Religious but not Spiritual, Part Two: Materialism

Posted: July 30, 2014 in Braak
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So, prompted by some comments about how certain atheists (*cough*richarddawkins*cough*) tend to make all atheists look bad by acting like huge pricks all the time, I figured I’d participate in the process of the differentiation of atheists by laying out what my own philosophy of the world is, rather than according to one particular thing I think it isn’t.

Before I talked specifically about the atheistic part of the world as I see it – the idea that there is no guiding benevolent force directly interacting with the universe in any perceptible way and sort of concomitantly, that any other kind of deity (the God as Watchmaker, for instance) isn’t particularly relevant. This time I want to write about what I think the nature of the world is, and the way in which we live in it.


“Materialism” I think can be confusing to people, sometimes, because it’s easily confused with “materialistic” – but they’re very different. The latter means that you only care about getting stuff in life; the former means that you believe that the universe’s substance is entirely material. One is a mode of being; one is a theory of ontology. (This also sounds confusing when I put it like that! But – “materialistic” is a way for me to be; “materialism” is a philosophy of what I think other things are.)

Anyway, there is not, to my thinking, any substance to the universe that is not a physical substance, and by “physical”, I guess a good thing to mean would be “subject to the laws of physics.” So, I’m not talking about literal physical things that you could punch – I’m not saying that all the substance of the universe is explicitly punchable. Obviously, light isn’t “physical” in the sense that you could punch it, but it is physical in the sense that it is subject to the same basic laws that govern those things which ARE punchable, even if it’s a different subset of those laws.

This sounds like it encompasses basically everything (and I of course agree that it does) – everything except for souls, I guess, and that’s the reason for the distinction. I don’t believe in souls, or that there is a separate category of substance to the universe that is beyond the compass of natural law (a “supernatural” world, you might say). This means no souls, of course, but it also means no platonic ideals, no God (obviously), also (maybe a little weirdly) no transcendent condition of enlightenment. I’m going to get to this a little bit later in the Mysticism portion of our program, but I don’t believe in Enlightenment as a kind of communion with a sacred Godhead, or being in touch with any kind of panentheic force.

(“Panentheism” is a particular kind of theism that posits that there is a divine force that interpenetrates all portions of the physical world [the way “pantheism” does] but ALSO exists outside of the physical world in a timeless or eternal way. It’s a good description for the kind of theism that’s often seen in Hinduism, and the messy, complicated way that the West has appropriated concepts from Hinduism for use in our yoga exercises.)

Ghosts I’m willing to buy, but only if you could give me a good explanation for how they might operate in the natural world, in a way that’s concordant with the things that we already know about it. I don’t know what that would be (which is why I don’t believe in them), but I’m willing to believe that there could be something, if someone ever told me about an experience with ghosts that wasn’t more readily explained by things we already know about how easy it is to trick our perceptions of the natural world.

I do believe in science, but not in science as universal arbiter of truth – a better way to understand it is in science as a methodology: a strict system of describing the material condition of the universe. A strict, and, importantly, uncaring system; the methodology of science has no vested interest in the existence or non-existence of ghosts – only people can have that. And because the methodology doesn’t, then neither do I. The material world is the world that can be explained by physical laws; if you can find a way to explain ghosts as disembodied conscious entities using those physical laws (or heretofore unknown but now demonstrable physical laws) then I got no problem with ghosts. Science, in other words, is a tool designed to account for how our perceptions can be so easily tricked.

(For further reading about the Methodology, I guess see this thing I wrote about Eben Alexander’s near-death experience)

The Matrix of Semiotic Cognition

But a good question is WHY is it so easy to trick our perceptions of the natural world? Well, to answer that question we have to talk a little bit about what consciousness is, which is also a pretty important question that religion (or LIFE PHILOSOPHY) is meant to answer, so that’s a challenge I have to take on.

Here in the West it is very common to think of what we call Cartesian Duality – a belief that the mind and the body are wholly (or at least partially) separate entities with more or less influence over each other. A large part of this is motivated by the Christian belief in the immortal soul, which is key to Christian beliefs about salvation, and, in my opinion, this is a belief that neurology and philosophy has spent a long time trying to untangle.

(This is my opinion because I think that the belief in the immortal soul is incorrect, and while we had to accept the soul as given, we weren’t able to accurately formulate theories about what the mind was or how it worked.)

So, another way of understanding the mind and body is to say that they aren’t separate at all, that the mind is a physical process created by the body – a projection of the body’s physical elements that is inextricable from them. There is no consciousness “separate” from the processes of the body, in the same way that you might say there’s no dance separate from a dancer.

But actually, you might also say that there IS a way of talking about dance that is separate from the dancer that’s doing it, right? I mean, I could write down a list of all the steps they took, or paint footsteps on the floor, or even establish a body of rules for how a dance ought to be conducted. An interesting point!

It’s also a point that I think is at the root of a lot of our problems in life. See, the thing about the rules for conducting a dance is that they aren’t the dance. A diagram of a dance isn’t a dance. The dance is the dance, the diagram is the diagram. And while it can be used to recreate the dance (though, importantly, even with the best dancers in the world, never exactly the same way), it is never the thing itself, it is only a symbol for the thing.

(A scary thing to think about, though – what happens to us when we die? Well, where does a dance go when the dancer stops? I know, I don’t like to think about it either. But keeping it in mind is good motivation to do as good a job as you can. You only get one dance, and when it’s gone, it’s gone; better make it count.)

And this is exactly what we live in, all the time, but to explain it I’m going to back up a second.

If we accept that consciousness is a physical process, we’ve got to ask “what physical process?”, or actually “what combination of physical processes?” This is what I will suggest: what the human brain is is a ridiculously complicated engine for predicting the future, actually made of many smaller devices for predicting the future, sometimes in startlingly specific ways.

This is pretty much all it does – it takes in information from our senses (of which we have many more than five), and then tries to guess what’s going to happen next. It does this with a basic intention of preserving itself, and what happens is that in order to preserve itself, it has layered device after device on top of each other, each one meant to accommodate the limits of the previous device. And there are so many of these devices, and their function is so complicated, that the human mind has sort of blossomed from it into something that is delightfully, absurdly unpredictable.

And why shouldn’t it be? The world, as we’ve seen, is thoroughly unpredictable; any engine built to predict it ought to be equally impossible to predict.

But the important thing is not so much what the brain does as the way that it does it, and the way that it does it is by turning the information of our experience into a kind of symbolic shorthand. It does this in…what’s a good way to explain this? Okay, look.

Think about chopping down a tree. Are you thinking about a specific tree? What color is it? Is it a birch tree? A beach tree? An oak tree? What color leaves does it have? What are they shaped like? Have you ever seen a tree exactly like this one particular tree that you’re imagining right now?

My guess is that probably no, you haven’t; what your mind has done is, through its experience with trees, created a sort of shorthand for “tree” that you use when you’re not thinking of one tree in particular. You use this when you need to think about trees because you couldn’t possibly thinking about chopping down every tree that you’ve ever seen and, in fact, keeping a sort of mental array of all the trees you’ve ever encountered is largely a waste of time. You’ve been past maybe a million trees; you haven’t got time to bring up a catalog of every tree imaginable every time someone says “tree”. You need that brainpower to imagine “chopping”, too.

Now, if I had to guess at the tree that you’re imagining, I’d guess that it had a big, brown trunk, green leaves, a triangular crown; it looks a lot like an oak tree, but I bet there’s no acorns on it. I’m guessing this because it’s what I imagine when I think of trees, and the easiest way for me to guess what you’re imagining is just to assume that it’s the same thing.

Am I right?

Well, don’t worry about it. Right or not, the exercise illustrates the point: you and I don’t live in the material world. We live in a world made of symbols of the world, and these symbols are not just the substance of our consciousness, they inform the way that we create new symbols and take on new ideas – you and I, we don’t just make a model of the world based on our experiences of the world; we also experience the world based on what we already believe about it. The relationship between experience and worldview is actually reciprocal, and that’s part of the problem.

The Grand Divorce

So, this feedback loop causes the symbolic world of our minds to gradually drift away from the physical, material world that we live in. We don’t have, ever, direct, specific, unadulterated access to “reality”; it’s never not moderated by our senses, which are both limited and flexible, never not processed by the devices of the mind, which themselves are variable and fallible, never delivered to us in a way that is not guided by our pre-existing beliefs about the world. And honestly, that’s to be expected! The brain is an engine meant to predict the future, and the future is just hell of complicated; of course it’s going to get it wrong. And the more precise the brain becomes (that is, the more calibrated it is by our personal experiences) the less accurate it becomes (in other words, the less able it is to predict things outside of our experiences).

(I think it’s a fallacy, for example, that children are wiser than adults; I think this is an illusion based on the fact that children don’t know anything, so it’s easier for them to accept new things. In my opinion, this isn’t wisdom; anyone can accept new things if they don’t have old things for the new ones to displace. Wisdom is the ability to do what children do when you are not a child.)

It gets even more complicated when we start trying to talk about it, too. Language, after all, is the most symbolic of symbolic systems, the peak of our stack of devices of representations of reality. And when we share an idea, the divorce between symbol and reality becomes even more pronounced. You and I want to talk about “trees”, and you and I each have an idea of what a tree is, but in order to come to an understanding, we have to share a third meaning of tree – one that compromises both of our individual meanings, which were already compromises of our lifelong understanding of trees.

This third tree that we describe is probably like no other tree anywhere. It is not any tree at all, but a notion of tree divorced entirely from any particular physical tree.

This isn’t necessarily bad, though – obviously, we CAN communicate with each other. People build bridges all the time, and if language were impossibly irreconcilable with physical reality, there’d be no way to build a bridge. It’s actually pretty extraordinary that we’re able to communicate at all, I think it’s pretty amazing and great.

But there are barriers to communication, and these barriers are often caused by this divorce, by the fact that language is not automatically tethered to reality (and, indeed, the most precise languages are the ones that are explicitly and rigorously tied to the laws of physics – those are the languages of math and science). It is divorced from the physicality it describes, and so sometimes drifts away from it. We drift away from each other as people, and this causes argument; we also drift away from the world, substituting what we think about it for what it actually is.

(This, actually, is what I think is so insidious about Objectivism as a philosophy. I believe in the existence of an objective, material world – I just don’t believe that I have direct, objective access to it. The notion that everyone has their own perspective, and that there are ways in which these perspectives are equally valid, is a completely rational conclusion about individuals living in an objective reality that they are not able to wholly comprehend; Objectivism as a philosophy mistakes my personal perspective for that reality itself, which is neither rational nor verifiably true. Quite the opposite, actually – the reason we need formal systems like scientific methodology and logic is precisely because our individual perspectives are verifiably untrue. Objectivism, which supplants the individual perspective for reality itself, is ironically not objective at all; it’s purely subjective.)

This Divorce is the thing that my own philosophy is meant to resolve – a reconciliation between what exists in my imagination and what exists in reality (here – and in the future – I’m going to be using “imagination” a lot in order to describe this language of symbols, but I want to make it clear that I’m not using it in the pejorative; the imagination is the foundation for all physical action. What have human beings made that we haven’t imagined first? The point is not that imagination is less than reality, the point is only that imagination is not reality). It’s the divorce between the interior function of the mind and the thing that it’s meant to model that is the source of a lot of unhappiness, I think, and it’s the ongoing process of managing and reconciling that discrepancy that is at the heart of what my particular notions of philosophy are.

Be It Concluded

I don’t think any of this stuff is particularly new, and I don’t expect you to think of it as new.  But according to my belief that we live afloat in a sea of symbols, constantly divorced from actual reality, it seems to me that part of the ongoing process of reconciliation with the world is to look back at the things we know (or the things we think we know) and re-explain them.  Confucious once described something called “The Rectification of Names” as an essential part of good living — that things had to be called by their proper names in order to actually understand them.  Now, I don’t believe a thing has an essential or proper name, like there’s a secret dictionary of what things ARE, and that we periodically have to go back to it in order to figure out what we’re talking about (I actually don’t even think this about regular dictionaries).  And, in fact, I don’t believe that any name for a thing CAN be right — that we’re always some degree or another divorced from the reality of the material world.  This means that the Rectification of Names is never really possible to achieve — there is no condition of Correct Names, where everything is called what it is perfectly correctly.  For that reason, the Rectification of Names must be seen as an ongoing process of investigation, evaluation, and re-evaluation into both the world itself, and what we mean by it.

So, of course you can find other people who have said things similar to this; I’m not making a claim to invention here.  All I’m really trying to do is to find a new way to talk about some very old ideas, in the hopes that it will be useful to someone so that they can encounter them as though for the first time.


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