An Alternative to Physicalism

Socrates is reported to have said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In a post 4/9/2013 on this website, I threw out the thought that physicalism is a philosophy or worldview which tends to be assumed automatically and without reflection by people educated in the Western tradition. I quote that post:

By physicalism, I mean the idea, roughly speaking, that everything can be explained by physics and that the scriptures thereof can written down in mathematics. This sort of conception used to be labelled materialism.

I ended that post with the following question:

What—if any—are the alternatives to physicalism? And why is it preferable to all of them?

I did not, at the time, appreciate how hard this question is.

The difficulty lies not so much in coming up with WHY it might be preferable as in the fact that a typical, Western-educated person has no clear awareness of the alternatives as alternatives. For him or her, alternatives simply don’t exist—at least not in a philosophical or intellectual sense.

It is clear that religions and New Age beliefs and such philosophical doctrines as idealism exist as alternatives, and yet they hover outside the edge of awareness of our hypothesized average educated person.

In part—as in the case of idealism—this is because we don’t know much about them.

More crucially, as in the case of religions and New Age beliefs, it is because there is no meeting ground for them and physicalism; there is no common intellectual arena in which one can discuss both of them at the same time. In a religious setting, there is rarely any careful, serious discussion of how, say, evidence supporting the theory of evolution might coexist with religious beliefs. In a scientific discussion, religious ideas are strictly forbidden, and New Age ideas are considered to be completely refuted if one simply utters the term “woo-woo.”

There ought to be a huge number of alternatives to physicalism, an infinite number. It may, to be sure, be the best of all possible choices, but how can we see that if we never carry out comparisons?

Let us see if we can construct an alternative.

One might attempt a description of Buddhism or Christianity or idealism and then ask why it might or might not be preferable to physicalism. However I doubt my knowledge and capacity to do a credible job.

Fortunately, another possibility has emerged.

I want to attempt a construction inspired by correspondence with K. K is an individual with New Age leanings, so the alternative will reflect that. Let us call this alternative K-theory. However the reader should bear in mind that what is presented here, though inspired by K, is not a full nor perfect reflection of her thought. Any parts which are incoherent or self-contradictory are the fault of the present writer, not of K.

* * *

We shall follow a strategy reminiscent of what one might do in constructing a scientific or mathematical theory: We shall exhibit salient properties of the two worldviews. This is a bit like stating the axioms of Euclidean plane geometry versus those for the hyperbolic plane, or listing the assumptions of Newtonian mechanics versus those of special relativity.

Unfortunately our performance shall be a great deal less satisfactory than that. One great problem is that the terms and concepts we use—for example, such things as reason and theorem—are far less well-defined than in a scientific or mathematical setting. However if we are careful to keep such terms close to our everyday understanding of them and not to push them into the stratosphere of abstraction or attempt to draw from them incredibly fine distinctions, then hopefully we shall not wind up talking utter gibberish.

We begin with the idea that reason and observation are proper tools for understanding the world. This is perhaps the same thing as saying that it makes sense to do philosophy.

We do not claim that reason and observation will solve all problems nor that they are the only ways to understand the world.

The idea of reason is taken for granted. We assume the reader to have a good feel for what constitutes a rational or logical argument and thus an acceptable understanding of what we mean by reason. (Though it should always be kept in mind that even the most impressive rational argument can amount to garbage if we apply it in a careless way to fuzzily defined ideas such as God or infinity.) We treat mathematical arguments and calculations as part of reason.

As for observations, we tend to divide them into those that are outside us (those available to sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell) and those inside us (thoughts, feelings, dreams, etc.).

Physicalism starts (so it seems to me) with the following assumption:

P- 1 :  There is a real world that is independent of the observer and is known to us directly only by our physical observations (those outside of us). It is only these physical observations and what can be built from them by reason, logic, and further physical observations that are admissible in constructing a worldview.

That is, physical observations—trees we can touch, flowers we can smell, colors we can see—have a privileged character.

There is no claim that this observer-independent real world is clearly and truly revealed by our physical observations. Rather our situation is more like that of the blind wise man trying to understand an elephant by running his hands over the beast. To obtain a better idea of the true nature of this hidden reality, we must supplement our observations with reason and experiments (further observations).

In K-theory, we start in a somewhat different place:

K- 1 :  All that we know (as humans or any other sort of awareness or consciousness) are our perceptions. This is all there is to existence, perceptions.

Of course perceptions here are our observations.

We note some important differences between P-1 and K-1:

For one thing, in K-1, there are no distinctions drawn between physical observations and any other observations. The possibility arises that a vision of the Archangel Gabriel might deserve to be taken just as seriously as a telescopic photograph of Mars.

For another thing, the emphasis on perceptions automatically draws our attention to the idea of someone or something doing the perceiving and hence of consciousness.

A final difference is that K-1 makes no reference to a reality that stands behind our perceptions. In K, we take the observations to be the reality. This does not mean that the universe lacks that character of a hidden reality which we may strive to discover. For we are discrete, individual specks of consciousness whose perceptions may well be of a limited, partial nature, and we may hope, over time, to have our eyes opened further and to see more.

Let us now go into some more detail about observations and perceptions, the building blocks set out in P-1 and K-1 of our different worldviews.

In P, we exclude certain non-physical phenomena from a fundamental role in building an understanding of the universe:

P- 2 :  Mental phenomena—such things as consciousness, free will, beauty, justice, values, etc.—are the products of physical phenomena. They are not real in themselves. In particular, the universe contains neither purpose nor goal, merely their appearance.

When we talk about physical phenomena, we have in mind things like electrons and atoms and quantum mechanics which we infer from physical observations, experimentation, and mathematics.

P-2 does not mean we cannot talk about things like consciousness, beauty, etc. It means only that their character is not of a fundamental nature. If you feel overwhelming love for someone else, that love, at base, is a cocktail of chemicals, molecules, and electrical oscillations in your brain. Change the cocktail, and the love can become hate. To put it another way, love is not real the way an atom or electron is. It is merely one of the patterns cast up by the kaleidoscope of physics and chance.

But in K-theory, we have something like this:

K- 2 :  Consciousness, free will, and purpose are basic realities (perceptions), much like atoms, electrons, and raindrops. They are objects in a mindscape which are every bit as real as the physical landscape. As such, they are suitable to use as fundamental building blocks in a worldview.

Please keep in mind that we are not claiming K-2 is true nor even urging its adoption. We are presenting it as part of an alternative to the assumptions of physicalism. If you think it is a totally unreasonable assumption to put in a worldview, then you might choose to spend a moment consciously and vehemently denying that there really is such a thing as free will.

In physicalism, we assume the existence of a reality that is independent of observers. This is confirmed in daily life by a certain hard-edged character to the world. It is then easy to get the following idea:

P- 3 :  Our thoughts, will, consciousness, intentions have no effect on the basic character of reality.

This is a tricky statement. We know very well that we can will our arm to rise. However a proper understanding of P-3 would probably lead us to say something like this:

The motion of our arm is really a result of the flow of electrical and chemical currents in our brain, nervous system, and muscles, and the original impetus for that flow of currents is a pre-existing pattern of electro-chemical activity in our brain that produces both the arm motion and the illusion that we refer to as our thoughts.

Remember, in P it is the hidden reality (a real universe, a physical world) that stands behind our perceptions and produces them. Those perceptions (the stars in the sky, the green of grass, the passage of seasons) give us clues as to what that reality is, but that reality stands in relation to our thoughts and perceptions much as the hardness of a granite outcrop does to the insubstantiality of a mountain breeze.

We now give three statements elaborating on K that paint a very different picture from the assumption P-3 of how we are related to reality:

First, if all that exists are perceptions, then our thoughts should be perceptions as well, though of a particular kind. But thoughts have also the character of something that we do. We carry this idea even further:

K- 3 :  By our perceptions we not only experience but influence and create our reality.

Our role in the world is, in K, not merely that of a spectator or victim but also somewhat like that of an author. (Not necessarily a very skillful author. To torture a line of a poem by A. E. Housman, I may find myself, “A stranger and afraid in a world I damn well made.”)

This line of thought clashes most discordantly with the spirit of P. It opens the door to the disreputable phenomena of parapsychology.

But if our very thoughts influence reality, why is it so solid, so immutable? This leads to our second statement:

K- 4 :  Humans have a shared arena of perceptions which we call the world or reality. Due to being shared rather than an act of individual choice, the world has a hard-edged character to it. We can see this in the way we think of the physical sciences.

From this point of view, the world is a game we have “agreed” to play.

The third aspect of our relation to reality which K paints is even more in conflict with P:

K- 5 :  We are ourselves perceptions of something greater, a sentient universe, something we might call “the Divine.” We are examples of the universe experiencing and creating itself.

This is like the notion of God in the the monotheistic religions, yet this god is not so different from ourselves, not so separated from us. If this god does theology, he (it? ) does it by means of our own thoughts on the subject. Nor is this god necessarily as human as the god we find pictured in the monotheisms.

We might reformulate K-3 as, The universe is our dream, and K-5 as, We are God’s dream.

We end our descriptions of P and K with two statements which can be thought of as saying something about meaning and value.

P- 4 :  All meaningful statements about the world can be reduced to statements about numbers and measurements.

This is a reflection of the fact that physicalism tends to identify itself with the practice of science and the use of mathematics. Some might argue that physicalism need not necessarily include this belief. However I think the popular and general understanding of this worldview would probably include the idea that, at base, all things are numbers (or yes, no answers), and the numbers are found by measurements—such things as inches, blood pressure, number of eye-blinks per second, etc.

K- 6 :  Such qualities as sin, evil, and good (in a moral sense) do not have an independent existence on their own. They are instead judgments made by individual minds (if they are made at all) and have a highly conditional nature that can vary from one mind and one set of circumstances to another.

It is a common idea that guilt (or, for that matter, purity or righteousness) is something which floats around independent of our wishes or desires and can be acquired or stumbled into somewhat like a new hair style or quicksand. Rather K-6 says that it is something which, in effect, even if unconsciously, we choose for ourselves.

* * *

We have set forth two contrasting worldviews, physicalism, P, and what we call K-theory, K. We have not done this to claim that one of them is the true picture and other one wrong. Rather we have done this because we are interested in examining how we go about laying the foundations of our beliefs. As a particular instance of how we do this, we ask, Why should one of these worldviews be preferable to the other?

Let us comment on several aspects of how we might attempt to answer this question:

First, in our list of P or K assumptions, there may well be statements to which people respond, That can’t possibly be true! A prime example is K-5, the idea of a spirit of the universe or “divine” from which we derive our existence. They may then say, Since so-and-so cannot possibly be true, then the associated worldview has been invalidated and the other one must be preferable.

Now to reject statement so-and-so on the basis of, I do not believe in so-and-so or I do not like so-and-so, is logically irreproachable. The person doing the rejecting is the only one who knows what he or she is willing to accept. It is the equivalent of expressing a preference for chocolate over vanilla. However this is not a preference which anyone else is bound by logical argument to accept.

To say that, So-and-so cannot possibly be true, requires more justification than the bald statement that it is wrong. If one cannot come up with that justification, then, So-and-so cannot possibly be true, looks uncomfortably like an act of faith. And for many people, that would be a very uncomfortable place indeed.

Our second point is that we expect for most people, the default choice will be physicalism; it is the generally accepted view, and we naturally defend what we already believe. When the question arises of how one consciously justifies that choice, there is a trap that one should be aware of: There is a temptation to say that physicalism is justified by science, that science shows that the assumptions of P are true.

A problem with this argument is that it tends to proceed from an unconscious identification of physicalism with science. In that case, the justification amounts to, “Physicalism is true because physicalism is true.”

Physicalism does not come out of science. If anything, it is the other way around: Physicalism is a set of metaphysical assumptions on which one can erect science.

However there is no reason to believe that physicalism is the only possible foundation for science.

Suppose, for example, that I wish to do electromagnetic field theory. I write down Maxwell’s field equations and away I go, merrily deriving such things as the existence of radio waves. Whether I believe in P or K makes no difference. What is important is that I believe in an orderly, rational universe and that I have—at least temporarily—assumed the validity of Maxwell’s field equations.

In the setting of Maxwell’s field equations, it simplifies things to assume that the thoughts and feelings of scientists do not affect the phenomena in question. Then P is a good fit. However it may be no more than a simplifying assumption, the sort of thing that occurs when one solves a differential equation to predict the motion of a projectile and neglects the effect of air friction. It may well be that there are other areas of human inquiry and endeavor—psychology? medicine? understanding quantum mechanics? —where the belief that conscious intention and purpose are fundamental processes (the sort of worldview exhibited by K) may permit a better theoretical understanding of what’s going on.

A third point to consider is that there will be a temptation to say that some aspects of K posit metaphysical entities or paranormal effects for which there is no scientific proof. Given the strong tendency to identify physicalism with science, this feels very much like an attempt to say that K must be rejected because it is incompatible with P.

* * *

I return at the end of this post to the question I wished to pose: Why is one of these worldviews preferable to the other? For most people, this will be, Why is physicalism preferable to K-theory?

I hope my readers will find the question of at least passing interest and that they will treat it as an intellectual puzzle. Something that deserves at least a few moments examination.

2 thoughts on “An Alternative to Physicalism

  1. Great way to put it all together, Mike! Loved it, but then again, I’m a bit partial. LOL

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