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Faith in Philosophical Materialism

The position that we are atoms (or whatever the latest physics tells us are the ultimate components of the universe), and that there is nothing more to us, is ultimately based on faith. Strictly speaking, we have no rational grounds for identifying ourselves, the essence of who we are ultimately, or our fundamental nature with objects, processes, or whatever we perceive around us. Any such identification requires that we know the ultimate nature of reality—the noumenal nature of reality—and we don’t. So why would anyone choose to have faith in materialism? From an Eastern meditative tradition, we can easily explain the psychology involved. From such a perspective, we human beings spend most of our lives attempting to avoid our inevitable death and destruction. How do we do that? We do it through trying to strengthen ourselves, and this takes the form of acquiring things. Things include not only material objects but also money, ideas, knowledge, social positions, and so on—anything that has form, either mental or physical. We come to identify with form. In short, we cling to form as something that we hope can give us permanence. Against this background of clinging to form, it is easy to see how the belief can grow that we are form—that there is nothing more to us. When Daniel Dennett, and Marvin Minsky before him, suggested that we can save ourselves on hard drives, that is a clear expression of this position. For Dennett, we are pure form and consciousness—the formless—is not on the map, and all there is are the mapped forms. What cannot be captured on the map, i.e., adequately represented through form—the unthinkable— is taken to be nonexistent. So it is that everything about us has come to be shrunk to form, and whatever couldn’t be shrunk has been left out. A new science of consciousness would explore the formless. It would teach the great mystery of nature and also how the universe can seem pointless from certain materialist perspectives. It would teach that there are many unexplored areas of consciousness and how many of them would remain even if we find a causal, neuroscientific explanation.

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