Tying up a few loose ends
|German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers. See discussion below. Source: Wikipedia.|
No, this is not another Novella post. I just wanted to share a few thoughts with you, inspired by all the discussions and developments of this week. This article will be a little more fragmented than usual; more of a flow-of-consciousness thing. It won't be building up to any single conclusion at the end, but just parsing through several more or less connected ideas as a kind of overall balance of the week's insights and intuitions.
One thing that strikes me repeatedly when debating materialists is their non-thought-through, but understandable, notion that if a subjective mental state can be achieved through material means (say, drugs), then that is immediately construed as evidence for the notion that the brain causes the mind. In my debate with Novella, he alluded to Ketamine (a known psychedelic at lower doses) causing NDE-like experiences, or to magnetic fields causing OBE-like experiences, construing both as evidence for materialism. Perhaps people are so used to thinking of religion as the only alternative to materialism that other reasonable and non-supernatural logical possibilities don't even come to mind. If the brain modulates and localizes consciousness, without causing it, it is not only acceptable but expectable that physical interference with the brain will change subjective states. Not only that, partial de-activation of certain brain processes through physical means (e.g. drugs, magnetic fields, hyper-ventilation, asphyxiation, meditation, brain entrainment, ordeals, sensory deprivation, prayer, etc.) would be expected to allow consciousness to partially de-localize and expand, which is consistent with NDE- and OBE-like reports. There is nothing extraordinary about the possibility of inducing valid, transcendent experiences through physical means; just as there is nothing extraordinary about the possibility that consciousness is fundamental and not reducible. Assuming otherwise is a throwback to archaic preconceptions that modern thinking should be able to overcome.
Something else now. A lot of attention has gone this week into the Carhart-Harris psilocybin study. In a way, that's a pity. As I have always emphasized, what I believe to see here is a broad, ancient pattern associating peak experiences with activities that reduce blood flow to the brain. The psilocybin study is but one small part of that, albeit a particularly polemic part because of the associated fMRI measurements. So I am not surprised that my debate with Novella has ended up with so much emphasis on this particular work, to the detriment of the broader pattern: It was unavoidable, given the inadmissibility of nearly all other evidence from the perspective of the most hardcore materialists. Yet, at a fundamental level, there is no reason to look upon psilocybin effects as any more telling or important than those experienced by people who achieve transcendence (a.k.a. de-localization) through breathing techniques; or pilots experiencing NDE-like narratives induced by G-LOC; or aboriginals learning about the 'secrets of nature' through initiatory ordeals; or people experiencing higher states of transcendence after surgery-induced brain damage, as this paper reported; etc. In all these cases, we have instances of processes that directly damage or reduce blood flow to the brain, leading to peak experiences. Since the brain, like any organ, is powered by metabolism, reduction or cessation of blood flow must ultimately reduce or stop brain activity, whether one is measuring it with an fMRI or not. As such, the Carhart-Harris psilocybin study is both a blessing and a curse for the hypothesis that I am putting forward: It steals the focus from where it should be, as, in hindsight, my debate with Novella so clearly illustrates.
And this brings me to another topic: I've read many times this week the accusation that 'my certainty that materialism is dead is premature.' I didn't react to this, nor to a number of other comments, because I had no option but to be selective regarding what I could spend my time on. But as I sit here on Friday late afternoon, relaxing and anticipating the weekend, I'd like to come back to this. As an extreme skeptic (so much so that I am often described by skeptics as a believer!), I am sure of nothing but the fact that I am conscious. So attributions of certainty to my positions are misplaced. As such, I am not absolutely sure that materialism is false, in the exact same way that I am not absolutely sure of anything but my own consciousness. What I think is that materialism is not the best metaphysics for explaining the data and personal experiences at my disposal. If, during a debate, I seem to take too radical an anti-materialist position, it is to antagonize my debating opponent with the intent of forcing his best arguments to come to the table. That said, I sincerely believe what I am arguing; I'm absolutely honest when I stake a position for myself. And the problem I see with the modern skeptical movement is a lack of skepticism and critical attitude; namely, skepticism and critical attitude towards their own default positions.
Curiously, I started the week by writing a piece in which I was critical of the new New Age movement – a segment of society that has been very welcoming of my ideas, even though I suspect they are often not properly understood – and its fantastic narratives and uncritical approach to reality. And I now end the week in direct conflict with one of the main figures of the skeptical movement. As I mentioned in that earlier piece, "whoever tries to remain individually balanced now finds him or herself isolated and friendless in the crossfire between these extreme poles; a situation wherein its easy to be alienated and difficult to belong." How prophetic that was, only a few days ago. This whole thing makes me wonder: Would self-proclaimed 'skeptics' be able to be themselves without the soft targets of religious and New Age figures they've made a sport of harassing? And equivalently, would religions or the New Age have the same power of group cohesion and clarity of purpose if not for the 'skeptics' that constantly keep them in check? It's curious to wonder about the relationships of inter-dependency that might be at play here. One is tempted to step back and stare in awe at the social and historical dynamics underlying this entire hysteria of the modern age; an age where few actually see all the ways in which they've lost objectivity; and themselves. In pondering all this, my mind reaches back to Karl Jaspers and his brilliant assessment of the elusive pattern underlying human history. I feel humbled to recognize, in the brief blink-of-an-eye that my life is, a local expression of that pattern.
Let me take the opportunity here to take my hat off to Dr. Steven Novella, for his willingness to engage in a debate with an admittedly less qualified stranger as far as one of the specialisms in contention. He took (and maybe will still take) risks in doing so, but chose to be true to his own position. I respect that. I also reserve special respect for people who spend their lives helping others free themselves from, or at least alleviate, their pain and suffering; indeed, I can see no more noble occupation. If Dr. Novella chooses to discontinue our debate now, as he suggested in his last post, I will understand it. Perhaps better than anyone else right now, I understand very well the amount of time and energy that needs to be invested to engage properly in a debate like this; time and energy scarcely available to most of us. On the other hand, if Dr. Novella opts to continue, I will be honored and eager to carry on, for I think we've done (are doing) something good here. None of this means, of course, that I will take any less sharp, spirited, or confrontational a tone or attitude in the debate, if it continues.
There is no better way to end the week than to quote Jaspers:
Truth is that which links us to one another. (in The Origin and Goal of History, p. 10)