The Other Culture War

Galileo and the Telescope
Fresco by Giuseppe Bertini, 1858

The Other Culture War

People live and die by ideas.  That’s not the only thing we live and die by, but ideas are big in the lives of all of us. 

For the last 100 years or so, trend-setting thinkers have lived, loved, written and read, gone up the hill to the peaks of their lives and down again, under the following idea: the universe, and everything in it, obey the same laws that govern mechanisms.  It’s generally taken for granted that we conscious beings, who do have purposes, can find neither recognition nor support for our hopes in the laws of nature.

These views have come to prevail among educated people all over the world since the scientific revolution of the 17th century.  As the mathematical and experimental tools for investigating nature became more explosively powerful, it seemed reasonable to let the investigations get to the end of their string.  Meanwhile, philosophers adjusted their views accordingly.

But the end of the string is now in sight.  How so?  Anomalies, data inconsistent with the mechanistic worldview, are piling up.  What kinds of anomalies?   

For one thing, people pronounced clinically dead, devoid of brain activity, come back to life after lengthy intervals, with brains unimpaired and reports — vivid, accurate and well-confirmed — of what they have seen in the operating room while their bodies were lying dead and cold under a sheet.

Precognition is being found to occur under controlled conditions, with predictions confirmed too often to be discounted as chance.  (I’m not psychic, but I’ve had precognitive dreams, and I’ll bet you have too.)

On film, I’ve seen animal communicators change the behavior of animals they’ve met for the first time — standing motionless at some distance from the animal — by mentally entering into the animal’s point of view.

I know a case of the latter kind that I’ll share with you. A friend in Maine  had a horse who’d stopped eating and was losing a lot of weight.  She telephoned the local horse psychic.  He came over and said that the horse was afraid she’d be sold.  So she was trying to make herself unsaleable. 

         “Don’t worry,” my friend told her horse.  “We won’t sell you.”  Right away, the horse starting eating again. In Washington County, they don’t worry about the metaphysics.  They get the problem solved.

So the news is out, all over town.  The materialists are wrong.  There’s more to the world than blind, unfeeling stuff and the mechanistic forces that move it around.

What does this change?  Well nothing much, so long as the materialist paradigm retains its cultural dominance.  How does it manage to do that? 

On this week’s Victor Zammit blog, David Lorimer, founder of The Galileo Commission (named after the 17th century scientist who couldn’t get his colleagues to look through his telescope) explains the all-too-simple methods by which the current scientific establishment manages to hold on to its cultural power.  They pressure university administrators, editors of professional journals, directors of educational television programs and other outlets, threatening them with loss of reputation and ridicule.  Self-described “skeptics” are also on hand to debate serious, well-credentialed researchers into paranormal phenomena.  The skeptics arrive armed with their one, all-purpose refutation.  It goes like this: sure in advance that the findings of their debate opponents must be hogwash, the skeptics haven’t stooped so low as to read their published reports!  The strategy Galileo encountered hasn’t gone out of style.  Refutation by refusal to look at the evidence.  This isn’t science and it isn’t skepticism.  It’s dogmatism.

How long all that can go on is hard to forecast, but to me it looks as if the towers are about to crash.  Even now, you can hear them swaying and creaking in the wind.

So what’s next?  From what I’ve seen so far, the pioneers of the next paradigm are already taking refuge in the metaphysics of monistic idealism.  That’s the view that there is only one substance (one real thing) and it is Consciousness.  Consciousness will be the postulated cause of the Big Bang and everything that’s happened since.  So, in place of the present, downward reductionism, where all is matter, we’ll soon hear of an upward reductionism where all is Mind, there is only one Mind and everything else is to be seen as unreal.

Is that the right view?  What’s the answer?  Is there only one Cosmic Mind?  Is matter an illusion?  Is individuality an illusion?

Well, who’re you gonna believe, the next big metaphysical paradigm or your lyin’ eyes?

In fact, we live in a rough world, with pandemics, sticks and stones, and semi-automatics in it.  And you and I are distinct individuals with different histories, styles, personalities and opinions.

Well then, if metaphysical materialism and metaphysical idealism both erase major features of reality, what should the next big view be?  Ah, that’s the real question.  And it’s fascinating and wide open.  Let me suggest some possibilities.

Ideas might be seen to be as causally significant as epidemics, advances in technology or economic instruments.  We might start paying more attention to deliberately stated reasons and less to supposed unconscious causes.  Cynicism about motives will be correct in some instances but might no longer be mistaken for across-the-board “realism” about human purposes as such.  Good and evil might return to our thinking, once again recognized as real and distinct — not discounted as “projections”  presumed to mask unconscious forces.  Despair might begin to seem premature, since we don’t yet know everything.  Truth might gain in importance.  Love might even be taken seriously.

There’ll be a lot of work to do, as we clear the rubble of a discredited paradigm and think again how to orient ourselves in the landscape of our lives.  Emotional wisdom, nuance, and subtleties might find themselves woven into the new realism.

Ladies, stay on the case!

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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