Disambiguating Spirit and Matter (reflections on scientific materialism)

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… 

Power and Presence in Theology

Another response to NRG’s questions for me on Pharyngula:

I have trouble conceiving of God as all-powerful because of the problem of evil and my experience of human freedom. I associated God’s omnipresence with “will” even though, for God, there is really nothing to “do.” From the “perspective” of eternity, God is already everywhere and everywhen at once. It is when omnipresence get’s stepped down into its human incarnation, that it becomes will or desire; unlike God, humans between birth and death have a particular embodied perspective on space-time, but volition is our means of approaching the infinite presence of God. To actually unite with God’s infinite presence, I believe one would have to die for the love of or in love with all other sentient beings. We only get one chance per lifetime to will the infinite in this way. It is not easy, I suspect, to remain fully present to others in such a way during one’s own death.

I should remind you that I am playing here, that I have indeed stepped outside the strictures of scripture and am making this up as I go along, so to speak. Am I just feeling that these nice ideas should be true, or am I willing that they be so out of the power of my own imagination? I think I do feel and will that they are so. But I think this. My thinking is not separate from my feelings and my will. This is the mystery of the Trinity: three persons/functions, one God/Self. I do not think the intellect could know anything at all without volition (will) and judgment (feeling) involved in the act as well.

Does the reality of a soul, or of a soul not confined to the body but extended into the world, mean that “God did it?” No, as I said above, I don’t think the idea of God does any epistemic work when dealing with natural phenomena (the soul is “natural” in that it is part of the manifest world, part of the actual phenomena constituting our psychological experience as people). All that it means is that “matter” is not the ultimate explanatory principle.

I was raised with a foot in both Judaism and Christianity, and became an atheist around 11 or 12 when I first read Stephen Hawking’sA Brief History of Time.” I believed until about 17 that “science would win,” as Hawking has since suggested. I saw Western religious institutions as dogmatic and oppressive, and their scriptures (which I’d yet to read much of) as deluded and in flat contradiction to the facts of science (or the claims of scientists, a distinction I wasn’t yet able to make). But then I took a psychology class in 11th grade and read the ideas of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and Alan Watts, among others. I realized that something intrinsic to human nature inextricably lures us toward the sacred and would continue to do so despite the success of the scientific method. I begin to study philosophy more closely in college, and realized soon after that the “facts” of scientific materialism didn’t necessarily hold up after sustained reflection on the history of science (Kuhn). I came to see also that there existed a rich diversity of thriving philosophical attitudes concerning the ultimate nature of things–in short, I came to recognize that materialism was not the only conclusion to which one could be lead based upon the last 400 years of natural science.

“God” is an idea I play with, an idea I admit I cannot know fully, or even know how I know what little I may know about it. But everything I experience points me toward this “strange attractor” called God (or Hegel’s Absolute, or Plato’s idea of the Good, or Teilhard’s Omega).

When I first watched the following clip from an interview with Jung, I was intrigued by the expression on his face after being asked if he believed in God… “difficult to answer…” Something like the feeling he must be experiencing behind that smirking face guides my intuitions about the divine: