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Culture War Roundup for the week of March 4, 2024

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Materialism, as the philosophy exists today, is a relatively recent phenomenon. When we talk about someone being a 'materialist' we don't mean they shop for lots of handbags or fancy dining room sets. Instead, a materialist is generally defined as seeing all facts or pieces of the world, including the human mind and will, as dependable on or in the most extreme case reducible to physical processes.

In other words, there is only physical matter moving around and interacting, no other forces exist in the universe.

There are a number of major issues within determinism such as free will, and the seeming ability of humans to make choices that operate outside of physical processes. Of course this claim has been papered over from the materialist side by claiming that free will is just an illusion, but the determinists haven't made much headway. The most famous contemporary materialist from my understanding is Daniel Dennett, who has written extensively on free will, determinism, religion, et cetera, and basically come up with a convoluted 'compatibalist' view: that the world is all physical processes, yet we also have free will. Somehow.

Now challenges to materialism present a number of problems, primarily the fact that our modern, statistical, ScientificTM worldview cannot tolerate or understand any phenomena that aren't easily and simply repeated. Even if supernatural phenomenon did exist however, the bias against them has grown so massive in the last century that any respectable scientist wouldn't be caught dead going near these claims.

Why does this matter for the Culture War? Well outside of even religion, our entire cultural regime rests upon Science being the arbiter of truth and ender of disputes. If it turns out our materialistic worldview science has given us ends up being false, there are innumerable cultural repercussions, from the temporal vindication of religion to the re-opening of entire new vistas of understanding. Materialism's truth or falsity is, I would argue, the most important higher level question for our world to answer at the moment. Unfortunately, the mainstream consensus has been that materialism is true a priori despite massive contradictions. Even if many moderns don't outright argue this, their actions and stances on various topics reveal them as materialists through and through.

I'd imagine many people reading this haven't been exposed to some of the more respectable claims of anti-materialists. I'm going to quote heavily from this article by Roger's Bacon to give you an idea of some of the more interesting claims. Bacon, in turn, pulls heavily from a book entitled The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge, if you're interested in further reading.

Bacon explains how Freeman Dyson, an intellectual titan by any standard, posited this idea:

In my review I said that ESP only occurs, according to the anecdotal evidence, when a person is experiencing intense stress and strong emotions. Under the conditions of a controlled scientific experiment, intense stress and strong emotions are excluded; the person experiences intense boredom rather than excitement, so the evidence for ESP disappears...The experiment necessarily excludes the human emotions that make ESP possible.

This view is generally referred to as "Traumatic Transcendence," or in other words you need extremely strong states to activate latent 'powers' or abilities, states which controlled experiments almost by definition cannot excite in patients. We're not just talking scaring someone a bit, we're talking extremely near death or something similar. And even in those states it's an extreme rarity of cases, apparently. However, we have extensive anecdotal reports, many from quite distinguished thinkers and well corroborated, that propose something like traumatic transcendence being real.

There are of course other examples. I'm going to quote this one from Mark Twain at length, which I find fascinating:

Dressed in his famous white “dontcaredam suit” Mark Twain was famous for mocking every orthodoxy and convention, including, it turns out, the conventions of space and time. As he related the events in his diaries, Twain and his brother Henry were working on the riverboat Pennsylvania in June 1858. While they were lying in port in St. Louis, the writer had a most remarkable dream:

In the morning, when I awoke I had been dreaming, and the dream was so vivid, so like reality, that it deceived me, and I thought it was real. In the dream I had seen Henry a corpse. He lay in a metallic burial case. He was dressed in a suit of my clothing, and on his breast lay a great bouquet of flowers, mainly white roses, with a red rose in the centre.

Twain awoke, got dressed, and prepared to go view the casket. He was walking to the house where he thought the casket lay before he realized “that there was nothing real about this—it was only a dream. Alas, it was not. A few weeks later, Henry was badly burned in a boiler explosion and then accidentally killed when some young doctors gave him a huge overdose of opium for the pain. Normally, the dead were buried in a simple pine coffin, but some women had raised sixty dollars to put Henry in a special metal one. Twain explained what happened next:

When I came back and entered the dead-room Henry lay in that open case, and he was dressed in a suit of my clothing. He had borrowed it without my knowledge during our last sojourn in St. Louis; and I recognized instantly that my dream of several weeks before was here exactly reproduced, so far as these details went—and I think I missed one detail; but that one was immediately supplied, for just then an elderly lady entered the place with a large bouquet consisting mainly of white roses, and in the centre of it was a red rose, and she laid it on his breast.

Now who of us would not be permanently marked, at once inspired and haunted, by such a series of events? Who of us, if this were our dream and our brother, could honestly dismiss it all as a series of coincidences? Twain certainly could not. He was obsessed with such moments in his life, of which there were all too many. In 1878, he described some of them in an essay and even theorized how they work. But he could not bring himself to publish it, as he feared “the public would treat the thing as a joke whereas I was in earnest.” Finally, Twain gave in, allowed his name to be attached to his own experiences and ideas, and published this material in Harper’s magazine in two separate installments: “Mental Telegraphy: A Manuscript with a History” (1891) and “Mental Telegraphy Again” (1895).”

Again, there are almost endless examples of these types of phenomena occurring, which are unfortunately decried by any scientific establishment that exists today.

However, traumatic transcendence isn't the only explanation. Another reasonable explanation for our inability to capture these occurrences in experiments would be that they are mediated by an intelligent, non-human agent of some kind such as a ghost, demon, angel, God or gods, et cetera. In fact, this is the claim straightforwardly put forth by most believers in the supernatural throughout history. Which of course is essentially all humans before the last century.

If these other beings did in fact cause supernatural events to happen, or at least need to give their 'permission' so to speak for the normal laws of physics to be suspended, well then of course we wouldn't be able to predict when it would happen. We still aren't even good at predicting human behavior, outside of pacified and corralled Westerners who are manipulated 24/7 by intense media designed to change their behavior.

Another idea to explain supernatural phenomena, while a bit more 'out there,' is actually one I find quite compelling. Bacon outlines it as such:

In traumatic transcendence, we see reality responding to an acute state of consciousness in some individual. However, there may also be a sense in which this happens “chronically” in response to states of collective consciousness. This leads to a startling conclusion, one that forms a central theme of Kripal’s work: culture directly affects the real by mediating and constraining the kinds of consciousness experiences which people are capable of having. In a very literal sense then, the metaphysical paradigm of an age determines the metaphysical truth of that age.

We did not simply realize the truth of secular materialism, we “realized” it.

Crucially, this is not something that one can simply opt out of by adopting some facile belief in the supernatural. To live in this age of disenchantment is to operate within an episteme of doubt and suspicion; this makes it almost impossible to obtain those states of consciousness which require absolute metaphysical belief of some kind. The spell was broken once we began compulsively “looking over our shoulders at other beliefs” (Charles Taylor).4

This idea is actually explored quite a bit in fantasy and science fiction - for instance Warhammer 40K has a similar world, where every conscious mind's inherent beliefs do affect material reality, and enough of those together can cause a planet or part of the universe to operate drastically differently than others.

It's worth considering, at the very least.

Overall, there are still many mysteries to be explained in our universe, despite what our reductionist and materialist culture would have you think. I'll end with another block quote from Kripal, as he says it better than I ever could:

As Aldous Huxley pointed our long ago in his own defense of “mystical” experiences, we have no reason to think from our ordinary experience that water is composed of two gases fused together by invisible forces. We know this only by exposing water to extreme conditions, by “traumatizing” it, and then by detecting and measuring the gases with advanced technology that no ordinary person possesses or understands.

Nothing in our everyday experience gives us any reason to suppose that matter is not material, that it is made up of bizarre forms of energy that violate, very much like spirit, all of our normal notions of space, time, and causality. Yet when we subject matter to exquisite technologies, like the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, then we can see quite clearly that matter is not “material” at all. But—and this is the key—we can only get there through a great deal of physical violence, a violence so extreme and so precise that it cost billions of dollars, necessitated the participation of tens of thousands of professional physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists, and required decades of preparation to inflict it and then analyze its results. Hence the recent discovery of the “God particle,” or Higgs boson at CERN.

We invested our energies, time, and money there, and so we are finding out all sorts of astonishing things about the world in which we live and of which we are intimate expressions. But we will not invest them here, in the everyday astonishing experiences of human beings around the world, and so we continue to work with the most banal models of mind—materialist and mechanistic ones—that is, models that assume that “mind equals brain” and the psyche works like, or is, a computer. What is going on here? Why are we so intent on ignoring precisely those bodies of evidence that suggest that, yes, of course, mind is correlated with brain, but it is not the same thing. Why are we so afraid of the likelihood that we are every bit as bizarre as the quantum world; that we possess fantastic capacities that we have so far only allowed ourselves to imagine in science fiction and fantasy literature? (The Flip, pg. 38)

Of course this claim has been papered over from the materialist side by claiming that free will is just an illusion, but the determinists haven't made much headway.

I think the burden of proof is more on the believers in free will, because at first blush libertarian free will seems to be conceptually incoherent.

In order to have the type of free will we want, determinism has to be false. That is, for a given fixed state of the universe (i.e. reality as a whole, both the physical and whatever non-physical components you believe in), there have to be multiple other possible states that could follow afterwards. But what explains how we select one outcome over the other? It can't be anything in the universe itself, even the alleged "will", because everything that goes into making up the state of the "will" has also been fixed at one specific instant. There isn't any possible explanation for how we select one outcome over the other except to say that it's "just because". That is, it's random. But a purely random selection isn't free will either.

I can't conceive of a space between determinism and randomness where free will could exist. It's possible that I'm just missing something here, or there is such a thing as free will and it's just absolutely indescribable in any terms that we could possibly understand, but right now it makes more sense to me to just say that free will is an illusion.

our entire cultural regime rests upon Science being the arbiter of truth and ender of disputes. If it turns out our materialistic worldview science has given us ends up being false, there are innumerable cultural repercussions

I think the system is a lot more resilient than that. Science can be molded into a tool for political purposes just like any other human institution. Scientists never used to believe in 20 genders, but now they do, and the sociological reasons for the shift in scientific consensus are obvious. If science was dethroned from its current position as the arbiter of truth, then whatever took its place would just be forced to conform to the dominant political narrative instead.

If anything, elements of progressivism are more at home with a non-materialist ontology than a materialist one, e.g. mind-body dualism so you could have a female mind/soul in a male body.

I can't conceive of a space between determinism and randomness where free will could exist.

Compatibilism, which OP dismisses out of hand without really describing it, is the generally-accepted answer to this question.

It basically does the magic trick of saying 'we all agree that we have some intuitive notion of free will which is very very important, and a cultural narrative says it is at odds with determinism, but that just means randomness which is clearly wrong. We suggest a new definition for the term 'free will' which is compatible with determinism, and if that new definition resonates with your intuitions then you should just adopt it as what you mean when you talk about free will from now on'.

The definition is, basically, how much the actions and outcomes of an agent in a deterministic system are caused by its own nature and preferences, versus caused by external constraints and contingent factors of the system.

Basically, if you have the freedom inside a system to act mostly how you want and have steering power over your own future, you have free will. It doesn't matter that how you act and what you steer towards is deterministic; it is still your own nature which causally determines your own actions and outcomes, rather than some other outside force.

And, if you are restrained and restricted and forced into actions against your nature and futures that you would not choose, then you have very little free will. This is a system in which your own nature and preferences has very little causal impact on how the system evolves over time, you have very little input or control, and the argument is that that's what the felt experience of having your free will violated actually corresponds to.

I think it's a pretty good idea.

I think it's just true that the idea that free will is opposed to determinism is an accident of history, where humans have an innate sense of being in-control or not-in-control of themselves and their destiny, and some philosophers and religious scholars hijacked that innate sense and built a narrative about God's Plan vs human nature and the origin of sin/pain vs materialism and scientific realism vs etc etc.

But that innate sense didn't have to be channeled into that specific debate. If you put kids on a dessert island and let them grow up outside culture and queried them about that innate sense as an adult, they wouldn't say 'obviously this is about whether the universe is deterministic or not'.

So, given that we've demonstrated that the narrative about determinism it got attached to ends up being pretty incoherent and has no answer which satisfyingly aligns with our intuitions, I think it totally makes sense to just say 'so lets throw out the idea that our sense of 'free will' has anything to do with that question, and find a better definition that matches out intuitions better.'

And I think Compatibilism offers a good version of that.