Berkeley has a god that forces regularity of sensations/perception on all other minds. So a super-mind is the source of the laws of physics. I assume it's the same with any theistic idealism.

But I assume not all idealist philosophers are/were theists. How do non-theist idealists account for laws of physics?

By theist, I'm referring to someone that believes in the existence of a personal god (a god that can be thought of as a person).

  • 1
    Do we consider Plato a theist? Or Lao Zi? The It responsible for regularity does not need to be a God (at least in a recognizably monotheistic sense) or even a "super-mind", impersonal Forms or inscrutable Dao can do the job. More recent idealists, starting from Hegel, even admit an evolutionary aspect, where the eventual order emerges by some self-transformation process from a lawless state. Peirce is most explicit about it in his Law of Mind, analogizing laws to habits "evolved" by a mentalistic substrate of nature, it is similar in Bergson.
    – Conifold
    Dec 1, 2021 at 10:23
  • @Conifold, "impersonal Forms or inscrutable Dao"... but is that idealism? Dec 1, 2021 at 10:45
  • @Conifold, I'm having trouble seeing how the choice to call the "It" mentalistic or physicalistic isn't a purely arbitrary choice... In some sense there's a mentalistic aspect because we know it interacts with minds.... in some sense there's a non-mentalistic aspect for other reasons... For example, aren't there physicalists who would also subscribe to this evolutionary theory... they just happen to call themselves physicalists instead of idealists... Feels like the label "idealist" is almost vacuous. Dec 1, 2021 at 11:01
  • "In some sense" does not play, idealists and physicalists are more specific about their senses, although there is diversity even within each camp. There is vagueness and borderline cases, but that does not erase the distinction: which analogy dominates one's ontological foundation. Physicalists may veer off from the stereotypical "inert matter", but I know of none who would stretch "material" to Plato's one-over-many ethics-inducing Forms or Hegel's morphing Geist. Peirce gives his substrate proto-experiential and proto-intellectual capacities, Bergson has it driven by elan vital, etc.
    – Conifold
    Dec 1, 2021 at 11:39
  • I think you might be interested in Hume, "Hume’s theory of causation points toward idealism by relocating the relation of causation from the external objects where we would ordinarily suppose it to obtain to the mind", plato.stanford.edu/entries/idealism. External objects (i.e. fundamental objects) do not contain laws. Laws are idealized habits, the external world does not have laws. This might also be called nomological reductionism but I'm not sure that's exclusive to idealism. How one "closes the circle" between internal (idealism) and external is ongoing.
    – J Kusin
    Dec 1, 2021 at 20:54

5 Answers 5


Going by your definition of theism, there are many idealist philosophers who did not need a God with a persona:

  1. Monists like Shankara from Advaita Vedanta use Brahman principle as the foundation (though physical entities are just aberrations of this principle)
  2. Pantheism of Spinoza uses Substance as the unifying force (physical attributes are modes of Substance)
  3. As commented by Conifold, Confucius's inscrutable Dao or Plato's Forms can also serve the purpose (In all such theories, physical entities and processes are accidental/unintentional/illusory modifications of the unifying principle)

From a strictly atheistic standpoint:

  1. Mahayana Buddhism (Yogacara-Vijnanavada) and Sautrantika schools explain inter-subjective reality (which is what natural phenomenon is as per them) as a causal interaction between various mental streams of different subjects 1, 2
  2. Similarly, Hume (in between idealism and realism) also explains physical laws as based in human instinct rather than objective fact. 3
  • "a causal interaction between various mental streams of different subjects"... can you elaborate a bit on this? Do we have any control over this process... ie: if we collectively choose to change the laws of physics, is it possible within these metaphysical systems? Dec 3, 2021 at 14:00
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    It is not my comment, but I know "idealist" theistic pagans who consider Gods and the Universe to be created by the integrated unconscious presumptions of human minds. which would be an example of ""a causal interaction between various mental streams of different subjects". I found this in a non-pagan author as well, goodreads.com/book/show/403735.The_Crack_in_the_Cosmic_Egg
    – Dcleve
    Dec 4, 2021 at 23:55

I am not sure I understand this question... is it not true that non-theist idealists, or anyone else for that matter, may account for the laws of physics in any manner they choose? After all, they are not responsible for their content.

Physicists on the other hand do account for laws of physics as this is their responsibility, and the presence or absence of a personal god has no bearing on what the laws of physics can or may contain.

  • "may account for the laws of physics in any manner they choose?"... but it has to fit within idealism which states that all reality is mind(s) and its perceptions/sensations. Dec 3, 2021 at 13:55
  • @AmeetSharma, idealists are completely free to invent any argument they wish, to argue in favor of any position they want. Dec 3, 2021 at 18:46

Mathematical Platonists like Tegmark see the mathematical structures as the underlying reality.

Consider just as an example to illustrate this kind of thinking, Lisi's proposal for the regularities of physics as resulting from our universe emerging at a location in the E8 hyperstructure of possible laws.

On a deeper level, for physicists & scientists the regularities are the result of the unity of the cosmos, that everything in some sense is made of the same 'stuff' manifesting in different ways, & shares a larger causal continuity.


Plato considered ideas existing in the immaterial realm of forms. Similarly, many Platonists in the realm of mathematics and physics, consider ideas residing in, for instance, possibility space.

Schopenhauer, building on Plato, held a similar view that such ideas and laws exist eternally outside space and time and only objectify (or instantiate) themselves in the world through the craving of the Will (the thing-in-itself).

Laws appear to materialise themselves in the world during certain circumstances but are themselves eternal blueprints that exist outside space and time.


My three cents.

Whatever one takes the Ultimate to be, by the mere fact of being the Ultimate is necessarily the foundation of all the universe and all reality. That is it.

One does not necessarily have to explain how a certain fact (eg law, being, thing, ..) emerges from the Ultimate, as in principle it cannot but be traced back to the Ultimate itself (by definition of Ultimate).

That is why any philosophy that adheres to some Ultimate does not have to reduce everything conceivable to that Ultimate explicitly in order to be discussed. Being reducible "in principle" is enough for most purposes of philosophical discussion.

That Ultimate may be:

  1. A personal deity or deities (eg Christian God, Muslim God, ..)
  2. An principle or principles (eg the Dao, the Brahman, the Geist, the Forms, the Laws, Mind, Matter, ..)
  3. The sum of everything existing (eg the universe itself)
  4. so on..

All three candidates for being the Ultimate above, can easily accommodate physical laws (a detailed account of each is outside the scope of this answer).

  • "An principle or principles (eg the Dao".. "can easily accommodate physical laws." Here's my issue... suppose there are some set of "principles"... that we don't consciously control... that produce some kind of intersubjective or objective reality... Someone says what's really out there is "the physical world" some else says it's the "Tao"... what is the difference in meaning? Unless there are a different set of experiences... or maybe additional subjects of experience (like a God)... I'm finding it hard to see the difference in meaning between any such principles. Jan 16, 2023 at 2:34
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    Some people hold that all principles are in the final analysis the same thing simply named differently and emphasizing a different aspect of the same thing.
    – Nikos M.
    Jan 16, 2023 at 4:51

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