Reductionism vs. Transcendent Materialism

 This post is intended as one response among many in a multi-logue of commentators who have responded to the previous post, “Just because …” Aside from its content, it provides an extended platform for added commentaries if people want to continue the discussion.  But it is also intended to clarify the parameters within which this blog will function.

Among many other things, this blog, from its inception, has been dedicated, quite self-con­sciously, to materialism. But I have been very insistent from the start to have those who wish to dialog with me understand that what mainstream discourse has traditionally called “materialism” is really a truncated version of dualism, and as such was not what I meant.  “Materialism” in the “modern” (i.e.,. traditional ,Cartesian, positive scientistic) sense, is what is left when you eliminate “spirit” from your spirit-matter dualism but do not change the definition of either matter or spirit.

I start from the assumption that there is no “spirit.” This has ramifications for culture in many areas of interest, but on the question of the nature of matter, what it meant for Western thought was that the principle of vitality and consciousness had disappeared.  Matter and Spirit in the Platonic-Cartesian universe are a dyad.  Together they explained everything … from “God” to the most fundamental components of the material universe, be they matter or energy.  Every attempt to separate them and imagine the universe in terms of just one of them alone always foundered on the reefs of reality.  Hegel and others’ attempts to explain everything as a function of idea (thought, mind), while logically it cannot be indisputably disproven, does not convincingly explain our experience of reality and has been effectively abandoned.  The forms that matter has evolved appear to follow processes that have nothing whatsoever to do with purpose and plan which are the earmarks of the operation of “mind.”  (There are justifications omitted here that I don’t want to pursue in this short summary.)

The corresponding attempt to explain everything as a function of Cartesian “matter” which is defined, to this day, as “that which can be acted upon but cannot act,” (and variously as “matter as it functions at the level of physics and chemistry”) ran into a dead end as well, because it meant trying to explain life and consciousness as a function of some complicated arrangement of the equivalent of dead, inert billiard balls. The most extreme version of this view, expressed by Daniel Dennett, claims that indeed life and consciousness, like computers, only seem like life and consciousness, but they are nothing but illusions that impact us at the macro level … not unlike the way a movie film is really nothing but a series of still photos which, when run in sequence at the proper speed appear to move. If a robot had been programmed to appear to have consciousness, indeed, there would be no way of knowing whether it did or not, and similarly, we ourselves may be so programmed that even in our own case there is no way of knowing whether we are really conscious or only think we are conscious. There is no way to tell the difference between us and a robot or a zombie.  Partisans of this position have been heard saying, typically, that the “cherished characteristics of consciousness … are most likely illusory.”

This version of materialism has been criticized because it also fails to account for experience. The reality of our universally experienced individual self-consciousness is not so easily dismissed by Dennett’s thought experiment.  Critics of Dennett have said that in attempting to eliminate “the ghost in the machine” instead of showing that the emperor has no clothes, Dennett really ends up declaring, most implausibly, that the clothes have no emperor.  Sam Harris also hovers like a drone in this neighborhood, suggesting as he does in Waking Up that the self is an illusion.  But people know who they are and they know what they experience about their own conscious identity.  The subjective self is real … transitory, highly determined and ephemeral, yes, but illusory, no. But lest anyone mistake my drift, I hasten to add immediately that a real self does not in any way imply a separable “soul” constructed of a “second substance” called “spirit.

The confusions surrounding this issue have recently been given a much-appreciated clarification by Berkeley philosopher John B. Searle in the October 9, 2014 issue of the New York Review of Books in an extended review of two books dealing with exactly this subject.  The title of the article is “What Your Computer Can’t Know” p.52ff, and I recommend to anyone interested in this issue that they read it.

In contrast to the idealist or materialist monisms derived from attempting to split the Cartesian dualist dyad, I have consistently proposed an entirely new definition of matter, an hypothesis derived from a more faithful perception of the phenomena. Recognizing that the very word “matter” is overlaid with the inert mechanistic connotations given to it by a truncated Cartesian dualism, I said, as far back as 2008 in An Unknown God that there is no more matter or spirit … that neither of those words has meaning any more, but that we are faced with one reality, call it what you will, I give it various names: matter’s energy, material energy, existence, being-here and the overall metaphysical system “transcendent materialism” (and there may be more labels to come) … whatever it is called, it is one single homogeneous substance that has the potential for all the behavior that we actually see it performing, wherever and whatever it is doing and by means of whatever organism it has evolved into — at all levels — the physical, chemical, biological, psychological, sociological.  An element in this acknowledgement is the recognition that every organism of whatever kind, and however capable of varying behavior, is an evolved form of this one homogeneous thing — matter’s transcendent energy — which comprises the entire universe. It is this awareness that inspired the choice of the label “transcendent materialism.” Material energy over the last 13.7 billion years, has transcended itself over and over and over again, evolving into organisms which at this point in the timeline of universal history display an amazing range of behavior, some of which, like life and consciousness, do not make it immediately apparent how they can be rooted in the same matter that at an earlier stage of evolution displayed only the capacities studied by physics and chemistry.  But the phenomena require an acknowledgement: if there is life and consciousness in the universe, and the universe is exclusively made up of one substance — material energy — then material energy has the potential for evolving versions of itself that exhibit life and consciousness.

Such an approach, I want to point out, amounts to little more than a tautology. It is a simple identity that confirms its validity; it is more faithful to the phenomena.  For if, according to the hypothesis, all things are material, then whatever I see matter doing, is also a material function emanating from a “matter” that is capable of it.  That’s an a priori derived from the materialist hypothesis.  The mystery as to how material energy can so re-arrange itself and exploit its various resources and potentials to produce effects that seem diametrically opposed to what we once thought it was, is something for science to solve.  My contribution is the fidelity of the hypothesis to the phenomena, not the science.  The philosophical hypothesis I propose is open to science disproving it, but it is not within the competence of science to dismiss it as an hypothesis beforehand and without proof, calling on obsolete dualist Cartesian prejudicial premises about inert matter as grounds for the dismissal.

Matter, phenomenologically speaking, is directly experienced behaving, variously, as much like mind as like billiard balls. Matter’s energy, in our human organisms, displays the characteristics of consciousness … in billiard balls, the characteristics of inert kiln-fired ceramic spheres.  Neither display is privileged, and neither can claim a priori to be the exclusive domain of material reality to the exclusion of the other.  The resolution of what appears to be contrary phenomena emanating from the same material energy must be left a posteriori to science, but not to a philosophical maneuver calling itself “science,” that has already prejudicially reduced matter to what is studied only by physics and chemistry.  The attempt to do that is not science, it is a philosophy and hypothesis called reductionism.

The transcendent materialist hypothesis explains everything, which is, after all, what a metaphysical hypothesis is supposed to do, and it has a right to be tested.  Science cannot pause at the doorstep and even before beginning its work, claim that all non-physical, non-chemical phenomena are illusory (or, for die-hard dualists, not material). Those who claim to do that are not doing science, they are grinding axes.

The transcendent materialist hypothesis is truly minimalist in the sense that it simply follows through on the phenomena.  It is rather reductionism that has pretensions for it would declare matter to be inert and unconscious even before science begins its investigations.

There is a another extended review in that same issue of The New York Review of Books on the irreducibility of the subject matter of the various disciplines.  The author is Thomas Nagel reviewing a book by T.M. Scanlon.  The article is called “Listening to Reason.”  It divides our pursuit of truth into “domains,” and it confirms Frank Lawlor’s observation that scientists themselves have abandoned the reductionist position as prejudicial and unfaithful to experience and to the discoveries made in their various domains.  I recommend that article.

This blog is dedicated to exploring the hypothesis of a Transcendent Materialism. There are many areas for exploration, from the critique of the proper way of articulating the problem, through an examination of how others have dealt with it (or failed to deal with it) throughout our intellectual / cultural / religious history, to the practical implications for our moral and social and political structures of this new view of existence (or the consequences of ignoring it or applying it improperly). Scientists, for their part, could use the blog to try to prove or disprove the hypothesis or provide enough data to show that it is inadequate as stated and needs to be nuanced, modified or perhaps even thoroughly re-conceived and re-configured.

All sorts of angles, positive and negative, can be pursued here. But one thing this blog will not tolerate is the prejudicial reductionist dismissal of the hypothesis ad liminem on truncated Cartesian materialist grounds.

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Just because …

Sam Harris, neuroscientist, avowed atheist, writes a book that proposes a “spirituality without religion” that leads to selflessness and universal love … E.O.Wilson, biologist, avowed atheist, writes book after book in which he calls on the innate sensibilities of human beings, without self-interest, to recognize the intrinsic value of the natural world and work to prevent the degradation of the environment and the extinction of its species … Noam Chomsky, linguist, philosopher, political activist, appeals to justice and respect for truth, beyond any short-term benefit to the responder, to counter the lies and distortions adduced by the wealthy and powerful to justify their depredation of the poor and defenseless.

Obviously these efforts share a common perspective; all make their appeals in absolute terms. They assume the independent value of what they are calling for.  All seem to hang their arguments on a sky-hook … or better, on no hook at all. There is no “because” that lies beyond the direct recognition of value in se. Even though in each case human benefits are present and are called on for added motivation, the fundamental appeal, remarkably, is not to self-interest nor to the good of society.  Their goals are presented as good in themselves, and those that pursue them, as ready to ignore their own needs in the effort.

We could fairly say that if these three thinkers were pressed to tell us why we should respond to their concerns they might each answer, “just because … .” There is no reason beyond itself.  Judging from their popularity, it also seems that the ordinary person has no problem understanding what they are saying.   And it’s interesting that those who oppose them do so by calling for alternative solutions but they never question their premises.

In philosophical terms, however, this is extraordinary, because in philosophy what is required are reasons — grounds, explanations, justifications. You must have a reason “why.”  Either something is valid in itself, or there must be something else on which its validity depends.  If it’s not of benefit to us, why should we pursue selflessness … have respect and awe for nature … struggle for justice and equality for others?  Why?

We should also note another common feature: they simultaneously ignore religion.  Harris and Wilson explicitly espouse “atheism” not just privately as a personal preference, but as an intrinsic require­ment of their endeavors.  It implies that they think there is something about mainstream religion that militates against the very things they consider important.

Some progressives who share their goals criticize them on both counts.  You can’t say “just because …”. You can’t sustain a finite value without having it grounded in something truly absolute.  These goals will be wishful thinking, they warn, unless they are justified by an ultimate ground, beyond which there is no appeal.  These critics I’m referring to are theists. They claim that there is a “reason,” and it is “God.”  They claim there is no way that these values could possibly be their own justification.  “God,” they say, wants these goals as intensely as their supporters.

I emphasize “theist” here because the point of view just presented is exclusive to that position. “Theism” is a very specific belief system that undergirds the religions of the West.  Theism believes there is a “God”-person who has certain specific characteristics:

  • this “God” is separate from everything else that exists.  “God” is transcendent; “God” and ceation have absolutely nothing in common.  There is no prior “substance” of any kind that both “God” and the universe could possibly share.  It is above and beyond human nature to share “God’s” life; any such participation is supernatural and relies on God’s initiative alone.
  • this “God” freely chose to create the world out of nothing. Creation was a selected preference, an act of a rational mind that thinks and wills. “God” thoughtfully, intentionally designed the world, its laws and its processes, including evolution.
  • thinking and choosing are rational acts; “God” therefore is a “person” not unlike you and me in that respect, and we persons can interact with one another. “God” commands me, and I must obey “him.” “He” loves me, I am told, and in time I may come to love “him.”
  • since this “God” had the power to create “he” also has the power for creation’s ongoing management. This is called “providence” and it means that nothing happens that “God” has not willed or at least permitted. “God” is capable of suspending the laws of nature to suit his purpose. “Praying” for miracles is a valid part of the relationship to this “God,” and “he” may respond favorably. This is the “God” who has revealed himself in the Bible.

Progressive theists claim that this “God” is fully supportive of the premises and goals proposed by the authors mentioned above.  “God,” theists say, created the world to reflect and display “his” perfections.  The universe is an imitation in miniature, as it were, and we humans are “God’s” image and likeness.  Naturally “God” “wills” that his reflection be respected, and the reason we respond spontaneously to these appeals is because of our adumbration that the divine nature and will are embedded in creation.

An alternative view

I categorically deny there is any such entity.  And if I am right, then there is no way that “God” as conceived by supernatural theists can be the real reason why we should pursue selflessness, environmental protection and social justice.

To try to refute the theists at the level of their premises would mean insisting that there is no such “God.”  But I think taking that route would deflect the discussion.  It would involve repeating the arguments that I have offered over and over again that the theist imagery just limned above is hopelessly anthropomorphic even by the standards of mediaeval philosophy.  I would rather come at the question from a different angle altogether.  Let’s give it the form of “what if” — a thought experiment:

what if the insistence of our activist-authors and the spontaneous agreement of their followers (and opponents) about the in se value of these struggles is true?  What are the conditions that would make that possible?  What must be there in order to provide the sufficient and necessary ground for such an hypothesis to be true?  With this approach the issue does not shift focus to the question of whether a traditionally imagined person called “God” exists, but whether there is anything real that grounds and guarantees the value-independence of the projects these men propose.  In other words, is the sense of intrinsic value which they all assume and with which all seem to agree, even their opponents, purely illusory … or even worse, is it a cynical projection adduced to avoid admitting the necessary justifications that would eventually lead to “God” as the theists argument intends … or is it grounded in something real?  And if the latter, what is it and how does the grounding occur?

My argument: First, there is the observable widespread fact that ordinary people, without recourse to either philosophy or religion, spontaneously respond with agreement to the unconditional appeal of these men.  They do not seem to want or require a deeper ground.  They do not ask, “why should I pursue a life of selfless love?” or “why should I respect the environment and protect it?” or “why should we prevent the powerful from exploiting the defenseless?” they rather appear to recognize the absolute intrinsic value of these goals whether or not they are of particular benefit to us (the fact that they actually are of benefit, is secondary). And the author-activists who are trying to generate interest in these matters clearly do not feel compelled to offer any justification beyond the presentation of the problem or the goal itself.  What’s salient here is that these men are all philosophers and quite capable of providing a deeper foundation if they felt one was needed.  Apparently they do not think so.

I agree with them. And that brings us to the second leg of my argument:  and that is the corroborative force of the worldview that I have proposed in my books and essays over the last 15 years, which for want of a better term is called pan-entheism.[1]  In this view “God” is not a rational person-entity separate from the universe who designed and willed it into existence.  There is no such “God.”  What in the past was referred to as “God” is for me the unknown well-spring of evolving material energy — existence as we know it — to which our conatus is necessarily bound and related intrinsically, intimately and dependently because we are made of it. It is the ground of all value, because it is all there is.

The material energy that we have in common is simultaneously the origin and goal of our hunger for existence. At no point are we “other” than it, though the form in which we possess it — as reproduced and reproducing organisms located on the time-line of evolution — is not identical with the totality of existence nor with its almost infinite range of creative abilities.  Our own powers are limited to work and reproduction; our individual organisms are not originating nor do they endure.  The form that material energy has taken as us will dissolve and our energy will be assumed by other forms.  We are temporarily identifiable forms within a homogeneous whole, like vortices — whirlpools — in a moving river; we are distinct but not separate.

“Value” is grounded in existence which is identical with material energy.  The human “sense of the sacred” is an irrepressible reaction springing from our  conatus — the limitless hunger for existence generated by our perishing organisms which find themselves immersed in matter’s energy as sponges in the sea.  The recognition that we are, within and without, submerged in the very existence to which we are appetitively bound by the material of which we are made, generates awe and a sense of oneness.  All our endeavors — i.e., the work we do during our time under the sun — are attempts to modify the conditions of our immersion in order to secure, prolong and enhance the existence enjoyed by our organisms.  Value is rooted in existencematter’s transcendently creative energy — not in some other world, or the will and command of some person who lives in that other world.  Value is intrinsic to everything that exists here and to every endeavor launched here that attempts to protect and improve it.  It is all a function of matter’s energy.

In such a context, the sense of absolute independent value that Harris, Wilson, Chomsky bring to these projects, which is reflected in their refusal to offer some other ground to justify their appeal, becomes completely intelligible. It also supports my rejection of the theist “God” of Western religions who is imagined as belonging to another world and whose “will” determines our moral response.  Even when this imaginary “God” happens to will and command what we know is good and right, the fact that the motivation elicited is obedience to “his” will and not our recognition of intrinsic value, saps the autonomous responsibility we have to that in which we “live and move and have our being.”  It treats us as immature.  And let’s be clear: what the theist “God” wills and commands has not always been what is good and right.  The interpretation of “his” will is under the exclusive  control of self-appointed agents — this church, this holy book, this televangelist, this pope — who determine what “his” will is for us, some claim infallibly. Some of those interpretations have resulted in “God” willing and commanding pogroms of Jews, crusades against Moslems and heretics, inquisitions, the slaughter and enslavement of primitive peoples, not to mention the everyday distortions of a morality premised on the demonizing of matter especially as found in human bodies. 

So we see that pan-entheism can support and explain the sense of independent value in play here.  A transcendent materialism provides the theoretical underpinning for the pursuit of projects that would otherwise have flown beneath the radar of a conventional morality dependent on the “will” of a legislating “God.” Pan-entheism grounds a new morality which does not refer back to an imaginary divine “person” in another world who must be obeyed under pain of punishment, but rather to the actual human persons who live in this one, calling on their connatural connection with the existence in which they “live and move and have their being” to drive and focus their behavioral response — not out of fear of punishment, but out of love for what they themselves are, the creative energy of matter of which all things are made.  We are stewards of creation, not because some “God” gave us the mandate, but because it’s what we are — we are matter, and we are driven by the very energy of which all things are constructed and activated. WE ARE THAT!.

Finally, do we need to go over again the refutation of the anthropomorphic “God” imagined by the religious poets of the ancient near east? I believe science has thoroughly done that.  I would just like to point out one central contradiction in the position of the supernatural theists that usually goes unnoticed:  This supposedly insuperably transcendent “God,” who is so beyond nature in every way that any contact must be totally supernatural, and necessarily a miraculous and gratuitous intervention taken on the divine initiative alonethis same transcendent “God” is also said to have created the world and us in it in his own image and likeness … a mirror reflection of his “perfections” and inner nature.  Creation, theists claim, was not simply a display of limitless power, it was by every account an imitation. Nature, therefore, at least in this sub-narrative, is in “God” the way a work of art always remains “in” the artist.  And for mediaeval philosophers, the assertion that “God” has nothing in common with creation flies in the face of the conclusions of their “science”: our very existence is a share in the one eternal Act of existence, esse in se subsistens, which is “God.”  Thus, theism is internally inconsistent.

It is because the material universe itself is the source and residence of all value that we humans, ignoring the distracting indirections coming from another imaginary world, can respond spontaneously, directly and without hesitation or need for permission, to the work that is our destiny under the sun.

[1] I do not like the term pan-entheism which is defined as “the belief that the universe exists in God.” It is still built on “God.”  Since I insist the word and concept “God” and its cognates are hopelessly anthropomorphic, I do not propose trying to give them new meaning, for I think that at this point in history it is impossible, but that they be dropped altogether.  Just using the word reduces the meaning ultimately to theism. The problem is, we have not yet agreed on a word that evokes the new meaning.  For the sake of at least pointing toward the general ideological area to which my concept belongs, pan-entheism can function temporarily as a placeholder, so long as it is understood to be inadequate.

Dream on, sleeper, dream on

Many years ago when I was a young man, I found myself in midtown Manhattan with over an hour to wait for a scheduled bus connection.  Looking for some distraction I went into a nearby movie theater that was showing short subjects and among them a prominently advertised flick by Andy Warhol.

 I can’t remember its name but I will never forget the movie.  The camera was aimed at a large bed, and never moved.  As the film opened, a young man entered camera range, sat on the bed, took off his shoes and lay down.  He quickly fell asleep and the film rolled on.  Nothing happened … ever.  He slept.  Every so often he would roll over onto one side, then roll back onto the other.  I left after half an hour but found out later that the movie ran on like that for hours.  The theater was not very full, and as the audience began to realize that this was all we were going to get, the reactions became quite audible: some laughed, some expressed anger at being insulted.  We had been had.  We were all drawn in there on Warhol’s name, and he flipped us the bird.  I was dumbfounded.  I did not know what to make of it.

 I still don’t.  But I came away with a distinct impression: the film was so utterly boring … so totally without action, interaction, relationship or thought, that I found my attention becoming drawn to any motion whatsoever.  The highlights were the few times the guy rolled over.  Those tiny wrinkles of modulation in an otherwise immense motionless continuum, had become the source of expectation and, believe it or not, when they occurred, satisfaction.

 Looking at the “filming” of the “Synod on the Family,” going on in Rome these days I can think of no more apt symbol than that outrageous “gotcha” by Warhol.  We are, just as surely, being had.  The media attention is the camera recording a ripple in an otherwise vast unchanging sea of stagnant Catholic dogma and decrees.  The sleeping behemoth has rolled over … the action, in context, is riveting … we are tense with expectation, and the many who have already had their minds cauterized by the scarring of a thousand years of repetitive immutability, live in a catatonic state with brains atrophied beyond the possibility of resuscitation, actually think there is something happening here.

 Nothing that comes out of this synod will have the slightest effect on the way people live their lives.  No one, absolutely no one, is looking to the synod to guide their moral choices, and according to polls, not even Catholics.  The mighty magisterium has long since lost all moral relevance to any but the ever dwindling coterie of those who cannot shake off the church-induced nightmare of a monster-“God” who obediently binds his punitive wrath to the pontifications of the Catholic hierarchy.  The only effect this synod’s decisions could possibly have is on the hierarchy itself.  The hierarchy could begin to dispel the impression created over the last 50 years that it is a mediaeval anachronism hardened in the willful rejection of its own Conciliar resolutions.  But to do that it would have to make a break with the past … and wake up.

 But the sleeper cannot wake up, and for two reasons: First, de facto, the Synod is a toothless “consultative” body under Papal presidency (and the mandatory presence of the heads of all Curial departments) made up of male prelates only — not even the heads of women’s’ religious orders can participate, much less lower clergy, priests and deacons, and lay people, men and women, who are the only members of the church with appropriate experience in these matters, sex and families — and we are to believe something will happen?  The fact that it was intended as a rubber-stamp of Papal wishes, ironically, may be the only source of hope, because this particular pope seems sincerely to want to move forward.  But in my opinion, the only authentic thing this this non-representative klatch of ageing male celibates could do would be to disband itself and humbly declare to the world that it had nothing meaningful to say to people with whom it has nothing in common.

 The second is that, de jure, these men, including the Pope, are committed to uphold decrees that function with the force of law and enjoy an official aura of infallibility.  The “sacred magisterium” to which they have pledged loyalty is firmly in place.  Its authority is held in such awe that it would instantly neutralize any decision that was taken in opposition to it, even if by some miracle it should ever occur.

 Birth control is not the only example of this captivity to the magisterium, but it serves well.  Papal deference to the magisterium decreed 50 years ago that the use of contraceptives was “intrinsically evil” in utter disregard of the recommendations of a “consultative” body of prelates and others assigned to the task by the pope himself.  Since nothing can change without repudiating tradition, it’s hard to imagine how things could possibly be any different today.  Why even think about it?  Tradition that functions as dogma and “law” can never be changed.  The star of the movie may toss and turn, but his role is to keep on sleeping.  The obsession of insisting that the Church can never change because it can never be wrong is narcissistic hubris.  If you are never wrong, by definition there is never anything to change, you never have to repudiate the past, you never have to wake up.

 But while I call it hubris and intentionally insinuate narcissistic self-involvement, for many Catholics it is actually much worse.  It is sincere!  It’s an honest response to a belief in the infallibility of the magisterium and the divine establishment of hierarchical government and papal autocracy.  And precisely because it is sincere, it is impervious to self-correction.  For individuals, thinking they are infallible is clearly a “delusion of grandeur” recognized by all as a pathology out of touch with reality.  But in the Catholic Church it is a collective projection that fantasizes imaginary powers and special protections given by “God” exclusively to this institution.  Insane as it might be, this group of people who honestly believe in their own infallibility cannot officially be accused of pathology because they comprise a socially recognized and respected institution.  This social recognition reduces to near zero any hope that they will be challenged and possibly convinced by argument and evidence that their attitude is in fact a pathological “delusion of grandeur.”

 So the sleeper never wakes up.  It always takes a while before the fact sinks in, because you can’t believe anyone could be this outrageous.  But once you advert to the reputation of the perpetrators and recall what you already know of their character and conceits, you realize you should have known.  If you don’t walk out, it’s only because you’ve fallen asleep yourself.