A Dive into Steve Taylor's Tenets of Post-Physicalism
We’ve been discussing God a lot lately here at the Tree of Woe. But now I want to hearken back to an earlier discussion, not of God, but of Gnon. As I said in my article “Gnon: Nature or Nature’s God,”
The Ancient Egyptians called it Ma’at; the Ancient Sumerians called it Me. The Ancient Persians called it Asha while the Vedic Indians called it Rta. The Ancient Greeks knew it as Logos; the Chinese, as Tao. Polymath Christopher Langan, creator of the Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe, calls it the Supertautology. In the more interesting parts of the blogosphere, is often called Gnon, an acronym for “Nature or Nature’s God,” and that is what we shall call it…
What is Gnon? It is order, reality, and truth. Philosophers sometimes still speak of a “correspondence theory of truth," the beleaguered notion that something is true if it corresponds to reality. Gnon goes further. Gnon says: The truth is that reality is ordered. The truth is that order is real. The reality is that order is truthful. Reality is truly ordered. Order is truly real. Mathematics isn’t unreasonably effective, it is effective because true, and reasonable because true, and true because effective and reasonable. All is harmony.
When we deny Gnon, we deny reality. We pretend that Afghan tribes undefeated by any foreigner in two thousand years can be converted to progressivism in a generation, and are surprised when they throw us out. We pretend that money can be printed endlessly without inflation, and are surprised when prices rise. We pretend that consumption is investment, and are surprised when the power grid fails. We pretend that humans are blank slates, and are surprised when people act like animals. But we cannot pretend forever. For, as the ancients knew, and we have forgot, Gnon is a wrathful god.
In the follow-up article “Conservatism is Dead”, I explained that the existence of Gnon — the natural order — has political implications such that it must form the basis of a new right-wing philosophy, one that can replace dead conservatism:
Starting from scientific evidence collected under the current materialist paradigm, we abductively infer the existence of a natural order, designed to produce and support life on earth, and of a human nature that has emerged within that natural order. From there we develop:
a natural philosophy, which stands in opposition to the materialist and physicalist scientism of the past, demonstrates the existence of a teleological system of the world, and theorizes as to its properties and processes;
a natural theology, which stands in opposition to the atheism of the past, which demonstrates the existence of a universal mind and theorizes as to its characteristics; and
a natural law, which stands in opposition to the positivist account of human nature, morality, and law of the past, which demonstrates the existence of moral and political rules that govern the existence of life given human nature within the natural order.
Having discarded conservatism, libertarianism, and reactionary as labels, I have taken to calling this structure physiocracy, or rule by natural order. And a person who wants to rebuild civilization and reclaim the Good, the Beautiful, and the True, I call a physiocrat.
I followed that article up with “Why We Must Lay a New Foundation,” where I explained how postmodernism had effectively defeated and destroyed classical liberalism and conservatism, making physiocracy — or something like it — a necessity:
The Enlightenment failed… It failed to defend the evidence of the senses, it failed to defend the laws of thought, it failed to defend moral realism, it failed to defend aesthetic realism, and it failed to defend the correspondence theory of truth. It failed on every front and was routed from the field.
We must do better than the Enlightenment. We cannot return to classical liberalism. There is no retreat; the bridges are burned; the way is blocked. We must advance…
Let us gather warrior-priests to wage an intellectual fight for what is good, beautiful, and true, and together show how our philosophy will lead America into the 21st century; let us create (for lack of a better name) “Physiocracy with American Characteristics for a New Era.”
And, most recently, in my popular article “Why Has Our World Gone So Crazy,” I explained that our contemporary “clown world” arises because of our rejection of the supra-physical:
Our contemporary consensus is materialist monism. Nature is purely physical, and that pure physicality extends to human consciousness. Neither cosmos or humanity has any teleology. Free will is an illusion and consciousness is an epiphenomenon of brain-matter. Human thought is merely computation, and will be replaced by machine thought as AI improves.
The contemporary materialist-monist consensus of nature is incorrect. “There [may be] natural teleological laws governing the development of organization over time. This is a throwback to the Aristotelian conception of nature… The possibility of principles of change over time tending toward certain types of outcomes is coherent, in a world in which the nonteleological laws are not fully deterministic.” Source: Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel.
The contemporary consensus that mind is reducible to matter is incorrect. “Mainstream conclusions, deeply at odds with the must fundamental deliverances of every day experience, result from correctly perceiving what are in fact necessary consequences of the classical materialist-monist premises from which practically all of contemporary psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy derive. [But] [m]ultiple lines of empirical evidence, drawn from a wide variety of sources, converge to produce a resolution of the mind-body problem along lines sharply divergent from the current mainstream view… We find this evidence cumulative overwhelming.” Source: Irreducible Mind, Edward F. Kelly and Emily W. Kelly
The contemporary consensus that consciousness is an epiphenomenon and free will is non-existent is incorrect. “Our minds become endowed, by means of the quantum mechanical dynamical rules, with the power to influence the macroscopic properties of matter, without themselves being totally predetermined by material properties alone… The empowering message of quantum mechanics is that the empirical data of everyday life, and also our intuitions, are generally veridical, not delusional; and hence that our mental resolves can often help bring causally to pass the bodily actions we mentally intend. The role of our minds is to help us, not to deceive us, as the materialist philosophy must effectively maintain.” Source: Quantum Theory & Free Will, Henry Stapp
The contemporary consensus that human thought is merely the algorithmic activity of computation is incorrect. “The human faculty of being able to understand is something that must be achieved by some non-computational activity of the brain or mind. We…find ourselves driven towards a Platonic viewpoint of things. Our minds…have some access to this Platonic realm through an ‘awareness’ of the mathematical forms and our ability to reason about them. It is this potential for the awareness of mathematical concepts… that gives the mind a power beyond what can ever be achieved by a device dependent solely upon computation for its action.” Source: Shadows of the Mind, Roger Penrose
If these heterodox views are true, then materialist-monism has deeply misled us about the nature of our universe and ourselves. Nature is not purely material: something else, perhaps a Platonic realm, exists. Humans do something more than mere computation when they think, and do something more than obey cause and effect when they make choices.
Contemporary materialist-monism must be countered with an alternative philosophy that properly accounts for the teleology of nature, the irreducibility of mind, the non-computational nature of thought, and the freedom of the will. Natural philosophers are working to develop alternatives ranging from idealistic monism (Amit Goswami), dualism (Henry Stapp), or neo-hylomorphism (Edward Feser).
In other words, to defeat the contemporary consensus, the physiocracy we need must be a post-physicalist physiocracy. The natural order is, in some way, a supernatural order. We need not necessarily be theists; but we cannot be materialists or physicalists. And that calls for a well-developed metaphysics or ontology consistent with modern science.
Does such exist? As it turns out, yes. I recently completed the book Spiritual Science: Why Science Needs Spirituality to Make Sense of the World by Steve Taylor. I discovered Spiritual Science by way of the book Irreducible Mind (which I recommend above), which Taylor calls the inspiration for his own work. Whether you’ve read Irreducible Mind or not, Spiritual Science is a great book and worth reading. What was most remarkable about it, at least to me, was Mr. Taylor’s comparison of physicalism and post-physicalism.1
The Ten Tenets of Physicalism
According to Taylor, the ten tenets of physicalism are:
Life came into being by accident, through the interaction of certain chemicals. Once it had come into existence, it evolved from simple to more complex forms through randomly occurring genetic mutations acted on by natural selection. The driving force of evolution is competition, or the “survival of the fittest.”
Human beings are purely physical creatures, or machines. There is nothing more to us than physical stuff — that is, the atoms, molecules, and cells of our bodies and brains. As a result there is no such thing as a “soul,” “spirit,” or “life-force.” These are superstitions that have been dispelled by science.
Living beings consist of “selfish genes” whose goal is to replicate themselves. Human beings are merely vehicles for the propagation of our genetic material. The desire for genetic replication is the primary motivation of human behavior.
All mental phenomena can be explained in terms of neurological activity. Consciousness itself is generated by the brain. The billions of neurons in our brains work together - in some yet undiscovered way - to produce our subjective feeling of being “someone” who can think our feel.
Because consciousness is produced by the brain, and we are nothing more than physical stuff, there can’t be any life after death. When my brain and body cease to function, my consciousness and identity will disappear just as the picture on a television screen disappears when the plug is pulled out."
Human behavior can be explained in genetic terms. Present-day human traits and characteristics exist because they had survival value for our ancestors. As a result, the genes they were related to were selected by evolution.
As living beings we are isolated individuals, moving through space in separation to one another. I have my own body and brain, and you have yours; we can touch each other physically or communicate with one another through language, but our sense of identity - as produced by our brains - is essentially enclosed within the physical stuff of our bodies.
The world exists “out there,” separate from human beings. It is independent of us, and it would exist in the same form even if we weren’t here to be aware of it.
Our normal state of awareness is fairly objective and reliable, and shows us the world as it is. Any other states of awareness - altered or so-called “higher” states of consciousness - are hallucinations that can be explained in terms of aberrational brain activity.
Paranormal or psi phenomena cannot be genuine because they contravene the fundamental laws of nature. There is no known energy field which could link one mind to another and make telepathy possible, and no known force which could account for the ability to move objects by mental effort.
These are, unquestionably, the tenets of the “I fucking love science” crowd, of Neil de Grass Tyson and Bill Nye The Science Guy. For most of my adult life, I agreed with all ten of these tenets. As such, I begrudge no one else who believes them still; I understand the allure. However, I nowadays think the evidence points to there being “something more.”
The Ten Tenets of Post-Physicalism
What is the something more? Taylor puts it like this:
“the essence of reality (which is also the essence of our being) is a quality that might be called spirit or consciousness. This quality is fundamental or universal; it is everywhere and in all things. It is not unlike gravity or mass, in that it was embedded into the universe right from the beginning of time, and is still present in everything. It may even have existed before the universe, and the universe can be seen as an emanation or manifestation of it.”
And, according to Taylor, the ten tenets of post-physicalism2 are:
Life did not come into being through the accidental interactions of certain chemicals, but did so as the result of the innate tendence of the universe - propelled by consciousness itself - to move towards greater complexity. At a certain point, when material entities (the first simple cells) reached a certain degree of complexity, they became able to receive and transmit universal consciousness.
Rather than being just biological machines, human beings are, both mentally and physically, expressions of spirit, or consciousness. You can say that our physical bodies are an external expression of universal consciousness, while our minds (or beings) are an inner expression. What we normally think of as “spirit” is universal consciousness as it expresses itself inside us. Therefore - although in slightly different senses - both body and mind are “spiritual.”
Evolution is not an accidental process. Once life forms had come into existence, evolution was impelled by the innate tendency of consciousness to generate greater complexity. More complex life forms enabled universal consciousness to express itself more intensely, manifesting itself as individual consciousness.
Our personal consciousness - our subjective experience - is not generated by the brain. It is a fundamental universal quality, which our brains “receive” and canalize into our individual being. Mental phenomena cannot be reduced to neurological activity. There may be correlations between mental and neurological activity, but there is not a one-way causal link. Neurological changes can affect mental experience, but mental experience can bring about neurological changes.
Because consciousness is not produced by the brain, and because we are more than just physical stuff, we should be open to the possibility of some form of life after death. Consciousness will not come to an end when our brains and bodies die. In fact, evidence (for example, from near-death experiences and after-death communications) suggest an afterlife in which we continue to have a sense of individual identity.
The mind exerts a powerful influence on the body. It can bring about healing and illness, and even change the structure of the body. This is because, while both mind and body are expressions of consciousness, the mind is a more subtle and intense manifestation of consciousness.
Human beings are not isolated entities, moving through the world in separation to one another. We share the same essence, and there therefore deeply interconnected. We express (and become aware of) this connection through empathy, compassion, and altruism.
The world does not exist “out there” in separation to us. Our own consciousness is deeply interconnected with it. We share the same essence as all things, and are therefore one with all things.
Our normal state of awareness is limited and delusory, and does not provide us with an accurate perception of the world “as it is.” In higher states of consciousness - or awakening experience - we gain a more expansive and intense awareness, and attain a fuller and true perception of reality.
Paranormal phenomena such as telepathy and precognition do not contravene the laws of science… They are not only possible but natural. For example, since we share the same essential consciousness with other human beings, it is not surprising that we sometimes sense each other’s thoughts and intentions (as in telepathy).
Technically, these are the ten tenets of Taylor’s specific version of post-physicalism, which he calls pan-spiritism, but I think they are broadly useful for all post-physicalists to consider.
Taylor himself considers his views broadly compatible with most of the great faiths and religions of the world, and I think he is right. He calls out the Pre-Socratic concept of the apeiron; the Platonic concept of the anima mundi (world soul); the Stoic and Christian concept of the logos; the Hopi concept of maasauu; the Dakota concept of taku wakan; the Algonquian concept of manitou; the Hawaiian concept of mana; the Ainu concept of ramut; the Mbuti concept of pepo; the Shinto concept of musubi; the Korean concept of haneullim; and the Chinese concept of tao.
Strangely, he neglected to mention the Anglo-American concept of the Force, despite the existence of six canonical and three heretical documentaries about this important religious faith.
In any case, it is fascinating to see modern scientists and philosophers such as the authors of Irreducible Mind and Spiritual Science begin to embrace our most ancient worldviews.
While I would not say I full endorse every aspect of Taylor’s thought, his tenets are, I think, firmer ground for the advancement of physiocracy than Thomas Nagel’s panpsychism and Amit Goswami’s idealism. And they seem broadly compatible with Christianity, at least some interpretations of it. I would be interested in what others think. Are these the right tenets for a post-physicalist physiocracy? If not, what are? Let’s contemplate this on the Tree of Woe.
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I have previously favored the term “materialism” instead of “physicalism,” and Taylor himself uses the terms “materialism” and “post-materialism” to contrast the two positions. However, “materialism” and “post-materialism” are (in the academic literature) nowadays associated almost exclusively with consumerism and anti-consumerism rather than ontology. I therefore have switched to using the words “physicalism” and “post-physicalism.”
I re-ordered them slightly so that they matched up point-by-point to the tenets of physicalism; in the original book they were out of order.