Sunday, January 08, 2006

Living in the Material World

Joe Carter's recent post about "neism" (his coinage, I think), reminded me about a subject that puzzled my mind for some years ago. It has to do with paradigms and the material world.

For the sake of argument, let's begin with a given: All that exists is the material world. All material things have material causes, and nothing immaterial exists. There is no supernatural; everything is matter and energy (and no cheating by talking about "spiritual energy." We mean natural energy here).

Now, place humans into this material world. Human societies, without exception, have some belief in experience beyond the material. These may be shamanistic beliefs, or polytheistic beliefs, or monotheistic beliefs, or even atheist non-material believes, but all believe that the immaterial exists. Though a few individuals deny the existence of anything beyond the material, by and large these people are oddities.

OK, so here is the question: In this material world, how can people imagine the non-material? If all is material, then the immaterial is completely beyond the paradigm of humans (and other denizens of the natural world). For someone to imagine the immaterial when neither they nor anyone else has ever experienced the immaterial is rather like trying to imagine a fifth dimension -- it is something so far out of our perception that conceiving of it seems nearly impossible.

Some would answer this question, I suppose, by arguing that the belief in the immaterial offers some sort of material benefit -- i.e., somehow religion helps mankind in the evolutionary contest. By necessity this argument pre-supposes a natural cause for such beliefs, and their ubiquituous nature suggests evolutionary advantage. But just how the material can mandate a fantasy about an immaterial world is always left unexplained; how could primitive mankind (and near-humans such as neanderthals) contextualize such ideas? And, assuming they did, how could such ideas -- at odds with reality -- offer any kind of evolutionary advantage to the species? Wouldn't humans be better served by beliefs in material causes, even if those beliefs are wrong?

To put the question another way, let's use Plato's allegory of the cave. In the allegory of the cave, men sit in a cave and watch the shadows pass on the walls. From these shadows, they try to determine what the outside world is like. The philosopher leaves the cave, goes into the sunlit world. Plato's allegory of the cave is the father is Thomas Kuhn's paradigms. The solely material world paradigm, then, is rather like the allegory of the cave in which nothing exists outside of the cave, and no puppeteers cast shadows on the wall. Yet, for some reason, all of the prisoners in the cave falsely believe that they see shadows cast on the wall and postulate that this means something exists outside the cave. Or, to put it in a more Kuhnian form, people have formed beliefs completely outside of their paradigms (since an entirely material cosmos would not allow immaterial anomolies to fuel a paradigm shift).

What was the point of this exercise? Simply to point out that perception of an immaterial world is a common human experience -- indeed, possibly the common human experience. To argue about the state of the immaterial or supernatural is one thing, but to argue that only the material exists runs counter to human experience. How can denying that which all mankind perceives be considered wisdom?

All sorts of sites link to the Wordhoard: evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, various New Age, and all sorts of others. They disagree on what the shadows on the wall of the cave mean, but all can see the shadows. Let's not indulge the fantasies of the myopic few.


  1. While I consider this to be a decent argument, it is hardly as strong as at first it might appear to be. The idea of a "supernatural explanation" might confer a short-term advantage due to it's tendancy to hold our inquisitive nature (which can put us in dangerous situations) in check.

    If two cavemen with different tendancies are placed side-by-side, the one that has zero belief in the supernatural might spend too much time figuring out how things work to take care of his family. In fact, he could be so distraced by his logical ponderings that he wouldn't pay attention to his instincts in this matter, thus eliminating himself from the gene pool. Whereas the spiritual caveman would feel compelled to fulfil his instinctive obligations (survival, reproduction, tribal loyalty) as being above and beyond the "natural" realm that can be held up to critical scrutiny.

  2. Luke,

    I would disagree. Your scenario assumes two things that it should not. First, it assumes that it is easier for a caveman to assume supernatural rather than natural causes. In a completely natural paradigm, theorizing about a supernatural world is extraordinarily difficult speculative thought. Unless you reject Plato, Kuhn, and the line of thinkers between, I'm not sure how to get out of the idea that without non-natural experiences (shadows for Plato, anomolies for Kuhn) a thinker comes up with the idea of the supernatural.

    The second is the assumption that thought about the supernatural takes up less time than thought about the natural. In my experience, humans spend a great deal more time pondering the supernatural causes rather than the natural causes. If someone is killed when a tree falls on him, does his family seek meaning in that event from a botonist or a priest?

    And, if I may be so bold, may I also point out that your scenario suggests that those with "zero belief in the supernatural" are deep thinkers easily "distracted by his logical ponderings" while the "spiritual caveman" merely follows instinct without critical scrutiny? I'm sure that this prejudice was simply an error in phrasing, rather than your intention.

  3. Anonymous1:59 PM

    I think the Madonna put it best with: "I'm a material girl in a material world".

    But seriously - being human means always (almost as a reflex)imagines and fills in gaps beyond one's immediate experiences - every time I hear a story or reads a book I add extra, personal, material (imagining what a character looks like - and being disappointed when the movie version is so different! - or picturing a scene).

    For example, I have never actually been to America but I have a large network of references in my head which come under the heading 'America'- which is, for me, an imagined, rather than in anyway a 'real' thing.

    To invoke the 'supernatural' may be to make an artificial division in this kind of process.

  4. Professor Nokes,

    There was an interesting article in last month's Atlantic along the same lines titled "Is God an Accident?" by Paul Bloom. Bloom's argument, and thesis, are not the same as yours, but the question is the same. How do we come to think of the supernatural in a material world.

  5. A piece of your post is quoted at the evangelical outpost. I commented on it there but thought you might be interested too. I said this:

    One possible response to Nokes' question (How can we imagine the non-material?) is that the question assumes something false. It assumes that we do imagine the non-material and then asks how, if materialism is true, this is possible. Perhaps the materialist ought to say that in fact we do not imagine the nonmaterial.

    Granted some say what the nonmaterial is not. They say - of course - that it is nonmaterial. They say too that it is nonspatial and nontemporal. But none of these (indeed no merely negative predication) give us any positive image of the nonmaterial and thus do not allow us to imagine it.

    Of course some say more about the non-material than that it is not this or that. For instance, some describe God in terms that seems positive. But expect the materialist to say that, in our description of God, we make use of only terms that have their genesis in the senses and thus are taken from our perception of the material world. For example, it's said that God has power over all things. But where do we derive our idea of power? What is its source? It comes to us from the senses, and (so says the materialist) our senses reveal to us only the material world.

    Thus expect the materialist to say that when we predicate something positive of the non-material, what in fact we've done is simply trasfer characteristics of material things to the immaterial. We thus have no independent idea of the non-material, and all our attempts to imagine it simply replicate in some way (some of the) characteristics of the material world.