(Revised January 4, 2019)
It must be recognized that [for most, though not all, of the human race] monist materialism leads to a rejection or devaluation of all that matters in life.
John C. Eccles
[In some philosophies] the whole of life is something much more grey, narrow, and trivial than many separate aspects of it. The parts seem greater than the whole.
G. K. Chesterton
[“J’accuse” (“I accuse”) was the title of an open letter published on January 13, 1898 in the Paris daily L’Aurore by the prominent writer Émile Zola. Addressed to the President of the French Republic, it accused the government and the General Staff of the Army of anti-Semitism and of perverting justice in the sentencing (by secret court-martial) of Captain Alfred Dreyfus to a life of penal servitude on Devil’s Island. As a result of the immediate impact and subsequent fame of Zola’s letter, both in France and abroad, “J’accuse” has become a common generic expression of outrage and accusation against some egregious abuse of power.]
In his 2006 best-seller The God Delusion Richard Dawkins expressed indignation over the fact that religious believers inculcate their religious beliefs and attitudes in their defenseless children long before they are capable of appreciating the sorts of arguments that he believes discredit religion. Here is a short excerpt from Dawkins’s book on this theme:
Just as feminists wince when they hear ‘he’ rather than ‘he or she,’ or ‘man’ rather than ‘human,’ I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear a phrase such as ‘Catholic child’ or ‘Muslim child.’ Speak of a ‘child of Catholic parents’ if you like; but if you hear anybody speak of a ‘Catholic child,’ stop them and politely point out that children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics. Precisely because my purpose is consciousness-raising, I shall not apologize for mentioning it here in the Preface as well as in Chapter 9. You can’t say it too often. I’ll say it again. That is not a Muslim child, but a child of Muslim parents. That child is too young to know whether it is a Muslim or not.
I think it will strike most people as quixotic, if not naďve, to suppose that you can prevent or dissuade parents, whether religious or irreligious, from instilling in their offspring their own philosophical outlook. Even Daniel Dennett, a friend of Dawkins with similar views, admitted in a TED talk (13:05 minutes in) that, “The key to culture is religion.” Certainly, it is not easy to see how you can pass on your culture without also passing on your religion or world view, either explicitly or implicitly.
Nevertheless, though Dawkins may be a victim of a naďve idealism fanned by moral indignation, I admit that he has the right to deplore the indoctrination of the young with what he considers to be fables and falsehoods. By the same token, I feel justified in deploring the indoctrination of certain mental habits and a certain intellectual outlook on life which I consider to be not only false—merely my own philosophical opinion—but, much more importantly, definitely opposed to the desires and detrimental to the happiness of most people, irrespective of culture and upbringing. The indoctrinator in question is Western intellectual culture, the main mode of indoctrination is higher education, and the thing propagated is monist materialism (also known as physical monism and, less rigourously, reductive or scientific materialism). And by monism I mean the belief that nothing exists outside The One, whether that be defined as the great interlocking system called Nature, or simply designated “The Absolute” or the “Tao” or the “eternal flux.” It is very true, however, that not all naturalists (i.e. metaphysical naturalists) are extreme monists. Many naturalists allow, to a greater or lesser degree, a belief in free will, or in essences, or various forms of Platonism to creep into their thought—and by Platonism is meant a belief in, or a receptiveness to, a trans-natural mode of being. Nevertheless, naturalism always gravitates towards monism.
Two classes of experience, enjoyment and whatever is its opposite—let’s call it dislike—have always dominated human (and animal) behavior and belief. And rightly so. The desire for enjoyment and the aversion to dislike are, subject to special considerations that vary with personal values and beliefs, healthy and rational instincts. And, in point of fact, the human race does treat the experience of enjoyment and the avoidance of dislike as more important than objective reality, or any theory about objective reality. One proof of the primacy of inner experience over the external world is that the naturalist, for whom suffering has no transcendental value, will always insist on the right to blot the natural world out of his consciousness when faced with intense suffering that precludes future enjoyment. Is he, and is the human race, rational for letting subjective experience trump objective reality? The preliminary answer must be, Yes. We often overlook the fact that inner experience is primary, and that all our “objective” experience depends upon our subjective experience. Dismiss subjective or inner experience and we dismiss the universe.
Now it is undeniable that there are people who thrive on monist materialism—the reasons for this are probably very interesting and deserve a separate investigation—but the large majority regard it with distaste for obvious and rational reasons. It washes away much of the meaning and value upon which their enjoyment of many things depends, something to be expected from a philosophy that views all phenomena as manifestations or aspects of The One, a thing which is not very interesting in itself but to which everything else owes its existence and is subordinate. From the standpoint of monism, the self, essences (or the thingness of being), truth, free will, religion, love (romantic and altruistic), beauty, ethics, heroism, etc. all have either less significance than we thought they did, or are simply dismissed as fictions, though they may be conceded some value as “supreme fictions.” (Before collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions, one variety of near-monism, logical positivism, proclaimed all metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic statements to be meaningless.)
There are two ways in particular by which monist materialism thwarts the desires and undermines the enjoyment of the average person. The subtle way is by conditioning us to downgrade inner experience, including the experience of enjoyment. Monism tends to sacrifice everything to analytical understanding, especially the kind of analysis that involves taking things apart, either physically or intellectually, to dissolve their mystery—‘We murder to dissect,’ as the poet said. If any mystery remains or refuses to be dissolved, it is the habit of monism not to notice the fact. Monism has no use for mystery and disparages our appetite for it. Einstein famously remarked, ‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.’ Not surprisingly, when asked about his religion part of his reply was, “I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist.” In other words, he’s not a monist who likes his monism spiritually-flavoured. According to C. S. Lewis, if you come to monism from supernaturalism, everything is God; if you come to monism from naturalism, everything is matter.
And yet it would be unfair to lay all the blame at the doorstep of monism. For it is not only a world view but matter itself that conditions us to undervalue inner experience. Configurations of matter, such as the state of our body or the state of our environment, cause discomfort more frequently than they cause pleasure. Most of the time our bodies interact with our physical environment so as to produce neither intense pleasure nor acute discomfort. But even if day-to-day existence is far from wonderful, our creature comforts, projects, hopes and ambitions are sufficient to make us feel that life is well worth living. We would be very unhappy to be informed that tomorrow was going to be the last day of our life!
On the other hand, those occasions when matter delights or uplifts us—delight which, when it comes, seems ultra-real and perhaps evidence of Plato’s transcendental world—are usually separated by such long intervals that these incomparable experiences fade in memory and come to seem unreal during the dry periods. One easily becomes doubtful or even cynical about them. Matter, on the other hand, is always present to the senses, ready to be exploited and, if possible, dominated. Most of the enjoyment it confers may be of an uninspiring variety, but at least it is reliable. Moreover, it also offers the intellectual enjoyment that comes from taking up the challenge to investigate its behaviour and understand its structure at deeper and deeper levels. It is pleasures of this kind that monism celebrates and encourages; and, with their help, it gently leads us away from the mystery of experience. But how can mere matter, however highly organized, “mean” anything, “experience” anything, “know” anything? And what is experience when you get right down to it? So far, no one has been able to give an answer, much less a scientific explanation. Nevertheless, monism steadfastly declines to infer anything that might satisfy the part of human nature to which Plato appeals.
The unsubtle way in which monism thwarts the desires and undermines the enjoyment of the average person is by endlessly repeating that science has made it impossible to believe in the supernatural in general or in miracles in particular—I’ve never come across the great work in which this important doctrine is proved—claims that would have greatly surprised scientific giants such as Galileo, Newton, Pascal, Boyle, Cavendish, Maxwell, Faraday, Lord Kelvin, Mendel, Pasteur, and many others. In an email to a friend of mine, an unapologetic monist, I wrote, ‘If I’m not mistaken, you seem to think that there is some absolutely objective standard for weighing evidence that is valid for everyone, irrespective of the philosophical opinions they already hold.’ He replied, ‘Yes, and that objective standard is the body of knowledge, and its accompanying methodology, known as science. We have no other.’ That view is very common among convinced naturalists, though they might not express it in quite so forthright a manner.
Platonism, in one form or another, has strongly appealed to great scientists and logicians such as Planck, Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, Einstein, Bertrand Russell (off and on), Kurt Gödel and Roger Penrose, to name a few. Many mathematicians are Platonists and most are probably Platonists at heart. But in its implacable opposition to anything that smacks of a reality that transcends Nature, monist materialism inhibits such people and makes them feel apologetic and slightly ashamed of their Platonist tendencies. It is not in the nature of dominant philosophies, religious or irreligious, to scruple to interfere with other people’s enjoyment if that’s what it takes to maintain dominance. And monism does interfere with legitimate human desire and enjoyment, though not by presenting arguments and evidence that are binding on every honest, rational person. Rather, it creates an intellectual climate in which those with a taste for perfection, for immortality, for miraculous help, for a supernatural order of being or for Platonism in any of its forms are made to feel outlandish if they don’t acquiesce in what may be, at bottom, no more than an intellectual fashion. And the central dogma of this particular fashion is, ‘The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.’
Consider, on the other hand, the instinctive and widespread belief that man has an immortal as well as a mortal component. (In the diary he kept after his diagnosis with terminal cancer Christopher Hitchens wrote, ‘Always prided myself on my reasoning faculty and my stoic materialism. I don’t have a body, I am a body. Yet consciously and regularly acted as if this was not true, or as if an exception would be made in my case.’) We begin with the fact that the human body is a fragile and often faulty structural mechanism. Now some people might feel doubtful about the claim that the human body is fragile, but it is easy to show that even a single joule of energy can seriously damage a delicate organ such as the eye, or cause acute pain to the nose. The fragility of our body is usually disguised by the efficiency of its extremely sophisticated systems for avoiding pain and injury, and it is these systems that allow us to feel reasonably secure despite being surrounded by dangers on every side.
The next fact to notice is that for our world to be an interesting place it must contain moving objects. But the equation for kinetic energy, KE = ˝ mv2, entails that everyday objects, such as a child on a bicycle or a slammed door, carry energies that are capable of doing serious damage to the human body. (The value of the gravitational constant, G, fine-tuned for the emergence of stars and planets, is at the root of the problem. This value determines the enertia of matter, m, in Newton’s second of law of motion F = ma, that is to say, it determines how much force is required to accelerate a given quantity of matter.) Barring any transcendental considerations that might dramatically alter (and soften) this picture, this is a very undesirable state of affairs. Fortunately, we feel secure, even though we know that accidents happen all the time and that our sense of security is an illusion. And the same holds true for the body as a faulty mechanism. The fact that most of the time the human body works as well as it does often strikes reflective people as remarkable considering how many things can go very seriously wrong, and do go wrong for an unfortunate few every day of the week.
Now it is agreed on all sides that well over 99.9 percent (100 percent for the hardcore naturalist) of our enjoyment—the thing we value, in practice, above all else—depends on a properly functioning body acting as a mediator or signal transducer. But if man is nothing more than his body, then it is a bitter truth that accident, disease, or, inevitably, old age, will bring an end to his enjoyment once and for all. And yet, who hasn’t at times felt it ridiculous, outrageous, a crying shame that all our knowledge and understanding (not to mention a lifetime of reading), all our desire and ambition, all our capacity for experience and enjoyment depends on a physically fragile and intellectually unsatisfying system of blood, flesh and bone weighing roughly 70 kilograms? In The Varieties of Religious Experience, American pragmatist William James expressed a somewhat similar idea in these words: ‘The fact that we can die, that we can be ill at all, is what perplexes us; the fact that we now for a moment live and are well is irrelevant to that perplexity. We need a life not correlated with death, a health not liable to illness, a kind of good that will not perish, a good, that is, that flies beyond the Goods of nature.’
Suppose, however, that one adopts an attitude which doesn’t rule out as a live possibility that part of us is non-material, or that miraculous healings sometimes occur. Though not necessarily true, such age-old beliefs must be rational by virtue of the fact that so many honest, intelligent, well-informed people throughout the centuries and up until the present day hold such beliefs on the basis of evidence and arguments that satisfy them. Can there be any doubt that the resulting hope and cheerfulness will counteract the coldness and gloom of monism on the one hand while increasing the enjoyment of life on the other? I submit, then, that the exponents of monism should not use their disproportionate influence in the universities to stand in the way of those rational benefits. It is my opinion that by trying to bring commonplace spiritual intuitions and otherworldly hopes into intellectual disrepute, and by resorting to what many non-monists see as propaganda and metaphysical intolerance, the propagators of Western intellectual culture do more harm than they realize—not least by polarizing societies and cultures, thereby making a world full of nuclear weapons more unstable.
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