Physicalism is the idea that the universe is fundamentally composed of entirely blind, deaf, dumb–DEAD–particles in purposeless motion through empty space. For some reason, these dumb particles follow the orders of a system of eternal mathematical laws that, for some reason, the human mind, itself made of nothing more than dumb particles, is capable of comprehending.
If you accept this definition of physicalism and this rendering of the project of natural science, and if you avoid the question of the transcendental conditions of physics, then a coherent non-dualistic physicalist ontology requires that what we call “life” and “consciousness” both be explained away as mere appearances reducible to the mechanical collisions of particles. On this definition of physicalism, “life” and “consciousness” are just words we have for epiphenomenal illusions with no causal influence on what happens. “Life” is a genetic algorithm and “consciousness” is a meme machine, in Dawkins’ and Dennett’s terms. We are undead zombies, not living persons, on this reading of physicalism.
On the other hand, if you see consciousness and life as realities that are impossible to deny and that are in need of explanation *on their own terms*, either as emergent holistic processes with downward causative influence or as intrinsic capacities of phusis itself (my view), then clearly modern physicalism (or what Whitehead calls “scientific materialism”) must be mistaken.
If consciousness and life are not mere illusions with no hand in what happens but active participants shaping the evolutionary journey of the universe, then “physical stuff” like molecules and atoms, stars and galaxies, is not at all what the modern mind has been imagining for several centuries. Matter is not a heap of extensional lumps floating in homogeneous reversible time. That idea of dead matter has always been an idealistic abstraction. Concrete actually existing matter is infinite energy caught in a creative process of spatiotemporal evolution. This energetic expression is experiential through and through, and our special human form of conscious experience is just one of the universe’s many forms of spatiotemporal affection.
Joshua Fields interviewed me last week for his podcast Neonosis.
Thanks to Adrian Nelson for hosting this conversation on his YouTube channel Waking Cosmos.
Thank you, President Subbiondo. Thanks also to our Academic Vice President Judie Wexler, to our honorary degree recipients Angela Davis and Josef Brinckmann, and to all CIIS faculty and staff for the work you have done to make this day possible for me and for my fellow graduates.
I am a philosopher, which is not to say that I know the answer to every question, but that I tend to ask what some people may think of as annoyingly obvious questions. If you don’t also happen to have the philosophical itch, I hope you will forgive me for asking the following: What is a university? What are we doing here today, “graduating” from one? I’ll offer the simplest answer I can think of: a university is a community of learning, and we, as university graduates, are supposed to be learned to some degree or another.
Now, unfortunately, university education, especially in the humanities, is increasingly under threat in our country. I’ll let the great philosopher Martha Nussbaum (who teaches at the University of Chicago) set the scene: “nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.”
Our profit-driven economic system–the industrial growth society–has decided that science, technology, and engineering alone should shape the future (with barely a feigned nod to art, culture, wisdom, or a thorough grasp of history). As the late Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah put it, contemporary American universities, while they may on rare occasions still function as “instruments in the class struggle,” are increasingly being transformed into “wholesale knowledge outlets for consumer society.” The entire educational system is being re-designed to produce efficient, responsible corporate or state worker-consumers. In our present economy, we are told to seek a university education, not for culture or learning, not to become more sensitive human beings, but for job preparation. Even at CIIS, this reality cannot be ignored. We need jobs to survive, to eat, to pay rent, after all.
But for those of us who chose to come to CIIS, I believe something deeper than mere survival is motivating us. We came here to learn how to thrive; to learn how to heal the human psyche and body; to learn to philosophize; to learn the wisdom of the world’s various religions, spiritual paths, and indigenous ways of knowing; to learn about present possibilities for social and institutional change.
I might stop there, having basically read the names of the degrees on the diplomas that we are receiving today. But I want to probe a bit deeper for a moment. What is beneath these specializations? What is university learning really about at, well, the most universal level? I want to suggest that at the deepest level and in the most general sense, a university should help each human being find their unique role not only in society at this particular historical juncture, not only their profession in this particular job market, but their role in the ongoing evolution of the community of life on earth, 4 billion years in the making. The purpose of the university is to prepare us for life in the Universe, itself 14 billion years in the making. Universities should help orient us and to encourage us to become creative participants in this wondrous miracle we call existence. Yes, yes, earning a living is also important. But as the late geologian Thomas Berry suggested (and I paraphrase), “universities must decide whether they will continue training persons for temporary survival in a declining [industrial civilization,] or whether they will begin educating students for [what we hope is an emerging ecological civilization].”
CIIS is one of the few educational organizations to have taken the evolutionary crisis Berry is pointing to seriously. It has decided to be (and I quote from the mission statement): a “university that strives to embody spirit, intellect, and wisdom in service to individuals, communities, and the earth.” Such an unorthodox mission has not made it easy for this non-profit university to survive in an educational marketplace offering more prestige, technical training, and higher salary expectations. At several points going back to the founding in the 1950s of CIIS’s earlier institutional incarnation (the American Academy of Asian Studies) by the international trader Louis Gainsborough, this university has needed the generous philanthropic support of the business community to continue and expand its activities. The Academy’s dean in the early days, the well-known philosopher and mystic Alan Watts, reported that Gainsborough’s initial vision for the school was as an “information service” on Indian and Chinese religions. Watts, of course, made it clear that he and the other founding faculty (including Frederic Spiegelberg, Haridas Chaudhuri, and Judith Tyberg) “had no real interest in this nonetheless sensible idea of an information service.” “We were concerned,” Watts says, “with the practical transformation of human consciousness.”
I believe the transformation of human consciousness is still the underlying concern of CIIS’s educational efforts. Jobs are important, yes. But the jobs that CIIS graduates want to work at to a large extent do not yet exist. The political parties that graduates of CIIS want to vote for do not yet exist. The world that graduates of CIIS want does not yet exist. Our role as graduates of this university is to play some part, small or large, mediocre or monumental, in the creation of new worlds. We don’t yet know what the future of life on this planet will look like, which is why I’ve pluralized “world.” We are called to participate with one another in the creation of new worlds. We should experiment with as many new world-formations and forms of consciousness as we can imagine, because the way forward is uncertain. Some of us may create something beautiful and enduring. Some of us may fail. If we are honest with ourselves, the entire human species may fail in its response to the present social and ecological crises. I don’t know, but I remain hopeful that, as the Indian yogi and integral philosopher Sri Aurobindo said, “By our stumbling, the world is perfected.”
I will leave you with a challenge. It is a challenge for my fellow graduates and for myself. I challenge us to continue to be of service to the evolution of this nation, of our species, of all species, and ultimately of the Universe itself. I challenge us, in whatever form our work in the world takes, to remain awake and engaged in the task of planetary transformation, to refuse to lose ourselves in the somnambulance of consumer culture. We cannot be sure where this journey will lead. All we can be sure of is our own intentions as active participants in the adventure. We must ask ourselves, what are we doing here? And we must never stop asking it. Is it merely to survive? To pay the bills? To play the lotto and strike it rich? I don’t believe so. According to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “The task of a university is the creation of the future.” As university graduates, this is now our task.