22 June 2010

Against immaterialism: A rebuttal of esoteric metaphysics

In his article ‘It’s Immaterial’ (New Humanist magazine, May/June 2010), Hindu Council UK director and trained scientist Jay Lakhani becomes the umpteenth person to attempt the impossible: reconciling unprovable, faith-based religion with testable, evidence-based science. More specifically, it is the ideas of non-theistic esoteric Hinduism that Lakhani puts forward as a replacement for what he scoldingly calls the ‘materialist paradigm’. “It has long seemed to me,” Lakhani writes, “that the paradigm which now needs to be challenged is that of materialism, that worldview that everything and everyone is essentially just a product of little bits of matter.” With this line, Lakhani takes his place amongst the ranks of discontents revolting against the reductionist, secular, Western (and thus automatically disreputable) idea of a purely physical universe governed by discoverable laws.

But first a digression on the definition of ‘materialism’ – and its converse – for the purpose of my rebuttal. It’s true that not everything that exists is comprised of matter. Our current knowledge of wave/particle relationships and non-material forces (like gravity) attest to this. Nonetheless, these non-material forces are physical; that is, they can be observed and quantified with the aid of sophisticated tools, whether mechanical or mathematical. Thus I take the term ‘materialism’ to be synonymous with ‘physicalism’, the idea that the universe is comprised of only physical things. As for the term ‘immaterial’, Lakhani’s article makes it clear that he equates the word with any phenomena that is to some extent untouchable by us and our science. Let me reiterate: anything can be considered ‘physical’ if it can be observed and measured, even if it can’t be directly touched or seen with the naked eye. An immaterial thing however, in this context, is something that cannot be reliably captured by either our senses or our equipment, because only faith or intuition is up to the task.

I’m not going to wrestle with Lakhani over the physics, since he's undoubtedly far more conversant than I in quantum mechanics and relativity theory. I will instead contest his philosophical arguments on the nature of consciousness and life. Still, I take issue with Lakhani’s portrayal of quantum physics as a mystical theatre of activity that defies human comprehension. After all, one doesn’t have to be a physicist to see that even quantum level activity is measurable and probable, not totally arbitrary or random. Why? Because if it were totally unpredictable, then knowledge in quantum mechanics and theory will never progress! Quantum physicists might as well clear out their labs and get themselves reassigned to other research departments if the mysteries of their field are as insoluble – because ungraspable – as Lakhani seems to suggest.

One warning sign that someone is about to jump out of the plane of reason without a parachute is when they embrace the word ‘esoteric’ as something that confers value or status. Invoking esoterica as explanation is simply shorthand for “I don’t actually know what I’m talking about, but my pretensions bestow an aura of authority and respectability upon me.” Lakhani thinks that by subscribing to a set of fuzzy ideas espoused by men who lived a long, long time ago (the further back in time, the more esoteric cred), he has access to wisdom unattainable by those of us who have our feet firmly planted on solid, material ground. Lakhani writes:

Esoteric Hinduism maintains that “When Brahman shudders, the world of appearance comes into being”. The subject/object divide, too, is part of this appearance. Such stuff would be written off as poetry if it were not so incredibly close to what quantum and consciousness are revealing.

In making such claims, Lakhani and his fellow enthusiasts of esoteric woo-woo are actually applying after-the-fact reasoning to make their case. It is far more likely that the gurus who uttered such profound statements were indeed being poetic. Metaphorical. Going on a hunch. But it just so happens that several centuries later, with the aid of powerful scientific instruments and complex mathematics, physicists make discoveries that any esoterica devotee could then rig to fit the vague, ambiguous proclamations of their revered wise men. Hindsight coupled with personal bias makes a nifty retrofitting tool. People see what they want to see, as Lakhani aptly demonstrates when he writes:

For me as a scientist and a Hindu the resonance I discover between science and esoteric Hinduism is thrilling because this points the way to convergence, economy and elegance.

Lakhani believes that this resonance serves as an explanatory link between what science has discovered and what it hasn’t (because of its stubborn refusal to accept immaterial explanations, obviously). If there’s a piece of the puzzle missing in a certain field, whether “quantum, consciousness or the unique characteristic of life”, it’s because “none of them sits well within the paradigm of materialism,” he argues.

This brings us to another area of enquiry over which Lakhani casts his esoteric net: consciousness. It’s a loaded word that gets bandied about a lot by both materialists and immaterialists, the latter deploying it as a supposed trump card against purely physical explanations of the human mind. The immaterialist goes, “Hah, you materialists may have learnt a lot about how the brain creates language, thoughts, emotions, sensations, dreams, memories, imagination and all the rest of it, but how do you explain consciousness?” Unfortunately for him, our immaterialist has made what philosophy nerds call a ‘categorical error’. Here’s an analogy to illustrate why the immaterialist isn’t making any sense. Imagine your friend has asked you to go find her a football team. So off you go and get yourself a goalkeeper, defenders, strikers, wingers, midfielders and even a coach. You present them to your friend, who then goes on to say, “Well, I can see that you’ve got a goalkeeper, defenders, strikers, wingers, midfielders and a coach, but where’s the football team?”

Your friend has mistakenly categorised the concept ‘football team’ as a component similar to the parts that actually make up the team i.e. the different players. The immaterialist who challenges scientists to show him how consciousness arises from the brain is mistaking consciousness for one of the parts that constitute it (thoughts, emotions, sensations etc.), parts that the clever folks in the cognitive sciences are learning more and more about every day. Materialists like philosopher Daniel Dennett and psychologist Steven Pinker have put forward a far more persuasive and intelligible conception of consciousness because they don’t resort to airy-fairy explanations that don’t actually explain anything. But because they stick to data-supported hypotheses (like the computational model of consciousness Lakhani scoffs at) instead of using esoteric buzzwords like ‘essence’ or ‘being’, immaterialists are unimpressed.

Another feature common to faith-based systems of thought is teleology, the belief that everything in existence was designed for a purpose and strives towards a goal. Lakhani shows that he’s a card-carrying teleologist with this pronouncement:

Evolution is not random but directed. Directed by the quest of consciousness to find greater expression.

Despite there being an embarrassingly ample amount of supporting evidence, Lakhani rejects the ‘materialist’ theory of evolution via natural selection. His Hindu sensibilities are offended by the notion that evolution is merely “an outcome of random mutations in the genes that sit well with the changing environment.” Here’s his alternative theory:

Evolution and life itself are nothing but the struggle of consciousness to find greater and better expression in the material realm. In a single living cell this shows up as rudimentary cognition; in the human frame consciousness finds its greatest expression. This is why we have evolved so rapidly from a single cell to this complex being.

What a relief! And here I thought we were simply an amazingly lucky accident in an uncaring universe. It’s easy to see why teleology appeals to a large swathe of the human species. Better to be comforted by fictions than terrified by truths.

In dismissing one physicist’s bloated theory, Lakhani mentions Occam (and thus implicitly his famous razor), yet the irony is that any immaterial metaphysics practically begs to be cut off by the eponymous razor. Could anything be more superfluous than a non-physical ‘essence’ serving as a gap-filler (like God) for those mysteries yet unsolved by the ‘materialist paradigm’ Lakhani finds so lacking? The simple fact is that a materialist explanation is the most economical, elegant and effective way for us to make sense of everything that did exist, does exist and will exist. Anything extraneous is just decorated froth on top of the coffee; pretty, but dispensable.

Esotericists like to remind us that the human mind is fallible in understanding and limited in scope. They are of course correct, yet – with science as its main instrument – this fallible and limited thing called the human mind has succeeded in piercing a thousand and more secrets of the universe. The difference between an esotericist and a rational person committed to reason and logic is that the latter is quite comfortable with not knowing all the answers to the potentially innumerable questions. The believer in mystical knowledge and immaterial forces however displays an almost desperate need for certitudes in life, the universe and everything. His desire for any explanation has him appealing to the dubious authority of ancient mystics and their vague words, people who were ignorant of all the knowledge we have since acquired through our application of reason, logic and the scientific method of enquiry in a strictly materialist paradigm.


No comments:

Post a Comment