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Physicalism: A Pernicious Cosmology
Physicalism is the philosophical claim that only what is physical is real
Recently I published here an article entitled Physicalism: A False View of the World. This began as follows:
Physicalism (loosely a.k.a. materialism) is the philosophical claim that only what is physical is real, where physical means: To be found or inferred by measurement and reason as existing in the world observable by the outer senses (mainly sight, hearing and touch).
Physicalism is distinct from physics. Physics is (a) an activity based upon observing the world …and (b) a body of knowledge which consists of truths established by this activity. This essay does not deny the truth of any established proposition of physics. Physicalism, on the other hand, is the ontological position which asserts that only that which is the subject of physics can be held to be real, or in other words, that reality consists only of what can be observed by means of the outer senses or can be shown to exist by the investigations of physicists.
Some readers thought that the article was primarily about consciousness, and failed to understand that it was about a view of the world (namely, the modern 'scientific' view) which has no place in it for consciousness. In this follow-up article I attempt to make this clear and also deal with the pernicious effects of physicalism on modern society, a theme which was not properly developed in that article.
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It's not about consciousness, it's about a non-physical reality
This article is not about explaining consciousness, which I doubt can be done, since consciousness is irreducible (that is, it cannot be understood in terms of simpler concepts). It is not concerned with a "theory of consciousness", but rather with the truth or falsity of physicalism, and I simply mention the inability of that philosophical position to explain — or rather, to acknowledge the reality of — consciousness as one reason (though a major one) for rejecting it. The main point of my article is that physicalism is false because it is now possible to directly observe a non-physical reality by the use of the substance N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT). It is not necessary to "prove" the existence of a non-physical reality because there is one which can be observed directly (if one dares to).
An essential part of my argument against physicalism is that what is revealed by DMT is a world which is objectively real because 'objective' means 'intersubjectively verifiable'. Physicalists may claim that 'objective' means 'observable by the outer senses', but this is obviously false, because atoms are objective entities but cannot be seen, heard or touched. They are 'objective' because many people who have been trained as physicists have made observations and inferences therefrom which lead to the conclusion that atoms exist independently of them and their observations. In other words, the existence of atoms is verifiable by anyone with the required experimental skills, which is to say, their existence is intersubjectively verifiable, and that is what it means to be objective.
Before 2000 there were just scattered reports of "apparently independently-existing intelligent entities" which could be observed if one smoked DMT at the required dose level. These could be dismissed as 'merely subjective'. But if enough people who perform the experiment of smoking DMT observe apparently independently-existing intelligent entities then the existence of those entities becomes intersubjectively verifiable, that is, objective. Based on earlier sources, I compiled 340 DMT trip reports, and in over 200 of these there are reports of encounters with intelligent entities (who frequently appear to be be paying close and often very alarming attention to the observer). 200 reports affirming the existence of the DMT entities might not be considered a sufficient number to establish their objectivity, but this was just a beginning — there are now many hundreds of such reports (though how many will be published for all to read is another question). Taken together they will be sufficient to establish that the world experienced with the help of DMT is as real as the room you’re sitting in (and maybe even more so).
Some readers may regard the question of the truth or falsity of physicalism as merely another locus of philosophical controversy, perhaps amusing or interesting but of no great importance. I shall show below why this is not so, and why physicalism is at the root of the psychological, social and economic problems of our time.
Schroedinger on the 'scientific' picture of the world
The following quotation from Erwin Schroedinger's essay "Why not talk Physics?" will provide a helpful introduction to the implications of the widespread acceptance of the physicalist position:
The scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good and bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we're not inclined to take them seriously ... The scientific world-picture vouchsafes a very complete understanding of all that happens — it makes it just a little too understandable. It allows you to imagine the total display as that of a mechanical clockwork which, for all that science knows, could go on just the same as it does, without there being consciousness, will, endeavor, pain and delight and responsibility connected with it — though they actually are. And the reason for this disconcerting situation is just this: that, for the purpose of constructing the picture of the external world, we have used the greatly simplifying device of cutting our own personality out, removing it; hence it is gone, it has evaporated, it is ostensibly not needed ... Whence come I, and whither go I? That is the great unfathomable question, the same for every one of us. Science has no answer to it.
I later found this quotation from E. A. Burtt's The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (pp.236-7):
It was of the greatest consequence for succeeding thought that now the great Newton's authority was squarely behind that view of the cosmos which saw in man a puny, irrelevant spectator (so far as a being wholly imprisoned in a dark room can be called such) of the vast mathematical system whose regular motions according to mechanical principles constituted the world of nature. ... The world that people had thought themselves living in — a world rich with colour and sound ... speaking everywhere of a purposive harmony and creative ideals — was crowded now into minute corners in the brains of scattered organic beings. The really important world outside was a world, hard, cold, colourless, silent and dead — a world of quantity, a world of mathematically computable motions in mechanical regularity. The world of qualities as immediately perceived by man became just a curious and quite minor effect of that infinite machine, beyond. In Newton, the Cartesian metaphysics, ambiguously interpreted and stripped of its distinctive claim for serious philosophical consideration, finally overthrew Aristotelianism, and became the predominant world-view of modern times.
Physicalism: a pernicious cosmology
Although physicalism has permeated the public consciousness only since modern science has been part of public education, it has its historical roots in the Copernican Revolution, some 500 years ago, when it was first espoused publicly by Kepler and Galileo. Until the 17th C. humans lived in a world where the Earth was at the center of the cosmos, a cosmos in which they themselves were fully embedded, and which spoke to them via meaningful signs both above and below. With the acceptance of the Copernican view of the solar system (according to which the planets circled the Sun), the way was open to seeing the cosmos as we do today, as a void containing an uncountable number of celestial objects moving in ways which can be investigated and understood by observation and reasoning. The cosmos thus ceased to be a source of meaning and became an object of investigation, along with all that it contained.
As modern science developed following Isaac Newton's discoveries, the mode of this investigation increasingly distinguished between 'facts' and 'values'. Facts were descriptive of the physical world — the world perceivable by the outer senses, whereas 'values' were regarded as being of human origin, having their source (somehow) in human consciousness, in the human mentality, or in human minds (though then, as now, physical science does not know what the term 'human mind' means or could refer to). 'Facts' were for modern scientists 'objective' whereas 'values' were '(merely) subjective'.
A good description of this historical development, and of its psychological consequences, can be found in Richard Tarnas's book Cosmos and Psyche, where we read that
the modern mind experiences a fundamental division between a subjective human self and an objective external world. Apart from the human being, the cosmos is seen as entirely impersonal and unconscious. Whatever beauty and value that human beings may perceive in the universe, that universe is in itself mere matter in motion, mechanistic and purposeless, ruled by chance and necessity. It is altogether indifferent to human consciousness and values. The world outside the human being lacks conscious intelligence, it lacks interiority, and it lacks intrinsic meaning and purpose.
As Erwin Schroedinger said (in the passage quoted above), in its pursuit of 'objectivity' modern science has "for the purpose of constructing the picture of the external world ... [cut] our own personality out". According to modern science, the cosmos in which we live is simply a random collection of objects which move within a vacuum, have properties such as 'mass' and 'charge', and interact with other objects. These objects have no color (since color does not exist outside of consciousness), no history (that is a human construct), no value or worth (except within human minds), cannot possess beauty, cannot act with compassion, courage or integrity, and in no way can be worthy of admiration or disdain. And humans are, according to the physicalist view, simply a subset of these objects. It follows that humans can be treated just like any other objects within the physical world, just like the minerals to be mined, like the trees to be converted to lumber, like the animals to be reared in factory farms — that is, they can be treated as something to be exploited, primarily for profit.
Physicalism is at the root of the modern psychological disease of alienation, in which we perceive ourselves as beings who value art, beauty, love, kindness, etc., existing in a cosmos in which, according to the physicalist position, none of these things exist, except perhaps as a delusion — a delusion within consciousness, which itself has no place in the physicalist world and cannot be explained within physicalism and so must be 'explained away'. This 'alienation' is not simply a psychological condition, it has given rise to a form of mass insanity.
Richard Tarnas writes:
Since the encompassing cosmological context in which all human activity takes place has eliminated any enduring ground of transcendent values — spiritual, moral, aesthetic — the resulting vacuum has empowered the reductive values of the market and the mass media to colonize the collective human imagination and drain it of all depth. If the cosmology is disenchanted [as it is in the physicalist view of the world], the world is logically seen in predominantly utilitarian ways, and the utilitarian mind-set begins to shape all human motivation at the collective level. ... The disenchanted cosmos impoverishes the collective psyche in the most global way, vitiating its spiritual and moral imagination ... For quite literally, in a disenchanted cosmos, nothing is sacred.
The widespread acceptance of the physicalist view thus accounts for the total lack of wisdom in the modern world and the unrestrained rise and triumph of individual and corporate greed and the desire for control over others (so as to exploit them more efficiently and for greater profit), culminating in a ruthless drive for world domination in which humans are regarded as of no value (and may even become cannon-fodder simply on the order of the commander-in-chief) except insofar as they can be used to maintain a global corporate/financial elite in the condition it desires.
This drive for world domination may well result in the extinction of the human species before long, in which case the question of the truth or falsity of physicalism will be moot. But there is a possibility that this will be avoided (stranger things have happened), and while there is still a chance we should use any available means to demonstrate the falsity of the physicalist view of the world, a view which is presupposed by this drive for world domination.
We don't have 500 years to sort this out
The physicalist view of the world is not merely a subject of philosophical debate, with no psychosocial consequences. As Richard Tarnas has eloquently revealed in the introductory section of his book Cosmos and Psyche, this view of the world is actually a cosmology according to which nothing in the universe is really alive or is really conscious (because only sub-atomic particles and energy really exist), so when we experience ourselves as alive and conscious we are really deceiving ourselves, basically deluded. And when we experience beauty, love, a sense of work well done, etc., we are also deceiving ourselves, because (according to this cosmology) all meaning is basically a projection upon a lifeless universe.
So the modern human mind is afflicted by a schizophrenic contrast between what we know by experience and what 'science' tells us is really real. But since 'science' is perceived as an authority (just as, in the West, the Church once was) it defines what is 'public' reality. And this 'really' consists only of objects, possessing no value in themselves, but of value only to the extent that they can be used, manipulated and exploited. Thus. according to the modern worldview, might is right, greed is good, and life is only about getting, spending and 'consuming' until you die. Obviously this is insane. If humans persist in this view of the world then they have no future, except perhaps as ignorant slaves in a world controlled by a psychopathic elite.
Philosophers can debate the truth or falsity of physicalism for the next 500 years and they will still manage to avoid coming to a conclusion. What's needed is incontrovertible evidence that physicalism is false. That evidence is available to anyone who has the courage to use DMT at the required dose level.
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