Thursday, May 11, 2017

Materialism, AKA The Bureau of Missing Persons

Again, certain problems arise the higher we travel up the epistemological food chain, where things become increasingly real.

For example, it is possible to model simple phenomena such as the solar system, and predict where this or that planet will be 100 or 1,000 years hence. This becomes quite difficult in complex systems (such as the climate), but is impossible in principle in complex systems exhibiting subjectivity and personhood -- or in other words, human beings (in short, you can't model freedom, but liberals never stop trying).

For those of you who don't know the backstory, my grad school education in psychology might have been worthless -- if not pernicious -- had it not intersected with two saving graces, one of whom was a particular professor, the other an obscure (at least outside psychoanalytic circles) theorist named W.R. Bion. It was the latter who vaulted me out of my existing orbit and taught me how to think. Or rather, taught me what I was doing when thinking (or pretending to).

However, especially in hindsight, I can see that there wasn't necessarily anything special about Bion. He didn't discover anything new, so no need to run out and purchase his expensive and abstruse little books.

For example, I'm seeing that Kierkegaard raised the same issues, as did many thinkers before him, probably going back to Socrates. As far as we know, Socrates was the first man to consciously avoid pretending to know what couldn't be known, or to always bear in mind the vast realm of the Unknown Unknown, which swamps the other three.

Of course there are the known knowns of everyday science and known unknowns of twilit philosophy. In many ways psychoanalysis is the paradoxical realm the unknown known, e.g., unconscious drives and conflicts that we only pretend not to know.

In this context, you could say that a psychological symptom is the quintessential case of an unknown known, in the sense that your conscious mind doesn't understand what the symptom means, but your unconscious mind must, or it wouldn't be there. The symptom is a communication of knowledge, only the left brain doesn't know what the right brain is up to.

Think about the miracle of mathematics, which allows us to deal with a whole realm of Objects That Aren't Here. Where do my investments exist, for example? I have a piece of paper with a bunch of abstract numbers that somehow relate to these distant objects, but imagine trying to keep track of them without the numbers.

Well, there are certain dimensions of existence that cannot be so treated, for example, human relationships. As Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell remind us, "ain't nothin' like the real thing": I got your picture hangin' on the wall / But it can't see or come to me when I call your name / I realize it's just a picture in a frame. Etc.

No abstract symbol can replace or represent the missing person. Nor, for that matter, the missing God. As Bion puts it, certain formulations are "dependent on the presence of the experiences being formulated." We must deal "with the original object without the aid of an intervening model which [we] can manipulate." For example, "there is no brother with whom to work out problems of the relationship with a father."

Likewise, it's no use dealing with models of God, no matter how accurate. Rather, only the original will do.

Note how materialism, or any form of naturalism, simply denies the existence of persons. Materialism is the philosophy of the Missing Person. This person is somehow putting forth a philosophy that denies the existence of the person putting it forth. It is inherently regressive, because it transforms a known unknown -- the person -- into an unknown unknown. This renders the "examined life" impossible, because there is no one to examine.

Nevertheless, like a dead body floating to the surface, one cannot actually rid the cosmos of the personal without it returning unbidden. Indeed, the materialist has things precisely backward and upside down, for the personal is the ultimate category of existence; everything is reducible to it, rather than vice versa.

Yesterday a thoughtlet pops into my head: the love of truth ultimately converges upon the truth of love.

It also occurred to me that a person is never a thing or object, but a link. Or better, a person always refers to. A baby refers to mother, and vice versa. Assuming we grow all the way up, man ultimately refers to God, and vice versa. That "God refers to man" may sound strange, but it's another way of saying Incarnation.

Then it occurs to me that the cosmos is like a vast life-making machine, and that life is a mind-making machine. This makes man the God-making machine.

But this formulation has it all backward, for we must begin with the personhood of the Creator. The Creator wishes to create persons. Everything in existence is marked by traces of personhood; in other words, every existent has an intelligible interior accessible to the human subject. Knowledge is simply the interior of objects calling out to the interior of persons: they refer to us, as we refer to them, in an ever-deepening spiral.

But the ultimate truth is this mysterious human subject itself. Rather, make that the penultimate truth, because it is inexplicable if it doesn't refer to its own source, AKA God. So, to round out this roundabout post, let's get back to what Kierkegaard has to say about all this perfect nonsense:

"Kierkegaard's emphasis on the pointlessness of 'intellectually grasped' truth... explains why throughout history so few seekers have gained enlightenment from the 'great truths' provided by enlightened men..."

"[F]or when the insights of these enlightened masters are spoken by them, or repeated and recorded by others, they are invariably experienced by those listening only as objective, or intellectually acknowledged, truths that do not carry the energy of the subjective experience from which these insights arise."

"For language cannot directly communicate the subjective truth," but only "conceptual representations of their subjective insights." These representations are "signposts that merely point toward a reality that each individual must discover, or subjectively understand for themselves through their own direct experience" (Watts).

In other words, the Subject must be present to the subject. Accept no substitutes. You can't work out your God issues with your daddy, let alone with matter.


julie said...

But this formulation has it all backward, for we must begin with the personhood of the Creator. The Creator wishes to create persons.

And why? To know and be known; love and be loved. "Be fruitful and multiply," he says - and somehow we have a culture that considers it an affront to our individuality and personhood to do so.

"[F]or when the insights of these enlightened masters are spoken by them, or repeated and recorded by others, they are invariably experienced by those listening only as objective, or intellectually acknowledged, truths that do not carry the energy of the subjective experience from which these insights arise."

If you know, you know. If you don't, all you can do is talk and guess. Yadda, yadda...

Gagdad Bob said...

I only skimmed this article on poetry under Stalin, but the last line summarizes the left:

“The aim was to destroy not only people, but the intellect itself.”

julie said...

I saw a bit of some leftist screed the other day (toward the end here): "There are many wonderful ideals for us to reclaim like beauty, utopianism, internationalism."

Clearly, they don't know what beauty is, if they can include it with utopianism and internationalism. Be certain they'd be happy to put poets to death, should the poets in question express the wrong sentiments.

Unknown said...

Yes, god is not a debatable issue with the outside but an internalizing process where the personal soul finds its connection to the source. God is not like a missing person because he is outside his creation. The human personhood is one of his creation through which the humans find their way to Him. The unknown unknown that engulfs all other manifestations makes himself known to whomever He finds are prepared and honest enough to receive his revelation. The stories of all prophets and mystics bear witness to that truth. It is a question of personal awareness that has found its way to join the divine awareness. Humans have been provided with two perceptual eyes one oriented to the unseen non-physical world and the other eye is oriented to the seen physical world. All mystics alerted the humans about the vital importance of the non-physical eye and warned them from falling in the confine of the physical eye, if the humans want to move to the divine reality, and to free the soul from the shackles of the low. It seems we are living in a time of disclosure that is why all these voices and visions that are expressing their revelations in the way to him. Darkness can not mask the light but light when its time comes chases the darkness to its proper place. It is the paradoxical cycles that cancel each other that is why there is so much secrecy and fear in the way of calling for the operation of the opposite. God dictated the open play for humanity, that is why those who possess pure heart find secrecy repugnant.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. We all "know" that realization of, love for, and desire to merge with O is a "good" thing. A self evident truth?

However: on the count of materialism as being ridiculous or without merit, I believe there is room for debate. Consider: Do you really object to materialism, so much as you object to a lack of spiritual zest on the part of oneself and the masses?

Exhibit A: We are all obligatory materialists, being here sheathed in matter and immersed in matter. By matter we mean sub-atomic particles, electrons, larger particles, and the various forces like gravity which exist. Anyone living must have a relationship to matter so as to satisfy the various requirements of life, such as getting food, water, shelter, etc. So, "materialism" defined as having intercourse with physics, is a given. It cannot be stinted unless one ops out via self-destruction.

Exhibit B: Focusing on matter as a primary or only concern would make some amount of sense. Here we are, enclosed in matter, presumably after giving prior consent. So shouldn't we play with matter and experience the sequelae in full? Would you go to Disneyland and not go on the Matterhorn coaster? Children and youth in particular get a charge out of the drama and experiences of conventional life, without much thought of O. And perhaps that is appropriate. Up through age 50 the dramas of mating, working, various disasters and pratfalls, and debauchery should suffice to fortify the soul. A youthful overweening interest in O, who prohibits a large number of activities, might well impoverish and make anemic early life if overly emphasized. Or create Jihadists. Youth like combat and will seize on any excuse to go to war. Much better to focus them on bong, beer keg, and chasing tail. Just an opinion.

Exhibit C: Older persons get jaded, increasingly after age 50. Been there, done that. Now the question "hey, what else is there" sets in, and we get interested in O. Although, some never do. They get cranky and irritable instead. They collect motorcycles or cats. But that is beside the point. A viewpoint: spiritual life is an optional enrichment, and I would hesitate to call it "bad" not go that route. Although:

Exhibit D: Various religions make it clear there is an afterlife penalty for failing to be devout and pious. The evidence for this case is distinctly underwhelming, consisting of aged second-hand testimony from rishis, messiahs, and prophets. Of course the sayings of Jesus are somewhat formidable but unfortunately not verifiable. That being said, being pious is probably not a bad idea in case there is a negative outcome for neglecting O while alive. One doesn't want any nasty surprises post-mortem.

There you have it, the lukewarm case in support of strict materialism. I am open to rebuttal statements if anyone cares to indulge.

CheyTown said...

Bob, this is brilliant. Thanks for teaching me what I already felt inside, to turn the cosmos right side up.

CheyTown said...

"[F]or when the insights of these enlightened masters are spoken by them, or repeated and recorded by others, they are invariably experienced by those listening only as objective, or intellectually acknowledged, truths that do not carry the energy of the subjective experience from which these insights arise."

A thought hit me that this points to a major problem in our modern country, as things like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness read like points of partisan patriotism and aren't adequately felt as the transcendent truths they are.

Gagdad Bob said...

Very much so. Modern materialism banishes transcendentals and essences to oblivion. They say that fascism is the violent rejection of transcendence, which is why the left is violent, either implicitly or explicitly. We're seeing a lot of explicit violence these days, but it is rooted in a prior implicit attack on Truth.

Unknown said...

I admire your yearning for deciphering the meaning of what around us and what keep us busy. We are all in the same boat that is why we have been given dialogue. Physicality is undeniable ,what is deniable is the immersion in physicality, Age forty is a turning point in the humans journey so the story goes as narrated in the third scripture, and when they matured and reach forty they turned to the one who has given them life and the ability to express, oh!thank god, please help us to be grateful for your bounty that you have bestowed on us and our parents., and guide us to your acceptable path. The spiritual path to him is not an optional enrichment but an essential path for those who do not want to spend their old age with cats and dogs, that is not to underestimate these beautiful creatures who are creatures like us that is why we read that every creature that creeps or flies are nation like you, nothing has been created in vain. In that context I like to mention the story of the water worm who squeezed itself to produce a kind of wax out of which it made a kind of boats and put its eggs in these boats and died, only for the eggs to mature and make new worms and to repeat the same cycle of life. who taught them? since their mother died. Let us be humble in this mysteriously wonderful and endless creation of the one that we can not encompass with what we have been given of little knowledge that we can not expand or utilize without his will. We can not live restfully and tranquilly without much thought of him. No wonder all these diseases, heedless eating and drinking until death or as Postman put it entertainment till death. Our kind of thoughts is the formulaters of our life negatively or positively and starting with faith is the best guide for safety. The faith that can not start, flourish, thrive or survive outside the abode of a heart that has been built with honesty purity.

Anonymous said...

Hi Abdulmonem:

Yes, "what is deniable is the immersion in physicality." One doesn't have to be completely immersed. And you are right, age 40 (not 50) is the standard age of the turning point, where the full material immersion is denied and attention turns to God.

Not everyone makes the turning point.

Mr. Godwin seems at least mildly concerned with the potential harm the impious and heedless could wreak upon civilization.

My only contribution to the dialogue is a perception that God may exert a larger amount of unseen control in human affairs than we think, so perhaps some optimism is justified. I don't have any evidence for it however.