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Philosophy Questions: What Is Real Reality?

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He is the editorial director for Renew.org as well as an online adjunct instructor for Ozark Christian College. He has a bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His books include the Popular Handbook of World Religions (general editor), Real Life Theology: Fuel for Effective and Faithful Disciple Making (co-general editor), Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don't Exist, and The Atheist's Fatal Flaw (co-authored with Norman Geisler).

What is real reality? Many people throughout history have suspected that there is a world that lies beyond what our eyes can see. One clue is that there seem to be universal principles (“Forms”) according to which things in this world are structured. Another clue is how it’s hard to see how the physical world could have brought itself into being, since the physical world itself was once just a “potentiality” itself needing to be “actualized.” From the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, we are introduced to these concepts that help us wrestle with what is real reality. 

With philosophy, it is next to impossible for any philosophical system to establish itself as the “orthodoxy” for very long. This is the case with even such an eminent philosopher as Plato. Plato is to be thanked for drawing our attention upwards. He pointed us to a reality more real than the physical world around us. As for what this transcendent reality was like, Plato gave us the theory of the “Forms.” Forms are unchanging “universals” of which physical objects are merely shadows. These universals don’t change, even as the physical objects around us change constantly.

Introduction to “Forms”

Think about this: You’ve actually never seen a circle before. True, you have seen all sorts of drawings that represent the circle, some getting closer and others getting farther away from the true circle. But you’ve never actually seen a real circle. How can that be?

Consider what a circle is. It is a closed curve where each and every point is an equal distance from the center. The reason you’ve never actually seen one is that the curved line of an actual circle could never have any width whatsoever. If there was even the slightest width, then any section of the curved line could be divided into innumerable points, and then you would have points which were no longer an exactly equal distance from the center. And without any width whatsoever, the circle would be literally invisible. In short, a circle is an abstract idea. And even though no one has ever seen one, the circle is clearly real, otherwise we would not be able to tell when something resembles one.


What is real reality? “Even though no one has ever seen one, the circle is clearly real, otherwise we would not be able to tell when something resembles one.”


Plato saw such “ideas” everywhere, and he called them “Forms.” We see red apples, but we’ve never seen “redness.” Yet “redness” is clearly real, or else we couldn’t recognize it. We see sights we call “beautiful” but we’ve never actually seen “beauty.” Yet “beauty” must somehow exist, otherwise we couldn’t recognize beautiful things when we saw them.

Now, one can take this notion of Forms to odd extremes. You can see two dogs, but how do you know they are both dogs? You’ve never seen “dogginess,” but apparently “dogginess” must exist. Otherwise, you couldn’t know that two completely distinct collections of matter were actually both dogs. Thus, following Plato’s logic, it would seem there would have to be a universal Form of “dogginess” existing eternally somewhere.[1]

Eventually, one is confronted with millions of Forms, basically duplicating every essence we perceive around us. There must be the eternal Forms of “chairness,” “horseness,” “planetness,” etc. existing in some realm somewhere.

Now, to be fair, Plato preferred to emphasize Forms that were less bizarre and more dignified, such as Justice, Equality, and Courage, especially as his theories matured.[2] Yet Plato’s metaphysical system could indeed be taken to strange conclusions (e.g. millions of Forms existing in some other realm). In light of this possible strangeness, Plato’s system might need to be overhauled. And that’s precisely what was done by Plato’s most famous student. Around 367 B.C., an aspiring young Aristotle traveled to Athens to study under the great philosopher.[3]


What is real reality? “Plato preferred to emphasize Forms such as Justice, Equality, and Courage.”


Bringing Forms Down to Earth

We shouldn’t think that Aristotle became Plato’s nemesis. Aristotle had great respect for Plato and gained insight from his teacher. Aristotle was convinced that Plato was right in teaching that there were indeed eternal Forms. However, he interpreted Plato as teaching the strange, separate existence of “dogginess” and innumerable other essences floating about a realm somewhere. So Aristotle concluded that Plato had basically duplicated the physical world in another inaccessible world.

According to Aristotle, since the two worlds are said to be so separate from each other, this unnecessary “doubling” of the universe isn’t able to explain much of anything. Why should the Forms have any bearing on what actually happens in the physical world?[4]

Aristotle realized that, in order for the Forms to have an actual purpose, the Forms needed to be brought down from their lofty inaccessibility. So Aristotle took Plato’s “dualisms” and brought them together.


What is real reality? “Aristotle took Plato’s dualisms and brought them together.”


Metaphysical Dualism. As for what exists in reality (the study of “metaphysics”), Plato had taught that there was a world of particular things as well as a distinct world of the Forms (thus, a metaphysical dualism). Aristotle brought the two worlds together, teaching that the Forms actually exist in this world as part of each individual thing. Every “substance” (anything that exists) has both Matter and Form. Thus, “dogginess” doesn’t exist in some separate realm from the dog, but instead is an essential part of each dog.[5]

Epistemological Dualism. As for how we gain knowledge (the study of “epistemology”), Plato had taught that humans know particular things through their five senses but that they know the Forms through the mind (thus, an epistemological dualism). Aristotle brought these two faculties together as well. The same physical objects that we perceive are also the objects in which we recognize the Forms. In our minds, we simply extract the Form as we study the particular object.[6]

Everything that exists down here is, therefore, not merely physical. Instead, it’s a combination, being made not just of physical Matter, but also of whatever its Form is.

Actuality and Potentiality

Another way Aristotle articulated this combination was in terms of “actuality” and “potentiality.” Now don’t be intimidated by the vocabulary. Potentiality is, very simply, what something has the potentiality to become. An acorn, for example, has the potentiality to become an oak tree. Bronze has the potentiality to become a statue. That potentiality is actualized when the acorn actually becomes an oak tree or when the bronze is actually made into the statue. So the acorn’s new actuality is being an oak tree.

Let me be more specific: The thing’s new actuality is having the Form of an oak tree. You see, within the matter that made up the acorn, there was the potentiality for a particular Form (oak tree-ness). When that potentiality was actualized, the matter (that had been the acorn) was given a new Form.[7]


What is real reality? “How do these Forms all around us go from potentiality to actuality?”


So, according to Aristotle, how do these Forms all around us go from potentiality to actuality? In other words, what could possibly actualize all the potentialities in the world? It’s not as though potentiality can actualize itself. And when you look around, you realize that basically everything in this world was once just a potentiality, incapable of actualizing itself, let alone everything else. So, to explain how everything around us has gone from potentiality to actuality, we need to find something besides what we see around us. We need something that itself never had any potentiality to actualize, but instead has always been actual.

In other words, to explain how all these potentialities were actualized, we need something that is itself simply Pure Actuality.

“Pure Actuality”

Pure Actuality, therefore, is Aristotle’s god.[8] Aristotle’s god had no potentiality to actualize, but was always simply there. Now, for Aristotle, this didn’t just mean that his god’s nature couldn’t undergo change (a version of Pure Actuality most Christians would agree with). Rather, for Aristotle, this meant that his god didn’t actually have the ability to really do anything, lest it be accused of having potentiality.


“Aristotle’s god had no potentiality to actualize, but was always simply there.”


Yet Aristotle’s god is not exactly a dormant blob. According to Aristotle, this god spends each day thinking. Now, because it has no potentiality, it can’t think of anything exterior to itself (otherwise it has the ability to be influenced by something else, thus having potentiality). So all Aristotle’s god can think about day to day is its own thinking. As Aristotle put it,

“Therefore it must be of itself that the divine thought thinks . . . and its thinking is a thinking on thinking.”[9]

That’s pretty introspective. Yet how could such an introspective deity set the world in motion? It becomes apparent here that Aristotle’s god is quite different from the God of the Bible who intentionally set out to create the heavens and the earth. Indeed, Aristotle’s god seems totally unaware of the world. Now, an important feature that Aristotle’s god shares with the God of the Bible is being totally good, with no potentiality whatsoever for badness.[10] According to Aristotle, the world is somehow drawn to this goodness, and that drawing is how the world is set in motion. As Aristotle puts it, his god “produces motion as being loved.”[11]

Because Aristotle’s god moves the world without itself being moved, it is often called the “Unmoved Mover.”

The Realest Reality of All

Christians throughout the ages have drawn on both Plato’s and Aristotle’s speculations in theologizing about what God is like.

On the one hand, take the eternal essences (Forms) that Plato connected together in the “Good.” Christians have often placed these eternal essences not in an abstract “Good,” but in the mind of God Himself.

On the other hand, take Aristotle’s notion of a god who actualizes all potentialities. Though Aristotle’s god is far from the God of the Bible, Christians have seen in the Actuality that actualizes all potentialities a helpful way to describe how God creates.


What is real reality? “Christians have seen in the Actuality that actualizes all potentialities a helpful way to describe how God creates.”


From Socrates to Plato to Aristotle and Beyond

If we were to plot names on a genealogy of philosophers, we might say that Socrates begat Plato and that Plato begat Aristotle. And though Aristotle established his own philosophical school, Aristotle’s most famous student was not technically a philosopher, but a future monarch. Aristotle was a native Macedonian, and after studying under Plato in Athens, Aristotle returned to the region of Macedonia and served for a time as tutor to the 13 year old son of the king of Macedon.[12] The young man’s name was Alexander.

And as Aristotle’s concepts would redraw philosophy’s boundary lines, Alexander the Great’s conquests would go on to expand his kingdom’s boundary lines to unparalleled dimensions. Alexander’s Greek empire—and with it Greek language and Greek culture—would extend from Egypt all the way to India.


“As Aristotle’s concepts would redraw philosophy’s boundary lines, Alexander the Great’s conquests would go on to expand his kingdom’s boundary lines to unparalleled dimensions.” 


[1] Ronald H. Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 64. 

[2] Nash, 64.

[3] Frederick Copleston, Greece and Rome, in A History of Philosophy, Book One (New York: An Image Book, 1985), 266.

[4] Copleston, 292.

[5] Nash, 98-99.

[6] Nash, 99.

[7] Christopher Shields, “Aristotle,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/aristotle/.

[8] Copleston, 311.

[9] Aristotle, “Book XII,” in Metaphysics, trans. W.D. Ross, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/metaphysics.12.xii.html.

[10] Copleston, 311

[11] Aristotle, “Book XII,” in Metaphysics.

[12] Shields.