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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)

I think the issues is, that your approach doesn't do anything better, than the materialist approach you decry.

If you can't tell a predictive dream apart from a normal one until after, then functionally nothing changes. If some percentage of farmers who pray for their crops to grow it works, but we don't know when or why, then we are going to have to use fertilizer and act as if there is no such intervention. If you can't tell whether the trauma of watching your wife get murdered in front of you is going to give you (or her!) telekinesis to stop the attack, then you are going to have to try plain old violence.

If you can't tell if you are in the world of 40K's warp, or the world of the Christian God, or the world of Bigfoot, then you don't know if you should be trying to manifest the Imperial Truth, or following the 10 commandments or sending out hunting parties into Oregon. And given there is a near infinite probability space, and you can't predict, measure or know which of the 40,000 options you should be doing, then probably you should not do any of them. Or maybe pick a couple at random, but being aware that your chances of being right are near zero.

The reason why materialism is ascendant is that it can be used every day in the smallest of ways. Christians don't just pray for a church to appear, they build them out of brick and mortar. Islamists don't just pray for their enemies to be defeated, they buy guns and go and murder them. From the point of view of everyday life, a world where God exists but does not answer prayers, and a world where God does not exist are identical. Materialism is at the very least, mostly right. Whereas, all of your examples can't be collectively right. Some of them must be wrong, because they are contradictory, but you don't offer any way to tell which.

I would suggest the traumatic transcendence is unlikely because the world is FULL of trauma. If that was all that was needed, then the world should be full of observable examples (even if they can't be repeated!). Were Jews not under enough trauma? The man forced to watch his family murdered before he was tortured to death by cartels? Gang raped girls? Either this has to be so unlikely, otherwise we would see many more examples, (at which point it is again functionally irrelevant) or it simply does not happen.

Bacon's position likewise has a problem, if we have collectively realized our own reality and we can't opt out of it or change it, just by being aware of it, then it is once again fundamentally useless, you can't tell the difference between a world where it is true and where it is not and the only correct response must be to live in the world as it is. Incidentally this is very similar to the collective reality as posited in the Mage: the Ascension White Wolf RPG, where the "awakened" mages are able to substitute their reality (magic) against the consensus reality of humanity as influenced by the Technocracy. But they could do so repeatedly, though risking the punishment of the universe in so doing. (As an aside Roger Bacon was an influential mage in that reality), their long term goal was to break humanity free of the current paradigm, back to the older one where consensus reality was much more malleable.

However the reason humanity embraced the current paradigm was because it was safer, dragons and demons and other monsters (there were those seeking to inflict madness and corruption into the world) were banished by the light of reason, which meant that there were arguments that Mages were trying to wake humanity into a much more dangerous world and that they did not have the right to do so. Even if Bacon is correct, is a world with less predictability actually better? Or have we manifested this world because it is the one where we have the best chance?

I would suggest the traumatic transcendence is unlikely because the world is FULL of trauma

Actually, as the post I linked argued, it's likely the modern world has far less trauma than the ancient world. This could explain the relative lack of miracles over time under the traumatic transcendence argument. The Holocaust is a fair point, but then again there are all sorts of strange and occult forces and miraculous accounts from Holocaust times... maybe @SecureSignals would know more.

However the reason humanity embraced the current paradigm was because it was safer, dragons and demons and other monsters (there were those seeking to inflict madness and corruption into the world) were banished by the light of reason, which meant that there were arguments that Mages were trying to wake humanity into a much more dangerous world and that they did not have the right to do so. Even if Bacon is correct, is a world with less predictability actually better? Or have we manifested this world because it is the one where we have the best chance?

It doesn't seem to me that the dragons and demons and other monsters have been banished. It seems that they've moved into different realms in order to torment us, and we've gotten locked into a paradigm where we can't even discuss them seriously because to admit we still have monsters around is seen as 'pseudo-science'. Or we try to add a spiritual bandaid like therapy that barely works above placebo.

The reason why materialism is ascendant is that it can be used every day in the smallest of ways. Christians don't just pray for a church to appear, they build them out of brick and mortar.

Prayer can be used every day, and in the smallest of ways. Christians pray and then build the church. You see we in the modern world, thanks to Descartes, have separated our physical bodies and our minds to the point where we almost can't see it. To many religious types, embodied action is a type of prayer. This is a much deeper topic that I still wade in the waters of, but suffice to say there's more here than meets the eye.

To many religious types, embodied action is a type of prayer.

and yet I can act without prayer. I can build a church without praying about it. The question is does prayer add anything to the action. Is a church built by an atheist stone mason, paid for by the church in any way different than one where the mason is moved by prayer? What ACTUALLY changes? You still have a church one way or another, a church built under material principles, of engineering and physics. Will prayer put a roof in place absent material action? Because material action can put the roof in place absent prayer. And that is the issue that must be overcome if you want to go back to a less materialist world.

In reference to the dragons and monsters, I've never seen one, never met anyone who claims to have. I'd submit that even if they were forced to a different plane (and allowing their existence in the first place of course), the direct threat they pose is much less. If as you say they must now act in ways where they cannot be observed or proven, then that in and of itself has reduced their threat massively.

Indeed, that was the whole idea of the Imperial "Truth" in 40K. The Emperor knew that the warp gods existed, but his plan was to spread "Enlightenment" such that the warp would become what he told his followers it was. So that the threat posed was much reduced EVEN if it meant the odd threat would happen and not be understood, the amount of threats would be near zero. Now of course that plan failed, because half his "kids" got corrupted by said warp entities. But there is a timeline with no Erebus where it succeeds and the lie becomes the truth.

If instead of dragons eating people every day, but people know what they are, dragons only eat someone once a year, but people write it off as an accident or an unexplained event, then the risk posed is still much less than before.

In other words if monsters and demons are real and all the enlightenment did was force them to another realm where they had to act indirectly and with more effort, then that is arguably a huge improvement, even if no-one now understands the true nature of those demons. And reversing that course would be a disaster for humanity.

So if you really believe that reality is created by our beliefs then this is a massive Chesterton's Fence. Should you tear down the protections enacted, just because you are unhappy with the fact people now don't believe in angels and demons? Are you sure going back to where people will think into existence gods and demons and angels is better? Sure, maybe we are more spiritual, but is that actually a good thing?

Hmm very interesting points you’re raising here. I’ll have to think more about all of this.

My intuition is that we can move forward and take the best of post enlightenment rationalism but somehow remythologize it. I’ll admit that has tension with the belief in one dominant religious structure as you’ve pointed out elsewhere.

In terms of what prayer changes - it’s mysterious my dude that’s all I got for you at the moment. It also changes the way people feel and the way they see the church though, so internal experience at the least.

In terms of what prayer changes - it’s mysterious my dude that’s all I got for you at the moment. It also changes the way people feel and the way they see the church though, so internal experience at the least.

And I would certainly accept that. But my experience is that the claims made of prayer are much greater than internal experience. The strength of materialism then is that it isn't mysterious (Edit: Which isn't to say we would always understand the universe, but if everything is material, in theory we should be able to understand it at some point). If you want a house, you can replicate all the steps to build a house.

I think it's human nature as our understanding of that materialism increases, we will start to see the gaps in which God exists shrink. Which doesn't disprove God, but might make some claims about Him, seem more and more unlikely.