Why SES?

Reality: It’s Not Just a Good Idea

By Dr. Doug Potter

Many today fail to see the importance of grounding their reasoning process in reality in spite of the fact that whatever is not based on reality is un-reality, in other words unreal. The slippery slope of subjectivism and relativism is the result of such “reasoning” manufactured in the imaginations of the mind rather than in reality, on Truth. This distinction is especially important for the Christians who desire to share their “reasonable” faith. Sadly, subjectivism has crept its way into the church with the assumption that we do not need to defend our faith with reason; we only need the Bible. I hope this article will show that reason and faith are not in conflict.

To better understand the connection between reality and reason, we must return to the work of an ancient philosopher, Aristotle, and a medieval philosopher, Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas’ philosophy builds upon the work of Aristotle, and while there are differences, the following offers a brief and somewhat simplified explanation of reality, what they would call being, and human processing of knowing within that tradition. Following that, we see how this philosophy supports the human endeavors of Christian apologetics, theology, and ethics, the basis for the two great apologetic goals: to demonstrate the existence of God and to demonstrate the historical truth that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.

Reality Changes Yet Remains the Same

One of the most fundamental observations anyone can make of reality is that it changes, and yet something about it remains the same. What remains the same is its essence. What changes are called accidental properties. We can observe anything in reality, natural or man–made, for example a real tree, and see that it changes—grows larger, develops branches, colorful leaves, etc. over time—and yet it remains the same tree such that it is distinguishable from all the other trees. Its change is accounted for by the principles of actuality (act) and potentially (potency) that are present in all created things. Actuality is the existence of some thing. Potentiality accounts for the capacity of some thing to change or become other than what it is. Change could be substantial, in that I could destroy the tree and it could no longer exist. Or it could be accidental, such as cutting off a limb. The change could be internal, such as its growing a new limb, or the change could be external if I cut the tree down.

This observation is important because it shows that everything that changes cannot account for its own existence. There must be something other—something else—that causes it to be. This existence (actuality) must be given to it by something else that is not dependent on anything else for its existence. Something dependent on its existence from outside itself could not be or it could cease to be. Hence, its existence and nature, also called essence, are not necessary. But there must be something that is necessary existence that can give existence to everything else. And such existence (actuality) must not have any potentiality to change. That is, it cannot change in any way, or it too would require something to give it existence. Such Existence must be identical to its essence (nature). Hence, something must be pure act or pure existence with no potential to be other than what it is. Christians call this Pure Existence God.

Categories of Reality: Animate or Inanimate and Vegetable or Animal

All of natural reality that we observe seems to fall into the categories of inanimate things and animate substances. An inanimate thing, a rock for example, has extension in space but cannot move itself, yet it can be changed by something external to it. To distinguish further we might say the animate can be vegetative or animal. That which is vegetative has all that inanimate things have, but vegetables can change, grow, and reproduce. That which is animal has all that the vegetative power has to a greater degree, but also the power of self–locomotion, and some have the sensitive powers such as seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling.

Form of Things and Matter of Things

Everything in the world that we experience is a composition of form (actuality)—or what something is—and matter (potentiality to change) that individuates the form to be this thing and not that thing. For example, a cat is a cat because of its form or catness (what it is), and its matter individuates it to be this cat as opposed to that cat. Matter, as used here, should not be equated with physical matter, and form should not be equated with the shape of something. Instead, these are principles found in things or substances. As already explained, there are things essential and accidental to a nature. Something essential cannot be removed without changing what it is. Something accidental could be otherwise and would not change what something is. For example, it is essential to the nature of a cat that it be an animal nature. If that is changed or removed somehow, it ceases to be a cat. But it is accidental if the size and color of the cat change. Despite the change, it stays a cat. Such a description is possible for every created thing from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest galaxies.

Hence, everything in the world has existence given to it and a nature that is composed of form/matter to varying degrees and capacities. All of this needs an explanation, such as we find in Aristotle’s four causes: there must be an efficient cause of the thing or substance, a formal cause to explain the form, a material cause to account for the matter, and a final cause to explain its end or purpose. This in short, is the Aristotelian–Thomistic hylomorphic understanding of reality.1

Knowing Reality

We come to know reality in an act of existence, in other words by its actual existence. This knowing relates to its form (essence) and its matter (potential to change). The form of something is related to its actuality. Again, form is what something is (i.e., an essence). For example, a cat has the form of catness and a dog has the form of dogness. Matter is related to the individual potentiality (to change). It is that which individuates an essence to be this cat or that cat. The form of a substance is immaterial. The matter of a substance is what individuates the essence to be a particular thing that gives it extension in space, which is limited to its form. We can say a dog is not a cat because of their different form or essence. We can say this cat is not that cat because of their different matter or individuation of matter.

Process of Knowing

The soul is the substantial form of the human body. The way in which we know something is by its form, which is united to matter. We know things via our five senses. Since the form of a substance is immaterial, it is able to enter our mind, and we are able to know the thing, know the form extracted (in our mind) from its matter, as it is in itself. Contrary to what some philosophies have proposed throughout history, the form that enters the mind is not a different substance or copy of the substance that comes to exist in the mind of the knower. The same form that is united with matter unites with the mind of the knower; in a sense the knower and the thing known become one.

Once the form enters our minds, in an act of existence, our internal senses combine all the available external sensitive input. Our intellect is able to extract the universal from the particular, catness for example. We are able to form mental images (phantasms) of particulars by using the internal senses combined with other intellective powers such as remembrance and the abstracted universal. We are able to make judgements and form concepts and ideas about the known thing. All of this and much more happens effortlessly, almost without awareness.

This process of knowing can be applied to the creation and to the interpretation of any text or spoken word. We come to know a written or spoken word the same way we come to know any other thing in sensible reality. First, the author or speaker has an idea. Meaning exists as form (immaterially) in the mind of the author/speaker. The author/speaker causes a text to exist by imposing form (meaning) upon language (combining it with matter) to create a text or spoken language in sensible reality. The speaker expresses his thought, then the mind of the reader or hearer extracts the form (meaning) from the text or spoken word in reality through the senses, and then the meaning is processed by the intellect. In this way a reader or hearer is able to know the meaning that is in the text or spoken words.

Why is This Important?

All humans have the same nature; therefore, every intellect has the same capacities. Since the forms in reality are the same as what comes to exist in the human mind, what something is, is determined by reality and not the knower. Knowledge, meaning, and the intended purpose of all things are grounded in reality and are objectively verifiable. This explanation supports all human endeavors in the sciences and humanities and particularly makes Christian apologetics, theology, and ethics a worthy endeavor, as long as the assumptions and methods of the discipline do not undermine the principles of knowing absolute truth.

Christian Apologetics

This unity of existence between intellect and reality is the basis for the two extremely important great apologetic goals: to demonstrate the existence of God and to demonstrate the historical truth that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.

Since humans know the world, they must conclude that knowledge can be reduced to undeniable facts or principles. In philosophy these are expressed as first principles. For example: something exists is an undeniable statement about our act of knowing reality. It is on this undeniable knowledge that we reason logically to demonstrate that God exists and that He is knowable. Not only does God exist, but He alone is pure actuality, the efficient and final cause of all things. Thus, Theism, which is the belief in God, is the correct view from which we view everything else, as opposed to polytheism or atheism. As the Apostle Paul warns:

Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19–20, NASB)

That which passes examination by our senses of sight, hearing, and touching should be given the consent of our intellect as true. The Apostle Paul says:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.” (1 Corinthians 15:3–8, NASB)


Theology builds upon the study of God’s revelation of Himself from His Word and from the world around us. The human intellect examines the written revelation of God and other truths found in His creation as a result of human inquiry. Since an objective meaning is extractable from written texts and reality, the two revelations must be integrate into a systematic whole to gain as complete a picture as possible of all that God has revealed. The honest inquiring mind can then engage in discourse about God and His creation, as the Apostle Paul does when speaking to the men of Athens:

Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, “For we also are His children.” Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. (Acts 17:23–29, NASB)


Although all created things have a final cause, we especially observe humans are intended for specific functions or ends and not others. Such intended function is evident in every part of our hylomorphic body-soul unity.  Likewise, human consciousness and behavior reveal these ethical ends of what is right and wrong found in everyone; even written texts from many cultures show a common ethic. Hence, a common ultimate cause exists for our moral obligations. We recognize our inabilities to live up to the expected demands of moral obligations and correctly infer this is true for all. Thus the Apostle Paul teaches:

“For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:14–16, NASB)

In accord with these intended common moral ends, we also find specific instructions in God’s Word, which give categories of moral behavior, leaving to the power of the human intellect to judge in life what falls inside or outside these categories. For example, the Lord says, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4-5, NASB)

And as the Apostle Paul reminds us, every person is accountable to God: “For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall give praise to God.’ So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 11-12, NASB)


It may not be necessary to know this detailed explanation of reality for pursuing and sharing Christian apologetics, theology, or ethics, but because of the consequences of building one’s view of life and one’s eternal destiny on Truth as it conforms to reality, we should not be swayed from this understanding of reality by those who reject our arguments and reasoning based on reality. However, we realize that not everyone will accept Truth. As our Lord said, some will not be convinced even by a miracle (Luke 16:31). But it is necessary to understand why we do apologetics, theology, and ethics a certain way and not another way—so as to maintain the knowability of reality, the absolute nature of Truth, and its testability and transferability to all aspects of life and to all people.


1Hylomorphism is a philosophical theory that conceives being (ousia) as a compound of matter and form. The word is formed from the Greek words hyle, “wood, matter” and morphē, “form.”