April 24

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The Battle of Mind and Matter

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
― Neil deGrasse Tyson

“We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

A CRASH COURSE IN WESTERN PHILOSOPHY: LESSON 4

As Western history moved beyond the Middle Ages and approached the dawning of enlightenment the stage had been set for an intellectual struggle that continues with us today. It is a dualistic dilemma of two philosophical positions that are fundamentally conflicting.

As we saw in lesson one Plato and the Greeks were Idealists. They believed that ideas were real and that what occurred in the world would always be imperfect. In this framework truth is verified in reference to universal ideals that exist outside of the world and remain unchanged for all time regardless of what anyone of us does. The law of gravity, for instance, is “true” whether you or I believe it or not. We can deny the “truth” of it, but we fall just the same.

There is a great deal of idealism in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Heaven is after an ideal realm of ultimate truth. At the same time in these traditions what we do matters. We have to take a stand for the truth. The phrase ‘on Earth as it is in Heaven’ asks us to make the universal laws of heaven also true on Earth.  This implies that if we don’t make it so, it will not be. Truth is not a fact; it is a stand that we take.

These two opposing conceptions of truth can be see reflected in two opposing schools of thought that developed at the onset of the Age of Reason. These two ways of looking at the world are known as Rationalism and Empiricism.

A Rationalistic thinker puts their faith in reason. They mistrust sense experience because they recognize that our senses can be deceived. A straight stick in the water looks bent. We see the Sun move through the sky and assume it revolves around the Earth. To the rationalist truth lies in the realm of ideas and reason.

Empiricists, on the other hand, put their faith in our sense experience of the world. They mistrust ideas that are not grounded in evidence because they see how easily they fly into fantasy. They want proof of truth that can be verified in our experience. The conflict between Rationalism and Empiricism is easily found today in the tension between Science and Spirituality. This is a tension that we will continue to explore over the next few posts in this course.

Science is an Empirical pursuit that uses the scientific method to build an understanding of the world. The scientific method involves hypothesizing a theory and then testing the theory through experimentation.  Only information that is obtained in this way is considered scientifically valid.

Spirituality is a Rationalistic pursuit that maintains the validity of truths that are revealed to us in our inner experience. even if they cannot be validated through experimentation.  and that has as its aim the moral transformation of the individual to act in accordance with revealed truth. These revealed truths are seen as being self-evident and therefore no experimental testing is required to “prove” them.

Over the past few Centuries science has increasingly overshadowed religion. We live in a scientific age and we all subscribe to the tenets of the scientific method more than we might realize.

In an intellectual atmosphere dominated by science, many are asking, “Does spirituality have any significance in the modern age?”  The contemplation of this question brings us to the brink of a fascinating question.

Are we intelligent matter – stuff that got smart – or are we incarnate spirit – smarts that grew stuff?

Many great religious traditions have tended towards the outlook that we are spiritual beings who became flesh. First there was God, pure spirit and from God came us. Our more recent scientific understanding of reality has lead many to believe that we are matter that evolved into life and intelligence.

If we are essentially spirit that has taken form, it means that at least some part of us exists separate from the physical universe. It implies that the source of our intelligence exists outside of nature and acts in nature from there. In this view, we are above the laws of nature and therefore uniquely autonomous and responsible as the source of our own action in the universe.

If, on the other hand, our consciousness is a bi-product of complex interactions of matter then we are an outgrowth of nature and subject to her natural laws. Our actions and thoughts are not sourced from some outside reference point they are a necessary consequence of an intricate chain of cause and effect. Our actions result from natural interactions the same way that the movement of a tree results from blowing wind. This view fundamentally calls into question human freewill, autonomy and ultimately our notions of responsibility.

Can you see the dilemma? There are aspects of both views that probably appeal to you – yet they appear to be in conflict.