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You’re not going to believe this, but I swear it’s true. It’s one of those things that’s so psychedelically stratospherically hyper-dimensionally grotesque that you will think old Briggs is trying to pull a large wet one over you. Gross! But I do not lie. Ready? There exists a large and growing segment of academia filled with earnest moralists whose sole purpose is to prove they do not exist.
Contradictory? Well, contradiction is the Marxist way. (Did he say Marxist? What a distraction! Never mind!)
Anyway, it’s true. “We do not exist,” say these academics. “We are illusions.” Well, so what. Intellectuals, and academics in particular (have you seen the puerile fantasies leaked from Women’s “studies” departments?), so often say loopy things which have no connection to reality that it’s considered boorish to remark on them. And what do you expect? Insensibility and illogicality is the natural result of too much free time married to a reward system which favors “transgressions” of sanity and tradition.
What makes this novel aberration worth discussing is that these academics say you, dear reader, that you don’t exist either. And they’re determined to get you to believe it. Why? Three reasons. First is that all people are natural proselytizers. Second, the non-existent academics believe that once you, like them, don’t exist, then the world will be a better place.
Third and most important, their belief in non-self-hood is deduced from Theory. Theory! As a paleskinned man from the north once wrote: The love of theory is the root of all evil. So beguiling and beautiful is this theory that nothing, not even the obvious and contradictory fact of their existence, can talk them out of it. These fellows would rather give up rationality itself rather than cast aspersions on their beloved.
The theory is materialism. Our bodies, and even the bodies of academics, are made of physical stuff, material. Hart says, “Absolutely central to the mechanistic vision of reality is the principle that material forces are inherently mindless, intrinsically devoid of purpose, and therefore only adventitiously and accidentally directed toward any ends.”
Think of it this way. No, wait, You cannot direct yourself, or intend yourself, to think of anything. Not if you don’t exist as mental being. What happens instead is this. A coherent, contiguous block of flesh, entirely governed by deterministic physical laws, is in some state, a huge configuration of nerves, muscle, chemicals, and so forth all in one place at some instant. As the next moment ticks by, the whole mess enters another configuration, the transition precisely and unsentiently determined by mindless physical and chemical equations.
The moments flow, and if you stand back a bit and squint you can see the contiguous mass move in such a way that it appears as if the mass were directed by some intelligence. The actions are thus like motion pictures, which are really individual lifeless snapshots, or configurations if you will, that only simulate vitality when viewed in quick succession. This imitation vitality in human beings is called consciousness, the picture which results from accumulating billions and billions of tiny blind forces. Now whatever consciousness exactly is, materialism dogmatically—I mean without proof, for this metaphysical view is impossible to prove—insists there is no you, no “soul” or god guiding your actions, except maybe, and only a scant maybe at that, there is some remote and powerful demiurge who set the whole thing in motion at some timeless past and who now sits pondering whatever it is demiurge’s ponder.
Human beings do not have intellects or wills, therefore “they” do not really exist, though it can seem like they do to lesser people, folks with shallow brain pans. “bitter clingers”, God-fearers, those sort of creatures. But after you ascend the Slope of Enlightenment, it’s easy to see belief in the existence of selves is a silly fantasy. So far the only brave mountain climbers are those possessing superior neural configurations, such as those who listen to NPR. But this is going to change once word of the Theory reaches in the valley and dehumanization begins in earnest. Then will life on earth be terrific? Boy! (See this video.)
They’re coming to take me away
Well, this is nuts. This is full-tilt bat-guano bug-eyed tinfoil-hat insane. Hart calls it “fanaticism”, a word which he says “is not opprobrious, but merely descriptive.” It isn’t imbecility because, as I hinted, it just one more in an endless stream of crackbrained lunacies created by the very intelligent. Nitwits could not think up the perfervid dreams foisted on us by geniuses. Rousseau wasn’t an idiot and neither were Marx, Keynes…ah, you fill out the rest. This list proves love is stronger than reason.
Ordinary sanity demands that when an observation contradicts a theory, the theory has to go. Sorry baby, here I think therefore here I am: materialism is therefore dead meat with no chance of a resurrection. Desire says the opposite. Desire says keep whichever is prettier. All it takes is ten minutes reading any history book to know that observation will never win any beauty contests. So theories rage and bewitch and captivate and cause their lovers to suffer unbearable mental torments as they posit ever-greater epicycles which might, hope beyond all hope, keep the theory alive.
Now as for the many disproofs and counter demonstrations, I don’t here give a damn. Read Hart’s book. All attempts to prove how materialism can show we don’t exist—whether it be epiphenomenalism, emergence, quantum mechanics, experiments which purport to show that our bodies make decisions before we do, whatever—Hart tackles sweetly and decisively. He has a generous nature and is patient, though sometimes he piles on extra-flowery words (he missed his calling as a poet). I am not patient. The observation that I exist, that I feel, that I am must, as logic demands, be enough. It is more than enough.
Since I and since you have the observations that I am and you are, we know in advance that whatever new “proof” somebody offers that we do not exist must be fallacious. The only trick is in seeing where the fallacy lies. There is a certain amount of fun in this and it’s a good way to pass the time if you have to take a train ride and have forgotten your Sudoku. But you can spend your energy more profitably. However, since most of us are geeks and love puzzles for the sake of puzzles, the best resource besides Hart (well, better, in this aspect) is Edward Feser who for example disemboweled, dissected, and destroyed Alex Rosenberg’s eliminative materialism (in Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality) so thoroughly that…well, put it this way. It was like walking into one of Upton Sinclair’s abattoirs. Brrr.
Time better spent
Still, here we are. We exist. We think, love, feel, worry, know right from wrong, deny good and embrace evil, direct our thoughts this way then that. And we also have brains which are made of meat and subject to physics and which are, at least to some extent, necessary for us to accomplish all these curious mental actions. So how do we reconcile what we know of physical determinism and the obvious fact of our (mostly free) mental selves?
Bummer. Not the answer which endears you to theory lovers. Tough luck on them.
What’s the real trouble? Comes from several directions. Take causality, a principle which is surely misunderstood by most academics. There are four kinds of “cause”, a word I put in scare quotes to signal an unfortunate circumstance. Even after you learn the four kinds of cause, because you were brought up knowing only one, each time you see cause you still, even in your new knowledge, tend to think of the old definition. This is natural. It’s for this reason that only under the most extreme duress should a word change definition. But we are under duress, so be on your guard.
The four causes are formal, material, efficient, and final (many sites discuss this more completely; an example). The formal cause deals with the form of a thing. The material is what the thing is made of. The efficient is what moderns ordinarily think cause is, the thing that brings the change about. But the most neglected and fascinating is the final cause, the “goal” or direction of the change; what a thing is for. Materialism (or naturalism) insists there are no final causes, no directedness, no thing is ever for anything. Why, the only reason it seems things have purposes is because we imagine they do, we over-interpret “blind” happenstances as being coherent. But if this is so, then there are “we”s, intelligences directing our thoughts for or toward objects and creating these images. If there are illusions, there must be intelligences. Oops.
So, somehow, and nobody yet has a clear idea yet how, and we being finite fractured figures we may never have a clear idea how, our minds are in connection with the material that is also us, and our minds direct and cause this material to move about. That sounds suspiciously like dualism, which maybe it is, though just how dualism can be true isn’t known. But then maybe the real problem is with the initial separation of mental and material reality. Maybe they aren’t different, but aspects of the same underlying whole of reality. This skirts dangerously close to idealism, which is the opposite mistake materialism makes, and which says all is thought, including the rocks on which you might stub your toe.
The separation of mind and matter as different is a modern invention anyway (thank you, Descartes!), a move medieval and ancients scholars would find baffling. Why fix what isn’t broke? Hart:
[I]t makes perfect sense that so many ancients and mediaeval [alternate spelling sic] philosophers took it as a given that the ideal dimensions of things, their intrinsic intelligibility, was not only a real property of their existence but in some sense was identical with existence itself. What, however, is an idea other than the product of a mind? What is a concept other than the expressions of a rational intentionality? And how, therefore, could being be pure intelligibility if it were not also pure intelligence—the mind of God, so to speak?
God is not “some discrete being somewhere out there”, rather “he is himself the logical order of all reality, the ground both of the subjective rationality of mind and the objective rationality of being”, facts assumed by all great religious traditions (Harts lists the variants).
“God explains the existence of the universe despite its ontological contingency, which is something that no form of naturalism can do; but God also explains the transparency of the universe to consciousness…and the intentional power of the mind”. So how does God bring this about? How about something like this?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
Next and last time, Bliss.