Physicalism: A Pernicious Cosmology
by

In 2008 I wrote an article, published on this website, entitled Physicalism: A False View of the World. This article was republished in January 2012 on Reality Sandwich. I began by saying that physicalism

is the philosophical claim that only what is physical is real, where physical means: To be found or inferred by measurement and reason as existing in the world observable by the outer senses (mainly sight, hearing and touch).  ... [It] is the ontological position which asserts that ... reality consists only of what can be observed by means of the outer senses or can be shown to exist by the investigations of physicists. If physical reality does not comprise the whole of what is real then it is possible to accept the truths of physics while asserting the falsity of physicalism. ...

Materialism in the strict sense is the view that only what is material is real, where material means: composed of matter. But what is matter? Even if we equate matter with the totality of all the atoms and subatomic particles existing in the universe this still leaves electromagnetic radiation (x-rays, gamma rays, light, etc.), which has observable effects, and thus is real but is not material. Thus it is clear that materialism in the strict sense is false. When mention is made of the "materialist" view prevalent in the modern world what is being referred to is the physicalist view as defined [above].

Reality Sandwich articles almost always attract comments from readers, and this one did too. Unfortunately those who commented failed to understand that the article was not primarily about consciousness but rather about a view of the world (namely, the modern 'scientific' view) which actually has no place in it for consciousness. Given below are my own comments appended to this article which attempt to make this clear and which also deal with the pernicious effects of physicalism on modern society, a theme which was not developed in the article itself (and a theme of whose importance I myself did not become aware until in 2010 I read the first part of Richard Tarnas's book Cosmos and Psyche). I have edited my comments slightly, and added some material in square brackets for the benefit of the reader who does not have my original article at hand.


It's not about consciousness, it's about a non-physical reality

My article is not primarily about explaining consciousness (which I doubt can be done, since consciousness is irreducible). My article is not concerned with a "theory of consciousness", but rather with the truth or falsity of physicalism, and I simply mention the inability of that philosophical position to explain [or rather, to acknowledge the reality of] consciousness as one reason (though a major one) for rejecting it. The main point of my article is that physicalism is false because it is now possible to directly observe a non-physical reality [by smoking DMT — dimethyltryptamine]. It is not necessary to "prove" the existence of a non-physical reality because there is one which can be observed directly.

An essential part of my argument against physicalism is that what is revealed by smoking DMT is a world which is objectively real because 'objective' means 'intersubjectively verifiable'. Physicalists may claim that 'objective' means 'observable by the outer senses', but this is obviously false, because atoms are objective entities but cannot be seen, heard or touched. They are 'objective' because many people who have been trained as physicists have made observations and inferences therefrom which lead to the conclusion that atoms exist independently of them and their observations. In other words, the existence of atoms is verifiable by anyone with the required experimental skills, which is to say, their existence is intersubjectively verifiable, and that is what it means to be objective.

Until recently there were just scattered reports of "apparently independently-existing intelligent entities" which could be observed if one smoked DMT at the required dose level. These could be dismissed as 'merely subjective'. But if enough people who perform the experiment of smoking DMT observe apparently independently-existing intelligent entities then the existence of those entities becomes intersubjectively verifiable, that is, objective. Based on earlier sources, I compiled 340 DMT trip reports, and in over 200 of these there are reports of encounters with intelligent entities (who frequently appear to be be paying close and often very disconcerting attention to the observer). 200 reports affirming the existence of the DMT entities might not be considered a sufficient number to establish the objectivity of those entities, but this is just a beginning -- in time there will be thousands of such reports (though whether they will be published for all to read is another question). Taken together they will be sufficient to establish that the world experienced with the help of DMT is as real as your back yard (and maybe even more so).

Some readers may regard the question of the truth or falsity of physicalism as merely another locus of philosophical controversy, perhaps amusing or interesting but of no great importance. In a later comment I shall show why this is not so, and why physicalism is at the root of the psychological, social and economic problems of our time.


Schroedinger on the 'scientific' picture of the world

Those who have commented on this article seem to have missed the main point of the article, though at the time I wrote it (over three years ago) the implications of the widespread acceptance of the physicalist position were not clear to me, and so may not be clear to readers. Before I comment further, I think the following quotation from Erwin Schroedinger's essay "Why not talk Physics?" will provide a helpful hint:

The scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good and bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we're not inclined to take them seriously ... The scientific world-picture vouchsafes a very complete understanding of all that happens — it makes it just a little too understandable. It allows you to imagine the total display as that of a mechanical clockwork which, for all that science knows, could go on just the same as it does, without there being consciousness, will, endeavor, pain and delight and responsibility connected with it — though they actually are. And the reason for this disconcerting situation is just this: that, for the purpose of constructing the picture of the external world, we have used the greatly simplifying device of cutting our own personality out, removing it; hence it is gone, it has evaporated, it is ostensibly not needed ... Whence come I, and whither go I? That is the great unfathomable question, the same for every one of us. Science has no answer to it.

In July 2012 I found this quotation from E. A. Burtt's The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (pp.236-7):

It was of the greatest consequence for succeeding thought that now the great Newton's authority was squarely behind that view of the cosmos which saw in man a puny, irrelevant spectator (so far as a being wholly imprisoned in a dark room can be called such) of the vast mathematical system whose regular motions according to mechanical principles constituted the world of nature. ... The world that people had thought themselves living in — a world rich with colour and sound ... speaking everywhere of a purposive harmony and creative ideals — was crowded now into minute corners in the brains of scattered organic beings. The really important world outside was a world, hard, cold, colourless, silent and dead — a world of quantity, a world of mathematically computable motions in mechanical regularity. The world of qualities as immediately perceived by man became just a curious and quite minor effect of that infinite machine, beyond. In Newton, the Cartesian metaphysics, ambiguously interpreted and stripped of its distinctive claim for serious philosophical consideration, finally overthrew Aristotelianism, and became the predominant world-view of modern times.

Physicalism: a pernicious cosmology

Although physicalism has permeated the public consciousness only since modern science has been part of public education, it has its historical roots in the Copernican Revolution, some 500 years ago, when it was first espoused publicly by Kepler and Galileo. Until the 17th C. humans lived in a world where the Earth was at the center of the cosmos, a cosmos in which they themselves were fully embedded, and which spoke to them via meaningful signs both above and below. With the acceptance of the Copernican view of the solar system, the way was open to seeing the cosmos as we do today, as a void containing an uncountable number of celestial objects moving in ways which can be investigated and understood by observation and reasoning. The cosmos thus ceased to be a source of meaning and became an object of investigation, along with all that it contained.

As modern science developed following Isaac Newton's discoveries, the mode of this investigation increasingly distinguished between 'facts' and 'values'. Facts were descriptive of the physical world — the world perceivable by the outer senses, whereas 'values' were regarded as being of human origin, having their source in human consciousness, in the human mentality, or in human minds (though then, as now, physical science does not know what the term 'human mind' means or could refer to). 'Facts' were for modern scientists 'objective' whereas 'values' were 'subjective'.

A good description of this historical development, and of its psychological consequences, can be found in pages 16-36 of Richard Tarnas's book Cosmos and Psyche, where we read that

the modern mind experiences a fundamental division between a subjective human self and an objective external world. Apart from the human being, the cosmos is seen as entirely impersonal and unconscious. Whatever beauty and value that human beings may perceive in the universe, that universe is in itself mere matter in motion, mechanistic and purposeless, ruled by chance and necessity. It is altogether indifferent to human consciousness and values. The world outside the human being lacks conscious intelligence, it lacks interiority, and it lacks intrinsic meaning and purpose.

As Erwin Schroedinger said (in the passage I quoted above), in its pursuit of 'objectivity' modern science has "for the purpose of constructing the picture of the external world ... [cut] our own personality out". According to modern science, the cosmos in which we live is simply a random collection of objects which move within a vacuum, have properties such as 'mass' and 'charge', and interact with other objects. These objects have no color (since color does not exist outside of consciousness), no history (that is a human construct), no value or worth (except within human minds), cannot possess beauty, cannot act with courage or integrity, and in no way can be worthy of admiration or disdain. And humans are, according to the physicalist view, simply a subset of these objects. It follows that humans can be treated just like any other objects within the physical world, just like the minerals to be mined, like the trees to be converted to lumber, like the animals to be reared in factory farms — that is, they can be treated as something to be exploited, primarily for profit.

Physicalism is at the root of the modern psychological disease of alienation, in which we perceive ourselves as beings who value art, beauty, love, kindness, etc., existing in a cosmos in which, according to the physicalist position, none of these things exist, except perhaps as a delusion — a delusion within consciousness, which itself has no place in the physicalist world and cannot be explained within physicalism and so must be 'explained away'. This 'alienation' is not simply a psychological condition, it has given rise to a form of mass insanity.

Richard Tarnas writes:

Since the encompassing cosmological context in which all human activity takes place has eliminated any enduring ground of transcendent values — spiritual, moral, aesthetic — the resulting vacuum has empowered the reductive values of the market and the mass media to colonize the collective human imagination and drain it of all depth. If the cosmology is disenchanted [as it is in the physicalist view of the world], the world is logically seen in predominantly utilitarian ways, and the utilitarian mind-set begins to shape all human motivation at the collective level. ... The disenchanted cosmos impoverishes the collective psyche in the most global way, vitiating its spiritual and moral imagination ... For quite literally, in a disenchanted cosmos, nothing is sacred.

The widespread acceptance of the physicalist view thus accounts for the total lack of wisdom in the modern world and the unrestrained rise and triumph of individual and corporate greed and the desire for control over others (so as to exploit them more efficiently and for greater profit), culminating in a ruthless drive for world domination in which humans are regarded as of no value (and may even be killed simply on the order of the commander-in-chief) except insofar as they can be used to maintain a global corporate/financial elite in the condition it desires.

This drive for world domination may well result in the extinction of the human species before long, in which case the question of the truth or falsity of physicalism will be moot. But there is a possibility that this will be avoided (stranger things have happened), and while there is still a chance we should use any available means to demonstrate the falsity of the physicalist view of the world.


We don't have 500 years to sort this out

The physicalist view of the world is not merely a subject of philosophical debate, with no psychosocial consequences. As Richard Tarnas has eloquently revealed in the introductory section of his book Cosmos and Psyche, this view of the world is actually a cosmology according to which nothing in the universe is really alive or is really conscious (because only sub-atomic particles and energy really exist), so when we experience ourselves as alive and conscious we are really deceiving ourselves, basically deluded. And when we experience beauty, love, a sense of work well done, etc., we are also deceiving ourselves, because (according to this cosmology) all meaning is basically a projection upon a lifeless universe.

So the modern human mind is afflicted by a schizophrenic contrast between what we know by experience and what 'science' tells us is really real. But since 'science' is perceived as an authority (just as, in the West, the church once was) it defines what is 'public' reality. And this 'really' consists only of objects, possessing no value in themselves, but of value only to the extent that they can be used, manipulated and exploited. Thus according to the modern worldview might is right, greed is good, and life is only about getting, spending and 'consuming' until you die. Obviously this is insane. If humans persist in this view of the world then they have no future, except perhaps as ignorant slaves in a world controlled by a psychopathic elite.

Philosophers can debate the truth or falsity of physicalism for the next 500 years and they will still manage to avoid coming to a conclusion. What's needed is incontrovertible evidence that physicalism is false. As I stated in my article, this evidence is available to anyone who has the courage to smoke DMT at the required dose level.

Terence McKenna was aware that a way out of our modern predicament is possible only via the widespread use of psychedelics. In 1993 in a public talk he said:

The reason I'm a psychedelic advocate is not because I think it's easy, or because I think it's a sure thing — I don't think it's easy or a sure thing. It's simply that it's the only game in town. Nothing else can change your mind on a dime like we are going to have to change our minds on a dime. If we had 500 years to sort this out, we could maybe have a fighting chance without radical pharmacological intervention. As it is, if we don't awaken, we are going to let it [that is, the possibility of escape from "the dominator culture, based on monotheism, hatred of nature, suppression of the female," etc.] slip through our fingers. — Live at the Fez

Comment by Peter Meyer, March 3, 2012:

In January 2012 Rupert Sheldrake published a book entitled The Science Delusion. The title is apparently derived from the title of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion, and it is telling us (as I said in Physicalism: A False View of the World) that physicalism (or what Sheldrake refers to by the more commonly understood term "materialism") is based on faith just as much as Christianity or any other religion is. This questioning of faith in 'Science' was apparently deemed too radical for the book-buying public in America, so the title of its publication there (scheduled for May 2012) has been changed to Science Set Free. But 'Science' is already free — free to work its pernicious effects on the minds of everyone who goes through the Western educational system (which formerly sometimes taught how to think clearly, but which now mainly teaches how to write deceptive ad copy).

Amazon's product description:

The science delusion is the belief that science already understands the nature of reality. The fundamental questions are answered, leaving only the details to be filled in. In this book, Dr Rupert Sheldrake, one of the world's most innovative scientists, shows that science is being constricted by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. The 'scientific worldview' has become a belief system. All reality is material or physical. The world is a machine, made up of dead matter. Nature is purposeless. Consciousness is nothing but the physical activity of the brain. Free will is an illusion. God exists only as an idea in human minds, imprisoned within our skulls. Sheldrake examines these dogmas scientifically, and shows persuasively that science would be better off without them: freer, more interesting, and more fun.

It's not just a matter of having fun; the physicalist dogmas threaten the very survival of the human species.

Here are extracts from two reviews of Sheldrake's book:


At its best, too, science lives up to its own mythology: a disinterested, self-effacing search after truth, carried out by people of humility in true generosity of spirit. ... It should go where the data lead. That's what the myth says it does do — but the reality is very different. ... [Sheldrake examines] the deep roots [the hidden assumptions] in detail. But as the world plunges into crisis, and science ... grows in influence and expense, such examination has become a matter of urgency.Colin Tudge in The Independent


The unlucky fact that our current form of mechanistic materialism rests on muddled, outdated notions of matter isn't often mentioned today. It's a mess that can be ignored for everyday scientific purposes, but for our wider thinking it is getting very destructive. We can't approach important mind-body topics such as consciousness or the origins of life while we still treat matter in 17th-century style as if it were dead, inert stuff, incapable of producing life. And we certainly can't go on pretending to believe that our own experience — the source of all our thought — is just an illusion, which it would have to be if that dead, alien stuff were indeed the only reality.

Rupert Sheldrake, who has long called for this development, spells out this need forcibly in his new book. He shows how materialism has gradually hardened into a kind of anti-Christian faith, an ideology rather than a scientific principle, claiming authority to dictate theories and to veto inquiries on topics that don't suit it, such as unorthodox medicine, let alone religion. He shows how completely alien this static materialism is to modern physics, where matter is dynamic ...Mary Midgley in The Guardian


Modern science as practiced in the laboratory is distinct from the 'Science' that is presented as an authority to the public by its proponents, the most well-known being Richard Dawkins. Science as practiced does have benefits, though its discoveries have typically been misused by mega corporations for their own profit regardless of the harm done to everyone else. 'Science' as an ideology, on the other hand, hypocritically exposes and criticises the assumptions of religion, but refuses to acknowledge its own hidden assumptions, assumptions which are brought out explicitly in Rupert Sheldrake's book and there critically examined. (Such criticism of hidden assumptions is what philosopy has been about since the time of Socrates.)

As the article above seeks to make clear, it is not modern science as practiced in the laboratory which deserves condemnation but rather it is the 'Science' propagated by Dawkins and other materialist/physicalist philosophers as the official truth about the world. This 'official truth' is basically demeaning to the human spirit, and also stultifies individual life. It degrades humans to the level of machines, and converts their interests, values, hopes and aspirations into mere illusions. It turns the human species and all terrestrial life into a freak sideshow located on an uncommon planet within a lifeless, meaningless universe of atoms in motion in the void. Once understood for what it is — just another view of the world (but with severely pernicious effects on our lives) — it can be rejected, as it deserves to be, in favor of a more expansive view of reality which does not exclude what we know (and can know) by experience.


A copy of the Serendipity website is available on CD-ROM.  Details here.

Physicalism: A False View of the World Serendipity Home Page
A Review of Richard Tarnas's "The Transformation of the Cosmos"