Material Disbelief

collisionTwo things collided. I saw Leon Wieseltier on The Colbert Report and was enthralled by his view of modern social life. That moved a friend of mine to look for other YouTube videos of Wieseltier. She posted a good one that then moved me to look at more. Bottom line, I ended up watching a fair bit of the man last week. Still enthralled.

Meanwhile, after my last post about religion and atheism, a reader commented that she found the article so balanced she couldn’t tell on which side I stood. As an agnostic, that’s the goal. Yet, in one of the videos, Wieseltier expresses an idea that really grabbed me.

It has to do with on which side of what line I stand.

The cool thing for me is that he and I start from the same basic premise. I wrote about this in the God: Three Questions post. Wieseltier is talking about the same thing (but in more correct established philosophical terms — I tend to make it up as I go along).

line in the sandThe line in the sand is (philosophical) materialism. Wieseltier — and I — believe the material world isn’t sufficient to answer all possible questions. We believe there is an additional reality besides the material one.

Note that this is different from an everyday definition of “materialistic” — the implication a person is overly focused on worldly goods. There is a connection in that a materialistic person is usually not a spiritual person.

Intriguingly, there is an implication of shallowness in this form of materialism that seems reflected in the common bias against atheism.

Philosophical materialism is the view that all of reality is material “stuff” we can study and understand. As such, materialism is a monistic view. The view that there is something more than “all this” is a dualistic view.

ReligionsThus, Wieseltier and I are dualists.

It really is the fundamental dividing line between “believers” and “unbelievers.” As Wieseltier points out, standing on the non-materialist side are Jews, Christians and Muslims of all stripes (from fundamentalist to non-practicing) plus Buddhists and Unitarians and even Wiccans and Druids.

That’s not meant to be an argument based on numbers. It only serves to illustrate how many variations there are on non-materialism.

Materialism, on the other hand, is an ever-converging view with a presumed single endpoint — a full and accurate account of the material world. Such a full understanding would provide the answers to every possible question (so far as answers are available — physics and math deny that certain knowledge is possible even in principle).

And that last little bit there? That bit about how science has already shown that some knowledge is impossible even in principle? For me, that’s where the cracks in materialism begin to show.

two-slitWhen you add in Quantum Mechanics things get decidedly shaky. There is a view among some physicists that, whatever else might be true, materialism has to be false. Dualism might also be false, but materialism can’t be true.

Fortunately for non-believers there are other kinds of monism; it’s not cut-and-dried. Physicalism extends materialism to include emergent behaviors not fully explained by the material parts alone. And we know QM is, at best, incomplete, so perhaps we’ll find a basis for materialism yet.

Even so, at this point, two things really stand out to me:

Firstly, the unknowns in the current materialist view.

Secondly, the rising complexity of that view. Occam’s Razor suggests that simple solutions trump complex solutions. The scientific physical view of reality seems at least as complex as alternate views, so materialism gains no Occam points with me.

Even if we accept the bizarreness of QM, and even if we figure out how entanglement works, we’re still left with a weird conclusion: The odds are extremely high that we’re a virtual reality simulation!

virtual realityQuantum Mechanics says reality isn’t smooth, but made of parts. Think of them as pixels on a 3D computer screen.

Even time — as far as we know — moves in quantum steps. Think of them as computer cycles.

Consider also that the blueprint for all biological life (DNA) is a digital code. Think of it as stored data.

Computer simulations are improving all the time. Is it likely we will make them so good that “actors” in them will think they are self-aware beings? Is it likely a civilization with that capability would use it? Is it likely such a civilization would run lots of life-like simulations?

If you agree those are all likely, then the odds are high that we’re in a simulation right now. The odds of being in a simulation increase with the number of simulations, and if you agree simulations are both likely and frequent… well here we are.

matrixAnd the physical evidence strongly points to a simulated reality. Simulations require steps — time cycles — and can only model points of reality — pixels.

Plus there’s nothing spooky whatsoever about entanglement if reality is simulated. Calculations and data are simply adjusted moment by moment as needed.

So, if you are a strict materialist, you have to assume there’s a good chance reality is a simulation.

Plus you probably have to deny free will — or at least account for it. And you have some really interesting questions to answer about quantum entanglement and human consciousness. There’s a lot yet on your plate!

And while Wieseltier is Jewish and I’m Vaguely Deist, we’re also both on the spiritual side of the line. We go on to say, not only is there more than “all this” to reality, there is some sort of intrinsic purpose and meaning behind it all.

smiteThat’s a teleological view, and it’s pretty squarely in spiritual waters.

(But if we are a simulation — which the odds suggest is likely — then there could be utterly non-spiritual purpose and meaning imposed by the programmers. “What happens if we set the Legs parameter to only 2? I bet they won’t even be able to move around!”)

The more common teleological views are spiritual views of some kind, even if only a vague belief in Karma and the Platonic reality of Good and Evil. As pointed out above, there are myriad forms of non-materialism.

It’s not a simple view to pursue or defend. How do you point to something non-material and say, “There, see!” Dualism is like the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) in QM — it simplifies the model. Interestingly, the MWI is itself a form of dualism.

yin-yang sun-moonSo there it is. I’m squarely on the non-material side of materialism; I’ll remain unconvinced until certain proof exists otherwise. I have my reasons, but it is ultimately a matter of faith, hope and choice (just as it is with materialists).

I’m less certain about how dualism plays out; it may be as simple as emergent properties; I wish for it to be more. There’s a lot more uncertainty in my spiritual views. I recognize those as potential interpretations of simpler phenomena.

Or maybe the smoke points to a real fire.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

57 responses to “Material Disbelief

  • Wyrd Smythe

    For those interested in more, here’s the primary video of Wieseltier;

    The first part is more generic; the latter part gets more into Jewish culture. There’s a return to more generic topics at the very end, so the whole thing is worth your time.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Here’s another talk where he touches on similar topics:

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I get a special glee from this one, because I am not really a fan of Christopher Hitchens:

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    The term “materialism” is interesting. It’s almost always used by those criticizing science for being ideologically too narrow. I almost never hear it used by scientists. The few exceptions are usually militant atheists when debating the people mentioned above.

    What is materialism? Does it include gravity despite there being no evidence for any carrier particle? General relativity talks about gravity being the warping of space. Does space itself fall into materialism? If so, then what falls outside of it? Is the quantum wave function materialistic? Is materialism just things we have empirical evidence for? If so, then would the multiverse (if it exists) be non-materialistic?

    It seems like materialism, for those who use the term, is everything science has been able to find evidence for in reality. Just about every scientist admits that there are things beyond that evidence. The question is how much credence to give to the things many hope are in that beyond (gods, a spirit realm, etc).

    But maybe I’m missing something?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Materialism (at least how I read it) applies to matter (substance). The problem is, as you point out, you can assign any property to matter. Gravity, at least, does have a graviton, and spacetime is sort of a ‘thing.’

      The key question is whether a full explanation of the (monistic) material world provides all possible answers to existence. For any given form of materialism, for it to be true, it must provide a full account for reality.

      Multiverses and Many Worlds realities are material. They don’t have to be material to us; just just have to be explained by a monistic account. Some use the term physicalism or even naturalism. Given those are all monistic views, perhaps the best term really is monism versus dualism.

      But monistic is so close to monastic (a whole order of difference) that it can confuse people. Monism is also distractingly close to onanism in a cunning linguistic way. 😐

      Wieseltier used “materialism” and for this I just followed in that vein.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        LOLS! I always thought monism sounded like an economic monetary policy.

        I think I’d have to call myself agnostic on materialism, at least as described. But I remain skeptical of any specific assertions of what lies beyond our observations, since historically the lion share of such assertions have eventually been shown to be wrong.

        There are aspects of reality we can’t explain. I’m comfortable that we’ll explain a lot more than we can explain now, but much less certain that we’ll ever reach a point where we can explain all of it. It’s not even clear to me what that would mean, since it will always be possible that there are unknowns beyond our knowns.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Given that we don’t know, skepticism seems the only fully rational position. One can acknowledge ones hope for, even faith in, a given reality, but anyone who thinks the matter is settled is just flat wrong. (Weirdly, for decades I’ve debated gnostic theists, but lately it’s been one gnostic atheist after another! I take’m both on because I’m deeply opposed to gnosticism! 🙂 )

        Even if you feel we’ll never fully understand this reality, there is a fundamental choice regarding what you think the nature of this reality is. The different flavors, materialism, physicalism, naturalism, they all really mean just one thing: This is the One True reality; there is no other; there is just physics. Versus a belief in some form of metaphysics.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        As an agnostic atheist myself, I’m also agnostic on whether or not there is a meta-physics in the sense of a “beyond physics”. Similar to the supernatural, I struggle with the concept.

        If we discover something that doesn’t abide by our conception of physics, I’m not sure we wouldn’t simply modify that conception to include it as we tried to understand it.

        It’s why my conception of the term “metaphysics” is aspects of reality that are beyond empirical observation.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, we are using the term somewhat differently. For me, “metaphysics” and “supernatural” are nearly synonymous terms (if you treat “super” as strictly meaning “above”). I use “metaphysics” in opposition to “physics” — those are a yin-yang pair for me. (“Supernatural” carries a lot of other freight that’s a distraction — ghosts and such.)

        I understand what you’re getting at. The quantum realm is a “supernatural black magic” in Galilean terms, but today we accept it as part of the material world. (Modulo those who feel QM denies materialism!) QM expands our view of the existing material world. It would be different to discover a new, more separate world.

        It’s possible science might find the boundaries where physical phenomena end and “something else” is recognized as taking over. I had a manager once who — as managers must — had his secrets about our department. But in talking with him, you could find the boundaries of what he wouldn’t discuss — places where he’d say, “I can’t discuss that.” — and from that determine the rough shape of the secret. Science might thus determine the shape of a domain it can’t access.

        But the definition of dualism suggests there has to be a fundamental difference in the two domains. It may be that the language of one domain doesn’t work in the other. Science, for example, is about measurement and numbers and theories. Think about the domains of love, family, justice, art, music… you can’t apply the scientific method to these domains. It would be even harder to apply to a non-material domain.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I agree with most of what you say here. I especially like the QM is supernatural to Newtonian physics, and exploring the boundaries of an unknowable.

        I’d just note that there are many things science can say about love, family, justice, art, music, etc. It can’t tell us who we should love, what our core values should be, or which art is worthy of appreciation, but it can give us insights into why we hold the preferences we do.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yes, absolutely. Those things are largely part of the material world, so we can definitely measure various things. I shouldn’t have said, “can’t apply” science; it’s more that science can only study various correlates and apply itself to the phenomenology of love and so forth. It’s not the full language necessary for those domains.

        Given that science is explicitly a tool of the material realm, it’s a question how well it would apply to putative non-material realms. On the other hand, it’s kind of the same universality question we were bouncing around with regard to aliens the other day. Perhaps certain basic principles apply in all domains?

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I wrote a post not too long ago talking about how relentlessly pragmatic science is. I suspect if science’s methods wouldn’t work for a new realm, it would change its methods for that realm. (Assuming of course that *any* methods would work in that new realm.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Sure, but there is some risk that at some point it stops being science as we define it. Science assumes (philosophical) realism — an external reality that is consistent and isotropic. Repeated experiments performed in different locations yield the same results (or if they differ there is a symmetry that explains why). Science proceeds by looking at reality, thinking about what it sees and creating falsifiable models of reality it can test. I like to think of it as the Observation, Analysis, Synthesis, Test cycle.

        That works really well on external, consistent, isotropic realities. It might be all but useless in non-material realities. As you suggest, we may develop tools to understand other realms (religious people use prayer, for example), but whether they end up being science as we define it is a question.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I tend to have a broad view of science. Many of the things that people take to be axioms of science, I’ve found to be historical results of it. Of course, scientists adhere to various philosophies, but those philosophies, eventually, are retained or discarded according to how fruitful they are.

        If you’re interested, I did a post on this back in October (commenting is still open on this one 🙂 ).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I shall hasten there forthwith! Before I go, a thought: The search for truth is different from the search for physical facts. Truth is subjective. Facts are objective. Science is the search for objective facts. Philosophy is the search for what is true.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “Truth is subjective. Facts are objective.”

        I guess it depends on your definition of “truth”. For me, facts are true, otherwise they’re not facts, and truth is the factual. What intuitively feels true may be subjective, but I can’t buy that, using the commonest meaning of truth, that truth itself is anything but objective truth.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        This post was about dividing lines, so a thread about truth v. facts seems appropriate here. Firstly, I think we’d agree that the common term “false facts” is incoherent and the term “true facts” is redundant. “Facts” — by definition — are true. (There is such a thing, however, as “true data” and “false data.”)

        Now consider a bowl of Häagen-Dazs Coffee ice cream. We can measure its facts: weight mass, dimensions, temperature, chemical content, caloric content, and so forth. We can’t disagree on those facts without a physical explanation that accounts for them. If I rush by you with that bowl at a noticeable faction of c, some of your measurements will differ, but Special Relativity accounts fully for the differences. Facts are facts (or, I suppose in the strictest sense, measurements are measurements).

        On the other hand, the Truth that the ice cream in that bowl is the best on the planet is a whole other kettle of fish — it’s a completely different kind of measurement.

        The “mass” and “temperature” are objective properties — we can’t disagree on them. The property of “best on the planet” is a subjective judgement. It’s not just that you can disagree; it’s that you can disagree without contradiction. We can share conflicting truths on the same subject without contradicting reality.

        In a sense, our Truths inhabit separate domains that don’t have to overlap. That domain is ourselves; truths measure ourselves. Facts inhabit a single domain and measure the subject. So there is a distinction between “what is true” (facts are true) and “Truth” (personal judgements about those facts). Colloquially, there is Capital T Truth and little t true.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        But the statement that the bowl of ice cream is the “best on the planet” is technically incomplete and ambiguous. It’s a statement where the listener fills in the missing details from context. Any experienced English speaker knows you mean, “this ice cream is the best on the planet for Wyrd Smythe’s tastes.” If I say “Baskin Robbins is the best ice cream”, then we know I’m talking about my tastes with no contradiction of your statement. But if I say, “Baskin Robbins is the best ice cream on the planet for Wyrd Smythe’s tastes,” then I’ve contradicted your initial statement.

        In other words, we need to be careful not to reify a quirk of language convention. Yes, each of our favorite ice creams are subjective preferences, but which one each of us prefers are separate facts.

        I’m afraid I’m suspicious of the distinction between “truth” and “Truth”. The latter is often used in a theological context, which is fine for those who go in for such things, but doesn’t hold any real interest for me.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “…but which one each of us prefers are separate facts.”

        Yes, you’re right. I think I used a poor example with the ice cream — it’s too trivial and “matter of personal taste.” The ‘Rolling Stones or Beatles?’ question I posed on your blog might be a better illustration. It’s important to note that the question isn’t really about personal preference or taste, but about a view that sees the subjective as almost objective.

        Which is the better band is largely a matter of definition (pure musical skill? longevity? size of catalog? income? social weight?), but there can be intangibles and things difficult to quantify. And it’s possible to believe the facts are so weighted toward one alternative that there is only one rational choice — that it really is not a “matter of taste.” That’s when a subjective judgement rises to a “truth.”

        I share your discomfort; many “truths” are just subjective opinions, but the problem is that hidden assumption the facts add up to a single judgement.

        Put it this way, “What’s true for me isn’t necessarily true for you,” is a coherent statement. But statements about “My facts versus your facts,” really aren’t.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        We may be in agree-to-disagree territory 🙂

        I think both of your examples were spot on, but my critique remains the same. A context dependent statement made without context can be logically true in one context and false in another. But that’s a artifact of language, not a postmodernist or idealism related demonstration that truth isn’t objective. Again, unless we’re working with a definition of truth different than Merriam-Webster’s.

        Of course, there are many people who *think* their opinion is truth. Sometimes they may be right, but when the content of their opinion is not factually accurate, it doesn’t make their opinion true for them, it only makes the fact that they hold that opinion true.

        So, with the Merriam Webster definition of truth, the statements “my truth vs your truth” is equivalent to “my facts vs your facts”. If “truth” = “assumption”, then I could get behind them being different, but then I’d always feel obligated to append that definition of truth to the statement.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I agree (on disagreeing)! 🙂 We have some key differences in our worldviews, so this is going to happen from time to time.

        It may be that “truth” is a label I use for something that falls between being mere opinion or taste and certain objective fact. That part of it might be semantic. It’s the underlying concept I hang it all on that I’m not sure I’m getting across.

        For some super-category of “best band” there may (or may not) be an objective correct answer to the Stones-Beatles question. Further, it’s possible both answers are equally correct (in a wave-particle sense rather than a both-tied sense). Finally, maybe the correct answer(s) can never be proven logically (if it/they exist at all).

        Gödel demonstrated the idea of a system with things we know are true, but which we can never prove. And while that applies to mathematical systems, reality and mathematics are so tied together that some think reality is mathematics. I can’t help but wonder about unprovable real-world truths.

        It all suggests to me (my “truth”) that there may be valid levels between opinion and ultimate hard fact. I choose the label “truth” — your mileage may vary! 😀

    • authorbengarrido

      No carrier particle – I suppose this is technically true, but there seems to be a large number of physicist who believe that particles really aren’t much more than wave patterns in fields, and that fields are themselves the stuff of which our universe is made. If they are correct, there is certainly a gravitational field because if there wasn’t, there’d be no fabric for gravity waves to wrinkle.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Absolutely. In fact, modern quantum theory is a field theory — the proper term for quantum physics these days is quantum field theory. In QFT, what we think of as particles are just the smallest possible disturbances in that field (“smallest possible” in that quantum theory requires everything in steps — a particle is the first possible step up from zero).

        Physicists consider quantum reality so fundamental that all effort (that I’m aware of) these days is involved in trying to apply quantum ideas to gravity. And if gravity is a force along with EM, weak, or strong, then there must be a field, and there must be gravitons (although it’s possible there are virtual).

        Personally, I want GR to be not just right, but separate from QM. It’s looking more and more like that ship sailed, but I’d just love it if gravity is smooth — no field, no gravitons, no quantizing… just mass warping space such that things “slide downwards.”

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        One of the things I’ve wondered about before is whether space itself isn’t gravitation’s field. Gravity warps space. And particles are field excitations. Maybe gravity is just space excitation. With the Higgs field involved in some way between the other fields and space.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Gravity can cause waves (we think) in space. You’re suggesting that maybe those waves (like EMF waves in the electric field) are gravity rather than distortions caused by gravitational movement?

        A sticking point might be positing a dual role for space — which is viewed as a measurable extent. The idea of distance between two points rather than a point having a value that can change (and be zero — or as in the case of the Higgs field — non-zero as a default).

        But who knows (certainly not me)! The difficulty reconciling QFT and GR really suggests we’re missing something fundamental.

  • Doobster418

    Wyrd, as you know, I do not believe in the existence of God, which would make me what is commonly referred to as an atheist (or a physicalist or materialist, whatever…just not an non-believer, because I believe in a lot of things, just not God). However, maybe it’s because I’m just not deep enough or perhaps not curious enough, but I am not seeking “a full and accurate account of the material world.” And I’m also not seeking “the answers to every possible question.”

    I don’t believe that, in order to live my six, seven, or eight decades on this planet and to be a good, moral, productive person and to find meaning in life, I need to fully understand everything about the world and the universe. Nor do I need to know answers to every question. But what makes me an atheist is that I accept my limitations as to what I know, need to know, or even want to know and I understand that, at least in my brief time on earth, when I die, there will still be plenty of things that are unknown and maybe unknowable. And to that I say, so what?

    What I don’t do is insert into the equation a divine, supernatural, omnipotent being as the answer to all that is unknown and unknowable.

    Is there something more than “all this”? Is there some sort of dual reality? I don’t know. I have no way of knowing and if I did know, I don’t know if it would change anything for or about me. I guess, from my perspective, “all this” is all I need and if “all this” is all there is, I accept that. I’m fine with that. I don’t need to create a deity to fill in the blanks.

    Anyway, this is a very good, quite provocative post, as was the one that I missed from a few weeks ago…you know, “The Dog Delusion” post.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yes, Doobster, we have discussed it enough times that I have a good sense of where you stand. (But you should really stop complaining about the label “non-believer.” No one is suggesting you have no beliefs. Obviously everyone has beliefs! In the context the phrase is used it specifically refers to a belief in God and you are — in that context — precisely and exactly a “non-believer” (so get over it, Doob, is what I’m saying; get over it! 🙂 ).)

      You’re right: a full understanding of existence isn’t necessary for day-to-day life any more than you need to fully understand cars to drive them. But I think you’re misunderstanding the nature of these questions. They aren’t questions we seek the answers to so much as properties of a reality. In asking the question, we’re asking whether a reality has a given property.

      A materialistic reality would be all of reality, so — in theory — it could account for all possible questions (minus that even some physical questions can’t be answered).

      In a dualistic reality, the parts account for the whole, so neither part can, even in theory, answer all questions. Again, not a question of actually seeking answers so much as where they would be found.

      I think, too, you’re misunderstanding the role of God in the equation. Saying, “God did it!” in response to unknowns is almost a naive view of God’s role. God, by definition, did everything, so explaining something with, “God did it!” is the same as saying, “I don’t know!” God isn’t “inserted” into anything or a convenient explanation for unknowns; God is the seed of everything — the starting axiom.

      • Doobster418

        Okay, I’m over it. In the narrow context of God, I am a non-believer.

        “God, by definition, did everything.” By whose definition is that, Wyrd? “God is the seed of everything.” According to who? See, there’s the rub. Your starting axiom is supposition, not fact. My starting axiom is that there is no God, so God doesn’t have a role for me to misunderstand.

        But, as you said, we’ve discussed this enough times in the past, so let us both just “go forth and spread beauty and light.”

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Indeed! A much better way. And be sure to include beer!

        We’re not as far off (except on certain fundamental points) as all that…

        Your starting axiom is supposition, not fact.

        Yes, well, that’s what axioms are. Suppositions assumed to be true. The rest of the system is built on the axiom(s) as a set of proven theories.

        My starting axiom is that there is no God…

        Right, so your system is built on different axioms and has different theories.

        What I’m not sure I’ve been able to make clear is how similar those things are, especially to those who sit in the middle questioning both sets of axioms. The whole point here is questioning the axioms! For you it’s a starting point; for me it’s a possible destination. (In point of fact, I don’t figure I’ll reach that destination until I die.)

  • dianasschwenk

    and if we’re in a simulation, there exists somewhere a creator of that simulation… 😀
    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Absolutely. And if you can imagine that we — as simulations — might someday run simulations of people who will think they are real, then the creators of our simulation have to ask themselves whether they, too, are simulations. 😀

    • authorbengarrido

      If you play with this idea some more, it gets very Greek pantheon.

      We, as “created beings” (simulations in this model) would be something like demi-gods – able to create simulations but not up to the level of self-awareness. Above us would be the real gods, who created us, the self-aware simulations. Our gods (simulation builders) would then be subject to another layer of simulation and on up into however many levels you please.

      Titans – Olympians – Demi-gods – us …

      I hope this analogy isn’t too strained. LOL.

  • ~ Sadie ~

    ” . . . there’s a good chance reality is a simulation” – loved that!! I am going to have to come back & read this one again! Very thought-provoking, indeed! (I’m taking a quick break from NaNoWriMo & hadn’t been to your blog in awhile.)

  • Hariod Brawn

    SAP makes an entirely valid point when he questions the definitions of terms used here. [And Doobster too with his “who cares? This is all there is now” approach!] Still, many of us do care, yet somehow, unpacking this all devolves upon our usage of concepts that may not fit the final bill. There’s a glaring example of this in your (wonderful) article. You assert that dualism “really is the fundamental dividing line between believers and unbelievers.” You say that believers are standing on the non-materialist side of your dividing line. Is it not rather the case though, that for many so-called “believers”, then what they believe in is the non-existence of your dividing line? It is incorrect to say that Buddhist philosophy, for example, posits a dualistic account of reality. The extrinsic finality of that philosophy rests on our accounts of mind and matter merging in a monism, one that is neither mind alone, nor matter alone, whilst similarly not precluding either as categories within the monistic conception.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Is it not rather the case though, that for many so-called “believers”, then what they believe in is the non-existence of your dividing line?”

      Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, but I don’t think that’s correct. The line is between those who hold what might be called a scientific materialistic view — that physical reality is all there is — and any other view that thinks there is more than physical reality. I don’t see how that dividing line can’t exist. It is one of the places in life where you can validly say, “There are two kinds of people…”

      The line I’m talking about isn’t the line that creates the dualism under consideration (although it is another example of the ontological dualism I think exists at all levels of life). The “line” is between those with dualist views of some kind versus those with a monist view.

      I’m no expert in Buddhism, so maybe I’m wrong, but isn’t there a non-material, spiritual side to Buddhism? Unless Buddhists believe physical reality is the only reality, they would be dualists. Even the belief of “mind and matter merging” into something new sounds like a dualism.

      • Hariod Brawn

        “I don’t see how that dividing line can’t exist.”

        It can only exist if one accepts its initial premises; that is to say, that Doobster’s “all this” comprises materiality alone (monism), or consciousness alone (monism), or a combination of the two but with both remaining discrete categories, such as consciousness being an emergent property or epiphenomenon of matter (dualism). So these conceptions seemingly offer us just three possible explanations of the actual, because our minds don’t engage with paradox. If it doesn’t ‘make sense’ conceptually – notwithstanding the unlikeliness of those conceptions to some – then any fourth option is not considered possible (unless you’re a wacky Advaitan say.)

        So the dividing line isn’t there in the monism of Buddhist philosophy, nor in Advaita Vedanta, and may not be there in other religions or philosophies which posit a monism – Spinoza? Within these monistic conceptions, what we think of as mind stuff or consciousness is not outside of materiality and nor is it materiality alone; it is instead an aspect of one reality. A modern take might be, say, Ted Honderich’s Radical Externalism or perhaps(?) Giulio Tononi’s IIT – you would be more familiar with the latter I’m sure W.S.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I think you’re conflating two things. It’s one thing to discuss whether a given point of view is monist or dualist. But there’s still a dividing line between monist and dualist points of view. If Buddhism is monist, then it just belongs on the other side of the line.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        You know what may be a key point here is that the line between monism and dualism is not the same as the line between religious and not-religious. Most religions are dualist, or have dualist elements, but some aren’t.

        Now here’s a question: is atheism squarely on the monist (materialist, whateverist) side? Is there such a thing as a dualist atheist? (I’m inclined to file emergence under materialism rather than dualism.)

      • Hariod Brawn

        It must be readily admitted that it is difficult to convey Oriental conceptions of reality in terms of Western ‘isms and logic. The monism they posit denies neither consciousness nor matter yet is not dualist. o_O

        So, as to your 8.15 p.m. comment, then yes, Buddhism belongs “on the other side of the line”, though that line is not recognised as valid within that, or Advaitan (Hindu), philosophical conceptions of reality.

        With respect W.S., it may be so that in fact it is yourself who is “conflating two things” through seeking to slot these Indo-Oriental conceptions into your own paradigm. This is a problem which remains even within the minds of earnest and intelligent students of those conceptions, because as I said before, they posit an uncomfortable paradox. You did a bit of Zen in the smoke-filled past, I’m sure you realized this. ❗

      • Hariod Brawn

        As to your 10.29 p.m. comment, then the content of your first paragraph is understood and accepted. Still, one has to account for the fact that some of these religious or quasi-religious philosophical doctrines are posited in dualist terms whilst their final expression – the seldom apprehended pinnacle of those doctrines – posits a monism.

        “Is atheism squarely on the monist side?” No.

        “Is there such a thing as a dualist atheist?” Yes.

        What has the belief in consciousness got to do with Theism?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “What has the belief in consciousness got to do with Theism?”

        This is why I think we’re actually talking about two different things. I’m not talking about dualism in the context of theory of mind. I’m talking about a fundamental ontological dualism — that reality itself is singular or dual.

        Whether a given philosophy is monist or dualist is a(n interesting) separate discussion — one I’d be totally interested in WRT Buddhism. I’m an outsider, obviously, but from what I read around the net, I’m not convinced Buddhism doesn’t have dualist elements. A monist end goal or end state doesn’t have to mean the philosophy isn’t dualist. You haven’t posted in a while… would you be interested in doing a write up as a kick off to a discussion?

        WRT the ontological idea that reality is singular or regular, can you give an example of a dualist atheist? In this context, property dualism — emergence — is equal to emergent materialism and thus actually monist. Atheists believe one world answers all possible questions (that can be answered), so what would dualist atheism look like?

        WRT your earlier comment, it is always the case that I absolutely may be completely full of shit. It’s certainly true that I’m limited by what I am able to understand!

        It does seem a genuine Yin-Yang opposition to me, but maybe you can explain how it isn’t. Either one believes this world — in all its glory — is the only world, or one believes there is a transcendent world in addition to this world. Aren’t these exclusive beliefs?

      • Hariod Brawn

        What do you mean “reality itself is singular or dual.”? How can it be dual? That would be two realities wouldn’t it?

        “Can you give an example of a dualist atheist?” By my lights W.S., then any atheist who believes in consciousness and matter as distinct phenomena (not epiphenomenal or emergent) is a dualist. For me, the term “atheism” means no more than “God denying”. “Anti-theism” extends the concept, usually to also posit Physicalism, though the term is a neologism and hence ill-defined other than by popular usage.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yes, exactly! Ontological dualism is about two realities. Christians believe in three (or four): this world, Heaven and Hell (and Limbo). Valhalla is another example. Plato believed in the realm of pure forms. (The Wiki Buddhism article talks about the five (or six) realms, which is one reason I keep asking if Buddhism isn’t ontologically dualist. “Realm” suggests “separate world” to me, but mine is a very outside view.)

        An atheist Cartesian dualist. Yes, you’re right! I thought of Chalmers for a moment, but I think he’s a property dualist (plus I have no idea of his religious leanings).

        BTW: I wasn’t implying anything more by “atheist” than is in your definition — also agree on “anti-theism” (not really a fan of anti-anything). “Monism,” “Dualism,” “Materialism,” “Physicalism,” “Naturalism,” these terms are all very general, so it’s good to define what we mean when we use them.

        FTR: I define physicalism as an extension of materialism in that the former includes emergent and quantum phenomena. Some just expand the definition of materialism (as Wieseltier did in the video that kicked off this post).

      • Hariod Brawn

        “I keep asking if Buddhism isn’t ontologically dualist.”

        Perhaps it’s a bit like asking if (all) men are interested in baseball or not; it’s a ‘closed question’. Buddhism embraces a range of philosophical and cosmological notions and constructs, some of which are very much at odds with others. Orthodox Buddhism posits three ontologically distinct ‘worlds’ (immaterial, fine material and sensuous) which are sub-divided into thirty one planes of existence. Such a conception does not delineate these ‘worlds’ and ‘planes’ spatially – they are not places occupying space but rather modes of being-consciousness. The extrinsic finality of all forms of Buddhism actualises, as you know, a state in which subjectivity and objectivity mutually sublate one another so as to merge in a final monism. That monism is not of itself a state of (what we think of as)consciousness, a state of being this way or that, or a state of being localised here or there. It is, much to Wittgenstein’s distress, ineffable. This monism presents an uncomfortable paradox to what we regard as reason, whether we believe in such a monism or not. Personally, whilst I stay out of things cosmological that are not within my sphere of experience, I have come to know and accept the paradox of non-duality (“Advaita”) – it’s entirely normal, yet completely different; and when ‘I’ first experienced it, ‘my’ mind, seeing its own stupidity at trying to work it out in reason, gave up and gently laughed. It has an undeniable, irrefutable obviousness. And by the way, this experience also confirms beyond doubt that the notion of any personal enlightenment is a myth, a complete misunderstanding, and yet remains as such for every seeker necessarily and by definition.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Hariod, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to file me away as hopelessly mired in overly concrete western thinking because it still all sounds kinda dualist to me. Worse, stuff like, “subjectivity and objectivity mutually sublate one another so as to merge in a final monism,” makes my head hurt.

        You seem to be saying (and I’ve gotten this impression from others, too) that Buddhism can’t be explained, it can only be experienced. If so, that’s interesting, because that’s exactly what Thomas Aquinas said about the Christian God. He said God cannot be approached rationally, but only with your “heart” (which is to say the “non-analytical” part of your mind). That I can understand, no problem.

        To wrap this up (and see if I’m tracking) are you arguing both that I can’t always divide the world into monist and non-monist views, and in particular I certainly can’t file Buddhism on the non-monist side (which doesn’t exist anyway). Wait, I just confused myself again… If Buddhism is monist, doesn’t that mean the line exists?

        But now I have to ask, why can’t you ask all men whether they are interested in baseball or not (at least in principle)? Isn’t it the case that, at any one moment, all men on Earth: [a] have never heard of baseball; [b] have heard of it and have no opinion; [c] have knowledge and disinterest; [d] have knowledge and interest.

        You’d just be asking how many fall in group [d], wouldn’t you?

      • Hariod Brawn

        “If Buddhism is monist, doesn’t that mean the line exists?” Yes, but it’s like there being a similar line drawn with the question “Does father Christmas exist?” The line is altogether unnecessary as the question is redundant.

        “Subjectivity and objectivity mutually sublate one another so as to merge in a final monism” Okay, a simple analogy: First, think of that game two (or more) kids play in which they build a pile of hands as they sit around a table. Each kid in turn gets to place their hand on top, bottom to top, bottom to top, endlessly. This is akin to what awareness does in dividing the wholeness of reality into either the hand of subjectivity (“here”), then the hand of objectivity (“there”) – there’s an endless, irregular, infinitely recursive oscillation of self and otherness. Awareness fails to see the wholeness (the unified tower of hands) unless and until such time as the non-dual and non-local nature of the ‘tower’ of awareness is apprehended by itself, and not by an imagined subject, which can never happen.

        “Buddhism can’t be explained, it can only be experienced.” In the orthodox canonical texts, the Buddha states that his teaching is like a raft that is to be abandoned once the other side of a fast-flowing river is reached. This is because the doctrine is necessarily couched in dualistic terms; were it not to be, no progress could be made by the student of it who can only think in such terms i.e. self (here) and other (there). That is precisely how the conditioned mind thinks; it ceaselessly creates representations that divide reality into two categories. So, the goal of Buddhism can’t be explained conceptually, because it is neither a concept not percept, but the approach to the actualisation of the goal can indeed be explained conceptually. Note though, that all authorities insist that Buddhist teaching does not produce any final result! Metaphorically, it simply leads the mind to a cliff edge, places a blindfold on it, spins it around, and says “take a step”.

        “Are you arguing . . . that I can’t always divide the world into monist and non-monist views.” It comes back to the Father Christmas issue. If by “the world” you mean whatever is real as against whatever conceptions humans come up with, then what is the point in positing an illogical non-monist view when you have already stated (in effect) that if there is such a thing as ‘reality’ then there can only be one version of it – even if that were to allow for MWI and so on.

        “Perhaps it’s a bit like asking if (all) men are interested in baseball or not; it’s a ‘closed question’.” What I meant was that this is a binary or so-called ‘closed question’ i.e. it is couched such that the answer can only be “yes” i.e. that all men are interested; or “no” i.e. that all men are not interested. In truth, 4.63% of men are interested in baseball.


      • Wyrd Smythe

        Beer is good!

        I misunderstood your ‘all men baseball’ question to mean each man, but it was a collective question. The answer to that question is obviously no, since some men have never heard of baseball.

        Your objection, if I follow, is that the more valid answer is “4.63%,” but that answer in the context of the original question just reduces to “no — not all men are interested.” The idea that “4.63%” is a more valid answer assumes the question is invalid — perhaps it isn’t. If I am seeking a universality (all men…baseball?), the more accurate answer (4.63%) has to be reduced anyway.

        If Buddhism doesn’t classify neatly as “monist” or “not-monist,” fair enough. I can’t argue the point one way or the other. Perhaps, as with the 4.63% (or being a “little bit pregnant”), for my purposes there’s no such thing as “a little bit dualist.”

        Your other objection, if I may restate it, is that the question invalid because it assumes the answer? I don’t see the redundancy with the Father Christmas question. I don’t think the question assumes the answer when you state the question fully. It’s about the ontological reality of Father Christmas, not the conceptual reality of Father Christmas (which, as you say, is presented in the question). You’re quite right that if you ask the other full question, “Does the concept of Father Christmas exist?” people will look at you funny and respond, “Uh… Duh!”

        My binary question of the categories “monist” and “non-monist” is distinct from the monism or (or lack of it) held by any given view. The question may be hard to answer in some cases, but I suspect when you drill down into specific examples of those cases it gets easier.

      • Hariod Brawn

        I think we’re more or less there on the baseball question W.S.; and I’ll happily take my fair share of the blame for any misunderstanding. The obvious o_O point was that the question of whether Buddhism is ontologically dualistic or monistic is that it’s kind of both and yet neither. It’s exegesis is necessarily dualistically framed (and therefore “Buddhism” is ontologically that, yes?) whilst the end-game of this conceptual “ism” is a monism (and is therefore ontologically that, yes?).

        However, [prepare to be exasperated further – it’s not my fault!] although both Buddhism and Classical Hindu Advaita posit a non-duality, that doesn’t really mean “one” in the accepted sense of a monism, [i.e. reducible to a unifying essence] but instead means “not two” [“Dvai” = “dual” and “Advaita” = “non-dual”] It’s not a mind/body problem. The labelling of Advaita as a monistic conception is largely through the influence of Western thought and insistence that if it isn’t two (or pluralistic) then it must be one.

        I’m sure that Wikipedia will elaborate further on these tricky Indo-Oriental doctrines if you just search “monism”. [Don’t do it if you’ve had a skinful!] This non-duality or non-self business is only apprehended in its actualisation W.S.; and it is indeed akin to what you mention above in respect to Aquinas, in that it cannot be approached by conceptual thought, or, try as one might, with the rational mind. One has to approach it through a process of negation in a sense, and there, conceptual thought aids the process greatly; it’s just that thought and rationality can’t make the final necessary leap. It just happens, or it doesn’t.

        Now, about that beer I owe you, my good friend . . .

        P.S. And I still haven’t yet watched the 2+hrs. of video above!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Do you know that I can’t find a store that sells Innis & Gunn anywhere in the state of Minnesota?

        (Heh! It’s those Wiki articles that give me the impression Buddhism — to the extent it can be classified — is ontologically dualist. 😀 )

        The idea that rational thought can’t access all aspects of reality is a fascinating one to me. It’s a big part of many religions — even Yoda and the Star Wars “force” tap into the idea!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ah, man, now I really wanna try it! (As I’ve mentioned, we do have some aged-in-Bourbon barrel beers here. I wonder if they got the idea from Innis & Gunn.)

        But you Brits and your clear bottles! You love the color (oops, sorry, ‘colour’) of your beer so much you put it in clear bottles. Which is lovely, but doesn’t travel well. As you know, beer has three enemies: light, heat and time. Strong sunlight can skunk a beer, especially a paler beer, in a matter of minutes.

        (I buy a lot of Newcastle Brown Ale. Fortunately it’s become popular over here so it moves off the shelves quickly, plus a 12-pack comes in a sealed cardboard carton. That helps it be fresh, but years ago, before it was popular, I got my share of stale Newcastle!)

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