Religious, metaphysical, and ethical beliefs are greatly influenced by whether a person is predominantly an idealist or a realist.
This post contrasts idealists and realists and their worldviews, and aims to better understand ourselves and others, and to explore the impact that idealism and realism has on our thoughts and behaviors about religion, metaphysics, ethics and more.
It is important to clarify upfront that few people are pure idealists or realists. Most of us land somewhere between the two conceptual extremes of pure idealism or realism. We will examine this further below, but first let us define what we mean by idealist and realist.
Definitions: Idealist and Realist
First, let’s define Idealists and realists. Each have different perspectives; with idealists tending to focus on ‘what could be’, and realists focusing on ‘what actually is.’1
Idealists typically see the world, life, and people as moving towards some ideal or perfection. Realists, on the other hand, tend to see things in a more practical or actual “as is” view of the world or situation, and may be overly pessimistic.2
The Idealist-Realist / Realist-Idealist Continuum
Most people land somewhere between the two conceptual “pure” ends of idealist or realist. In other words, few people are pure idealists or pure realists but are a combination of the two to one degree or another. People tend to be either an idealist-realist or realist-idealist depending where the land on the continuum of idealism and realism: an idealist with stronger or weaker worldview of realism, or, a realist with stronger or weaker beliefs about idealism.
The Idealist-Realist Continuum graphic depicts, conceptually, that idealists and realists are actually a mix of both on a continuum. Both idealists and realists often hold religious or scientific-oriented beliefs. Some realists may adhere also to a weaker or stronger form of idealism that could include religious beliefs. While some idealists, on the other hand, may harbor beliefs that, for instance, science can help achieve world peace or human utopia. Most people are somewhere on a continuum between the two contrasts of pure idealist and pure realist.
Contrasting Idealists and Realists
Pure or strong idealists and realists are a stark contrast in terms of worldviews of religion, metaphysics, and ethics.
Idealists are often much more religion-friendly, and sympathetic to otherworldly ideas. Realists are often much more science-friendly, and tend towards a this-world emphasis.
Below is an itemized list3, gleaned from Dr. Stephen Hicks, Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University, that contrasts idealist’s and realist’s beliefs about metaphysics, knowledge, human nature, religion, ethics, and liquor.
(higher, superior realm, or realm of the spirits, gods, or goddesses)
|Knowledge (epistemology4)||Mysticism, revelation (direct communion with higher realm or god), faith, (occasionally “pure” reason)||Integration of senses, reason, interaction with this world
(spiritual and physical are two distinct substances, often in conflict with each other)
Badness: original sin
(mind and body ordinarily function together, no opposition between the two)
Tabularasa (born with blank slate) or some may argue born with original goodness
|Religion||Human is microcosm (lower) of macrocosm (higher) realm, distaste for natural lower/physical world
Born with predestined abilities/capacities [eg. Karma, original sin]Religionist: God didn’t make world according to strict laws but according to His/Her wishes and whims, a God who intervenes through miracles, answering prayers, god may be angry, punish, or destroy (Noah’s flood)
|Born with unlimited moral and mental abilities/capacities (eg. tabularasa)
Religionist: God made an orderly world, nature just like scientists find. Not a whimsical god. Often is a more hands off kind of god (eg. there had to be some sort of Divine Being or Intelligence before the Big Bang)
Some may say it’s immoral to act on “faith”. God gave us our senses and reason to act in physical world. God doesn’t want us to be antagonistic toward science but use it to come to better understanding of His universe and to appreciate Him.
Nothing wrong with our bodies, God made mind and body. God wants us to enjoy our bodies and natural world.
|Ethics||Mind or spirit values (often disparagement or denial of physical body and sensual pleasures: food, money, sex)
Motivated primarily by duty and obligation (sacrifice of self for higher authority or duty, often for happiness in next life)
|Mind and body values
Motivated primarily by pursuit of happiness in this life, living a flourishing life, liberty
|Liquor||Leads to weakening of body and morality (temptation to resist, exists in the world as a test of our character or from a bad force, eg. devil)||Ben Franklin, religious realist: “Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy.”|
The contrast and continuum of idealists and realists may give insight into ourselves and others.
Most people are somewhere on the continuum between two extremes of pure idealist or pure realist. A person may, over time, flip from idealist to realist or vice versa. Case in point, I flipped.
I used to be a strong idealist, especially during the decades I was an ordained, meditating monk in the cloister of Self-Realization Fellowship. As a strong idealist, I devalued the natural, physical world and overemphasized the value of the higher or spiritual realms, beyond this world. True knowledge and wisdom supposedly came to me through intuition, meditation, and revelation from a guru, from Supernature or Divine Intelligence. During those days I never touched a drop of liquor and imagined pleasures of the flesh to be harmful, spiritually dangerous.
I used to be a strong idealist. Today, I am a strong realist and weak idealist. I believe that human flourishing arises from letting go of overly idealist beliefs and embracing nature, reason, and human experiences in this world. I am optimistic that we humans have the capacity to learn and develop, but am concerned that strong idealists put us at risk of danger by overemphasizing imaginary otherworlds.
Hopefully we humans can bridge the chasm between strong idealists and strong realists, rather than destroy each other and the planet. I could improve by being more patient when listening to some strong idealists, and watch that I don’t step into the dogma of a too strong realist.
Where are you on the idealist-realist continuum? Strong or weak idealist or realist? How can the contrasts be used to improve ourselves and others?
1 The DifferenceBetween website elaborates further on the “Difference Between Idealism and Realism” http://www.differencebetween.net/miscellaneous/difference-between-idealism-and-realism/#ixzz41OwOGbVu
2 A short video Is This Glass Half Empty?
offers insights from science about idealists, “glass as half full” types, who tend to be more optimistic. Whereas, realists who may see the “glass as half empty”, though not necessarily as a negative, may view situations as less optimistic or maybe even as pessimistic.
3 The list was gleaned from an excellent YouTube video series presented by Dr. Stephen Hicks, Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University. For Professor Hicks’ brief introduction to the Idealism and Realism watch Introduction: Contrasting Realist to Idealist Philosophy, Clip 1
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxYvYR3M3oo&list=PL3ED4A5B0BF91CACD&index=1. To jump straight to the beginning of Professor Hicks’ white board discussion of contrasts between idealists and realists start with Clip 2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ilt-gP4dehs&list=PL3ED4A5B0BF91CACD&index=2
4 epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, is the study or philosophy of how we come to know or believe that which is important, true, and real of the world or the realm beyond us. Read Wikipedia Epistemology https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology