, the interaction between infinite consciousness and its localisation as a finite mind. In other words, the mind, in the form of thought and perception, confers name and form on the reality of the world, which exists prior to and extends beyond its limitations.
If we only see the names and forms and ignore their reality, the reality that properly belongs to consciousness is appropriated by name and form and we end up with materialism. That is, we believe that the names and forms are real in their own right, made out of stuff called matter, from which consciousness is then derived.
Materialism is, as such, an extreme form of realism that considers the world to be not only outside the finite mind but also outside consciousness.
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Let us take one more analogy to try to evoke the way in which the finite mind emerges out of infinite consciousness as a localisation of it, and then enters into a relationship with that consciousness from which it now seems separate.
Imagine that consciousness stirs within itself, like silence assuming the sound of a long, single, sustained note. This would be the equivalent of the emergence of the Logos or the Word. In time, this single note builds in complexity into numerous interlacing frequencies, and develops into a symphony.
The original long, sustained single note is now no longer the totality of the music; it is one note amongst many. It is a part, no longer the whole. We now have the soloist and the orchestra, which begin to dialogue with one another, each mirroring and unfolding in relation to the other. So we now seem to have two entities, one single – the soloist – the other multiple and diverse – the orchestra. But it is still one piece of music.
I would suggest that reality is, likewise, a single, infinite and indivisible whole, whose nature is consciousness or spirit, that through its own activity seems to divide itself in two: an apparently separate subject of experience and an apparent multiplicity and diversity of separate objects.
I emphasise ‘apparent’ because, just as the dreamed character and the dreamed world never actually come into existence but are temporary appearances of the activity of the dreamer’s mind, so, I would suggest, the universe that we perceive never actually comes into existence with an independent reality of its own. It is simply how the eternal, infinite reality of consciousness appears from a localised perspective. In other words, in the ultimate analysis there are no people or things.
For this reason, ultimately we cannot even say that reality exists prior to and beyond the limits of the finite mind, because there is no discrete, independently existing finite mind for reality to be either dependent or independent of. There is just a single, infinite and indivisible whole, whose nature is…well, in the end it is best to leave it undefined, because it cannot be described with reference to non-existent things.
But however we define it, it is a single, infinite and indivisible whole, which, interacting with itself in the form of the subject/object relationship, appears to itself as a universe. As such, the universe is eternal and changeless in nature but temporary and ever-changing in appearance.
I would suggest that idealism, properly understood, is therefore consistent with realism, and that this is the view of the traditional non-dual understanding or perennial philosophy. It is to be hoped that this great understanding, which has existed for approximately three thousand years and is the very backbone of both Eastern and Western culture, has only briefly been eclipsed by the paradigm of materialism which dominates the world today.