Ideas aren’t real: A classroom discussion


The paint doesn't know why it's peeling, nor does it seem to care.

The paint doesn’t know why it’s peeling, nor does it seem to care.

My students are trying to figure out what’s real.

I challenged my class of high school writers, as part of our study of argument, to define the word “real.” After a couple days of discussion, we came up with a tentative definition: something is real if it can be seen or touched or proved to be present.

So, physical material is real. If it’s something I wouldn’t want to hit against my head, it’s real. But ideas, which can’t been seen, are not real.

Someone said that the desk she was sitting at seemed real. I said, the materials are real, but the idea of that object being a “desk” is just an idea. My dog, which can’t understand language as we do, still goes around objects rather than through them, but he doesn’t know what an object is named or how it can be used.

One student asked, if I have an idea to make a desk, and then I make a desk, how did that thought become real? Two things, I said: 1. How ideas in the mind cross over to the body, nobody can yet explain, but 2., what she built was still not a “desk” — it’s a new arrangement of physical things.

Another student asked whether atoms were real. We defined atoms as particles that make up all objects. They are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. We discussed the parts of this definition, including that the size of an atom is to an orange as an orange is to planet Earth. (An idea contained in this video. See also this post.) But such an explanation requires us to use our imaginations, which is a turn away from the physical world itself. We also discussed what a proton is, and how it’s got “positive charge,” and how this charge is a “fundamental property,” which is another way of saying, scientists can’t yet explain how or where this charge arises. 

And so, atoms are not real things that can be seen or touched. Atoms, rather, are explanatory ideas, and ideas are not real. Atoms are part of a scientific story, an interpretation, of how the world works. Physical matter itself doesn’t need to understand itself. Things don’t think. Only people think, and what we think are ideas, and ideas are not physical things.

Now, it can be useful to have science ideas about the world. If we want to alter the physical world — say, to build a house from wood or undergo surgery to fix a disease — it’d be nice to have the most useful ideas possible about how the house-building or body-repairing should go. Where early doctors would prescribe bloodletting to cure a variety of illnesses, modern doctors don’t. We like modern medicine because its ideas seem more successful at getting cures.

But, of course, modern medicine isn’t perfect. Much remains to be explained, to be mentally modeled. I suggested that there could be fictional ideas (which we don’t care if they are realistic), like how Greek mythology says Zeus turned into a bull, and nonfictional ideas (which we’d like to be as realistic as possible), like scientific interpretations, that atoms have parts called protons, electrons, and neutrons. And the nonfiction ideas are never perfect, are never worthy of being called “The Truth,” because they must remain open to revision, as new ideas are learned. The story of science remains imperfect.


So, why do we care about science? Our ancestors got by without it. The fact that we’re here means our ancestors knew enough to survive in the world (get food, form shelter, make babies, raise ‘em). However, science ideas are now taught in school because it’s important for citizens now to know these so as to be able to “join society,” as one student said. And we’d like the people we trust to do physical things — like engineers and doctors — to agree amongst themselves as to the best ideas for doing things. I don’t want the person designing the bridges I drive on to choose a different idea for gravity than what’s commonly accepted (unless his ideas are shows, through argument and evidence, to be better, the way science is supposed to proceed). 

So even though what schools teach are just imperfect stories, mere ideas, and not reality itself [ I wonder what a school that didn’t teach ideas would look like], these imperfect ideas are what we have to tie each other together into a society. If each individual had his/her own ideas about what’s real, that might be chaotic, a student said.

So we take part in civil, communal society by sharing some ideas about the best ways to think about physical reality.  And yet, of course, we shouldn’t take these ideas too seriously. I think it’s useful to form an idea about ideas. I told students that the reason we’re talking about ideas and reality is that it can be useful for them to have a theory of knowledge, and to question how it is that ideas are accepted or revised. When one student said he’d question his other teachers about how things are known in those classes, I said he could, but to remember that when Socrates asked too many questions, he got killed. Sometimes, people who like to believe that their ideas are real don’t like to have their ideas questioned.

Some students said it got them upset to think about these things, to ask these questions, to think of reality this way. I said I wasn’t trying to upset them, but that I like to think that ideas aren’t real because then it lets me think of new ideas. I also said, maybe it’s helpful to think that ideas aren’t real — real physical things themselves don’t give us ideas for how to change the things. Only ideas can direct us to change the physical things — change comes from the unreal.

A student asked if students’ grades merely tell how well they learn the unreal stories.  Yeah, I said. And I said that that’s why I like having discussions, so I can provoke students to ask these questions. Another student asked at the end of class yesterday: so schools brainwash us? And I said, well, kinda, but I’m having this discussion to help you unbrainwash yourself — unless that’s just a different kind of brainwash!


5 responses to “Ideas aren’t real: A classroom discussion

  1. That’s a funny reply you gave. I am inclined to think that ideas are real on account of “cogito ergo sum,” but I don’t think that definition is sufficient because aren’t physical objects or materials just representations of what things “really” are? And this concern supports the claim that if ideas are symbols, they are just as “real” as physical objects.

    • I’d say that you can argue that ideas are real if you want, but doing so would seem to imply a different definition of real. I am defining real as that which cannot be denied — as I can’t deny that walking into a wall hurts. As I tell my students, real things are things I don’t want to hit myself in the head with. I think this definition is compatible with the “cogito” (“I think; therefore, I am”), in that I know when I feel pain, even if I don’t know anything about the world outside my experience (and so whatever I say about the physical world may be wrong). No one else’s subjective experience is available to me. Others do seem physically real, though — they could cause me pain — so that I do want us all to share an idea of reality as physical. Of course, we may not agree on all aspects of physical reality — some of us aren’t able to see, for instance. But I would expect we could agree on physical things more than we could agree on interpretations. I hope that we could agree THAT things happen, even if some of us just point to scientific explanations and others to religious ones.

  2. Which class is this?
    I wish I had this kind of discussion in our class. We never did. “Idea” is my favorite topic.
    There is this quote ” Small people talk about other people.Average people talk about things.Great people talk about ideas.”
    I am not sure if “ideas” are not real or not. They come from our brain which I assume real. It has neuron network. An idea has to come from there. Neurons consist of atoms, electrons, proton etc. If they are real then an idea has to be real. And if they aren’t real but just another idea then we have a classic question in physics ” something out of nothing” which our brain can’t accept.
    A very simple question ” What is real ?” takes you to another intriguing question ” Where the hell are we?”
    Any way I think your students are lucky that they got such a great teacher. Hopefully we get next Kant or Socrates out of them.

    • This is a writing class I teach for high schoolers, 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds. I’d like to think they’d be inspired to learn more philosophy on their own, and maybe even do some philosophy of their own!
      I agree that it’s not clear how one’s subjective experience of mind interacts with the physical brain. And I would say that ideas are real in that I can think them. But I don’t think ideas are real in the same way that physical things are real. Ideas, unlike stones, can be changed, just by thinking!

  3. Life is an interface between certainty and uncertainty, and Reality is a projection of probabilities.

    Whatever exactly that means, is up for anyone’s best guess…

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