For whatever reason, people seem to have a problem with the idea that the material world is all there is. This is it. There is no God, no substrate consciousness, no soul, no reincarnation, no metaphysical karma, no magic, and no inherent meaning in the universe at large. Or, as Huston Smith put it in Why Religion Matters, “Hopes and fears, pleasures and pains, successes and disappointment – the sum total of the lives that we experience directly – are for science epiphenomenal only, the foam on the beer, which requires beer (matter) to exist but not vice versa.” People have a problem with this.
I have recently had my definition of metaphysics expanded. I have previously used it here in the blog to describe things of a supernatural or magical nature. However, a professor has correctly pointed out that almost all aspects of language, philosophy, thought, emotion, value, and meaning belong to the real of metaphysics. Physics involves only two things (which are really the same thing): matter and energy and is observed and quantified by science using mathematics. Well, there is no mathematical formula for “good.” Nor does this quality have either mass or energy. Whether a physical thing like say, a television, is good or bad does not depend on how many atoms it has and in what order. It depends on the subject judgments of subjective creatures – namely us. Therefore any discussion of good or bad is by necessity a metaphysical discussion.
When confronted by this idea, that all things metaphysical are subjective and all that exists in the universe is the phenomenal (matter and energy) and the epiphenomenal (thoughts, emotions, values, and meaning generated as byproducts of the interaction of matter and energy in the brain), people tend to freak out. Either they reject the conclusion entirely, often pointing to a power that is either higher (God) or deeper (consciousness) that exists objectively and independently, but beyond the realm of the physical. Or they accept the conclusion, fall into nihilistic despair, and declare the world meaningless, hopeless, purposelessness.
My question is – IF, and this is a big if, the universe is only phenomenal and epiphenomenal, so what? Is there something that fundamentally alters upon one’s conception of the universe being one way as opposed to another?
I stumble over the logic. One side asserts that if epiphenomena is all there is, then the world is meaningless because it is epiphenomenal. While on the other hand, if epiphenomena is all there is, then the world is meaningful because it is epiphenomenal. Both are circular arguments. This first argument privileges inherent meaning over assigned meaning and objective value over subjective value. While the second argument declares it good news that meaning and value exist by virtue of the epiphenomena which cannot be disproven.
Now, I am not prepared to declare that all things metaphysical are merely epiphenomenal, though I have already stated my disbelief for things of a supernatural or magical nature. I have also stated that I am perfectly prepared to be wrong on such accounts. I am only prepared to state, that should the universe prove to be only the interaction of matter and energy and all thoughts, emotions, concepts, meanings, and values dependent on that interaction – I see no fundamental problem in this.
That the little packets of energy that make up the binary code that carries these words out into the universe or the tiny atomic distortions on the servers of some unknown data center that record them for posterity (that sucker) have no meaning in and of themselves, cannot serve to robs the words of meaning. That this meaning is subjective cannot serve to lessen it, despite the nihilists claims. That this meaning has no divine origin does not alter it (though I am prepared to argue the point). That my brain as I’m typing is merely the interaction of neurons and chemicals does not make it stop working.
There is only one place where this entire system of the phenomenal and epiphenomenal breaks down, that I can see – free will. If all that exists is the physical interaction of matter and energy, atoms hitting atoms hitting atoms, then the destiny of the universe for predetermined. The moment the Big Bang happened, or even before that, the wheels were set in motion along an already laid down track from which they will never deviate. Which mean fate dictated this words over thirteen billion years ago.
And while I might be willing to chalk up love to the action of oxytocin on the brain without diminishing either its power or grandeur one iota, I simply cannot bend my mind around the idea that free will, that choice itself, is nothing but an illusion. To say that I have no freewill is to say that I do not exist. (Leaving aside for a moment the Buddhist idea of non-self, which is slightly different than saying people do not exist or have no free will at all.) Deleting choice from the equation is to render us all machines merely (merely!) carrying out our biologic programming.
But what room is there in the materialistic world for free will? Perhaps enough.
Quantum physics can only discuss the materialistic world in terms of probabilities, leaving room for the possibility that the universe is not deterministic. However, this is far from affirming free will exists. Rather it is more akin to affirming that randomness exists. If it is equally likely for an electron to be in one position or another then where the electron ends up is a random chance between those possibilities. Whether if a conscious agent wants that electron to be in one place rather than another has any effect is debatable. But at least it is debatable!
In some sense my actions are predetermined. After all, I am a product of my biology and genetics. I walk upright on two feet. I'm right handed. Other aspects of my personality may likewise be hidden in my genes and I am limited by the capacity of my brain to store and access information. But in broad strokes, I still like to believe I have enough free will to choose whether I shall be a doctor or a lawyer or whether I shall eat Cheerios or Frosted Flakes.
Now here’s the thing, whether I have a problem with the idea of a deterministic universe (if not a materialistic universe) is no more or less likely to change the truth of the matter. Either the universe is utterly deterministic or it is not (in which case it may still have aspects of determinism without being wholly determined). But if the universe were to prove deterministic would that alter my behavior?
That’s always what it comes down to for me. Will the proof or disproof of any idea (to one’s own satisfaction, if not others) alter one’s behavior? If it would not, then there is no problem with that idea. If yes, then there is a problem with that idea and when people have a problem with an idea they will go to almost any lengths to either prove or disprove their side of it, irregardless of facts. I may muse over the materialistic nature of the universe because I find it interesting, but I have no problem with whatever the final answer may be, either yea or nay. I may muse over the deterministic nature of the universe because I find it rather more vexing, but I cannot say for certain what the outcome of that puzzle may cause.
On the one hand, if determinism proves true and free will is an illusion, can anyone, myself included, truly be held responsible for their actions? On the other hand, if it is true then it was true all along, so really what has changed? If nothing has changed, then why should my behavior change at this late date? I might as well go about my business under the assumption of free will, whether it is true or not. After all, on a moment to moment basis, we can only operate with the knowledge on hand. My emotions and ideas and goals are no less real for having been determined thirteen billion years ago than if they were outcomes of random chance or if they were chosen by me personally this morning when I got out of bed.
I guess that’s where my answer lies – in what is real. My reality is subjective and delusional and likely incorrect, but that is a far cry from being nonexistent. So I act on what exists because no one, no thing even, can operate in any other manner.
It’s like those commercials that ask “Don’t you like ‘real’ cheese on your macaroni?” Who ever replied “No. I like imaginary cheese. I like nonexistent cheese.”
We’d all prefer real cheese to fake cheese, but no one can eat nonexistent cheese.