A Defense of Common Sense

From the Bring Back Reason series.

Realist metaphysics takes seriously the world as it seems to us. It is a defense of a common sense view of reality. A dog is really a dog, a tree is really a tree, and a human being is at home when contemplating the things of this world with a gaze that is open to the wonder evoked by a star-filled night sky. Realists avoid reducing reality to only one aspect, refusing to do away with the fundamental distinctions between esse and essence, act and potency, form and matter, substance and accidents. This is an attitude of humility before what exists, a humility that recognizes that we are not able to fully comprehend reality as if it were a puzzle to be solved. The mystery of existence is not the type of mystery that ceases to be mysterious once we say what we can about it. It is not like a “murder mystery story” that ceases to be a mystery once the identity of the murderer is known. Reality is rather the type of mystery that is so rich in meaning that further reflection into its depths serves to uncover wonder at the inexhaustible riches of the being that is there.

Realism sees the world around us as ripe with transcendence. Each individual thing has what realists call transcendental aspects of being: it possesses truth, goodness and beauty; to the extent that it has esse it displays truth, goodness and beauty and thus points beyond itself. We are not able to fully comprehend the depths of the being that is present in the simplest thing, such as the dew collecting on a spider’s web, as all these things bear the mark of the Creator and ultimately point toward him. Thus we can contemplate God in his handiwork, in his creation, as all created things are truly in some way a reflection of him.

Poetry is a fitting way to describe the mystery of creation on this transcendental level. We see the joy of appreciating the depths of this mystery in poets, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who celebrate the transcendence of nature pointing to God. Here is one example, the poem Pied Beauty:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

And here is another example, an excerpt from a song by John Denver called Singing Skies and Dancing Waters:

I didn’t know, I didn’t know.
I could see you in singing skies and dancing waters,
laughing children, growing old,
and in the heart and in the spirit,
and in the truth when it is told.

This excerpt was used by Anthony Rizzi, a realist who has done some important work in education (more to follow), to begin his book A Kid’s Introduction to Physics (and Beyond).

The realist understanding of nature sees creation as bearing the imprint of God, specifically in each created thing pointing toward the true, the good and the beautiful. Our proper response is to rejoice in creation and contemplate the invisible God behind the visible things he has made. This realist outlook is like a golden mean between two opposite extremes common today: first, an overly mechanical conception of the world which is either atheistic or deist in its conception of god and, secondly, a pantheist conception of the world as manifesting transcendence because it is identified with god, a manifestation of god in which the distinction between God and the world collapses.

The first extreme denies any transcendence to the natural world around us. The world is a flat mechanical configuration of various particles or other modular construction units arranged in specific configurations governed by mathematical laws that are thought of as fields into which these units are placed. The world is basically Cartesian space with the addition of a linear and absolute time field into which is placed objective matter governed by deterministic mathematical laws. In this view nature is either a self-contained system that does not point toward an outside source, as conceived by materialist atheism, or a system with such complex mechanical design and stable laws that it necessarily points toward a designer. This designer tends to be viewed as a deist god, an artificer of the world’s mechanical complexity, who sets the universe in motion as a watchmaker who builds a watch that then runs on its own. Much more could be said about this view, strongly present in our culture today and not critically questioned nearly as much as it should be, but for our purposes the key point is that this understanding of nature strips any possibility of transcendence from individual things themselves. If there is any transcendence at all it is to be found in the mechanical complexity of intricate systems and not in an individual created thing really having truth, goodness and beauty.

The second extreme is to see nature as overflowing with transcendence precisely because it is in some way to be identified with the divine. The identification of nature with god is pantheism. It results whenever one fails to respect the proper distinction between God and creation. From this perspective, god is identified with creation in that creation is simply an emanation of god, a manifestation of god’s essence. In the final analysis the world is god. This perspective often goes along with seeing nature not so much as manifesting what is true, good and beautiful but rather as containing a deeper mystical meaning that is known by those who are students of her hidden ways. It is often coupled with attempts to exercise power through the use of nature according to occult practices. The New Age Movement is an example of this type of spirituality. Much eastern thought also is rooted in a pantheistic identification between the world and god, an identity recognized by those who are enlightened by ascetic practices aimed at helping to bring about a consciousness of the unity of all things.

Contrary to pantheism, realism upholds what can be called the Christian distinction: God is distinct from the world such that the world plus God is not greater than God alone.[1] In other words, God did not need to create since he is completely perfect, the fullness of esse (whose essence is to be esse), and in need of nothing. He created simply to share his truth, goodness and beauty with creatures. In all created things there is a necessary distinction between esse and essence, with each thing analogously pointing toward its creator. In pantheism the distinction between esse and essence collapses so that each thing fails to bear witness to that which is beyond itself.

The fact that all being manifests a transcendental dimension, reflecting the true, good and beautiful, has another implication that was particularly well recognized by Roman philosophers such as Cicero and Seneca. It is not enough to simply be able to say what is scientifically true about reality, as Aristotle strove to do and did admirably well. True philosophy has always had to contend with those who speak about profound matters in a way that is not fitting, in a way that encourages wasting leisure time “telling or listening to something new” (Acts 17:21), as St. Paul found among the Athenians. St. Thomas Aquinas, a model of the precise use of language, realized this. His use of the title “The Philosopher” for Aristotle is not without irony at times, while he affectionately refers to Cicero as “Tully.” Both Cicero and Seneca, while largely appreciative of Greek thought, offer valid criticisms about the need to avoid falling into an overly rational or scholastic approach that is not in accord with the transcendental aspects of being, particularly beauty. Thus it is really not possible to set aside prudence in the use of language and the authentic use of rhetoric alongside clear and logical thinking. Christian humanists such as St. Thomas More and William Shakespeare built upon this part of the realist tradition.

In sum…

Realism is a philosophical defense of what we know by “common sense.” It is at the heart of Western culture and history, though never without challenges. Its history, as we shall see, shows a resilient core commitment to truth, goodness and beauty, a resilience that is more remarkable when one considers that the realist position frequently is that of the “underdog” fighting a defensive battle. This is certainly the case today, where many struggle with inconsistencies of belief or even contradictions that could be resolved with resources from the realist tradition. Even so, the tenants of realism are actually never far from being given serious consideration, as evident from the fact that aspects of realism continue to draw sharp opposition. Though people today have a more tenuous grasp of realist principles than those living in previous times, there are a growing number of individuals committed to recovering the best our classical tradition has to offer and applying it anew to contemporary challenges. These individuals are striving to enter a dialogue that has been taking place for centuries and educating others so that they will participate in this great dialogue as well. It is with these people in mind and in consideration of the resources that realism can bring to the challenges facing people today that we now turn to the task of how to educate for realism.

[1] This point is made is Robert Sokolowski in his book The God of Faith and Reason.

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan


A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.

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