I attended a small, working conference recently with the, to me, rather grandiose title of an International Summit on Creating a Post-Materialist Science, Spirituality, and Society. We were actually quite serious, though, as we all believed that the dominance of Scientism, of a working philosophical theory that materialism is useful having turned into a dogma that it is the total truth about reality, is not only badly incomplete as a science, but psychologically harms many people by denying any spiritual aspects of their being. We are continuing to work on clarifying what we mean by a post-materialist science, which begins with getting clearer on what materialism is, and I thought I would share some of my initial thoughts on this, both for its general psychological and scientific interest, and to remind readers, as I so often do, that we are enmeshed in a cultural and psychological field that exerts a great deal of control over our lives. What follows is far from final, but I think you’ll find these initial thoughts interesting.
The definition of material is so built into our bodies, brains and nervous systems that it hardly needs a formal intellectual definition. It’s more solid, as it were, than the intellectual act of definition. The solid feel of this keyboard in front of me, the clear sight of this computer screen, the internal sensations from my body, the sounds and smells around me, these are all what I consider material stuff. My human senses are exquisitely designed to convey information about the material state of the material objects and processes around me (is it big or small, is it moving toward or away for me, etc.) and because this information is so useful to survival per se and to effective living, we naturally want to understand the material even better than we do with our unaided senses. Thus we invent devices (telescope, microscope, chemical analyses, etc.) and disciplined methods of observation to give us information about material things at finer levels, and often this is useful.
The human race has had enormous success at explaining events in terms of material objects and material energies, and we call explanation in such terms “materialism” in everyday language. Materialism, with a capital M, is a formal philosophical position that says it is extremely useful to look for explanations in material terms. This is often extended to implicitly or explicitly say looking for explanations in material terms is the only way to provide the most useful understanding. Explanation is to reduce all phenomena to the interactions of material objects and forces.
Here we shade into what I like to call Dogmatic Materialism, a habitual (and often emotionally invested in) psychological “hardening of the arteries,” as it were, a view that is so overcommitted to looking for and thinking about only material explanations that any observations which don’t make sense in terms of our already existing material explanations tend to be automatically ignored or dismissed. This ignoring can be both implicit, a person simply doesn’t think about contradictions, or, if the contradiction is conscious we can get what philosophers have called Promissory Materialism, a belief that while we cannot explain something now in material terms, someday such terms will adequately explain it.
Note carefully that Promissory Materialism is not a scientific theory, because scientific theories are generally required to be capable of falsification, and there is no way you can falsify the belief that anything will be explained in material terms someday.
I regard Dogmatic Materialism as a cognitive limitation and/or pathology, for instead of employing the full range of our observational and cognitive capacities to investigate something in all possible ways, we ignore or suppress certain kinds of data and thinking. Data about paranormal events is a primary example of this, far too unpleasantly familiar to many of us who have bothered to investigate them, and is an example of what is also called Scientism, acting and thinking as if the current findings of material science are the ultimate answers, and so anything that seems to contradict them must be in error and we can just ignore such observations without investigating them.
To concretely illustrate this, if I put two people hundreds of miles apart and do not provide any known material means for them to communicate, yet one looks at and thinks about a set of randomly chosen target material and wishes for it to be communicated to the person far away, and statistical analysis of the results shows that there is far more accuracy that can be expected by chance, the committed, Dogmatic Materialist doesn’t bother to read reports of this material in the first place, and/or often tries to suppress publication of such reports in mainstream science journals, and/or if they are forced to read it, comes up with a variety of implausible explanations in materialist terms, even though there’s no evidence for those explanations, and/or charges the experimenter with stupidity (she was fooled by the people involved) of being a deliberate fraud.
This kind of denial can reach the level of the unethical and/or pathological, as in one case where a well-known pseudo-skeptic claimed to explain away some strong results in a telepathy experiment by showing that the receiver could have looked through a transom over the door of his room through the transom of the door over the sender’s room and thus seen the cards, and included a sketch showing how this could be done. The sketch, as I recall, was based on the critic’s inspection of the floor plan of the building. Another investigators subsequently looked at the floor plan of the building, though, and showed that the pseudo-skeptic had, in his diagram (labeled in small print “not to scale”), moved the receiver’s room 50 feet down the hallway in order to make this explanation possible (Honorton, C., 1967. Review of Hansel’s “ESP: A Scientific Evaluation.” Journal of Parapsychology, 31, 82).
Given the situation of a common phenomena of human beings, even scientists, namely being overcommitted and overinvested in particular explanatory systems, such as Dogmatic Materialism, “post-materialist science” is, in many ways, a logically unnecessary term – but needed at this time to remind those lost in Dogmatic Materialism that there is more to reality. All we need is basic, essential science. Basic or essential science (see Tart, C., 1972. States of consciousness and state-specific sciences. Science, 176, 1203-1210) is a procedural algorithm that begins with observing as many aspects, hopefully all aspects, of what you’re interested in as accurately as possible. If you deliberately ignore possible observations that don’t fit theories you are already committed to, because they don’t fit in with materialist explanations, this is Dogmatic Materialism or Scientism. The second step of essential science, after observing as carefully as possible, is to create logical theories that account for what you have observed. The third step is to make predictions as to what will be observed when conditions are changed, if you have a good understanding of what’s going on you should be able to make such predictions. Then these predictions are tested.
This third step is essential, because we human beings are extremely creative at rationalizing as well as rationality, and you can probably create a plausible sounding explanation for any set of events whether it has anything at all to do with the actual processes involved at all. A good and useful scientific theory makes predictions that can be tested, and, on testing, most or many or perhaps all of these predictions are validated. In so far as predictions are not correct, the theory needs to be modified or perhaps entirely rejected. (There’s also a step of full and honest sharing of all these steps with colleagues, but that’s not of immediate concern right here.)
If you have not bothered to observe all aspects of some situation, then whatever theory you create, even if it predicts well, should be considered a specialized sub-theory. It might be quite useful, but to mistake it as a totally comprehensive understanding is wrong. The old heliocentric theory that the sun and stars revolve around the Earth, e.g., works quite well for practical navigation, even though we now know it’s quite inadequate to handle all the data we now have.
My basic point here is that there are many events that can be observed in various ways that cannot be fitted into conventional materialistic explanations or reasonable and logical extensions of those explanations, so while materialism is a useful premise to work from, it should be remembered that materialism is a working hypothesis, always subject to test, and that it is indeed a cognitive limitation to let it sink to the level of an automatic limitation of thought and observation that blinds us to the full range of reality.
Especially when such limitations reject our inherent spiritual nature…
End – for now…