For several years now, I have from time to time engaged in philosophical debate with commenters over at Pharyngula (the atheist and biologist PZ Myers‘ well-traffic blog). It is often impossible to maintain a civil discussion or sympathetic reflection about the topic at hand (usually having to do with the ontology of life, the meaning of consciousness, or the role of spirituality/religion in contemporary society) because our complete lack of shared assumptions about the world quickly causes the conversation to degenerate into defensive ideological posturing. Myers (and the Sentinels who patrol his site always ready to beat back the vitalist and mysterian “trolls” who dare question scientific orthodoxy) displays a way of thinking that is perhaps the best contemporary example of what Alfred North Whitehead called scientific materialism. This mode of thought prevents its possessors (or those it possesses) from practicing what Keats once called “negative capability.” Negative capability could be described as the power or potency of the human imagination to think without acting, i.e., to contemplate the possibility of something without assuming its actuality. To practice philosophy, itself a spiritual and imaginative activity, one needs to have mastered this negative capability.

A recent post by Myers, wherein he ridicules the notion of “spiritual exercises” for atheists, illustrates well the conceptual blockage preventing scientific materialists from considering anything other than deterministic mechanical laws in their explanations of the natural world. Myers writes of spiritual exercises, like meditation, visualization, and breath work, that:

“…they are physiological exercises. [1]They do not manipulate ‘spirit,’ [2]they change the physical state of the brain. But these glib pseudoscientific quacks just love to borrow the language of science and slap the label of ‘spiritual’…”

Myers thinks he is able to discard the notion of “spirit” quickly and easily as a relic of pre-scientific dualism; but I think his concept of “spirit” is deeply confused. He seems to imagine “spirit” as some sort of super-matter, a subtler kind of extended substance capable of reaching in from the outside to direct physiological activity. He rightly dismisses this caricature of “spirit” in one clause [1], only to implicitly re-affirm it in the next [2]!

Who, exactly, changes the physical state of the brain? The language here is difficult, and some may argue that philosophy simply plays with the infinite ambiguity of linguistic reflexivity until all discernable meaning becomes entirely obscured. But if one is capable of any degree of philosophical sympathy with the likes of such difficult thinkers as Kant, Ficthe, Schelling, Hegel, Steiner, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson, James, Whitehead, etc., I think it becomes rather obvious that the sublimity of feeling resulting from consciousness’ attempts to understand its own conditions of possibility (whether cranial or celestial) lead straight into what can only be called “spirituality.” “Spirit” is an easily misunderstood word referring to one’s own present consciousness. It is the “I” that knows who it is, the “will” who intends, regrets, and foresees. Spirit is that in the physiologist that experiences the feeling of knowing the structure and function of the brain. A thinker cannot reduce his or her own thinking to the structure and function of the brain without a performative contradiction.

This defense of spirit as irreducible to matter is not a plee for dualism. On the contrary, it is an attempt to provide the mechanistically minded with an opportunity to discover the deeper meaning of what even their own language cannot help but admit. Spirit and matter are not opposites, but complementaries: the two faces of a single, creative process.

One possible antidote to the self-erasure of scientific materialism is the organic cosmology of the Romantics, for whom nature was visible spirit, and spirit invisible nature. I won’t try to say it better than Emerson, who in Nature, writes:

Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass…The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics. Thus, “the whole is greater than its part;” “reaction is equal to action;” “the smallest weight may be made to lift the greatest, the difference of weight being compensated by time;” and many the like propositions, which have an ethical as well as physical sense. These propositions have a much more extensive and universal sense when applied to human life, than when confined to technical use…This relation between the mind and matter is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so is free to be known by all men. It appears to men, or it does not appear. When in fortunate hours we ponder this miracle, the wise man doubts, if, at all other times, he is not blind and deaf;

—— “Can these things be,
And overcome us like a summer’s cloud,
Without our special wonder?”

for the universe becomes transparent, and the light of higher laws than its own, shines through it. It is the standing problem which has exercised the wonder and the study of every fine genius since the world began; from the era of the Egyptians and the Brahmins, to that of Pythagoras, of Plato, of Bacon, of Leibnitz, of Swedenborg. There sits the Sphinx at the road-side, and from age to age, as each prophet comes by, he tries his fortune at reading her riddle. There seems to be a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms; and day and night, river and storm, beast and bird, acid and alkali, preexist in necessary Ideas in the mind of God, and are what they are by virtue of preceding affections, in the world of spirit. A Fact is the end or last issue of spirit. The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.”

More reflections on PZ Myers, science, and philosophy…