My Revised Appraisal of Strict Materialism

(Friday, June 1, 2018, 12:30 a.m.)

It has been a number of years since my last blog entry on my personal website. While I cannot say I have honestly had a lot of new life-experiences that would falsify my holding to a strict materialist world-view, I have been reading extensively and have talked to a few people who believe they have had experiences beyond what is generally regarded as "the ordinary." The overall effect of this reading, conversation, and thinking has been that I find myself less inclined to take a "hard" stance on something that I was willing to think of as being true almost axiomatically. In myself, this is more evidence of my willingness to be skeptical of my own world-view than it is a willingness to wholeheartedly embrace any particular religion or other world view I have encountered. In essence, I am moving from a position of "harder" atheism to one of "softer" agnosticism.

Some may say that with age, a person becomes more set in their beliefs. I do not find this is the case with me as I near the 50-mark. What I find instead is that I inhabit a world where I am forced to cheerfully admit that I never really have known my way around it, and that I understand it only provisionally, and as if through a glass darkly. But provisional understanding is the best one can do; every true scientist or empirical philosopher understands this.

I suppose what has changed for me is my readiness to categorically dismiss the evidence provided by those that believe that paranormal phenomena exist, or that strange coincidences--synchronicities they are often called--are only accidents. I cannot claim to understand at an expert level modern physics, especially relativity and quantum mechanics, but what I do understand is that the overall paradigm--the overall world-view of physicists--has shifted over the centuries along with the observable evidence they have gathered and the various ways they have analyzed this evidence. Old ways of thinking that were intuitive, like Newtonian mechanics, have been found to not strictly apply under particular "edge" conditions. (For example, behavior of objects deviates from the expectations of Newtonian mechanics when the object is moving at close to the speed of light or is of a subatomic particle size.) So why should we dare to think that our present consensus world-view in physics or philosophy is the final, correct view?

I have recently read, for example in Irreducible Mind, that there has been collected extensive empirical evidence that seems to call into question the standard materialist view that mind state is produced strictly by brain state, or even that mind and brain state stand in a fixed relationship to one another, which has been mostly what I would have proposed. The authors of this book suggest a kind of "filter" or "transmission" theory of mind/brain, as suggested by Frederic W. H. Myers, or William James in the early 20th century. In short, the idea is that our conscious experience involves a "Higher Mind" state that is being transmitted to, or filtered out, by the structure of the physical brain. The mind has a wider awareness, basically, and the physical brain narrows the focus of that awareness down to matters that are tied more intimately to the physical body. This view is opposed to the view that mind is just the sense of awareness and experience that is produced by the workings of the physical brain. The authors of Irreducible Mind claim that the evidence of paranormal phenomena is not explainable by the materialist view of brain producing mind. They believe, for example, that "idiot savants" and geniuses, as well as mediums and people performing strangely intelligent behaviors like "automatic writing" which is above their normal level of intellect, have the source of their strange abilities in this Higher Mind that is related to them as individuals, but is more perceptive than the ordinary conscious mind, and can sometimes take inputs from other minds and nonlocal places in space (e.g. telepathy and clairvoyance).

I freely admit that I have not embarked on a skeptical mission to try to debunk the evidence provided, but I find myself wondering if all of the strange things witnessed by people studying paranormal phenomena and the strange experiences individuals have had can all be hoaxes and delusions. For any one seemingly miraculous event, it makes sense to be extremely skeptical. But when patterns recur and are witnessed by enough reliable witnesses, then it seems worthwhile, at least, to investigate further the strange phenomena.

Most importantly, though, it must be recognized that a world-view, even a hard-nosed materialist one, is always contingent on what is observed in the world. Can you guarantee that you will never run into situations that violate what you believed to be the firm principles that govern your world? The bottom line is that I can't, and although I have seen scant evidence in my own life of the paranormal, there is only so far that I can project my own limited experience onto every other person, honestly.

Of course, this may seem to open the door to believing anything at all on a whim. It does open up a number of possibilities, but this does not change that not all possibilities are equal in their fit to what is observed in the world. From that standpoint, materialism is still a very good world-view. It lines up most of what we experience with a set of plausible theories and explanations. But does it catch every case, every situation of what we do or can experience? I am less inclined to expect this now.

So where does that leave me? What do I believe now, and how is it different than before? In my day-to-day life, the world seems to act for me as a materialist would predict it would. However, I guess I can no longer assume that this will always apply in my existence. I can no longer assume that the strange and seemingly improbable is impossible. There is more of a willingness, I think, to be open to surprise and a radically different understanding of existence in the face of potential new evidence.

In conclusion, I do not reject materialism, but nor can I cling to it as if it were the ultimate bedrock of Truth. Materialism is a map of reality, and like all (or most) maps, it is useful. But the map is not the same as the land it represents. I would say at this stage that we don't really know how good the map is in all cases. We don't know its limitations. Time has a tendency to bring more accurate maps into our presence, and there always seem to be surprises.

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