Since becoming aware of his existence, man has sought to give meaning to it. In his comparatively short life on earth, a whole array of philosophies, cosmologies, ontologies have arisen and have been amply documented. In terms of their stance on the underlying meaning, nearly all of these models of reality fall into one of two categories: materialistic or spiritualistic.
Materialistic models focus on matter, on this life, the tangible, sensually experiential, this life span, while spiritualistic concepts focus on spirit, the other life, the non-visible, intangible, the domains of other worlds, the afterlife.
Materialistic philosophy can be traced back at least to the Greek philosophers, who tried to find the “stuff” the world is made of. Some assumed earth, some fire, some water, some air, each providing elaborate systems which could explain why this or that particular element was superior to the others. As man began to grasp the world around him, he tried to find underlying meaning within it. Being in this life, he tried to find explanations within this life for his very existence. As matter was a core element of everyday experience, he sought to thus explain this existence with the building blocks he had available.
“The philosophy of materialism, which dates back to the Greek philosopher Democritus (ca. 460-ca. 370 B.C.), matches the worldview of classical physics which is variously termed material, physical, or scientific realism” (Goswami 1993, p. 15). It is popular to this day. Anyone, whose focus is on this life, be it on one’s family, work and career, material possessions, anyone who would deem themselves a “realist”, would probably subscribe to this category of philosophy. In the process of moving away from religion as superstition, materialism is the next logical step. Leaving behind the fairytales and myths of the past, denouncing them as naivety, man turns to matter, to the “hard facts” of life, to that which is measurable, quantifiable, to that which can be experienced by the senses and can be counted, compared, objectively verified. It allowed for “God” to be left out of the equation, even out of books as in the famous example of Laplace, who stated when asked by Napoleon why he did not mention “God” in his book that he did not need this particular hypothesis.
The philosophy of Materialism has five core elements:
- Strong objectivity
- Causal Determination
- Physical or Material Monism
Descartes was instrumental in proposing the idea of objectivity. “His famous philosophy of dualism divided the world into an objective sphere of matter (the domain of science) and a subjective sphere of the mind (the domain of religion). Thus did Descartes free scientific investigation from the orthodoxy of the powerful church. Descartes borrowed the idea of objectivity from Aristotle. The basic notion is that objects are independent of and separate from the mind (or consciousness)” (Goswami 1993, p.15). This did man a great favor. It freed up the possibility of focusing on this world without being tied to otherworldly explanations. It allowed for science to develop, for man to build cars, airplanes, and even space rockets. Assuming that this world functioned as a “World Machine”, the notion Descartes intuited upon being impressed by the gardens of Versailles full of automatic contraptions spewing water, moving objects around, clicking and clacking, allowed for man to build more machines of the sort. It allowed for him to indeed make this world his domain, in which he could manipulate and organize contraptions and objects to his liking.
It is curious to note, how here also phylogeny and ontology correspond, how this developmental step also corresponds with the development of the individual. Persistence of objects is an important learning step typically experienced around the age of 11 months, when the infant becomes interested in appearing and disappearing objects and will begin to look for objects out of sight. Objectivity is thus an important concept and needs to be learned in order to function in this reality.
Learning to manipulate his environment, the infant also around the same time learns the concept of causal determination. He learns to manipulate objects and begins to grasp the connection between events. In materialism, this corresponds to the concept Newton formulated as a law of physics, the notion that if position and vector of an object are known, predictions can be made about the future position of the object. It is the notion of the billiard ball universe in which each object moves blindly until coming in contact with another object, the impact determining the future course based on equations that can with certainty predict the outcome.
This concept is further related to the third element of materialism, the concept of locality. Discovered by Einstein, locality asserts that all objects “must travel through space one bit at a time with a finite velocity” (Goswami 1993, p. 17). Einstein formulated this as part of his theory of special relativity in 1917, later to be referred to his “blunder”.
In the dualistic world, Descartes had created, the success of science in predicting future events soon let to a tip of the scale further and further away from religion: “…the triumphs of modern science went to man’s head in something of the way rum does, causing him to grow loose in his logic. He came to think that what science discovers somehow casts doubt on things it does not discover; that the success it realizes in its own domain throws into question the reality of domains it devices cannot touch. In short, he came to think that science implies scientism: the belief that no realities save ones that conform to the matrices science works with – space, time, matter/energy, and in the end number – exist.” (Smith p. 34)
This led to the next element of materialism: the concept of physical or material monism, the idea that everything must be made out of matter, including somehow the domains it had previously relegated to religion, e.g. the mind.
This, then, led directly to the final assertion of materialism: epiphenomenalism, which proclaims that somehow mind, consciousness, is an epiphenomenon of the brain, of matter. “Mechanists consider mind to be part of the body, but this is a mistake. The brain is part of the body, but mind and brain are not identical” (Smith p.63).
Here we come to one of the core issues with materialism: The problem of emergence. Somehow, materialism claims, at some point, the brain developed to be complicated enough that something happened and consciousness just suddenly came to be. To this day, no proof has been brought forth for this outrageous claim.
Mind and Brain
“In The Mystery of the Mind: A Critical Study of Consciousness and the Human Brain, he [Wilder Penfield, a predominant neurophysiologist] points out that by applying electrodes to the memory and motor regions of the cerebral cortex of patients undergoing brain surgery the surgeon can make them remember past events and move their bodily members, but there is no brainspot, which, if electrically stimulated, will induce patients to believe or decide.” (Smith p.64)
Mind and brain are not identical. Apart from the proof neurophysiologists have brought forth to that extent, theoretical considerations also support this. Matter can be measured, mind cannot. “Conscious experience is, as Sir Charles Sherrington observed, ‘refractory to measurement.’
We cannot say that the experience of one light has twice the brightness of another. The terms in which we measure experience of sound are not the terms of experience. The terms of the stimulus, the physical sound, or of the nervous or other bodily action concomitant with the experience… Mind, if it were energy, would be measurable quantitatively… But… the search in [the energy scheme] for a scale of equivalence between energy and mental experience arrives at none.” (Smith p.67)
Empirical evidence further supports that mind and brain are not identical. The growing body for example of parapsychological and PSI investigations clearly indicated that consciousness is not localized in the brain, but can travel outside the body (for an overview on the “Persistent Paradox of the Paranormal” see Jahn 1982 in Goswami 1993).
Non-locality of Consciousness
This pretty much does away with both epiphenomenalism and material monism. Further, empirical evidence also suggests that non-local events exist contrary to Einstein’s initial claim. In 1982 Alain Aspect’s famous experiment showed that “two correlated photons [would] influence each other at a distance without exchanging signals” (Goswami 2001, p. 33). This appears to work not just for photons, but also for thoughts as demonstrated in a variety of experiments, e.g. in the Grinberg-Zylberbaum experiment (as related in Goswami 2001, pp. 35-38), where two subjects are instructed to meditate together to establish connection, and are then separated in two faraday cages outside the sight of each other. One is shown a sequence of light flashes resulting in an evoke potential, a specific brain response that can be measured. The other subject showed a so called transfer potential, i.e. the other subject, without being exposed to the signal showed a nearly identical response. While message transfer is forbidden according to a theorem attributed to Philippe Eberhard (Goswami 2001, p.39), this offers the possibility that in the case of two correlated brains the theorem does not apply. Given this, one can consider the possibility of seeing events through a non-local window, perceiving through another brain somewhere in a different space-time continuum. If intention is given and consciousness is establishing and maintaining such a connection, one could explain phenomena such as “recall” of past lives, autoscopic phenomena, or even remote-viewing phenomena, as those include not just “past”, but also perception of “future” events. Not a notion that fits too well with materialistic philosophy.
This non-local window also impacts the notion of causality. If events can transcend time and space, determinism becomes wishful thinking. The concept of uncertainty in quantum physics quickly demolished the notion that we live in a billiard ball universe.
Consciousness as Illusion?
Upward causality as such is a rather problematic aspect of materialism. If indeed consciousness was located in the brain as monism claims, and the brain being made of matter, then upward causality suggests that subjective consciousness is really only an illusion, as every thought we have would be the result of a myriad of events that already occurred, our thoughts being the result of certain particles hitting other particles, tracing the chain of events back to the beginning of the universe – not an all too pleasant notion.
Strong objectivity also denies subjective perception altogether. If everything was objective, how could there be subjective consciousness unless it was an illusion?
We are beginning to see how materialism really fails to provide a comprehensive explanation of reality. While practical in many ways in order to navigate in our every day experience, it does not provide room for consciousness and subjective experience of reality.
Materialism and Meaning
It further does not offer much in regard to meaning: If all was matter, and if consciousness was indeed located in and an epiphenomenon of the brain, then experience and all subjective existence would cease to exist in the moment of physical death. The logical conclusion for a meaning of life then, would be the Epicurian philosophy of “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you shall die.”
The meaning of existence from a materialistic perspective then invites a ego-centric and reckless existence, it suggests to amass as many material possessions as possible, live every moment fully even to the detriment of others (and especially the ones not yet born, as one will be gone by the time they inherit the earth), and overall focus only on one’s own sensual experience, as it will cease one day without consequence.
Consequence is the focus of the alternative category of philosophical and religious systems, the spiritualistic branch. Much older than materialism, spiritualistic systems reach back to the beginning on man’s attempts to make sense of his world. They range from early animistic superstitions to elaborate and elegant systems of thought refined over the course of thousands of years.
Translative or Transformative
Spiritualistic systems can be categorized into two different aspects: translative spirituality and transformative spirituality: “In the area of spirituality, for instance, we need at the very least to distinguish between horizontal or translative spirituality (which seeks to give meaning and solace to the separate self and thus fortify the ego) and vertical or transformative spirituality (which seeks to transcend the separate self in a state of nondual unity consciousness that is beyond the ego)” (Wilber 2001, p. 73-74).
In many ways, these two aspects also correspond to the exoteric and esoteric traditions in most religious systems – religion and spirituality not necessarily being the same. More on religion will follow in future installments of this blog. For now, the focus is on spirituality and spiritualism, which will be henceforth used synonymously.
A life beyond this one
What both translative and transformative spirituality have in common is a focus on the afterlife, denouncing this life as merely a precursor to what is to come.
Translative spirituality as Wilber suggests, seeks to give meaning to the separate self. As soon as there is “I” vs. “non-I”, one finds oneself alone. This loneliness, as Erich Fromm described in The Art of Loving is the primary driver for human activity. Translative spirituality takes this for granted, and simply provides frameworks which can be believed in, so that the separation becomes bearable, usually with the promise of a better existence in the life beyond. Transformative religion does not accept this separation, often considers it an illusion, and seeks to therefore transcend it sometimes even within this lifetime, but for sure in the life beyond.
In common between the two is definitely the aspect of the life beyond, whether expressed in concepts such as heaven and hell – providing a morally prescriptive framework for this lifetime –, or in the idea of nirvana or the void, which can be attained as a result of proper living and transformational practice, breaking the cycle of samsara, continuous birth and rebirth.
In both cases, this lifetime is considered a staging area for the life to come. In that, spiritualism is teleological in its nature. This lifetime, the life of matter, in which we find ourselves, is not considered meaningful as such – it only serves to attain a desired future state. The only reason provided for this lifetime is as a test God provides for his creatures, a test, which will determine which future state is attained. Or, in some systems, it is even considered maya, an illusion, a state of being that is not real at all. Transformational practice in this case serves to awaken the illusioned mind that deems matter more than an opportunity to resolve karma, the sum of propensities for actions and thoughts that needs to be resolved in order to transcend the separation state.
An intriguing factor of spiritualism is that it is essentially nonsense. Logically, no statement about otherworldly existence can be validated as true or false, thus from a logical perspective any spiritualistic theory must remain in the realm of faith or belief only. Raymond Moody described this elegantly in The Last Laugh. This does not take away from the beauty of these systems or the practical guidance for everyday life that can be derived from it, but it for sure makes it vulnerable to attacks from a scientific perspective, as has been the case, leading to the ascent of materialism described above.
Unlike materialism, spiritualism is focused on providing meaning. It fails to do so, though, in that it does not provide an intrinsic meaning for this existence in the material realm. It only provides derived meaning, giving this existence only value in that it prepares for an afterlife of some sort.
With that, we end up missing meaning altogether. While materialism did not provide meaning for this existence beyond merely the sensual realm, and as we have seen with its own inherent flaws, spiritualism denies this life meaning beyond its preparatory function.
What then can provide meaning that would transcend this apparent dualism? We shall see as we continue our investigation…
Goswami, Amit. 1993. The Self-Aware Universe. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.
Goswami, Amit. 2001. Physics of the Soul. Hampton Roads Publishing
Smith, Huston. 1976. Forgotten Truth. The Common Vision of the World’s Religions. San Francisco: Harper
Wilber, Ken. 2001. Theory of Everything. Shambala