Beyond Physicalism: And Now?
Yes, it's dead. But we need to look further.
The fact is, materialist philosophy—also known as physicalism—has held us in its icy grip for far too long.
It has stifled our thought to the point of comedy. That is how I sometimes feel, anyway, when I follow some of the discussions going on in academic philosophy. Everybody has their favorite “position,” but nobody seems to question the deeper underlying assumptions, the very ground on which these often pointless conflicts are fought out.1
The great R.G. Collingwood, who for his entire life fought a losing battle against what he called the “corruption of consciousness,” wisely remarked:
…each philosopher, if he genuinely does make his own contribution to knowledge, cannot be merely adding another item to an inventory; he must be shaping afresh in his own mind the idea of philosophy as a whole.
Who does such a thing these days? Who even understands it?
Well, at least it’s good more people have realized that materialism is bunk—or, to be more precise, that the assumptions underlying materialism are dubious. Some excellent thoughts have been shared by Tree of Woe, for instance, who nicely summarizes some of the best critics of physicalism.
However, while I applaud the use of science and philosophical argument to attack some of the materialist claims, and I’m especially interested in the debates around the various interpretations of Quantum Mechanics, in many ways this sort of thinking is still based on deep-seated modernist presuppositions.
This is not even a critique: what Collingwood called “absolute presuppositions,” our deepest unconscious assumptions, are subject to gradual change over history, but cannot just be abandoned willy-nilly. We must fight our way out of them and for that, we have no choice but to use what we got. And we got quite a bit.
But still. Collingwood’s proto-postmodernist view was that at the end of the day, we are simply children of our history of ideas: our presuppositions, what we take to be unshakably true, form a narrative that could have been otherwise. Our accumulated ideas, as understood in the present, are just a snapshot; they represent one particular contingent angle from which to look at the world.
For instance, it’s all fine and dandy to realize that our mind, via the eyes, perceives the world directly, as opposed to just a “retinal image,” as many people believe. Tree of Woe has summarized some fascinating research to this effect. (Although it’s interesting how obvious this really is once you think about it, which I had never done before—a good example of how deeply ingrained so many ideas are without us even realizing it.)
But have you ever questioned, say, natural causality? What could possibly be truer than the idea that everything has some sort of natural cause, like our vision being caused by electrons bouncing off objects?
Well, except that the concept of causality is a human invention, which has its origin in the idea of compulsion—as in convincing or ordering someone to do something. This has then been gradually applied to pragmatic causes, such as when some system breaks down, and you look for the “cause” so you can fix it, and finally to the natural world independent of human agency. But “natural causes” independent of agency and intelligence would have been a strange notion indeed for past generations.2
Speaking of the natural world: it is by no means obvious that it is even distinct from us, or from how we experience it. Odd as it may sound, people have not always seen it that way. That there is anything that is distinct from life itself is indeed not set in stone at all. It’s just an idea.
We begin to realize how radically differently we can look at the world, and that concepts we absolutely take for granted might, in fact, be merely a contingent product of our specific thought history.
Now, you might object, in the progressive spirit of our age (another ingrained assumption?), that all of that may be true, but that this simply shows our development from primitive thought towards an ever-more objective, “scientific” and true understanding.
But while there has no doubt been an advance in knowledge and technological prowess, perhaps we might best think of it as the development of one particular web of presuppositions, representing one summit of advanced knowledge, but just one among many. Other such summits are conceivable, although maybe they would require an entirely different intellectual development over millennia.
Returning to physicalism: once we have abandoned it, what’s next?
Physicalism is Dead: Now Back to Basics
Just like everybody else, I cannot get rid of all of our presuppositions and thought patterns, but let’s try to stretch them a little.
What do we actually know?
What’s clear is that reality stretches beyond our own conscious minds. Otherwise, we could not interact with anything, could not learn anything, etc. We might call it “external reality,” but this can be misleading because we are, again, so used to thinking along materialist or Cartesian lines about it all.
Let’s formulate it differently: there is our consciousness, and there is Reality-at-large, and they are not identical. This should work for most positions, from idealism to physicalism3, except perhaps for solipsism. But then, solipsism is stupid, and since we’re among friends here, we don’t talk stupid.
The question, then, is this: what is the relationship between the two? Between our conscious self and Reality?
To avoid falling back to our standard thought patterns, we shouldn’t conceptualize our relationship with reality as “reality impressing itself upon us via our sense organs” or something like that. Nor, alternatively, as our consciousness somehow creating reality. Let’s break out of these false dichotomies and modernist paradigms.
For one thing, we don’t just perceive via our “sense organs” as if we were walking smartphones with cameras and microphones. Extrasensual perception is real, even without accepting the paranormal. (Heck, even the smartphone has Wifi.)
But more importantly, when we think of Reality, our absolute presuppositions—our deeply ingrained thought patterns—dictate that we think of it as physical, dead, and static.
What if Reality is alive?
A dead physical universe certainly doesn’t follow from the observation that we can discover mathematical patterns if we isolate certain phenomena, i.e. physics. Heck, even the physicalist accepts that complexity can lead to life—that’s his whole shtick! So even under materialist assumptions, there is no reason to believe the universe, as a whole, doesn’t have a mind. It’s just that we are not used to thinking about it that way.
As for Reality being static, apart from it not being clear at all that physics can be generalized to all levels of experience and existence, there is some reason to believe that even the so-called physical laws and constants are not timeless and universal, but rather evolving.4 Which is not surprising, given that it is pretty weird to assume anything to be timeless and universal. Nothing in our experience corresponds to such a notion: everything changes, learns, grows, evolves, fades away, and so on.
OK, so we have our conscious self, and we have Reality, which may be alive.
In other words, we may be interacting with a dynamic, living field of information.
Reality talks back. Reality is in conversation with us. We know it directly, if only partly. We can intuit large chunks of it. We can ask it questions—via Francis Bacon’s “torture” (science)5, to be sure, but more than that. We ask, it responds: but in its own way that we completely miss under our current paradigm that declares it dead, separate from us and life in general, mindless.
Then, there are different timescales. We are so used to thinking in terms of “natural” causal chains that we don’t look at the big picture. Maybe reality responds to us via many different signals, stretched out over time and space. And what is our history, as a whole? Is it the product of a mind—itself a sort of organism? Are we part of such an organism? Is the universe we inhabit somehow entangled with our history?
Consider this: most people would probably accept that the quality of our thoughts has something to do with how much of Reality we can access. Let’s follow Collingwood in that our thoughts are not a timeless blob looking at Reality from a vacuum. Rather, everything we think is deeply conditioned by the history of thought: how and what people thought over many, many millennia. This means that our access to Reality depends on our history.
What’s more, our thought is deeply embedded in our own historical moment: what are the problems we are trying to solve? What are we reacting to? Our capacity to see reality depends on these questions, which are unique and historical, as opposed to universal and timeless. And so they have been in the past, building both on what went before and the ideals people strove towards—themselves forms of thought.
This gives an idea of the unbelievable complexity that is human thought, and its development throughout history. It is one giant, dynamic web: the complete history of consciousness interacting with Reality—a Reality that might itself be alive and conscious, as we’ve seen. A fantastic 4-dimensional mosaic of mind. How little it is that we know, oh, that we can know, in our little corner of Historic Mind!
To make things even crazier, in a sense history is what creates Reality. Our Reality. Because what is our reality if not the product of our particular constraints of thought: the form, the Gestalt, that owes its existence to how we look at the world through the particular lens of our presuppositions?
This also means that each individual is a reality-creator in ways we can’t grasp, for he is part of History. Except that, again, Reality-as-history talks back: it is a dialogue, a dance, an interaction, as opposed to us ordering around Reality by visualizing ‘n stuff. As Collingwood said, “history is the life of mind itself.”
You see, getting into the “life of mind itself,” which is history, is the same thing as self-knowledge: and self-knowledge “is desirable and important to man, not only for its own sake but as a condition without which no other knowledge can be critically justified and securely based.”6
You might object that at this point, I clearly have lost the plot. And you would have a point. Not because I’m not right (I probably am), but because, as I said, we cannot escape our presuppositions, our historical moment of thought, just as we cannot rip an organ out of the body and expect it to still be functional. “Deconstructing” our presuppositions, as I have attempted here, risks leaving us dead.
What we can do, however, is occasionally use our imagination to stretch the limits of what our entire civilizational history, crystallized in this very moment, dictates we think.
Then we can come back from that trip and continue our more down-to-earth research and thinking in the homely realm of our familiar presuppositions, where we know the tools and what’s what.
After all, we do need those tools to build something useful, including, perhaps, our escape pod: it remains a possibility that we may one day move beyond the confines of our present Reality, and that Reality will adapt accordingly.
Maybe that escape pod will be built out of all those narratives people have thought to be absolute truths at one point or another—narratives that we, today, can learn to master and inhabit at will, instead of being thrown around by knee-jerk reactions, triggered by questions about our deeply held beliefs, incapable of discovering different mind spaces, if only for a time. Then we can inhabit history, wield it with our minds to understand things like never before, and sense beyond the limits of our isolated existence as the playthings of forces we can’t perceive.
That would be quite the pod indeed, and Reality might notice.
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Frankly, I’m tired of all those XYZists and their turf wars. Absolute non-delirious type III physicalist? Semi-panexperientialist monist? Pseudo-dualist weak idealist? Did I just make those up or do they exist somewhere in the journals? Hard to tell. I’m pretty sure, however, that 50 or even 10 years from now, people won’t look back favorably on this particular period of philosophy, and we might be the butt of a joke.
Collingwood discusses this at length in his books Essay on Metaphysics and The Idea of Nature.
For illusionism, just replace “consciousness” with “our illusion of consciousness”; for eliminativism, just replace “consciousness” with “whatever is going on before we eliminate consciousness” :)
See Rupert Sheldrake’s work, for example. A good primer is his book Science Set Free.
Although this torture metaphor ascribed to Bacon is likely another in a long list of misunderstandings about the origin of science, see Peter Pesic, Wrestling with Proteus: Francis Bacon and the “Torture” of Nature, Isis, vol. 90, no. 1, 1999, pp. 81–94.
See also my essay, The Forgotten Esoteric Roots of Modernity
R.G. Collingwood, Essay on Philosophical Method