I’m a systematic philosopher, so I generally prefer to write entire books that treat a subject completely.
Unfortunately, thinking doesn’t usually work that way. This philosophy blog is an outlet for me to hammer out concepts and arguments whose purpose may not yet be obvious to me. In fact, the arguments found here may be invalid and the claims in those arguments incorrect, but I post them here anyway. This is the pool of ideas I draw from when I write the articles posted in the academic papers section.
Feel free to comment and criticize.
In Part 1 of this series, I argued somewhat obliquely that it may be possible to engage in a science of non-physical phenomena without recourse to the standard repertoire: argumentation from pure reason (such as ontological arguments), and paranormal research. These two standard methods do not produce scientific data about the non-physical because neither is sufficient to the task. Reason alone does not lead to truth because it relies upon axioms (universally) and premises (specifically). Paranormal research, on the other hand, attempts to measure physical phenomena and come to conclusions about a non-physical reality. In the first instance, the method fails to yield data, while in the second instance the data produced are silent about the non-physical reality.
This essay, Part 2 in my Non-physical Science series, establishes the underlying rationale for attempting a non-physical science. I carve out the territory which this discipline would explore and I provide what I consider to be a very strong basis for engaging such an effort. Where Part 1 was a cursory journey through the many considerations relevant to identifying a new scientific arena, Part 2 is a careful argument mean to establish (1) the unavoidability of affirming a metaphysical realm and (2) the direction we must move in order to explore this realm with a seriousness appropriate to science.
Making Space for the Non-physical
“There exists a non-physical reality” is not a universally agreed upon claim. The experience of a non-physical reality is, however, universally present to a normal human perspective. The phenomenological philosophy of the past century has produced myriad names for this experience, including but not limited to: the Real, the Given, intentionality, Dasein, differance and thrownness. What are we to do with this strange vocabulary that reaches for something that is so immediate to all of us but so slippery when we try to seize it with words or render it tangible in the physical dimension?
The Phenomenon of Mind
Consider the mental environment. Most of us refer to this as what goes on “inside my head.” In this place, interpretation, imagination, memory, emotionality, and thinking are all experienced in a way that leaves us with a sense of significance, as if something important has happened. This “inner” human experience as it is also known, is, as far as our individual perspectives are concerned, an existing realm, a bubble that seems to attach to the physical head of each human being. We are all walking around with these bubble-dimensions expanding orthogonally from our physical brains out into a parallel dimension that we can call the “metaphysical.” This description sounds bizarre, but it is in fact how we all experience life. As we tarry on in our quest through time and space, our presence to this reality has an apparatus whose dimensions extend beyond the physically observable. We project the past and the future, we conceive possibilities, we imagine scenarios remembered or not, we engage in a dialogue without spoken language, we move through a textured emotional environment capable of the utmost subtlety, and we establish an entire system of concepts (which I call a “Story”) with which to inhabit and explore this dimension. Although we typically refer to these events as brain-related or taking place within the head, the dimensions along which we meet with this experience are not, themselves, physical. When we remember a scene from childhood, it takes place in a region with proportions well beyond the physical expanse of the brain. When we engage in discursive thought or hear the mental voice, we witness ourselves doing so via no physically discernible pathway, although careful brain scanning reveals correlations between types of brain activity and types of mental experience.
When we speak, we speak in universal terms, “human” and “dog” signify to us a class of physical bodies that appear to have corresponding concepts within our Stories. The reference of the terms “human” and “dog” seems to be clear to us; the terms as such are signs that point to the physical objects to which we give the classification. The meanings of these terms, however, indicate the conceptual the classifications themselves as they exist within our Stories. A grand conceptual array of robust meanings which give non-physical substance to the signs we use, ‘human’ and ‘dog,’ can be found in the bubble dimension we sometimes call a “mind.” That is, we all know that we mean more by ‘dog’ than “the group of existing bodies that are members of the set called ‘dog’.” We have a concept of what it is to be a dog whose expansive reference includes any future, past, or even imaginary dog. It is this concept which we intend (to use a technical term) when we say the word ‘dog’, and the set of all dogs, real or imaginary, is the extension of the term, the manifest set of entities associated with the intensional meaning. The concept intended by ‘dog’, like all concepts, exists in the phenomenological bubble universe. These universal terms, however, do not necessarily reside in a perfect and unchanging realm such as the ancients and medievals imagined. They may well each belong uniquely to our own individual parallel universes, our own personal inner world, the mind. And this thing we call a mind might at base be constituted the same way a computer is, i.e. materially.
While the above sounds like a series of outmoded arguments for the metaphysical nature of thoughts, I am not actually arguing ontology here. I’m describing phenomenology. Regardless of the stuff of which the mental experience may or may not be composed, the experience is distinctly and obviously non-physical. Imagine an elephant. Now touch it with your hand. QED. This brute non-physicality is precisely what I’m describing, but not arguing for. I take it as baseline and therefore not in need of defense.
Extracting Mind from Body
Our experience of the body is largely external. When we feel aches and pains within our bodies, we associate these aches and pains with specific points in space-time. Thoughts and emotions, however, are often also correlated to points in space-time. We associate thinking with the head and experience it discursively through time. We also associate emotions with specific parts of the body, embarrassment and shame, for example, are felt in the stomach area. Like thinking, emotions are also a limited temporal experience. For these reasons, distinguishing between mind and body based on location of sensation or duration is unlikely to produce a useful separation.
To differentiate between mind and body we need to identify their proper domains as measured dynamically. We need to know the function each serves. As previously observed, the mind invents and explores a Story. The body, then, as evolutionary science commonly asserts, maintains and propagates itself. We can identify in e.g. our emotional responses bodily content because this content directly influences the actions we take to maintain and propagate our form of life. When we find ourselves afraid, our instincts often compel us to either attack or flee. Both of these responses revolve around the central directive of survival, whether of self or species. Our recognition of events that induce survival-type responses, however, is learned. The child does not know that the hot stove will burn him until he touches it and discovers that this is so. Only after the burn is a fear-response programmed into the child’s brain. Thus, pattern recognition and emotional response are both elements of a physical experience.
Computer science confirms this attitude. A computer can typically locate within itself the specific space-time coordinates of a computing process in a way that we, through our immediate sensory awareness, cannot. This indicates that survival-based emotional and pattern-recognition events in our experience are likely directly associated with physical interactions in the sense that although we are aware of them, the sequence of actions can take place without the involvement of the interpretive bubble universe. That is, they are physical phenomena.
It has been well said that the computer is an artificial brain. Indeed it is, but insofar as a mind is concerned with creating and living within a narrative, it is not an artificial mind. The increasing subtlety of AI, especially through learning algorithms that produce impressive chatbots, brings us ever closer to the computing capability of the human brain. Assuming we are all willing to say that a computer is an entirely physical entity, we can also say that the human being, insofar as it records patterns and responsively adapts to its environment, is entirely physical. It is not quite enough, then, to say that the mind is an “inner” experience if by “inner” we mean exclusive to the individual in question. Rather, the mind is the inner experience specifically associated with everything human beings experience and reveal of themselves that the computer, as it exists today, lacks. That is, the mind is concerned with meaning, purpose, identity, accomplishment, significance, morality, and all the other elements that make for a good Story. The body, on the other hand, is concerned with the mundane details that keep the body in the action, processes that form the computer’s bread and butter.
Mind as Subordinated—but Not Reduced—to Body
If human awareness is algorithmic responsiveness, then it is obvious that we ought one day to be able to reproduce it. How this will happen is uncertain, though the technological singularity offers a very interesting hypothesis: eventually learning algorithms will reach a critical mass at which their capacity to adapt matches or even supersedes that of the human mind. At this point, the inception of awareness begins and computers take charge of themselves—hopefully not at our expense. This algorithmic AI account of intelligence is the strongest contender I’ve yet seen for a complete description of intelligence in physical terms.
Subordinating the Spark of Intelligence to Cybernetic Computing
Under the algorithmic account of human awareness, what function does the bubble universe play? We measure AI by its ability to replicate human responsiveness, yet we never seem to recognize within computers the “spark” the ignites a full-fledged interpreting machine such as the human mind. The algorithmic account cannot eliminate the bubble universe from our phenomenological description, because an account does not eliminate data. These extra mental dimensions do exist, even if only in our own perceptive awareness. But what are they? By the algorithmic account, they are a unique phenomenon caused by the adaptive algorithmic singularity. That is, the soul was born from the machine out of the machine’s evolutionary necessity for self-reflection. Under this interpretation, the mind can theoretically be reduced to physical phenomena, so long as we determine which orthogonal force we are dealing with. Once we do that, it’s just a matter of identifying the mathematical relationships that can describe the metaphorical magnetic field of the mind induced by the metaphorical electric current of the brain. Revealing exactly which physical processes these metaphors bookmark is the promise of algorithmic AI. Thus, the algorithmic AI account of human intelligence does not deny the existence of a non-physical realm; indeed, it accounts for it as subordinate to or emergent within the physical.
The algorithmic model is, however, only a model. Around this model the philosophical field of post- and trans-humanism seems to be clustering. Supposing, for example, that we could transport a human consciousness into a digital realm, there are two logical outcomes. (1) The consciousness of the individual retains the properties it had within the human body. In this case, it would seem cruel and inhuman to engage in transporting a human mind outside of its body, for would we not be disoriented without a body suitable for the kind of mind we have? (2) The consciousness does not retain the properties it had within the human body. In this case, we would have difficulty recognizing whether the individual in question was still identifiably human. How would increased conscious access to data and the potential absence of an unconscious affect us? What would we become?
These questions form the premises of countless science fiction scenarios. They also have something in common with theology: they are an exercise in speculative metaphysics. Oh no! Anything but that! This accusation sounds absurd. Surely it is speculative physics, since that is what science fiction explores. The resemblance between post-humanism and theology is easy to miss when we subsume metaphysical phenomena under the heading of physics. There is, in fact, not a shred of evidence that the spark of awareness or capacity for interpretation has been or even can be induced in a computer, as the general attitude of experts affirms. To quote Steven Pinker,
There is not the slightest reason to believe in a coming singularity. The fact that you can visualize a future in your imagination is not evidence that it is likely or even possible. Look at domed cities, jet-pack commuting, underwater cities, mile-high buildings, and nuclear-powered automobiles—all staples of futuristic fantasies when I was a child that have never arrived. Sheer processing power is not a pixie dust that magically solves all your problems.
Our optimism that such a feat is possible cannot be accounted for merely by the evidence because the evidence from algorithmic AI experimentation clearly suggests: yes pattern-recognition; no interpretive sentience.
The Concept of Authenticity
This assertion, however, is blatantly false to an AI post-humanist because such a person is confident that algorithmic pattern-recognition and pattern-invention are identical to interpretive sentience. Such a post-humanist might argue, like Turing, that as long as the computer is not behaviorally distinguishable from a human being, then there is no difference between it and a human being. As always, theory is so much easier than practice. The casualty of this theory, however, is the very concept of authenticity. If all it means to be human is to be sufficiently able to pretend to be a human, then what makes use think that we have ever had a moment of genuine human connection? Were we to discover that an interlocutor we loved and trusted were actually a mere set of algorithms designed to imitate our modes of interaction, we’d feel betrayed. We’d wonder how we didn’t see the robot’s fishiness the way we detect the fishiness of an insincere salesman. The confidence we have in authenticity, especially when observed in another, amounts to a claim of knowledge of the noumenon: we recognize the heart of the other through and often despite their behavior. Regardless of the veracity of such a claim, a claim as remarkable as it is common, the phenomenal experience we have of it flies in the face of the AI post-humanist’s certitude that algorithmic patterning can approximate it. Considering the results that algorithms apparently yield, the claim that all of it is nothing more than complex self-referential algorithmic processing fails to account for the mental experience of Storytelling and Story engagement at its most basic level. To make this claim is to assert, quite simply, that there is no such phenomenon.
Given our experience with authenticity and the nature of the unconscious mind, a behaviorist account (of which the algorithmic AI account is a special case) cannot but fail. While we, just as AI, can ape certain human behaviors in an effort to fool others into thinking we are authentically conveying states of mind we do not actually experience, we, just as AI, always give ourselves away. On one hand, the unconscious mind interjects subtle cues that that our conscious mind cannot override, despite its skill. On the other hand, because the conscious mind is incapable of manifesting the great subtlety of the unconscious, we would also expect that algorithmic programming cannot compete with the subtlety of the unconscious human mind. This point is not, of course, a demonstrable piece of evidence in favor of the substance dualist account; rather, it identifies an intuition connected to the concept of authenticity—one that must be accounted for. Specifically, we tend to understand human behavior as a symptom that identifies specific pre-existing mental states. Unless one is experiencing the mental state associated with a behavior (such as that state of love associated with affectionate behavior), then one’s efforts to mimic behavioral expressions associated with that state will be amateurish and imperfect. Here, we have a clear suggestion that the Story contributes something important to behavior: it contributes an otherwise inaccessible capacity for subtlety of expression. To be authentic is to behaviorally express a state of mind. We know the difference between art that “has soul” and art that doesn’t because the artist who has soul expressed something authentic.
That we are engaged in speculative metaphysics is, on its own, a startling discovery for a cybernetic futurist. More startling, however, is the Storytelling that is necessarily involved in the whole affair. What does a Story add to the phenomenon of human experience? The entire discussion so far in this article has been an exploration of the ability of one particular physicalist Story to incorporate into its narrative an observed element that is plainly common to human perception. Within this narrative, the Story (physicalism) and its subject (that’s us) are, themselves, an unplanned addition to the narrative thanks to an evolutionary quirk whose physical apparatus remains mysterious. Somehow, the writer of the narrative (that’s also us) has entered the narrative whether we have made space for her or not. Who is this mysterious writer, and what is a narrative? Blind my metaphysical eye and I cannot see these things. But we do not blind our metaphysical eyes. We continue to narrate and in the course of our narration, we remain endlessly optimistic that within a narrative that was never designed to admit the existence of a Story and a Storyteller, the two will eventually emerge to confirm our faith and reward it with life everlasting—as a spirit inside a computer. Funny how even our most materialistic myths still can’t escape their nature as myth.
Contrast the AI post-humanism Story, which is a special case of the physicalist epiphenomenon narrative, with an alternative: substance dualism. In the substance dualist Story, the Story and its subject are as real as the physical reality. Substance dualism does not have to bleed into idealism, nor does it have to affirm a Judeo-Christian God. It rests upon an assumption no more mysterious than the missing physical mechanism for transmuting an algorithmic processor into a meaning interpreter. The mysterious assumption in a basic substance dualist account is that the mind of the human organism (the Storyteller) had a genesis of some kind. A substance dualist ontology does not, however, demand that the genesis of the mind is other than the body itself. There is no logical exclusion of physical genesis in the assertion that the mind is an entity whose existence does not reduce to bodily function. Emergent mind is a possibility. The substance dualist Story, then, necessarily invokes a less mysterious account of the mental reality: it does not reduce based on faith and parsimony alone; rather, it admits a qualitative distinction that, based on existing evidence, appears irreducible. The mystery begins, of course, as soon as we speculate about the genesis of the Storyteller.
In neither Story can we either negate the significance of the Story itself or affirm its origin in a non-mysterious way. So long as we attach significance to Storytelling (can we conceivably not attach such significance?), such as I am doing in this very article, we are stuck affirming the existence of a metaphysical reality in more than just a cursory phenomenological way. Philosophers have learned to stop denying the existence of a physical reality because there is no explanation that can hold a candle to the simplicity and directness of this one. Our very existence is intertwined with a physical reality and at no point can we remove it from our awareness. The same is true of Storytelling. As the human senses go, so the organs of interpretation go; as the physical reality goes, so the realm of narrative goes (why else would philosophers go on and on about possible worlds?); and as the body goes, so the mind goes.
How absurd would it be to formulate an English question, translate it to Chinese, collect Chinese answers, translate these back to English, and then hope for an optimal data set about that question? Better to use native speakers for all phases. Such is the benefit of approaching a phenomenon on its own terms rather than attempting to reduce it to another. Between the physicalist and substance dualist Stories, only one takes the metaphysical on its own terms. A physicalist must either deny, reduce or subordinate the metaphysical phenomena to her own materialistic account of reality. Ironically, though, the entire discourse in which she narrates her materialistic account exists beyond the observable scope of physical instrumentation. The account itself cannot be accounted for without a pure act of faith: “Trust me, when we understand the brain better, we’ll be able to say exactly how the mind is a material phenomenon.”
As powerful as algorithmic AI appears to be, interpretation just isn’t one of the things that it can do. We are fast approaching a moment in history parallel to the collapse of German idealism in the Nineteenth Century. The history of philosophy tends to attribute this collapse to prominent critics, such as Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but in retrospect these philosophers were merely early heralds identifying the general attitude that was rising out of the culture of their time: idealism, in its effort to subsume the physical reality, had become heavy and overburdened. The Hegelian system was so gargantuan and impenetrable that no argument was needed to tear it down. As Schopenhauer famously said,
[T]he height of audacity in serving up pure nonsense, in stringing together senseless and extravagant mazes of words, such as had previously been known only in madhouses, was finally reached in Hegel, and became the instrument of the most barefaced general mystification that has ever taken place, with a result which will appear fabulous to posterity, and will remain as a monument to German stupidity.
Contemporary commentary is bound to be no less scathing and no less obvious in retrospect when it laughs at our attempts to force this non-physical thing I’ve called Storytelling to mere pattern-recognition and identification. Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, a prime example of such an elaborate reductive attempt, relies on the foundational assertion that “qualia do not exist.” In a material science this is a truism as plain as the idealist assertion that matter does not exist. To extend this assertion into a serious theory of human consciousness is as amusing as the very prospect of a pure idealism. “The material world doesn’t exist, eh? That’s a cute idea. On to more serious matters,” has been history’s general response to Hegel’s idealism (though his thinking remains relevant for other reasons). Dennett’s tome is commonly referred to in the pejorative as “Consciousness Explained Away” because no argumentation is needed to expose the silliness of the endeavor. “There exists no subjective experience, huh? That’s a cute idea. On to more serious matters,” will soon be all that is needed in response to eliminative materialism.
Mind as Potentially Measurable
The most dubious element in a physicalist hypothesis is that the human mind is really so simple that it can reduce to algorithm. Considering the great complexity of algorithms, this is an easy point to miss. What an algorithmic interpretation asserts about the human mental experience, though, is that all of the things a human mind does can, at base, be replicated algorithmically. This is analogous to asserting that (forgive me for recycling a load-bearing analogy from my last article) some complex confluence of chemistry is sufficient to transmute lead to gold. The entire project of alchemy failed to appreciate the nature of atomic physics. Likewise, ever since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein we have projected that the right physical cocktail can somehow spark intelligence and awareness.
Perhaps, like the atom, intelligence and awareness have a dramatically different nature than we are imagining. Indeed, why should the mind be any less complex than the body or even the brain itself? Given very real possibility that we’ve been going at this thing all wrong, the question we may start asking ourselves is: Why have we not been recording data at the interface between brain and mind? At every turn, the data we record contributes to the Frankenstein account of human awareness, but what would we find if we recorded data that honestly approached both the Storytelling phenomenon and brain chemistry in an effort to locate their proper domains and the contact between the two? In some cases of brain damage, a person can have the phenomenal impression that she knows which concepts she is attempting to convey, but fail to find the specific words appropriate to the concepts. Under a substance dualist interpretation, this is a clear instance in which the mind is still functioning (the right concept located), but the brain has failed (the right sign not transmitted). Instances like this indicate both the distinction between mind and brain and their interface. Unfortunately, we do not appear have a theory of the mind which is adequate for exploring this interface.
The foundation for a theory of mind capable of establishing the basis for scientific exploration of the subject is as necessary as the quantum theory of the atom was for establishing atomic physics. That is, where there is no Story capable of managing and organizing the data, there can be no science. It is no wonder, then, that we have lost hope for a science of mind. We have not yet found a reliable way to verify functional Stories and falsify dysfunctional ones. After all, how can we if all metaphysical data is, by its very nature, subjective?
Or is it? Physical data is also a subjective phenomenon, but it’s a subjective phenomenon we tend to agree upon. In many ways, we also agree about mental phenomena, but our agreement has sharp limits (cultural origin, religious and political ideology, etc.). There are three major stumbling blocks we encounter in any effort to produce narrative data that we can accurately describe as “objective” in the scientific sense that agreement about the phenomenon is so clear that we can safely call it a “fact”. Where are the facts in human narrative? Are they logical? Are they moral? The first stumbling block is the absence of a theory sufficiently precise to yield testable hypotheses. The second stumbling block is that the metaphysical instrument of measurement is itself metaphysical. This means that all tools we use for probing the metaphysical in its own right must be conceptual constructs. How do we decide which constructs to use? The third stumbling block is that observers must be skilled at using these conceptual constructs. What establishes one as a metaphysical expert? Fortunately, an answer to the third stumbling block ought to be evident if we but provide an answer to the first and second.
The first step toward a science of metaphysics, then, is to formulate a metaphysical theory. The second step is to identify the methods and conceptual constructs for testing. The third step is to identify the qualifications needed in order to employ those constructs. Part 3 of this series will be a rough sketch of the first step. A rough sketch of this second step will constitute Part 4.
Cover photo by garlandcannon
There exists a story that we sometimes refer to as “science.” Call it the Story of Science. It is a story that a great many very intelligent persons adopt as their own. This story is distinct from the scientific method which inspires the story and it is also distinct from the scientists who engage in that method. Apart from the rules that govern the scientific method, the most foundational claim in the Story of Science is that the universe itself is constituted of only physical substance, and that there exists nothing else because the evidence does not suggest anything else. That is to say, what distinguishes the Story of Science from the scientific method and those who engage in that method is that the Story of Science oversteps the bounds of the practice of science: anyone who takes the absence of compelling scientific data about a non-physical reality to indicate that there exists no such reality is ipso facto not engaged in science but in storytelling. Even the claim that unicorns do not exist is not a scientific claim.
But absence of data is just that. It is as silly to insist that unicorns exist as it is to insist that they do not exist. Sillier, in fact. Yet, where a non-physical reality is concerned, both sides seem to insist. The existence or non-existence of a non-physical reality is something that we appear to be invested in. The rise of the Story of Science, especially in reference to a non-physical reality, foments a cultural backlash among religious believers without which the “faith vs. reason” dichotomy could not exist. If science has turned its back on the spiritual experience, then so the spiritual must turn their backs on scientific data. But does it have to be this way?
1. The Problems with a Non-physical Science
Why would anyone give priority to a subjectively chosen story (like a religion) rather than the carefully considered corpus of science? In the first place, we are assuming that the belief systems we choose are meant to do the same thing that science does. The great virtue of doing science is that it attempts to observe the data (i.e. things happening in the world) as honestly as possible with as little disturbance as possible. Scientists design experiments to eliminate as many possible sources of dishonesty as they can so that the data is data about the world and not about what the scientist was hoping to find. This idealization is not, of course, achievable since closed systems do not seem to exist—at least not ones smaller than the universe as a whole.
Given this virtue unique to science and its method, an entire culture has formed around the institution. This culture, like every other, has a story that it tells about itself, the world, and its place within that world. At the center of the Story of Science is the institution of science itself, i.e. the method and those who use it according to commonly accepted criteria of acceptability. These criteria of acceptability are the values with which we approach science, values such as simplicity, accuracy, consistency, scope, and fruitfulness, among others. In other words, the Story of Science supports itself in largely the same way as every other story: it relies upon communal mental acceptance and reinforcement of the perception that this story is a better story than any other because it adheres more closely to the values that each member upholds. At their hearts, all stories are abductive (that is, acceptable insofar as they are a better explanation than the alternatives), so long as we remember that the criteria of abductive acceptability change from story to story for the sake of internal coherence. The difference between the Story of Science and nearly every other story is that scientists have established a link between the criteria of abductive acceptability and the honesty of the observer. In the Story of Science, the moral code is centered upon fidelity to the observed data. In no other story is the foundation of morality (or at least meta-morality) so established.
As human beings, we each have a subjective non-physical experience. This includes thoughts, emotions, and the conceptual stuff to which these experiences are tied including both semantic meaning and teleological meaning. The raw subjective data, when taken at face-value, strongly suggests to the untrained mind that there exists a non-physical reality within which all of these experiences occur. In the story that I have called the Story of Science, however, the focus upon honest observation has lifted up the physical experience while simultaneously denigrating the non-physical. The reasons are obvious: when we measure the physical experience, we can come to agreement about what we find—as long as we follow the scientific criteria of abductive acceptability. The agreement that we can come to vindicates the criteria we employed and thus, by extension, the whole science. When we turn our attention to the non-physical experience, however, agreement is not so easy to come by.
Is it even possible to observe the non-physical reality according to the ideal of scientific objectivity? Philosophers who sought to make philosophy scientific hoped that we could somehow formulate a mode of reasoning whose yields were as pristinely observational as those of the physical scientists. Perhaps they had the right idea, but if so they had the wrong tools and the wrong target. If we tried to make philosophy into a science, what would its study be? It certainly can’t be the physical experience because that science already exists. What remains, of course, is the non-physical. Within the Story of Scientific Philosophy (or the Story of Non-physical Science, if you will), the tools with which we explore the experience parallel those of the Story of Physical Science: we seek to become the observer and simply notice what is already there in the experience and how it moves.
This is where it becomes tricky. What exactly is the non-physical experience? Some philosophers (analytics) took the non-physical to be a set of assertions about the way things are, like a book in which every true sentence is found. Their method, then, was to find groups of possibly true sentences which had greater universal import and then compare these sentences to the physical data. This method cannot possibly be scientific. The analytic method measures the physical and then theorizes about the non-physical world (i.e. morality, meaning, ontology, etc.) based on its findings. But what does the physical world tell us about the non-physical? How can a scientist observe one thing and then come to conclusions about another based on her findings and still be doing science unless she has already established the relationship between the two beyond a reasonable doubt?
Those who are aware of the conundrum of observability in the non-physical experience find more explanatory tread in the simple rejection of the non-physical. If it cannot be measured, how can we say it exists? This is an astute observation, to be sure, though even a scientist will admit that it reveals an assumption: what a scientist can measure is what exists. The scientist is open to the possibility that there exist more things, but you’ll have to show her how to measure them before she accepts them into her Story. Since no one seems to have a perfectly reliable psychic thermometer, what can the scientist conclude except that there is nothing non-physical?
2. The Distinguishing Features of a Non-physical Science
The physicalist perspective, understandable though it is, makes a fundamental but unwarranted assumption which will take some time for its adherents to release. That assumption is the very vindication with which the scientist’s certainty begins. The scientific method does unquestionably yield accurate measurements in the physical world such that we can reliably repeat findings. But are the existing criteria for measurement and observation also functional in a non-physical reality? Supposing that the non-physical experience (meaning, significance, ideation, imagination, theory, dreaming, etc.) points to a genuine reality (a supposition we must at least start with or else abandon epistemology altogether), perhaps this reality conforms to a different set of rules than the physical reality (an obvious point in retrospect), which means that observation of this reality cannot take the same shape as observation of the physical reality. Moreover, the tools with which we examine the physical reality can only measure physical events. If we satisfy ourselves with measuring physical events, then we are no better off than the analytic philosopher, and probably worse off. All conversation of the non-physical reality then becomes a fringe exploration of paranormal phenomena that always seem to slip the grasp of double-blind tests.
Without a clear sense of what the non-physical reality is and how we can develop criteria for observation, we cannot hope to agree about what its contents are. Physical data acquisition always records quantity. In the mind, it appears that we cannot do such things. We can record quantities in brain function, but there is no instrument that can measure quantities in meaning or imagination. Any attempt to measure quantity in these arenas inevitably misses the point by ascribing to behavior content proper to intention. A scientist does not hope to demonstrate the existence of a non-physical mind by measuring the brain. Even an anomaly consistently observed can be explained more simply by a physical phenomenon than by introducing a mysterious and immeasurable non-physical reality.
Our actual experience with the non-physical reality (if such there be) suggests that it is a qualitative affair, not a quantitative one. If it becomes possible to one day measure the non-physical in quantitative terms, we would first have to come to agreement about its qualitative content, its categories. This introduces a problem. As the primary recording device in the physical reality is the human sensory equipment, so the primary instrument for measuring the non-physical reality is the human mind itself. But human cognition is famously fallible. Recent data on cognitive science reveals that the human mind has a tendency to invite rational error. This may be one of the reasons why scientific philosophy seems doomed: we can always hide our secret motives from ourselves. How, indeed, can we abandon quantitative measure but also retain a scientific standard of acceptability when our unwarranted own biases can so easily sneak into our categories? Some have even projected that the purpose of human rationality is not to make new truths from old, but to reinforce a set of beliefs whose foundation is not itself rational. This is an appropriately modest attitude about human reason, but it is also static.
Like the tricks our eyes and ears can play on us, the many, many cognitive biases to which we are all subject (such as confirmation bias, or the tendency to look for evidence that confirms but ignore evidence that discredits, and exception bias, or the tendency to attribute special knowledge and ability to ourselves) are not insurmountable impediments. All of these biases point towards our motives. Human reason, it turns out, is a tool that can be used in two very different ways. (1) In the physical reality, it helps us figure out how to act fruitfully in the world. Any one who sets about doing something has a reason for so doing, a cause for action. Reason helps us determine whether our actions moved us closer to our purpose. In the case of science, the general purpose is to understand the physical world as clearly and precisely as possible so that we can be effective in any specific (read: technological) purpose. In the physical world, observation serves action. (2) In the non-physical reality, however, the target of human reason appears to be a constructive mythic affair. We build and flesh out stories into which our non-physical concerns (like morality and purpose) may neatly fit.
What purpose, then, does a story serve? In science, the story precedes observation. The criteria of acceptability establish the means by which we construct the story, and the criteria themselves point to a set of impulses and intentions that we have about story construction: a story is supposed to explain, to make sense of the world and our place within it. The Story of Science does just this, but it cannot provide a proper explanation without assuming the non-existence of the non-physical. That is, the Story of Science must commit to claims that outstrip physical data (such as claims about morality or teleology), or else suffer the fate of not being a story at all. A mythic story, then, serves the purpose of explaining the non-physical experience in the same way that a scientific theory serves the purpose of explaining the physical, but in a mythic story we must commit ourselves to an explanation. We must believe in something. Only once we believe in something can we move forward within that story. A story is the stage and we are the actors, but we must stand on the stage in order to act.
In the non-physical reality, the closest correlate to action is the dynamic nature of our beliefs, the ever-changing story we tell ourselves about our experience (who we are, what the world is, and what our relation to the world is). In the non-physical world, the story is the playground, the subject to be observed. But, as in the physical, we need a purpose. Why do we select one story rather than another? Why do we prefer this interpretation rather than that? If our collective purpose becomes clarified, focused and mature, as the purpose of science has become in regard to the physical reality, we are likely to find agreement. The necessary prerequisite to a science of the non-physical is a set of values that defines the activity, just as we have in our science of the physical reality. We need a scientific method for observing the non-physical reality directly, rather than indirectly through the physical reality.
“No one agrees about beliefs,” is the standard objection here. Fine, but the purpose of honest observation is to produce useful modes of action. Many scientists just want to know and have little interest in the practical applications of their theories and experiments. The enterprise of science, however, would have collapsed centuries ago if it did not produce technology. While the curious scientist herself is satisfied with theory and experiment, the non-scientist who accepts the scientist as an expert needs some evidence in order to rationally vindicate the scientist’s expert status. Without technology, scientists are in danger of becoming mere priests in yet another religious order. There is a clear sense of progress conceptually linked to the tenacity of science. We may have a distorted picture of this sense of progress (I contend we do), but it is still there and we feel it every time new discoveries lead to new technologies. It is, after all, much, much easier to be a technocrat than a nihilist.
3. The Criteria of Acceptability in a Non-Physical Science
So how can this instrumentalist vindication apply to the stories we tell about our reality? Isn’t one story just as good as another? Of course not. We all know someone whose grasp upon reality is tenuous because her story is dysfunctional. While the Story of Science tells us that the measure of a story is its physical accuracy, the Story of Science also denies the existence of anything but the physical reality. This is an extreme ontology for those who refuse to subordinate meaning, possibility and significance to physical interaction. Right now, the primary force behind a substance dualist story is not its scientific viability, but the sense we have that in abandoning an ontology of the non-physical we will lose some part of our humanity. One might well accuse such substance dualists of using reason to support ulterior motives. The physicalist, though, is just as subject to this assertion considering his blind assumption that the non-physical experience is a mere product of the physical. Where is the data?
If we’re going to subordinate the non-physical to the physical, we need a motive. Heretofore, the motive has been that the non-physical is also non-measurable. The scientist’s claim is that measurement is the only avenue to truth. Strangely, the Story of Science does not vindicate this claim unless a specific concept of truth is first assumed. In the Story of Science, truth is defined according to a set of criteria, one of which is the testability of a claim. That is, measurement is defined as an ingredient of truth. Hence, if it is not physical, it does not exist. Obviously, this definition of truth can only apply to a physical reality, so this motive for a physicalist interpretation begs the question. This circular reasoning in the Story of Science is the pinhole that paranormal researchers attempt to pry open by introducing data about a non-physical reality. Unfortunately for them, their evidence is still 100% physical, so the method of paranormal research will always betray the intention.
At the root of the criteria of acceptance for physical science lie two pragmatic concerns: (1) we need to agree (reproducibility) and (2) we need to be able to use it (testability). While measurement in the raw physical sense cannot translate in any obvious way to the non-physical, these two pragmatic concerns can. A Story can be measured according to the primary pragmatic concerns of (1) broad acceptability and (2) utility. This measurement, however, is impossible without a functional instrument. This is where our account of human reason must become dynamic.
The primary instrument for non-physical data collection
Just as physical instruments and measuring devices are honed and refined as science matures, so the cognitive abilities of human minds may also be honed and refined as our Story matures. Does this sound strange? In mind, all of our assertions revolve around the purpose for which we reason. An unconscious cognitive bias, however hidden and inert, will still exert an influence over the Stories to which we cling. I, for example, may very well be arguing in favor of substance dualism because I am unconsciously invested in it. Perhaps I am still beholden to my Catholic roots and so refuse to let go of the last vestiges of magical thinking.
So how do we move beyond these biases? We account for them. In my case, I am fully aware of the potential to cling to metaphysics, so I have to be willing to embrace a physicalist perspective if it proves itself to adhere to my criteria of acceptability. Similarly, I must examine my criteria to ensure that they serve the purposes I intend them to serve. Just as the scientific method had to be carefully constructed, blind testing invented, labs created, and the rest, so a “critical” mind must be carefully cultivated. If my cognition is to match the edifice of science, then my criteria for acceptability must carefully center around the possibility for agreement in a story (reproducibility) and the usefulness of that Story (testability).
In order to arrive at a set of criteria for a consistent inquiry into the non-physical, we must face the self-reflexive nature of this inquiry. Physical science does not ask questions about its intentions; rather, it focuses on physical interaction. A story, however, always accounts for itself. The Christian Story accounts for the origin of the Bible. Even the Story of Science accounts for itself. As long as we continue telling ourselves a story in which the stories we tell are a certain way, whether arbitrary or divinely inspired, we will perceive those stories as such. We do this because we are committed to the stories we tell. This act of commitment is not a cognitive failing. Rather, it is the consequence of two (often unconscious) motives: (1) pre-rational commitment to a set of values about what purpose the story serves, and (2) the necessity of committing to a story in order to act morally in the world. Human beings self-reflect. Because we self-reflect, we need a story in which to situate ourselves or else we face a nihilistic blasé in which all action seems pointless. Teleology is baked into the human experience.
A non-physical science will not observe data and theorize about it the way a physical science does. A non-physical science, or the Science of Storytelling if you will, must begin with a careful consideration of values. We are not going to stop being human, so our values will be as they are. The beginning of a non-physical science is to catalogue the primary intentions behind our acts of storytelling. In fact, these values are not at all different from those that physical science upholds: simplicity, accuracy, consistency, scope and fruitfulness. The difference between the pre-rational foundation of a physical science and that of a non-physical science is that we must apply these values to the act of storytelling itself rather than to the physical data. Where physical science assumes the existence of natural laws governing physical interaction, so a non-physical science must assume the existence of natural laws governing storytelling.
The possibility of a telos
The specific details of a story are unimportant in non-physical terms. An atheist, for example, doesn’t care whether you are Hindu, Christian or New Age, you will still appear to be engaged in magical thinking. Each of these stories has different details, and each of the adherents to these specific stories will have their own formulation of the details, but the conceptual trend is what matters. If all religions were ultimately making the same non-physical claims, they might quickly discover that they are merely using different words to describe the same things. There is indeed a sense in which all religions point to the same Universal Story, so to speak, but because the purpose these stories serve differs from person to person, agreement is not possible. People buy into religions for different reasons. If our purpose in constructing a story were roughly similar, our Stories (religions) would also be roughly similar because our minds share many commonalities—a fact that suggests a Universal Story, though it does not at all prove it.
We can’t deny the existence of the physical reality because its brute presence and its observable consistency render even a Bishop Berkeley-style reduction of the physical to the non-physical abductively unacceptable. Our primary motivation for of denying a non-physical reality is that there appears to be no agreement about what its contents are. The problem of inconsistent interpretation, though, is analogous to blurry vision. We look out into the distance and see roughly the same shape, but I say it is a house and you say it is a fortress. Because we disagree, you and I begin to believe that it’s really just an illusion, that our eyes are playing tricks on us. When we get closer, we find out that there really was a rock formation we were both seeing, but that we completely misread it. Meaning is subject to the same problem of perception. Human beings do in fact agree on meaning, but what they don’t agree on is the specifics. Consider the canon of western literature. Why these books? Why Homer and Virgil? Why Shakespeare? Why Nietzsche? What makes these particular sources of meaning more significant to us than the others? Why do we keep coming back to them? It’s because we agree that there is something real there and we can all see it out in the distance, even if we can’t agree about the details.
In physical science, the concept of progress—as given by the building of theory upon itself and the emergence of technology—is largely shared. There are many ways for us to dissent about what it is that science ought to be looking for, but we can all agree that its explanatory power has matured in the past 400 years. The institution of science has proven its mettle and nearly all of us agree that its accomplishments represent a form of maturity or progress or evolution or growth or whatever you want to call it. The concept of “progress” is ultimately a teleological one. At the root of all these attitudes is a movement from one state, such as the unpredictable wild, to another, such as civilization. Regardless of where this telos originated, it is still part of the Story of Science. In this Story, humankind has many ills and progress amounts to resolving those ills by reducing suffering and increasing “happiness,” however you measure that.
The point of elaborating the utilitarian morality of the Story of Science is to underscore the necessity of a telos, regardless of the Story in question. There is no physical data that can indicate telos, not even data regarding evolution. In fact, it is impossible that there could be physical data that indicates telos, because physical data doesn’t tell stories: we do through our unique acts of interpretation. The combination of infinite possibility (“The universe is a big place”) blended with finite probability (“It’s bound to happen somewhere in this great universe”) renders every non-physical cause attributed to physical events flaccid. That is not to say that there are no such causes, but that they are not easy to distinguish from randomness. And yet the Story of Science includes a telos. No story, in fact, is possible without a telos because if there is no purpose there is no story. Instead, there is only a sequence of motions, thanks to mere physical data.
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the Story of Science is that it assumes natural laws to exist at all. While the standard account attributes these natural laws to random happenstance, human storytelling rejects this attitude as implausible. We look for patterns, for purpose, for meaning. We look for a telos. Natural laws, which we interpret from data, are non-physical evidence indicative of a telos, though they do not alone demonstrate any such thing. Just as physical science must pre-rationally accept the existence of natural laws, so non-physical science must pre-rationally accept the existence of telos. Accepting the existence of telos in the world is tantamount to accepting the existence of natural laws governing the non-physical reality, because the entities that exist in a non-physical reality are (a) concepts and (b) the minds that interact with these concepts.
Beneath every experiment and every technological invention is an intention. Scientists often find themselves more curious than utilitarian, but without the utilitarian there would be no funding. Moreover, curiosity is not enough to motivate a Story surrounding the institution of science. Why do we research? Why do we believe in scientific progress? Why, in fact, do we think that alleviating suffering and increasing happiness are things worth doing? Inject some telos and your answer will get off the ground.
I’m not going to answer within this synopsis the question of what counts as progress except to say movement from the wild to the civilized, leaving “wild” and “civilized” yet undefined. Regardless, the Story of Science depends upon this concept of progress for its survival. Even if the source of that telos is simply evolutionary benefit (the prevailing explanation among adherents to the Story of Science), it’s still there, and we still use it.
Consider the mind again. Is there also a telos embedded in the human mind? Do humans mature and grow toward a specific eschaton? The Story of Science will, of course, suggest that all we need to do in order to understand telos is to learn more about the human brain and the evolutionary necessity that led to the development of telos. Such an explanation does not take the experience on its own terms. It negates the pre-rational basis for a non-physical science in the same way that rejecting the concept of natural law negates the pre-rational basis of physical science.
A mind’s health is directly related to the stories it tells. Some stories are more dysfunctional than others. Wittgenstein insisted that the best philosophy could hope to do was to provide therapy. This echoes what we now take to have been Socrates’ perspective: the ability to discover and correct errors in thinking is much more important than having a true thought. Good parents know that it’s better to be astute than to be right. This same even applies to the scientific perspective where a critical eye is an absolute necessity. If there is any hope for a non-physical science, then that hope lies in a sober approach to storytelling that takes it on its own terms.
4. The Limits of Storytelling
Buried in all this is our insistence that logic does have some relationship to the stories we ought to adopt. Why? Because logic is another one of those things we mostly agree about. Philosophers have known for some time now that although we can’t measure the non-physical, at least we can apply logic to it. And if we can do that, maybe we can squeeze something scientific out of the whole affair. Unfortunately, philosophers still don’t agree about enough to clearly identify a canon that no one really asks questions about anymore. We still ask even the most basic of philosophical questions. This suggests that logic isn’t enough. We can argue all day about whatever we want, but the arguments won’t convince anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced.
Yes, we could explain this conundrum with evolutionary necessity, brain chemistry, and the atheistic God of the Gaps known as statistics. Even so, experts are not convinced. Professional scientists and philosophers alike still disagree about whether there even exists a non-physical reality. Why, then, are we still asking the basic questions? In the physical sciences we stopped asking the basic questions when we developed a consistent method that clearly moved the conversation forward. In the case of philosophy, we haven’t done that. If we wanted to transmute philosophy into a non-physical science, we would focus on the most basic questions of all. We would focus on what we want philosophy to do. Unfortunately, we can’t get there unless we can admit to ourselves what it can’t do.
The alchemists thought that they could transmute lead into gold if they had the right formula and tuned it carefully. But why would they think they could do such a thing? The only way for alchemy to mature into chemistry was for the alchemists to admit to themselves that their method simply did not work and that what they were trying to get the physical world to do might very well have been impossible. Centuries of scientific progress later, we still can’t turn lead into gold.
The major admission that we must collectively make is that squeezing truth out of philosophy is not possible—not unless we augment our concept of truth. Good reasoning alone will not confirm any one story, even the Story of Science, so we had best stop trying to make it do that. However, like alchemy which did not subside until chemistry came upon the scene, it may help rationalist truth-seekers to have an alternative to hold onto.
What, then, is the telos of reasoning? In the case of science we appear to have made claims first (alleviate suffering and increase happiness) and asked questions later (what are suffering and happiness and why are they so important?). Perhaps in philosophy we can do the same. That is, we know what we want in some basic way. We want a peaceful mind and a restful heart. We want to feel that our actions have meaning and that we contribute to something greater than ourselves. To put this differently, there are non-physical values we uphold and cannot abandon without losing some part of our humanity. This same is true of suffering and happiness. No one wants to suffer and everyone wants to be happy. Because this is what we all want on a physical level we have been able to organize an institution that promises movement in that direction. All hail, science.
This institution, however, cannot as it is help us with our non-physical values without reducing them to physical ones. While healthy brain chemistry is surely involved in acquiring a peaceful mind, anyone who has a peaceful mind now but who did not before knows that the story you adopt makes a big fucking difference.
Religious ideologies can help us with a peaceful mind, a restful heart, and a sense of meaning. Many of them, however, demand suspension of rationality. Because human reason represents our ability to universalize content and communicate this content to each other, we cannot abandon it without losing repeatability. If philosophy is to become a science, irrationality is not the avenue. A healthy mind must be able to identify its own cognitive biases and step back from them, willing always to allow the more powerful story to prevail.
One common fallacy that we fall prey to concerning mystical experience (a common element of religious stories) is literal interpretation. The unconscious mind moves in concepts best represented with symbols rather than words. The difference between a symbol and a word is that the symbol has a complex conceptual structure to it, and that the basic conceptual elements of a symbol are presented as directly as possible. A word is removed from a symbol because the structure of the word (letters, pronunciation) itself is largely arbitrary; whereas the symbol is anything but. Like a work of art, the symbol is an expression of meaning whose subtlety language can only approximate. The story, however, must be formulated and language is our primary storytelling medium. In any case, we tell religious stories in mythic terms, and then find these stories confirmed in our mystical experiences. But because the mystical experience carried a specific mythic content (“I had a vision of the Virgin Mary taking me into her arms,”), we assume that the experience itself confirms that mythic content (“So the Christian Story must be true.”), rather than the conceptual structure underlying that mythic content (“So I now have evidence that something out there loves me infinitely.”). Even the atheistic adherents to the Story of Science fall prey to this fallacy, asserting that because the mythic content of mystical experiences varies, there is no agreement about the nature of non-physical reality accessed through these mystical states.
What a story does is always more important than the specific tale told. This is an uninteresting fiction writing platitude, and yet still the principle eludes us in our consideration of mythic accounts. As with the fiction writer, it doesn’t matter where, when, and with whom the story is told, but you’ll have to commit to these things in order to tell the story. We are attached to our myths. We become attached to them in the same way we become attached to specific fantasy worlds: because we are invested in them, we love them. But, as with fantasy, it is not necessarily to believe that our myths are literally true in order to believe in them. That is, we commit to a mythic story in the course of our lives, but we do not have to take the story as literally true in order to allow it to change us. We only have focus upon this one story, to spend time with it, and to allow its mysteries to unfold to us.
A mind that defends the veracity of a specific story is ipso facto unhealthy. We call these kinds of stories “dogma” and their adherents “zealots”. Truth does not benefit us here, and we can’t get it anyway. Like the alchemists, dogmatists are preoccupied with turning lead into gold, belief into truth, without recognizing that, again like the alchemists, if we could get gold from lead and truth from belief then gold and truth would no longer be worth very much. Once physical science stopped trying to line its pockets with gold, it produced something greater than alchemy ever could. The same will occur in philosophy when we stop trying to find truth and instead look to stories that actually serve our purposes.
…To gain functionality
When our stories serve a consistent purpose, their categories will become similar, because all successful stories appeal to us in similar ways. If the mind can become an instrument for accurately measuring the non-physical reality, individual maturity is requisite. The underlying assumption here is that human maturity tends toward a specific set of mental attitudes. Fortunately, this assumption is broadly accepted, as it is the basis on which virtually every story of reality claims priority over the others. Religious stories assure their adherents that they are moving in the direction of human flourishing by adopting the story. The same is true of the Story of Science, in which the direction of human flourishing is the final abandonment of metaphysics and a complete embracing of human reason as the master of our reality. When we come to agreement about the purpose of a story, as we have already done with the physical sciences, we will thereby consistently identify within ourselves the patterns that all of history has been pointing out to us but that we could not see clearly because we were too busy looking for truth and not just a good Story. In physical science we had to embrace our utter ignorance before we observed honestly enough to detect the patterns that were already present in the world around us but that were too subtle to poke their way through the noise of magical thinking.
In psychology, the idea of a shared non-physical reality has become discredited for various reasons. Perhaps it was just too hard to believe, or perhaps Carl Jung was often subject to magical thinking. In any case, what he pointed to is what humanity has always suspected: the existence of some non-trivial non-physical structure of human nature. That is, consciousness (defined as human self-awareness) itself abides by a set of natural laws that differ from those by which physical matter abides. Prior to Jungian psychology, descriptions of the natural laws of consciousness always seemed to take on either religious or occult terms. In many ways, Jung was not able to divest himself of this stigma. It may not be possible to remove mythic elements from our story of the non-physical reality. Even so, we can take these mythic elements as symbols that allow us to observe that within us which is common to all.
In locating a consistent telos by which we can define a good Story, we establish the ground rules for examining the mental or non-physical reality in just the same way that the consistent telos of science establishes the ground rules for study of the physical phenomena.
We are not inclined to adopt a prescriptive Story unless it prescribes actions we are already inclined to take. While prescriptive philosophies have previously dismissed this attitude as laziness, the inaccessibility of an Absolute Story (sorry, Hegel) and the necessity of all rational thought to rest upon predications not found in that body of thought (I promise I won’t refer to Goedel) leaves us with no alternative but to give our inclinations serious consideration. After all, our inclinations in the physical reality tend to keep us alive.
It is easy to assume that following our inclinations in the non-physical reality doesn’t benefit us (hence the prevalence of duty-based morality), but if our inclinations in the physical reality were to eat ice cream and pizza every day (as when we were children), then we wouldn’t fare well there either. The standard arsenal of dismissals we apply to the non-physical elements of human experience that subordinate them to the physical can be aimed just as readily at the physical. The difference in our attitudes is that the consequences of our actions are felt more intensely in the physical experience than the consequences of our mental dispositions. The physical Story is easier to believe because it demands less suspension of disbelief before providing the payoff. In the non-physical reality, however, we have difficulty registering the drawbacks of our commitments because we are attached to them.
In some areas of the Middle East, girls choose female circumcision because it is the way of their people. The Internet no doubt gives them and their fathers some information of the consequences of the procedure, but some of them still choose to undergo it. Sometimes they will rationalize the act to pacify their minds, but we know that the real motivation is that they are attached to a cultural story in which female circumcision is somehow a good thing. In that story, the action may provide both a social and religious currency which is more important to them than the sacrifice. Or, even more shockingly, they may see the act of female circumcision as a blessing or a symbol of grace. In any case, no amount of reasoning will change their minds. They have accepted the story and that is that. Those of us who are appalled at the barbarity of a tradition that endorses removal of body parts that these poor girls have not yet even learned to appreciate can clearly see that the story is corrupting the minds of persons who might otherwise have been able to make a sensible decision.
Like the Middle Eastern fathers and daughters who choose circumcision, we cannot see the consequences of our mental dispositions because we hide them from ourselves. We value the story we have adopted because it feeds a part of the self that desperately craves what the story offers. Those who want social currency from their stories crave acceptance. Those who want religious currency from their stories want admission into the ranks of the devout. Those who want spiritual upliftment seek to satisfy a deep desire in the human spirit that may not find any other means of fulfillment except through an existing religious story. Human beings want to be good, pure, graceful, but they don’t know how to get from here to there. Whichever story gives our minds the sense that we are moving in the right direction—however we might conceive that direction— that is the story we will cherish. We will always defend that Story with our entire arsenal of rationality. We will always attempt to bolster that Story as sturdily as possible to prevent the assault of argumentation from tearing it down. Catholic apologetics can testify.
Is the physicalist (or “naturalist” as it is often called) story one such story? Only if the story of substance dualism, when considered on its own merits, fails. The physicalist story cuts out telos entirely, replacing it with a pseudo-telos, or “meaningness,” if you will. Although physicalists endorse abandonment of telos as a virtue of their approach, anyone willing to adopt substance dualism perceives the very same as a downfall. Thus, abandonment of telos is only a virtue if there is no such thing as telos. But since inclination is deeper than reason, how can any story fail? Inclination might be deeper, but if we are inclined toward reason then we cannot abandon one for the other.
The substance dualist story, as I am telling it, is one in which the stories we tell are, themselves, existing entities. To admit that these entities exist in a reality that is not subordinate to the physical reality flies in the face of the Story of Science, but it is not on its own an unscientific attitude. Rather, it lays the foundation for the possibility of a science of the non-physical. Just as a physical scientist must be trained in mathematics, reasoning, data collection, and the current state of scientific progress, so a non-physical scientist must be trained to approach the stories we tell about ourselves and the world as conceptual data. Non-physical scientists must abandon their attachment to truth because stories don’t yield such a thing. Instead, they must learn to look for the actual functions that stories serve. Just as the alchemists were too focused on getting gold from lead to recognize that their efforts were broadly fruitless, so most of us are too focused on compensating for our own insecurities to recognize that the stories we tell are not fruitful.
As the physical sciences are oriented toward a telos that we call scientific progress, so the non-physical science must acquire the same. We must, through careful observation of the many mental and emotional states that human beings experience and how these states relate to the stories we tell, learn the natural patterns according to which human beings mature. We must assume that there exist natural patterns of human maturity in the first place, which means that we must also abandon the story of evolutionary necessity. Given our ability to adapt, human beings are no longer subject to natural selection. So if there is a set of natural laws governing the avenues of human maturity, as we would expect if mature human beings all share a set of characteristics, then that set of natural laws exceeds the bounds of evolutionary necessity. That is, it suggests that something more is at play.
In reality, the possibility of a non-physical science is very threatening to a human mind that is invested in or believes in the non-existence of a telos beyond mere human invention. When we begin exploring the natural laws of the human experience which propel us to a maturity well beyond the dictates of mere evolutionary survival, we will have to confront the possibility that these natural laws are themselves the product of a telos.
Cover photo by Geraint Rowland.