Can reality be understood without God?

“The world,” said Arthur Schopen-hauer, “is my idea.”1

If it’s Arthur’s idea, then it’s yours, and your bitterest foe’s too. What one knows, according to Schopenhauer, is “not a sun, and not an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels the earth; that the world which surrounds him is there only as idea—that is, only in relation to something else, the one who conceives the idea, which is himself.”2 And because we are different eyes, different hands, different consciousness, we know different suns, different earths. If the world is an idea, then the world is a different idea for each of us.

This question, about what’s real as opposed to what’s perceived, stretches back at least to Plato’s cave, that musty old den in which all humans were chained facing the back wall, and so all reality approached them as nothing but shadows on that wall cast by a fire behind their backs.

Only through philosophical and rational education, argued Plato, could anyone escape the cave and ascend into the world of sunlight, that is, reality as it truly is. However apt (or crude) Plato’s metaphor, what if indeed we could slip out, and get behind appearance, sensation, and phenomena in order to explore reality as it is in itself without the innate human filters that color and package it for us as appearance and phenomena—what would there be? What does the elusive thing-in-itself look like, feel like, smell like, taste like. All we know of reality, even that that arises from pure reason alone, comes to us only as neuro-electrical-chemical processes that ignite quietly within a soggy darkness covered by skin and skull.

Even if it were possible to slip out, climb over, and get behind appearances to perceive reality, how could we perceive it with anything but senses—and senses, of any kind, always have biases and limits in their preconceptions? Whatever sensors connect us to what’s outside us, whatever devices interface us with the world, each has its own focus, slant, and boundaries. Different combinations create different realities. How, then, can reality be anything more than the subjective, limited senses perceiving it—which means, then, that reality would have to be all in our heads, nowhere else.

Reality and divine Mind

Perhaps, only if there were a being, some divine Mind that could view all things from every possible perspective and every possible position at the same time, could objective reality even be said to exist? Can, as Bishop George Berkeley argued, something really be anything, that is, have innate characteristics or qualities not ultimately in a mind perceiving them because what, ultimately, are characteristics or qualities (hot, cold, red, yellow, sweet, sour, hard, soft) other than sense impressions? How can sense impressions exist without a mind to sense them? How can there be pain without nerves, or taste without sensors? Without a divine Mind, does it make sense to even talk about what’s truly out there because otherwise what’s out there is only subjective, fluctuating, and oftentimes deceptive sense impressions, nothing more?

Can there be true morality (or true reality) if all morality (or reality) exists only as electrical and chemical reactions in subjective minds? We intuit that morality exists independent of us; otherwise, how can murdering babies only because they’re Jewish be immoral if every human mind thinks otherwise? We intuit, even more so, that reality exists independent of minds; otherwise is Mount Everest non-existent if no mind perceives it? But how can moral and ontological absolutes exist if both morality and existence are found only in minds, not outside them?

The implications of these questions have been debated for centuries. British empiricist John Locke argued that if human knowledge arises only from experience, then how can we know anything of itself? Knowledge can go no further than experience. Nothing exists in the intellect, he wrote, that was not first in the senses, and because what’s in the senses is always limited, contingent, and in flux, we’re left with little real knowledge of the world.

Pushing his own empiricist presuppositions further, George Berkeley articulated his famous formula, esse est percipi (“To be is to be perceived”), claiming that qualities and characteristics of things, even their most primary qualities (such as extension), don’t have existence outside of the mind, and that only as an object is perceived can it be said to exist. “For what are the forementioned objects [houses, mountains, rivers] but things we perceive by sense?”—he wrote—and what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations? and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these, or any combination of them, should exist unperceived?”3 Because reality appears only as sensation to us, there’s no sensation (hence no reality) without perception. Bishop Berkeley was not denying that these things are there; instead, he was saying that when something is said “to exist,” it means only that it is perceived by a mind.

Kant: Noumenon and phenomenon

Assuming the reality of a priori synthetic propositions, upon which he based his revolutionary philosophy, Immanuel Kant argued that the mind itself construes reality. Not that it creates reality, but that due to pre-existing structures within them, our minds synthesize and unify reality not according to the world itself, but according to each mind. The mind imposes itself upon the world, which appears only as organized, filtered, and categorized by mind. Mind doesn’t conform to the world; world conforms to the mind. Our brains don’t change the world-as-it-is (Kant wrote long before the Quantum revolution), but the world-as-it-is comes to us only as our brain allows.

A person looking at a mountain through binoculars will see something different than someone looking at it through a microscope. The mountain is there, for sure; what we see depends on whether our mind works like a microscope, or like binoculars, or like a pair of human eyes. Unlike the later phenomenalistic idealists (such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte), who would do away with all reality other than what exists in our minds, Kant didn’t reject the noumenon, that is, reality independent of human cognition. The phenomenon (how reality appears to us) can’t exist without noumena (how reality really is) any more than pain can exist without nerves. What Kant asserts, instead, is that we can never know noumena, the real world, for what it is in itself. An impenetrable, dark divide hangs between what’s there and how it finally appears as reality in our consciousness.

None of these philosophers, and none of their philosophies, have remained uncontested. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue against the basic point: The limits of knowledge, especially knowledge that comes through sensory perception alone. Writing against the maxim that “A man is the measure of all things,” Plato said that if all that were requisite for truth were sensation, then a “pig or a dog-faced baboon” would also be the “measure of all things.”

Plato’s point is that reality can’t be measured and judged only by human standards because different people measure and judge reality differently, even contradictorily. The argument that there’s no objective reality apart from the senses—though defensible with some logical and rational rigor—remains intuitively unconvincing, particularly to someone who barely survived going headfirst through a windshield. He knows something real, solid, objective in-and-of-itself exists outside of himself.

From Plato’s cave to Kant’s epistemological pitch, the question remains, What else is out there? What else moves, exists, and lives across the gap between the narrow, finite spectrum of appearances in human minds, and the wide, infinite spectrum of the real? Like high-pitched sounds that only dog’s ear’s catch, or sounds and particles just as real as soccer balls and Bach cantatas, what else exists as noumena that we just can’t sense, see, feel, or intuit?

Dimensions beyond space and time

Scientists talk of other dimensions beyond space-time; a few branches of physics demand them (superstring theory calls for at least 10). Some mathematicians argue that pure numbers exist in an independent “reality” distinct from our world of sense perception. Others have argued that the supernatural, the occult, the realm of faith, of angels, of the preternatural, and the realm of raw good and evil apart from the contingencies and limitations of humanity exist in the noumenon. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews wrote that “the things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” (Hebrews 11:3, KJV). The apostle Paul talked about realities “that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible” (Colossians 1:15). What are those things that do not appear? What are those invisible realities, if not so much in heaven but on Earth?

Kant’s distinction between the phenomenon and the noumenon, though not proving the presence of the supernatural, has at least provided a room for it. He forged, if nothing else, a feasible metaphysic abode, a place where the supernatural could exist. A million cell phone calls buzzing about us imply the possibility—not the probability—of other intangibles, too (angels, maybe?). The first shows that intelligent, purposeful activity can function all around us, yet remain beyond us, even when it impacts us. (Who, for instance, smelled, heard, saw, tasted, or touched the high levels of radiation that destroyed their intestinal linings, weakened their immune systems, and killed them?).

Noumenon matters, in more ways than one, and all the time, too. Phenomenon is, perhaps, nothing but the corner of noumenon that mind rubs against and absorbs, like a soggy dark sponge. That we don’t touch all of it doesn’t mean we don’t touch some; that we can’t know it fully doesn’t mean we can’t know it partially. In Exodus, when Moses asked God, “‘Now show me your glory’” (33:18, NIV), God replied, “‘You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.’” And then said, “‘There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen’” (Exodus 33:2-23). Maybe that’s all the phenomenon is, the back, not the face, of the noumenon.

Mathematicians have encountered incredible coherence and beauty in the world of numbers. Mathematics seems to be “out there,” not as physical structures but rather as precise and delicate relations between non-extended, pre-existing entities more permanent and firm than the material world. However highly processed by the brain, something’s still there, something these mathematicians encounter as realities that appear more consistent, reliable, and stable than the fleeting, vacillating, and ersatz vagaries of phenomenon. Three kilos of rice, no matter how accurate the scale, will always be more or less than three kilos (even if off by only a few molecules); however, the number three, as a number alone, is absolute, refined, and pure, with no need of any refining.

Thus, whether as concept or sensation, something of the noumenon does get through, even if feels like phenomenon. We’re made, as it were, to interact with noumenon, or at least part of it. There’s a comfortable harmony, a convenient, even aesthetically pleasing concord between our senses and the portion of reality that enters our consciousness.

How fortunate that we can view the part of the electro-magnetic spectrum cast by the star closest to our eyes in a way that not only allows us to see objects but also to see them so beautifully. Is there any logical, necessary, or even practical reason for sunsets or peacocks to be portrayed so pleasantly in our minds? Whatever the thing-in-itself that rises from mint, how nice that by the time it goes through the nose it is sensuous fragrance in the mind. Whatever an orange (or a peach, or a plum, or a grape) is in-and-of-itself, it not only so lusciously and tastefully interacts with our mouths but also comes saturated with chemicals and nutrients that just happen to harmonize with our physical needs.

Of course, the same devices that project good and pleasure into our consciousness do the same with evil and ugliness. The sunset that drains incandescent puddles of light from the horizon also leaves behind a cold wake of those crouched and quivering in unfriendly doorways. However luscious a grape, or tasty an apple, famine and pestilence often break them down before the human belly does. And that belly also provides lush ground for rapacious tumors. Thus, however inherently good the phenomenon, evil often soils the package.

Evil: After the fact

Evil, however, is after the fact, and the fact itself—as pure fact—is good. St. Augustine, in The City of God, wrote that evil is a diminishing, a defection of the good. The good came first; evil followed. There is no efficient cause of evil, said Augustine, only a deficient one. What we call evil “is merely a lack of something that is good.”4

Like silence, like darkness, evil arises only from a lack, from a falling away. “Now,” Augustine continued, “to seek to discover the causes of these defections—causes, as I have said, not efficient, but deficient—is as if some one sought to see darkness, or hear silence. Yet both of these are known by us, and the former by means only of the eye, the latter only by the ear; but not by their positive actuality, but by their want of it.”5

Look closely…a rotted peach demands, first, the peach. There can be no sexual disease without, first, sex. And, behind the abused child exists only the child. The adjectives are secondary, unoriginal, after-the-fact intrusions, that are after the fact, and the fact itself, as pure fact, is good.

Children, peaches, sex-—before any deficiency—reveal the creative touch of a tender, genteel love. Think of them, edited of all unintended adjectives; imagine the child, unmodified. However rudely deflowered, nature still can transcend parched logic and sprinkle us with hints of something more hopeful than cosmic entropy. Between what’s in us (our senses) and what’s out there (the sensed), the equations beautifully compute, the numbers work majestically, even if they have to be tallied in our hearts, not our heads.

Think for a moment on the biblical doctrine of incarnation. It’s an incredible claim: God Himself incarnated into humanity—the Creator of the universe assumed our flesh, and at the Cross He bore every evil adjective and adverb (and every evil verb and noun). And the weight of all that perfidy—its guilt, its consequence, its penalty—was enough to kill Him. God isn’t immune to our pain or evil; on the contrary, they crushed out His life, as manifested in Jesus, at the Cross.

But if the Cross is true, it’s true only because God loves us with a love that stretched across the cold expanses of infinity into the feverish recesses of our fearful, expiring lives. It said, too, that with issues so consequential, so terminal, God wouldn’t have gone to the Cross without giving us reasons to believe that He did, and one of those reasons exists in the unmodified facts themselves. Imagine creation stripped of all its foul modifiers (and then imagine those modifiers falling, at once, on Jesus).

If someone cracked the glass and slashed Mona Lisa, would those gashes diminish the love Leonardo first put into the painted lady? There can be no famine without first the fields of wheat and corn. And what do the wheat and the corn say about the One who first wrapped their seed in the shell before water, dirt, air, and sunshine lifted the stalk out of the earth and covered it with sweet buds that toasted taste so good in our mouths and fit so snugly, and healthfully, in our cells?

Sure, lush fields of grain don’t validate the moral argument for the existence of God, any more than the thick, sweet air over orchids vitiates a priori materialism. It’s readily admitted that sunsets reveal the limits of logic and reason to know God’s love. And even the child unmodified doesn’t show that Christ died on the Cross. Don’t read more into what’s out there than what is. Don’t read less, either.

“But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:7-10, KJV).

Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide. This article is excerpted from his book God, Gödel, and Grace: A Philosophy of Faith (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2003). Used by permission.


  1. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea (London: J. M. Dent, 1995), p. 4.
  2. Ibid.
  3. George Berkeley, On the Principles of Human Knowledge, excerpted in The Speculative Philosophers (New York: Random House, 1947), p. 254.
  4. St. Augustine, The City of God (New York: Doubleday, 1958), p. 217.
  5. Ibid., p. 254.