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Sunday, December 2, 2012

I am not a cockroach-- what materialism is, and isn't

Several years ago, I bounded out of a faculty building on a university campus and, in a thoughtful and optimistic mood, joined a couple of lecturers in the pub across the street. After we'd settled on benches in the garden out back, I mentioned that in the course of my studies, I seemed to be becoming a materialist. The reaction was immediate and memorable: "A Marxist, you mean?"

Not memorable, mind you, because unusual or unexpected. I had, after all, been studying political philosophy that semester, and this was the United Kingdom-- and my interlocutors were British and Austrian, respectively. What else could I possibly mean? After all, Marx was a continuation of a long line of becoming more and more about...well, the material. German philosophy in the 19th and 20th centuries has in large part been about coming down from the ideological rafters and starting to deal with mundane, real, ordinary life. Realism in reaction to idealism. Imagine that scene from Mary Poppins in which they visited a friend of hers stuck on the ceiling because he laughed so much, and eventually everyone started laughing along and floated up there with him, while Mary stood on the floor beneath them impatiently waiting for them to come down. Those people floating around, drinking tea? Hegelians. Mary Poppins on the floor (at least, at that specific moment)? Young Hegelians, which sounds like progeny but is actually more reactionary. Estranged progeny. Marx was one of them. He was impatient with philosophers pretending that philosophy could be about things that don't really matter-- or to be more charitable, things that don't really matter in daily, practical existence, such as making a living and feeding yourself and your kids. While Hegel waxed on about the für sich (for itself) and the an sich (for us), Marx took from that a lesson to figure out what it means to exist for yourself as opposed to for someone else, and translated it into a matter of property, and who is control of property. That's Marxist materialism.

That was not really what I meant. But it's connected.

What I meant was that, in the course of studying religion and culture, I for some reason got it into my head that I ought to learn more about the mind and how it produces...well, anything, including culture, to begin with. And with that thought, in rapid succession I read a long list of books which included the following:
  • Consilience, by E.O. Wilson
  • Darwin's Dangerous Idea, by Daniel Dennett
  • The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker
  • How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker
  • Consciousness: An Introduction, by Susan Blackmore (if you have not read this, and are interested in the science and philosophy of consciousness and the theories of principle thinkers on such...do)
  • The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore
  • Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett
  • Freedom Evolves, by Daniel Dennett
(This was pre-Breaking the Spell. This was pre-, for that matter, a lot of the popular literature on the cognitive science of religion, which became a thing in 1993 but didn't really catch fire until about ten years later)

When you think about that, it's really no wonder my MA thesis was a mess. It was a struggle between social constructivism-- "continental philosophy"-- as I was being taught, and a much more...well, naturey approach which I'd undergone basically on my own. Now, I hasten to pull up a bit here and note that the constructivist perspectives I was hearing about in the classroom ("post modernist" would be the indelicate term) were not useless. Far from it. I learned how important perspective is-- that it must always be taken into account, and that manifold factors shape one's perspective without any requirement of awareness or acknowledgement on the part of the speaker. I learned what it means to have privilege, and to lack it, and that claims of objectivity must never be taken for granted. That differences are as important as generalities. That it's important, critical, to understand where people with other views are coming from-- but that you don't "win" against them by knowing it; you can't psychoanalyze someone into submission. Anthropology, sociology, psychology...studies of human thought and behavior can't begin and end with what people say about their own motivations for doing things. You need a heterophenomenological approach, which acknowledges that experience but doesn't take it as authoritative. And knowing someone's motivation may not confirm or refute what he or she is saying, but it can tell you a hell of a lot about why they're saying it.

Knowing all of this augmented, rather than detracted from, my understanding that we are simply organisms making our way in the world, in our environment (both natural and social). I started to see culture as more of an extended phenotype than an independent causal force. My thesis was, in retrospect, a rather weak project and a terribly ambitious one at the same time-- I was trying to sell cognitive science to scholars of religion. Make what seemed obvious to me-- that you need to understand the brain in order to understand belief and behavior, including religious belief and behavior-- seem even palatable, much less relevant.

Admittedly, I didn't do the best job. At least, it didn't appear to be very convincing. When it became clear that my PhD was going to be more along those lines, a meeting was held and it was determined that I'd need to go elsewhere. Why not to Denmark, where this university is starting a brand new program for the cognitive science of religion?

Yes. 

Anyway, getting back to materialism. I'm writing this in the first place in reaction to an "open letter to atheists"  posted on Answers in Genesis, which repeats every last misconception and outright falsehood about what it's like to be an atheist-- and therefore a materialist (which doesn't actually follow, but oh well)-- there is. To wit:
Do you feel conflicted about the fact that atheism has no basis in morality (i.e., no absolute right and wrong; no good, no bad?) If someone stabs you in the back, treats you like nothing, steals from you, or lies to you, it doesn’t ultimately matter in an atheistic worldview where everything and everyone are just chemical reactions doing what chemicals do. And further, knowing that you are essentially no different from a cockroach in an atheistic worldview (since people are just animals) must be disheartening. 
Are you tired of the fact that atheism (which is based in materialism, a popular worldview today) has no basis for logic and reasoning? Is it tough trying to get up every day thinking that truth, which is immaterial, really doesn’t exist?
Okay, yes, there is a version of materialism which entails that nothing but physical objects exist. That's why I now prefer not to call myself a materialist-- or a material girl, for that matter (diamonds have never been my best friend, or even a close acquaintance, really). I much prefer the term naturalist (which should not be confused with naturist. No nudism in this instance). It means, basically, that the natural world is what we have. That science has it right, and we should consider things to be real only if they have an objectively demonstrable existence. Which means, yes, that supernatural factors should not be taken into account. Metaphysical naturalism pairs well with secular humanism, the ethical philosophy that as humans we have to rely on our own resources and abilities to make existence better. To flourish, to reach our full potential, to do what my former adviser called "becoming divine." But by that, she did not mean we should literally become gods ourselves. She was talking about enabling fulfillment, becoming the best, most satisfying version of yourself. We might have disagreed on several things, including terminology such as this, but not on the concept itself. To hear the author of this "letter to atheists," you'd think such a pursuit would be worthless without a belief in God.

Actually, the author is mistaken about a lot of things, and it makes my head spin to try and articulate exactly how many. Perhaps most ironically, the fact that not only is atheism not based in materialism (since not being convinced of something doesn't need to be "based" in any particular philosophy) but there are plenty of non-materialist atheists out there. Believers in the supernatural are certainly the stars of the mind/body dualism debate, but they certainly aren't the only players. The most obvious part of this portrayal of  "atheists are materialists, which is a crap philosophy" is the inability to imagine that there can be any meaning in life without a belief in God, which I don't think most atheists acknowledge the strength of. That is some powerful conviction, even with the similarly powerful fear of eternal hellfire which frequently accompanies it. What the author of the above letter, Bodie Hodge, is doing is conflating naturalism-- the belief that objective reality is all we have-- with the naturalistic fallacy, which says that the way things are is the way things should be. This is a common mistake, perhaps the most common mistake made regarding any view of life which appears too reductionistic for the person critiquing it: You think this is all there is. That must mean that's all you want it to be. Well, of course not, replies the naturalist. If I point out that we've got a newly built house and several cans of paint, that doesn't mean I'm opposed to having a painted house. I'm simply refusing to believe that the house will be or has already been painted by magical elves. If we want that house to be painted, we'd better get out the brushes and roll up our shirt sleeves.

Similarly, the criticism that "everything and everyone are just chemicals doing what chemicals do" is only really a criticism if you fail to recognize that what chemicals do is freaking amazing. Complaining that what we do and are is chemicals is like complaining that the Sistine Chapel is made of bricks, only worse because a chemical is far more versatile than a brick (and bricks are pretty darn versatile). "Greedy reductionism" is Daniel Dennett's term for when you explain how something works by describing the interactions of its components (reductionism), but in the process of doing so, you leave some things out. You fail to take into account the true complexity of what you're explaining, and end up doing the equivalent of describing how to bake a cake without mentioning that it requires some heat, a move which is legitimately invalid. Anti-reductionism, by contrast, is a refusal to see something in terms of its components in the first place. Opponents of evolutionary theory, and of what I'm going to stick with calling naturalism, often seem to have a hard time with the concept of emergent properties. Or at least, the concept of us being emergent properties. It's okay for a lot of cars to equal traffic, but not for the activity of a load of chemicals to equal consciousness. Dennett was famously quoted as saying that we have a soul, but it's made of lots of tiny robots. Religious anti-reductionists don't like the robots. They don't like the idea of unthinking things combining to form a thinking thing, at least not without the outside help-- the outside design-- of some grander, elevated thinking thing who had this all planned out from the beginning. Whenever that was.

"Knowing that you are essentially no different from a cockroach in an atheistic worldview..." Religious anti-reductionists have a problem with essentialism, too. And by that I mean, they seem to be addicted to it. They are too fond of it. Things have properties, and those properties are immutable, and there's no room for one thing to turn into another thing-- the very notion is ridiculous. Gender essentialism is the belief that men have to be one thing and women another, and never the twain shall meet-- except to have sex and make babies, of course. That's common enough in religion, but the "atheists are just the same as cockroaches according to atheists" thing is saying that unless we consider humanity to be separate from the rest of existence as distinguished by our relationship with God (aka possession of a soul), then we might as well be cockroaches. Hodge assumes the conclusion of atheists by his own standards-- we reject what he thinks distinguishes us from vermin, therefore we must perceive ourselves as vermin. And wow, that must suck for us, huh? That must be why when you enter a room and turn on the lights, all of the atheists scatter for the dark space under the stove or the fridge.

But strangely...no, we're not. We're living our lives as human beings, thinking thoughts, doing work, relating to others, practicing empathy and creating works of art and caring for family and occasionally taking a road trip or seeing Avatar in 3D or making a podcast about video games. No demonstrable diminished joie de vivre; no elevated angst; no visible heightened incidences of people being told to get off of lawns or general curmudgeonliness (well, I can't exactly speak to that-- I've been a curmudgeon since age 20 or so). Hodge is simply mistaken about the consequences of non-belief, apparently because he cannot comprehend what it's like not to believe. It's like the god-of-the-gaps wrapped up in an argument from incredulity-- "I can't fathom what it's like to not have, much less not need, this thing I find so important. So I can't help but conclude that people who lack it are missing something important, and must suffer from the lacking."

That-- assuming someone's conclusion through the lens of your own philosophy-- is part of prejudice, or more basically it's a form of ignorance which gives birth to prejudice. It seems to be most easily overcome by not just actually getting to know members of the group you're prejudiced against and seeing that they have no existential gaps in their lives which need to be filled, but also by coming to realize that the choice you made (more or less voluntarily, depending), was in fact a choice. There were/are others, equally legitimate. Comparative religion courses are valuable in part because they encourage this realization-- they nudge a student to take note of the fact that if he or she had been born somewhere else, his/her beliefs about the order and creator of the universe might well be radically different. It's fine to stop there-- this is the foundation of inter-faith exchange, after all-- but some of us go on to conclude that if all faith-based perspectives are equally valid, then they are all equally invalid, and that maybe it would be better to go about life on the assumption that they are. This is a conclusion I reached in my junior year of college as a religious studies major, as part of a program at Texas Christian University which I recall the local Campus Crusade for Christ called an "atheist training camp." Not hardly-- it simply wasn't/isn't a seminary.
Is it tough trying to get up every day thinking that truth, which is immaterial, really doesn’t exist?
No, because I have no trouble distinguishing between the legitimacy of beliefs and the reality of physical objects. I'm perfectly aware that the fact that modus ponens can't be found anywhere in the universe using a GPS or any other tracking device makes it no less real. You will not catch me stepping out of an airplane at 10,000 feet without a parachute on the conviction that truth is relative, and therefore doesn't matter. But you also won't catch me declaring that gravity (which is not material, but is physical) or modus ponens (which is neither) created the universe, and therefore should be worshiped. One thing a naturalistic worldview does cut down on is relentlessly anthropomorphizing things.

2 comments:

  1. "Hodge assumes the conclusion of atheists by his own standards-- we reject what he thinks distinguishes us from vermin, therefore we must perceive ourselves as vermin. And wow, that must suck for us, huh?"

    Not really. Getting away from that kind of thinking is important IMHO. It's anthropocentric. No one can argue that we are different from roaches/vermin in physical properties, but what do we have to make us objectively "better"? What is that makes a roach such a sucky thing to be like? It has its lifespan and it's instincts as we do.

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  2. There probably is no "what it's like to be a cockroach," and if there is, we sure can't know it. But I doubt Hodge was thinking along those lines. He was simply comparing non-believers to the most basic, common, disgusting life form that came to his unimaginative mind. And yes, we are very like that life form in many ways-- we have a lifespan and instincts, like you mention. We have DNA, much of it in common with cockroaches. We have basically everything in common that eukaryotes do, however unlike the cockroach we have evolved the kind of brain sophisticated enough to contemplate things like how we're similar to cockroaches.

    I find that thought downright fascinating, but Hodge would rather it not be true in the first place. He'd prefer to believe that we, complex brains and all, were zapped into existence by a deity with a special purpose for us. Where that special purpose came from, where God came from, is apparently not important. Maybe God evolved-- imagine what a tantrum someone like Hodge would throw about that possibility!

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