Realism or Idealism? (classically speaking)

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at Last updated 23/11/2017 14:55


This paper is one in a family of related papers.

This paper pursues the debate as to whether types (or at least, some types) exist in an ethereal and eternal form, independently of human thought

Two realist philosophies

It seems the term “realism” is used in two very different (well nigh opposite) ways in philosophy.

These papers are not accord with one use, but perfectly in accord with the other.


Classical realism

Classical realists were concerned with the nature of description.

E.g. Plato believed that descriptive types (like “beauty”) exist independently of any thought about them.

One popular source distils three classical positions thus.

·         Platonic realism: beauty is a property that exists in an ideal form independently of any mind or description.

·         Aristotelian realism: beauty is a property that exists only when beautiful things exist.

·         Idealism: beauty is a property constructed in the mind, so exists only in descriptions of things.” (“The Problem of Universals” Wikipedia 2017.)


In the classical sense above, these papers are not realist, they are idealist.

However, these papers may also be seen taking a modern realist position.


Modern critical realism

Critical realists are a mixed bunch, mostly people working in the social sciences.

There is no single framework, set of beliefs, methodology, or dogma that unites them

They draw from a pool of ideas each shared by some but not all who call themselves critical realists.

However, at the heart of critical realism is realism about the nature of things.

This “ontological realism” asserts that much of reality exists and operates independently of our awareness, description or knowledge of it.

And the realities we describe do not wholly answer to logical analysis or empirical research.


So, critical realists believe that things can existed before they are described.

And that our attempts to describe things are partial and flawed models of those things.

Which is exactly the position taken in these papers.


Descriptive types

The interest in this paper is less in the nature of things and more in the nature of types we use to describe things.

A type can appear in many forms:

·         encoded verbally:  e.g. “a planet is a large body in space that orbits a star.”

·         e.g. “a circle is a continuous line drawn around a central point that is, at every point, equidistant from that central point.”

·         encoded in particular documented form: e.g. a symphony score.

·         encoded in a mental model: e.g. a sensation of cold, the colour yellow, or an image of a face.

·         a thing that mimics properties of the thing(s) described: e.g. a model aeroplane, or a drawing of a circle.


What is truth?

Is it true that a given circus ring is circular?

There are no perfect circles in the natural world, nothing is measurable as a perfect circle by any empirical exercise.

And more generally, the truth of any empirical fact is fuzzy; dependent on the experimental conditions and the accuracy of measurement.


By contrast, statements in logic and mathematics can be absolutely true.

Because here, truth and falsehood is defined following rules, from axioms, created by humans.

Which is to say: things are true in this sense - because they are true in this sense.

E.g. it is universally true that the circumference of a circle is equal to its diameter times the value of pi.

Because "circle" and “circumference” are purely mathematical concepts, related logically by other mathematical concepts.


What an idealist believes

The type “circle” was created by humans (or similar on another planet), and is readily created anew if forgotten.

However, the concepts of circle and circumference could not exist before they were conceived.

And they will not exist after conceivers and all their records are destroyed.

Else we have to give a metaphysical meaning to "exist" which requires that all of the infinite types potentially created by man must exist forever.

Do descriptions exist before we make them?

Generally speaking, one description can be realised by many entities.

And one entity can be idealised in many descriptions.

But there is more to the relationship of description to reality than that.


Many natural systems we describe, such as the solar system, existed before life.

Or rather, the matter and energy they are made of existed.

Imagine you noticed Venus in the night sky before the type “planet” was conceived, named and defined

Then, you could describe it as a light in the sky, but could not describe it as an instance of the type “planet”.

Or else you could say, in a ridiculously redundant way:

·         “That light in the sky already instantiates all as-yet-undefined types that might be created or used to describe it in future.”


Before life, the structures and behaviors of the solar system were not named or typified.

Star gazers selected observable bodies that orbit the sun, named them.

They called them “wandering stars”, then “planets”, and gradually firmed up the properties that qualify a body as a planet.

Later, astronomers defined planetary orbits in mathematical equations – at first crudely and later more accurately.


Biology drives animals to remember, monitor and predict reality, but only just well enough to survive and reproduce.

Psychology drives humans to go beyond that, to model reality more accurately using types and laws that have been formalised and documented.

But even Newton’s laws of motion are not perfectly accurate.

And the planets’ orbits may not perfectly match current equations - there may be fuzziness in the matching.


You may envisage a final/ideal set of equations that will describe a planet’s orbit perfectly. (Cf. Charles Peirce’s “final interpretant”).

And envisage that refinement of current equations will bring us ever closer to that ideal.

However, every sun and solar system is continually changing.

Every planet’s orbit must be slightly different from the last – and may be disturbed by bodies surprisingly arriving from outer space.

Even for the duration of one orbit, could we ever devise equations that perfectly describe reality?

And by the way, where is the start and end of one orbit?

Do you still hold to the notion that the final/ideal set of equations you envisage already exists in some sense?

Do types exist before we make them?

Generally speaking, one type can be realised in many things.

And one thing can be idealised in many types.

But there is more to the relationship of types to things than that.


The type name “circle” is a signifier of a two-dimensional type that you know very well.

But there are no circles in the universe, because there are no two-dimensional things.

And considering those real-world things we call “circular” it seems probable that none are perfect circles – not a single one.


Despite the absence of any perfect instantiation, the “circle” type clearly does exist in our mental and documented models.

So, was it always there, waiting to be discovered?

Did it exist before people first abstracted the type from observing the sun and moon and drawing circles?

Before they derived the type from other mathematical types (plane, line, space, distance, point, equality)?


Many philosophical debates come down to arguments about what words mean.

In the text above, the words “type” and “exist” can both be interpreted in various ways – to be discussed.


It feels right that no concept can exist without a conceiver to conceive it; there can be no description without a describer to make it.

Yet it also feels right that concepts which are natural and important to us (like “circle”) are eternal.

Platonic realism can be characterised as the belief that types/concepts exist before they are conceived humans, or by any life form.

For example, a type like “beauty” or “circle” has always existed and will always exist, regardless of animal thought, communication or documentation.


Some mathematicians and philosophers like Roger Penrose have felt the need for a category of thing that might be called “objective non-physical”

This category, which includes concepts like “circle”, might be called neo-Platonic, and is discussed below.

Some arguments for realism


“Circle” exists because circular things are useful

Nothing in the real world is a strict instantiation of the “circle” type.

By contrast, there are countless things that are fuzzy instantiations of the "circle" type in the real world.

And many circular things – like the wheels of a car - are engineered into technological systems.

OK but, things that instantiate the types “hexagon”, “football” and “sandwich” are also useful.

It doesn’t logically follow that any of those types existed before they were conceived by mankind.


“Circle” exists because the type itself is useful

The “circle” type is certainly a simple and useful model of many realities.

OK but, the types “football” and “sandwich” are also useful.

It doesn’t logically follow that any of those types existed before they were conceived by mankind.


“Circle” exists because it has been created many times

The “circle” type is readily invented and reinvented by reasonably intelligent people. 

Presumably because roughly circular things are observable in nature, and the “circle” type is simple and useful

OK but there are many other types that pop up many times and in many places; including “good”, “evil” and “paradise”.

It doesn’t logically follow that any those types existed before they were conceived by mankind.


“Circle” exists because it is widely shared

School teachers spread the notion of the “circle” type.

Each teacher translates their mental model into a communicable model.

Each student translates that communicable model into their own mental model. 

OK but, many types, including cultural ones, and fake news, are widely shared knowledge through communication.

It doesn’t logically follow that any of those types existed before they were conceived by mankind.


“Circle” exists because it is so obvious it must have been out there waiting to be discovered.

OK but types like “beauty” are perhaps even more obvious.

And the universe contain many structures and behaviors that we perceive to be repetitions of a type.

Recognising similarities between things – and typifying them – has been vital to the success of the human race.

It doesn’t logically follow that the types that humans create existed before life, awaiting discovery.


“Circle” exists because we believe it; and we don’t need to see things to believe they exist

OK but still, to say something existed before life, we’d like some kind of evidence of its usefulness or existence then.

One more argument – the objectivity of logical reasoning

You surely doubt cultural types like “football”, “sandwich” and “unicorn” existed before human life.

You may doubt “beauty” existed before organisms evolved to find things attractive and repulsive.

But you may well believe a type can be regarded as objective and eternal if it can be presented as a result of mathematical analysis.


To be sure, we can not only define types using types, but we can derive one type from other types.

We can derive the “circle” type by combining logically related types (plane, line, space, distance, point, equality).


So, does “Circle” exist because it is objective rather than subjective?

This seems a circular argument, since it depends not only on other types also existing before life, but also logical reasoning.


What is logical reasoning?

I have struggled both to define and to place logic in the philosophy here.

You can read “Knowledge and Truth” for a little on the three “laws of abstract description, logic or thought.”

Even those laws are nowadays questioned. It may be proposed that all truths have a degree uncertainty.


What else can we say about logic?

A process flow chart is a logical type.

A person may instantiate that process type by performing the process instructions, step by step.

The performer starts with given instructions and variable types (axioms if you like).

Then proceeds by following the rules in the process flow chart.

The results of performing the process can be predicted from analysis of and reasoning about its logic.


All logical reasoning starts from axioms, considered obvious by somebody.

Then proceeds by following rules, also defined by somebody.

Does “objective” knowledge” exist only as a result of “logical reasoning”?

If yes, does that mean neither of them could exist before life? That does seem a plausible conclusion.

And does that mean both are products of Darwinian evolution? I think so. 

Darwinian evolution of ideas

People have been making, sharing and copying abstractions since Homo erectus spread from Africa around 2 million years ago.

And probably before that.


Perhaps the axioms we trust today are not as obvious you think.

Rather, countless axioms have been assumed, been tested, have failed and then fallen by the wayside

So, the axioms that seem obvious today are the ones that have survived testing and been shared for that reason.


However inexorable you may feel types, axioms and logic are, they remain abstractions.

And Darwinian evolution surely applies to abstractions as well as to organisms.

Those models of reality that successfully predict outcomes will (mostly, usually) survive and thrive better than those which don’t

It isn’t obvious we must conclude that these models of reality “existed” before life.

So, do types exist before we make them?

There are several possible objections to the notion of a type being an ethereal or Platonic ideal.


Surely these are not eternal Platonic types?

·         “Unicorn”. To presume this type always existed is to presume an infinity of imaginary types have always existed.

·         “Pink”. Roses were pink before anybody saw them; but that does not mean "pink" existed before life, because it is an arbitrary label for a chosen range of colours.

·         “Beauty”. People disagree what qualifies as “beauty” and how to measure it.

·         “Planet”. Having typified Pluto as a planet, astronomers changed their type definition, and declassified it.


So, let us exclude types that can bring evolutionary advantage to organisms like “friend” and “beauty”, and cultural types like “football” and even “planet”.

That probably leaves us with the seemingly eternal types of pure mathematics, where not only types but also things are abstract.

E.g. The values of C (the total number of circles in the universe today) and pi are both abstract descriptions.


Consider these hypotheses.

·         The type “ratio” has existed for eternity in an ethereal or Platonic form.

·         The value of pi has existed for eternity in an ethereal or Platonic form.


Occam and Popper have given us two useful tools to examine either hypothesis.

·         Occam's razor: is this hypothesis necessary or practically useful? No, it is redundant.

·         Popper's principle: could this hypothesis ever be disproved by measure or experiment? No, so it is not a scientific concept.


Yes, “circle” and pi are so readily created, so widely understood and so useful that they are unavoidable in practice.

We can reasonably conclude these types do accurately represent or encode something that is inevitably repeated in reality.

But however accurately a type models reality, it is an abstraction from some structure or behaviour that is repeated.


There is no reason to presume an abstraction has a concrete existence – until it is described.

Or else, we have to invent a new definition of “exists”; and why (Occam’s razor) should we?

The idea advanced here is that the roots of typification are in biological evolution rather that mathematics.

And the only useful meaning of “to exist” is to be found in physical matter/energy, including physical biology.

Is the circle type a valid scientific conjecture/hypothesis/theory?

In “Curd and Cover” check out the first article by Karl Popper starting on Page 3 and then the following one by Kuhn.


Popper’s demarcation principle may be expressed thus: “anything not even potentially falsifiable is not a scientific conjecture / hypothesis / theory.”

We cannot falsify the name of a type or thing on its own; we need a proposition we can evaluate.


Unfalsifiable propositions:


·         “The circumference of this circle <equals> its diameter * pi.”

·         This seems self-referential, since if the result is not equal, we simply declare the thing not to be a circle after all.


·         A unicorn <is a> horse <with> a single horn.”

·         This cannot be disproved, because it is unclear if the reference is to a real or mythical beast.


Falsifiable propositions:


·         Real world animals <exclude> unicorns.”

·         We can test that by research; if we find a unicorn, it is disproved.


·         The formula e=mc2  <was invented> by Einstein.

·         We can test that by research; if we find a carbon-dated record of it before Einstein, it is disproved.


·         “This particular thing <is> an instance of this defined type.” E.g. “This circus ring <is> circular.”

·         We can measure the property values of the thing against the property types of the circle type.


So what to conclude?

Consider again: “The circle type <existed> before life.”

Occam and Popper lead us to the view that this proposition should be discounted.

The hypothesis is not potentially falsifiable; so is not a scientific conjecture / hypothesis / theory.  

But then, neither is the hypothesis that the “circle” type is constructed in the mind, and so exists only in description.

Conclusions and remarks

Many philosophical debates come down to arguments about what words mean.

In the realism/idealism debate, the words “type” and “exist” can both be interpreted in various ways.

Suppose we agree there is indeed a Platonic ideal “type”, which “exists” in an ethereal and eternal form.

OK, but surely this is a deeply mysterious thing, very unlike a type of the kind defined above? (“A description of the property type(s) ….”)

After all, that definition is itself a description created by mankind, which can be erased from the universe.


I don't feel the need to escape the maze entirely; I just want to tell a consistent story.

And escape the opprobrium heaped on me for daring to take an idealist rather than realist position!

This paper cannot disprove realism or prove idealism (and neither are essential to understanding system theory).

But I do think it counters arguments by realists that idealism is plainly wrong-headed.

And shows idealism is compatible the viewpoint of a modern system theorist or scientist.


Another aim is to note the correspondences between these three many-to-many relationships:

·         One description can be realised in many realities; one reality can be idealised in many descriptions.

·         One type can be realised in many things; one thing can be idealised in many types.

·         One system description can be realised by many entities; one entity can be idealised in many system descriptions.


This paper is one in a family of related papers.

1.      The nub of our philosophy

2.      A description theory (which leads to How the brain works)

3.      A communication theory

4.      A language theory

5.      A description and type theory (which leads to Realism or Idealism?)

6.      A philosophy (which leads to Other triangular philosophies)

7.      Knowledge and truth



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