Image: Wikipedia. An 1898 reconstruction of Pomponius Mela’s map of the known world from about 43 AD.
Physicalism vs. the Maps of History, Philosophy and Theology
Gerald R. Baron
Jan 2 · 7 min read
This is the third in the series The Case Against Physicalism. The defensiveness of physicalism’s defenders was first, then the stubbornness of belief in transcendence, now we look at the guidance provided by philosophers, historians and theologians — guidance that is too easily rejected by physicalists.
C.S. Lewis said that theology was like a map provided by those who have gone before us. I would add philosophers and historians to the list of map makers. The territory these cartographers have mapped for us includes all the most significant questions of our existence. Who are or what are we? What does it mean to be, to exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? How did we get here, and why are we here? What is our purpose? What is our end? What is real?
Maps can be wrong, but if you intend to go into the great unknown, a wise person will seek out all the help they can get. That means getting the best possible map.
Physicalists seem to believe that the undisputed accomplishments of empirical science prove that all other maps must be discarded as outdated and without exploratory value. But their viewpoint is not science, it is philosophy and so represents the new and dominant map. Prominent physicists have loudly proclaimed that we have no need for philosophy, presumably not now and not ever. Steven Weinberg wrote Against Philosophy and Stephen Hawking in his 2010 book with Leonard Mlodinow The Grand Design wrote that “philosophy is dead.”
Physicist Carlo Rovelli in a Scientific American article quoted Neil deGrasse Tyson who said:
“…we learn about the expanding universe, … we learn about quantum physics, each of which falls so far out of what you can deduce from your armchair that the whole community of philosophers … was rendered essentially obsolete.”
Rovelli disagrees and summons arguments from Aristotle to prove his point. The irony is that these physicists and other defenders of physicalism have strayed from science into the realm of philosophy to make their pronouncements about the utter uselessness of philosophy. If so, why become philosophical? The rejection of philosophy by today’s physicalist evangelists makes it very clear they believe that only science can reveal truth and if it falls out of the purview of science it has no truth value or relevance. But, that’s a philosophical opinion pretending to be a scientific fact.
The maps provided by historians, philosophers and theologians may be disdained by physicalists, but for most of the rest of us they remain not only interesting but helpful guides to our inquiries. One way in which they help is to demonstrate that those who discard them are missing some very important means of answering those big questions, and more.
It’s far beyond the scope of this post and my capabilities to do justice to even the most brief overview of the maps provided by history, philosophy and theology. Fortunately, there are a great many sources that provide a comprehensive view. But, a very high altitude view allows us to draw some conclusions.
First, the vast majority point to the reality of what I call “something more.” A more common term for this is transcendence. This is defined as a force, power, existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level. Anything beyond the physical can be considered transcendent or “something more” than matter and natural forces. It is this most basic idea that physicalists are united in opposing.
The half of the world considered western developed maps to explore the unknown worlds of truth and reality that focused on gods or God. Even when there was a multiplicity of gods, the idea of a God above all gods was part of the thinking of many of the greatest of the early philosophers and theologians.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Plato’s idea of God:
“To Plato God is transcendent–-the highest and most perfect being–-and one who uses eternal forms, or archetypes, to fashion a universe that is eternal and uncreated. The order and purpose he gives the universe is limited by the imperfections inherent in material.”
Aristotle’s idea of God as the “unmoved mover” was profoundly influential in developing Christian theology and still resonates with many confronting the most profound questions posed by science. These include who started the Big Bang moving, who formulated the laws of physics given the intricacy with which they permit our universe and lives to exist, and why is there something rather than nothing?
In India, Hinduism includes a wide variety of beliefs in a deity, but Brahman is considered the Absolute, both the cause of all things and the end of all things.
The Buddhist idea of “emptiness” suggests to Western ears a nothingness that may appear consonant with a view of the universe that comes into being without meaning or purpose and dies a quiet death through entropy. But, as Lewis Richmond, a Buddhist writer in Huffington Post explains referring to the translation of the Sanskrit word sunyata:
“‘Emptiness’ is also the term that my own teacher Shunryu Suzuki used, though he usually added context. Once, speaking of emptiness he said, ‘I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form.’ Another time, speaking of the feeling tone of emptiness, he said, ‘Emptiness is like being at your mother’s bosom and she will take care of you.’”
This suggests fullness, not emptiness. In this explanation there remains a strong sense of “something more.” However, the more common and largely mistaken idea of emptiness seems consonant with the physicalists’ idea of the meaningless and cold, slow death of the universe through entropy. This may explain the rapid rise of Buddhism in the US as the number of adherents have risen 170% between 1990 and 2000. However, the current and fourteenth Dalai Lama’s book The Universe in an Atom makes clear that the emptiness he expresses has a strong transcendent quality even though the nature of it likely escapes the grasp of most Westerners with a far more personal and accessible idea of the transcendent.
China represents an interesting study in that the Community Party ruling this great nation since 1949 has made and continues to make attempts to stamp out belief among the Chinese people. One cannot participate in the power structures of China unless one professes atheism. As with fellow Communist leaders in the Soviet Union and the leaders of Nazism and fascism before and during World War II, this effort has been singularly unsuccessful. Christianity, according to Wikipedia, is the fastest growing religion in China with a 7% annual growth rate.
About three quarters of the Chinese people practice some form of what is called Chinese folk religion which is typically a blend of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. The Wikipedia article on religion in China explains the basics of this current folk religion:
“Basically, Chinese religion involves allegiance to the shen, often translated as “spirits”, defining a variety of gods and immortals. These may be deities of the natural environment or ancestral principles of human groups, concepts of civility, culture heroes, many of whom feature in Chinese mythology and history.”
Confucianism itself is seen as a humanistic system of ethics and morals, but as the Wikipedia entry on Confucianism explains, there is more to it than that:
“According to Herbert Fingarette’s conceptualisation of Confucianism as a philosophical system which regards ‘the secular as sacred’, Confucianism transcends the dichotomy between religion and humanism, considering the ordinary activities of human life — and especially human relationships — as a manifestation of the sacred, because they are the expression of humanity’s moral nature (xìng 性), which has a transcendent anchorage in Heaven (Tiān 天).”
The Abrahamic God of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and various spin-offs of those religions hardly needs introduction or explanation. But the innovation in belief that proved world changing is still expressed in the Jewish prayer called the Shema or “hearing:”
“Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one”
While Muslims call this one God Allah and Christians refer to the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the idea of a single, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving deity remains the bedrock of these three faiths.
These are the maps of the terra incognita that each thinking human being enters once questions of purpose, meaning, origins, ends and the rest start to be considered. With these maps, the territory becomes a bit less unknown and perhaps less frightening. The differences are vast and when viewed as a whole, perhaps confusing. But, when compared to the map or non-map of the physicalist the direction these maps point to comes into sharp focus. Those who looked most deeply into the depths of human existence as well as the evidence presented by an external world have come to a singular and indisputable conclusion: there is something more. The physical world does not define reality nor contain all of it. And it is the physical world itself that bears witness to that.
The map, if one can call it that, of the physicalist/philosopher/theologians of today says that the search for meaning can only end in the discovery of a vast and empty wasteland. That there is no truth beyond the existence of the particles that exist in a cloud of such indistinct possibilities that we cannot even say for certain that they are real. They only appear real to us when we tie the vast range of their potentialities into some kind of fixed observation through our conscious minds. The most true thing we can say, as Sean Carroll has said, is this universe we inhabit and all in it is a wave function in Hilbert space.
Too many physicalists today, as we saw, believe no one has the right or ability to make pronouncements of what is true and what is real other than they themselves. Unless, of course, they arrive at the same conclusions. Leaving aside the chronocentric arrogance of that, we must understand that the direction they point us to and the map they provide is as empty as the vastness of the space between entangled particles.