DiaBlogue: Naturalism AND Mysticism Are Dead

Today’s title is homage to the Tom Stoppard play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead“, which in turn is inspired by the two most casual murders in a tragedy filled with death. I don’t think Alan was still at Caltech when TACIT put it on the former, but I still have fond memories of it, perhaps because the cast (including me, as one of the thespians) got to meet Tom Stoppard. Even though half my friends who attended hated the show, due to what one of them labeled “existential claptrap.”

I mention this not to discuss the show’s existential philosophy (that’ll come up later :-), but rather the philosophy of existence (what “is” is :-). In particular, I want to suggest that the issues Alan and I have been murkily wrestling with in his Deep Thoughts and my Ontologically Correct have been similarly overtaken by events, and rendered moot. Specifically, I am arguing that:

a. The “competing hypothesis” to Naturalism isn’t really Theism, but Mysticism.
b. The whole Naturalism vs. Mysticism debate is actually an artifact of classical physics
c. Alan and I are actually pretty close in our current understanding of Naturalism
d. The real alternative to Theism might better be called “economic Deism.”

I realize that’s a lot to prove, but I’m going to give it a shot. [Read more] for my inquest into the mutual deaths of the Rosencrantz of Naturalism and the Guildenstern of Mysticism.

First of all, I want to thank Alan for his humility and forthrightness in clarifying his position, including his own uncertainty. It is one of the things I treasure most about this dialogue, that (at our best) we both are genuinely trying to approach truth, not merely justify our own viewpoint.

I also want to point out that “This Ain’t Easy.” We really are trying to answer some of the deep questions of the millenia, and language is a very imperfect tool (though still better than all the others 🙂 for doing so. One of Aristotle’s great achievements, I’m told, is that he managed to elucidate all the different sense of “to be”, since before that philosophers couldn’t even agree about “nothing!” So, I appreciate Alan’s patience as we work through layers of mutual misunderstanding, since in many cases these are to due to actual confusion in our mental models, not just limitations in our language.

Let me start with Alan’s definition:

my tentative position is still naturalism, that conciousness and behavior and choice (or the illusion thereof) are all manifestations of purely physical processes. Positing a separate spiritual existence to explain them does make things easier, but it strikes me as being very much a sort of “God of the gaps” explanation when we attribute to something “unnatural” anything we cannot (yet) explain.

All well and good, but what exactly qualifies as a “physical process” — I’m not a historian, but I hope Alan will allow me to indulge in a parable that may be wrong in details, but captures the essential trends.

In the 18th and 19th century, it was “obvious” what was physical. Classical physics implicitly assumed that:

i. the universe is as it appears to be
ii. matter, space, time, and energy were discrete and concrete concepts
iii. natural laws are universal, objective, and immutable
iv. we know, and can now, at least in principle what all the laws are like
v. thus, the universe is intrinsically objective and deterministic, indifferent to human action

In other words, there was no room for God, free will, or spiritual phenomena. In reaction to this, mysticism asserted that:

i. the world we see is an illusion concealing a deeper reality
ii. there are forces and levels of reality beyond human understanding and control
iii. we live in a universe of open-ended possibility, of which humans are meaningful actors

Of course these are both gross simplifications, and would not fairly characterize all players on either side. However, I do think these fundamental ontological differences captured the heart of the tension between them at that time, as well as their enduring enmity.

But, a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century: naturalism won the battle, but lost the war. Yes, methodological naturalism has crushed spiritualism as a means of explaining reality. But in so doing, it has also crushed many of the assumptions our naturalistic forefathers took as gospel. In the new, post-Einsteinian physics:

i. the observable world is an artifact of observation, not an intrinsic aspect of reality
ii. nature is inherently unpredictable
iii. there are forces beyond the realm of immediate human detection which we do not understand

I’m sure Alan would be quick to point out that this is still essentially naturalism, and I would not disagree. But the larger point is that the main objections that mysticists (in my view) had to naturalism have disappeared. In the new “quantum naturalism”, concepts like “consciousness” and “choice” are not merely conceivable, but (at least potentially) well-defined.

In particular, I would argue that there is no measurable nor philosophical difference between thinking of the mind as a “coherent quantum state emerging from the complexity of neural interconnects” versus “the interaction of soul and matter.” In particular, once you grant the existence of such a quantum field in the brain, who is to say that it is not entangled with other fields, which may or may not be directly coupled to the material universe we directly perceive with our senses?

Thus, I am perfectly willing to accept “quantum naturalism” as a valid conceptual model for our mutual understanding of reality. However, I assert that I am still free to define my relevant spiritual concepts — God, angels, etc. — in similar terms, as quantum fields (or potentially sub-quantum fields) which interact with the field of consciousness, and thus valid ontological concepts in our universe.

You might argue — and probably would — that such “fields” are very different than the “spirits” which inhabit a mystical universe. But if so, how? The usual answer is that fields have no “sentience“, while spirits do. But, that begs the question, “What is sentience?” If you can assign sentience to a human field, why can I not assign one to a non-human field?

Thus, by conceding the point about naturalism (suitably modified), I have replaced it with a deeper — but hopefully clearer — mystery of sentience. As I see it, you [Alan] can assert:

a. There is no such thing as sentience or choice, either sub-, super-, or mere human
b. Human beings are the only (or maximal) expression of sentience in the observable universe
c. Sentience must be tied to observable, material objects
d. You have no idea whether sentience exists or doesn’t exist

Of course, there are other variations on these, but hopefully this gets you pointed in the right direction.

My usual understanding of naturalism is that it concedes that:

* humans are sentient, but
* the universe (as we experience it) does not include any [other] observable sentience
which corresponds to point (b), or — using our earlier definition of divinity — what I would call “economic Deism.”

Would you agree, Alan? Or are you at least more meaningfully confused? 🙂