Monday, February 15, 2016

The Materialist Creed Is Highly Political

The way it shakes out in history, most modern critical social thinkers and progressives tend to be materialists. In the eighteenth century that made some kind of sense, but today it seems to me highly problematic, if not fatally dangerous.

Materialism, moreover, has devolved into a sacred cow, as Thomas Nagel learned when he recently published a book called: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. This evoked hysterical denunciations from defenders of the faith who yammered for an inquisition and chortled about burning the heretic.

Why all the furor?
Why do so many scientists and philosophers cling to a view that isn’t scientific at all but metaphysical and political? The politics date from the European Enlightenment with its vision of science replacing religion and technology reforming society.   Superstition — devil talk, miracle talk, soul talk – anything that smells of religious dogma must go.  Materialism during the so-called Enlightenment, politically speaking, meant freedom from so-called Romish hegemony.

And the soldiers of the Enlightenment pushed on, eventually announcing that God was dead, and that spirit and mind were also defunct. The idea of soul would take a big hit, too. Henceforth all things mental would be analyzed in the strictly physical terms of neurochemistry. Science would advance by expelling all ghosts, spirits, angels, demons, and eventually the whole universe of subjectivity. The reductive ideology of materialism became the sledgehammer to smash tradition and KO the benighted reactionaries of the ancien r├ęgime.

But things change and materialism today is increasingly viewed as an outmoded ideology.   To begin with, popery is no longer the enemy of science. In fact, the current pope, Francis, is widely seen as a progressive force who speaks for the myriad victims of corporate capitalism but also for recognizing the absolute urgency of the climate crisis.

What is materialism anyway? It’s the claim that nothing exists but material things, properties, and relationships. The practical effects of the creed are destructive and totalitarian. So, for example: I say I have a thought, a feeling, a dream, a desire, a memory, a regret, a surge of hope. Sorry! says the materialist, you have no such things! They’re delusions, relics from the lingo of folklore, mere verbal tics. In reality, you are nothing but your neurons, your neurotransmitters, in short, your brain. And your brain is a physical machine determined exclusively by physical forces.

Thus the reduction laid bare: a peculiar type of terrorism, in my opinion, a subtle sort of mental beheading. Or call it sneaky sorcery: with a gesture of negation, “science” banishes whole realms of value and experience to ghettos of epiphenomena.

The strict ideology of materialism invalidates the world of what we call consciousness. That’s the conceptual degradation. But it gets worse. The concept of materialism has a touch of megalomania, it wants to spread its wings, and so it morphs into stances, practices, institutions. Materialism is driven to act out in the fields of life, often in ways that affront nature and humanity.

Big Pharma provides an apt illustration. It makes, sells, promotes and advertises chemicals as the default way to respond to the bulk of human ills, defects and disorders. This has a corrupting influence on psychiatry and people end up being redefined in terms of what the pharmaceutical industries can do for them. Your identity fuses with your drug prescriptions. This we may call acting-out drug-mediated materialism.

The Danish physician and terrifying whistle-blower, Peter Gotzsche, in Deadly Medicines and Organized Crime (2013), shows in massive detail how Big Pharma is more interested in profit than public health. Big Pharma, he argues, dwarfs organized crime in the amount of pelf it rips off from the public and in the amount of misery and death it inflicts on its victims. This is materialism that specializes in wedding moral hoggishness with intellectual hypocrisy.

Materialism – the conceit of it – is, I repeat, totalitarian in scope. In our techno-mediated culture, step by intrusive step, there’s no place to hide because our inner world keeps shrinking, ever-easier to breach by invasive technologies. Meanwhile, our every behavioral footprint is recorded somewhere and placed under electronic surveillance. The thing we used to call our self no longer marks an asylum, an interior citadel, but is stripped down, digitized, exteriorized, tagged and reduced to metadata. The self as inner sanctum mutates into a localized entity, subject to government control and market manipulation. Materialism, no friend to the human soul, is the perfect ally of state power.

Materialism may be incoherent. It may be prone to fatal counterexamples, but as a conceptual force acting on human experience, it is world-conquering. That shouldn’t surprise us. After all, it represents with implacable authority the force of matter over mind, with America as the triumphant showcase of this philosophy in action. America’s destiny is manifest in its gross national productivity, and remains a shining city on a hill of corporate acquisitiveness. Three manifestations of this spirit of materialism would be correct to describe as being on the rampage: capitalism, militarism, and pharmaceuticalism.

The first, a system without loyalty to person, polity, or humanity, which worships one god, Profit; the second, a masterpiece of world history, the modern military-industrial complex where bombs, blood, and profiteering march (and lounge) lockstep in the temple of materialism; and third, cited above, Big Pharma, the mammon of materialism at its moral nadir.

If materialism has turned into a hydra-headed monster, we must do all we can to undermine its pretentions to absolute power. For my part, the doctrine is a non-starter. Any attempt to prove it is true implies an ability to assess the value of an argument, but that ability I hold is something irreducibly mental. Ergo, materialism faints away, self-falsified.

We need however to arm ourselves with something more powerful than logic. Our logic must be strong enough to engage the heart.

Thomas Nagel devised a famous argument against materialism in “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”, an essay in his book, Mortal Questions. If you are a bat, you have some way of perceiving and engaging the world. And for that to happen, a subjective viewpoint is necessary. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be a bat, in part because a bat’s brain and sensory-motor system differ from a human’s. Still, there must be something that it’s like to be a bat in a bat’s world, something that is irreducibly batty.

Physicalist science has no way of grasping what it’s like to be a bat because it has no way of grasping a subjective viewpoint. It can handle the objective, measurable features of the world. But bats, like humans, in so far as they have some sort of a conscious worldview, occupy a dimension, a domain of reality beyond the reach of physicalist science. We should be thankful that professor Nagel has stood up for us all in his defense of our being irreducibly what we are.

Nagel’s question, which hinges on the idea of consciousness, coincides with recent studies of animal consciousness. In the end, the question ratifies the reality of consciousness permeating the whole of sentient nature.   A recent book about octopuses by Sy Montgomery invokes Nagel as her philosophical ally. Montgomery asks: What is it like to be an octopus? It turns out that being an octopus is a pretty amazing thing. Imagine having your brain split up into a whole bunch of arms, arms that can see and hear as well as feel and grasp!

Until recently, the title of Montgomery’s book would verge on the comical: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (2015). Such locutions still draw disapproval from mainline scientists. Talk of the “soul” of an octopus probably sounds as weird as talk of an ecstatic friar levitating to the top of an olive tree.

In my opinion, Marc Bekoff’s The Emotional Life of Animals is as important to science as (say) the hypothesis of natural selection. It might be more important if Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini are right in What Darwin Got Wrong, and the notion of ‘natural selection’ is more descriptive than explanatory.

It seems to me that the full recognition of animal consciousness would amount to a Copernican revolution in the life sciences. It would mean waking up to the rich inward life of all animate nature, and many people who love their animal companions would appreciate this step toward a more soulful conception of science. This is one way we might move toward arguments that touch the heart.

The standard scientific view is that living organisms are biological machines, hence devoid of feeling. It certainly is expedient to think of them that way, as usable and disposable. If the lower animals don’t feel, they have no rights, and we can use them as we would any material resource, for profit and pleasure.

And consider this. For a strict materialist there would be no real difference between a golf ball and a piglet. The only difference might be that if you T-off with a piglet, you might hear a curious cry or an oink of protest.

Economic reasons drive many to deny consciousness to the animals we cage, kill and eat, experiment with, convert to clothing, and extract profit from in endless ways. So in a ruthless application of Occam’s razor, one could say: Keep it simple and assume all living creatures other than your circle of friends are vacuous automata.

But remember: don’t ever ask: What’s it like to be a nonhuman animal, maimed, tortured, or murdered for fun, science and financial profit? If you did, you might feel forced to rethink some old ideas about right and wrong and feel pricked by a restive conscience.

Nagel’s question, “What is it like to be a bat?” is a template for asking a raft of pointed questions — about other people. So, for example, white folk might wonder and ask: What’s it like to be a black person in the United States not knowing if some police officer is going to kill you if you make the wrong move with your hands? A question can throw open a world of new thoughts and even new feelings.

The template provides a platform to explore and make explicit the conscious world of other living beings. Instead of reducing them to abstract ciphers, we might get curious about their very different worlds and points of view. Wondering, asking, listening might combine to prompt us to exercise our imaginations.   We might think of these as valuable exercises in mind-expansion.

Once we adopt this line of thought, the question is apt to come back and tug at the shirt-tails of our humanity. There are so many questions we might find difficult to ask. For example, what indeed is it like today to be a refugee in flight from war, terror, oppression, economic ruin; in Africa, in the Middle East, all over our destabilized planet?

No end of unsettling thought-experiments are possible. The what’s it like question, if we let it, could haunt us at every step in our daily life. We are, after all, involved with other conscious beings and must interact with them. Everyone we meet confronts us with the unspoken question of what it’s like to be that being. The face that smiles or frowns at you is a mask that conceals a mystery.

Remove the mask at your own risk. Things can get uncomfortable. Questions may have recriminating overtones. Almost anywhere on earth, for example, it’s problematic to ask: What’s it like to be a woman in a world whose history has mainly been defined, described, and dominated by men?

In countless situations, the question might come up — an embarrassment for hidebound materialists who shy away from first-person narratives.  What, for example, if I were to pose the question: What’s it like for native Americans living on a reservation in their own native land? What’s it like having their culture, language, and beliefs destroyed while being violently uprooted from their way of life, thousands of years old?

According to strict materialists, we shouldn’t ask such questions because our mental life and all its vaunted subtleties and nuances are at bottom ontological gimcrack, stuff without real substance. For example, we should never ask: What’s it like to be one of the eighty or so thousand people tortured in solitary confinement in the American prison-industrial complex?

Nor should we ever ask the tiny minority who own the bulk of the world’s wealth: What do you suppose it’s like to be one of the 99 percent, one of the countless struggling, impoverished millions?

What is that really like – in detail, please?

We could go on with questions like these. Every one of them about some brutalized conscious being would be a question about politics, economics, and injustice, and as well a question that exposes the hollowness and complicity of the default creed of materialism.

Techno-hubristic exploitation of Earth has set into motion destabilizing forces, catastrophic climate change, and violent revolutionary discontent springing up everywhere.   As far as I can see, the real danger is not immigrants, terrorism, or any religion, but the dehumanizing materialism that acts out under a thousand hypocritical disguises.

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