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.