The Ghost in the Machine

 

Life is but a motion of the limbs…. For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body?  —Thomas Hobbes

Following the Galilean split of the universe into the objective and the subjective, the next step would be to eliminate the latter entirely by quantifying the qualitative. In many fields this has been achieved. Sounds, for instance, we reduce to just so many sine waves, which when added together (as by a synthesizer) can replicate any natural sound. Similarly, we can simulate any visual experience with another dataset of numbers representing the red, blue, and green components of a finite array of pixels. Yes, we have made great strides in converting the world into numbers.

Of course, as citizens of the universe, that which we do to the universe we also do to ourselves. It did not take long for the clockwork paradigm to be applied to life in general, and human beings in particular. If all the world is a machine, then we who are of the world are machines too.

The equation of human beings to machines is a proposition so flagrantly outrageous to common sense that it took centuries of preparation before it could be articulated and accepted. Machines, after all, are built, but human beings grow. Machines only move as directed; human beings move autonomously. Machines are built to standard specifications; each human being is unique. Machines are generally hard; human beings are soft. Machine movements are regular and predictable; human beings’ irregular and spontaneous. Machines do not repair themselves; human bodies can.

Yet the mechanistic conclusion became inevitable when Galileo excluded subjectivity from reality and God from the everyday workings of the world. The experiencer of subjective qualities is no longer eligible for participation in the world of matter, and so becomes, at best, a mere onlooker. Outside that onlooker, there is just the mechanical world of matter, including the body. As for those pesky subjective experiences, the solution in the centuries after Galileo was to convert them into just so many measurable inputs and outputs, thereby, according to Galileo’s criterion, making them real once more. The Behaviorism of the mid-20th century went so far as to deny the reality of subjective states explicitly. Current neuroscience is not so brazen, but it is programmatically akin. Seeking to characterize subjective states according to measurable patterns of electromagnetic, chemical, and physical activity, neurology brings these states into the realm of science—the quantifiable—and, potentially, into the realm of technology—the controllable. The mind, they say, and not space is the final frontier, whose conquest might enable us to achieve, once and for all, the end of human suffering. By converting suffering from a subjective to an objective state, we might control it through the appropriate projection of force through electrical or pharmaceutical means.

Most researchers acknowledge that the quantification of even the most basic states of pain and pleasure has run up against insuperable subjectivity. This realization has yet to significantly impact the practice of psychiatry, however, which prescribes happy drugs in record numbers on the mechanistic premise that happiness is, or is caused by, quantifiable levels of seratonin and other neurotransmitters.

Hidden underneath Galileo’s vitiation of subjectivity is a concept of objectivity that seems reasonable to our own warped intuitions, even though it is contrary both to ancient world views and modern physics. It is the absolute Cartesian coordinate system of space and time referred to in the first section of this chapter: a matrix in which objects and events have a discrete existence independent of any observer. It is significant that the originator of our present concept of mathematical coordinates, Rene Descartes, also gave us the defining statement of the modern self.

Descartes immortal declaration, “I think, therefore I am,” took to its most extreme conclusion Galileo’s separation of mind and the experienced world of the senses. For if mind is separate from the world, and being inheres in mind, then being too is independent of the world. To be human is to be separate. Separate from what? From the world we experience; that is, from nature in the most general sense of the word.

In this statement, Descartes took the dualistic division of the universe into two parts, self and other, to its logical extreme, consummating a process that had been developing since the beginning of time. Whereas the primitive self is defined by intimate relationships with people and nature, the distancing effects of symbolic culture, cultivation, and technology led to the emergence of a new self: the freely choosing rational actor. Joseph Campbell writes:

Along with—and as a consequence of—this loss of essential identity with the organic divine being of a living universe, man has been given, or rather has won for himself, release to an existence of his own, endued with a certain freedom of will. And he has been set thereby in relationship to a deity, apart from himself, who also enjoys free will. The gods of the great Orient, as agents of the cycle, are hardly more than supervisors, personifying and administering the process of a cycle that they neither put in motion nor control.[19]

The stage was now set for Descartes to reduce the self to its absolute minimum: a mote of consciousness observing, but not identified with, the body, the brain, the sensations, and the thoughts. Descartes’ “I am” is the thinker, not the thoughts, the feeler, not the feelings; it is the observer and the rest of the universe is the object. Descartes thus took to its nadir the shrinkage of the self that had been going on ever since the origin of technology and symbolic culture, and whose counterpart is a corresponding extreme of alienation from nature, other people, and now, thanks to Descartes, even our own bodies, thoughts, and feelings.

In the final analysis, the dualism articulated by Descartes reduces the entire universe to the status of a mere object, a “bare, depopulated world of matter and motion: a wasteland.”[20] It is utterly alien to the Cartesian self, trapped in its automatic prison of the flesh. One reason this belief is so psychologically devastating is that it implies that the rest of the universe would really be no different without us. We are dispensable, separate, unnecessary. Our experience in the anonymous society of the Machine bears this out: it reduces each person to a role, a standardized performer of a function. In Newton’s universe, each object is similarly reduced to a mass characterized completely by generic properties such as position, velocity, mass, and later, electric charge. Not only is the universe an object in the sense of being external to self, but the self becomes an object as well, one among many, operationally defined according to the above physical properties, interacting—just like any other matter—with the rest of the universe according to Newton’s impersonal, deterministic laws. You, my friend, are a mass.

The assumption of objectivity took mathematical form with Newton’s formulation of his laws of gravity and motion, which operate against the backdrop of Descartes’ absolute coordinate system. The coordinate system is unchanging and eternal. It is the fabric of reality across which we move; it is more fundamental than the objects it contains; it is, moreover, prior to the observer, who is irrelevant to the properties of other objects and the forces acting upon them.[21] The discrete and separate self is thus written into the very bedrock of Science. No matter that the absolute universal coordinate system passed into scientific oblivion in 1905—it is still alive and well in our intuitions about what is rational, objective, and scientific. There is an absolute reality out there, and science is the way we discover what it is.

Viewing the universe and even living creatures as essentially soulless machines, moral compunctions about the treatment of a living, feeling being cease to apply. Max Velmans observes, “According to Descartes, only humans combine res cogitans (the stuff of consciousness) with res extensa (material stuff). Animals, which he refers to as ‘brutes’, are nothing more than unconscious machines.”[22] Accordingly, Descartes’ followers had no compunctions about nailing dogs up to boards and cutting them open to see how the parts worked, understanding their cries of pain as nothing more than the wheezing of bellows and the creaking of wheels. Fontenelle, one of Descartes’ contemporaries, describes it like this: “They administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference, and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they had felt pain. They said that the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck, were only the noise of a little spring which had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling. They nailed poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them and see the circulation of the blood.”[23] See—here’s the pump! Here are the bellows!

By this logic, the other objects of the universe, including living ones, do not really matter. They lack something that the self possesses. Morality applies to them no more than it applies to a blender, a clock. Suppose I take a soft plastic toy cat and replace its squeaker with a device that when squeezed made a sound just like a cat in mortal agony. When I stamp on it with my boot, I am not really causing suffering, only the appearance of suffering. I haven’t done anything immoral (a little twisted, maybe, but not evil). If animals and indeed the entire universe are similarly insensate, bearing only the illusion of feeling, then the same moral license applies to the whole universe. Such is the implacable conclusion of the Galilean banishment of the subjective from the realm of scientific reality.

The aforementioned cat example is highly relevant to modern life. The entertainment industry calls it a “sound effect”. In an artificial world, in which the separate human realm has engulfed all else, what difference is there, really, between a depiction of gruesome death in a video game, and the same in a photograph or newspaper article? What is the difference from the perspective of the audience? The only difference lies in how the words or images are interpreted—as real or as unreal. But we have been trained, as reductionists, to understand things out of context, to remove the specimen from nature to the laboratory. No matter what the source, whether a prison in Baghdad or a video game studio in Silicon Valley, the viewer experiences the same pixels on the screen. We keep young children away from violent movies because watching them would be too traumatic for them—they would think the violence was real. But soon enough, the endemic exposure to violence in our culture desensitizes them to it. The suffering of others takes on an unreality, without which we could never continue to perpetrate it. Yet we cannot blame this unreality wholly on the media. Is it not built into the Galilean conception of science? According to that, the suffering of others is unreal, except to the extent it is quantified. Unfortunately, the numbers used to quantify violence—casualty statistics, acres of rainforest cleared, parts per billion of toxic chemicals, homes destroyed, and so on—keep the actual suffering at a safe distance, remote and therefore unreal. When does it become real to us? When it exits the realm of objectivity to become stories and images connected to actual human beings. Understanding this, politicians prevent us as much as possible from seeing actual photos of the devastation of war, knowing that when we get the reality of the suffering, we will call for its cessation. Galileo had it exactly backward. It is the subjective that is real.

With Galileo and Descartes, the distancing from the victim, incipient already in label and number, received its full ideological enunciation. From the world of the primitive animist, in which we are, in Wendell Berry’s words, “holy beings living among other holy beings in a world that is itself holy”, we have arrived at a world in which we are mechanical beings, living among other mechanical beings, in a world that is itself a gigantic machine.

Descartes himself balked at the final step of this process, reserving for the human being a shred of subjectivity, a soul, a discrete point of awareness. Like all of us, Descartes did not feel like a machine! But the same logic that Descartes applied to animals can be applied to human beings as well—and has been, repeatedly, throughout history with devastating consequences.

The logic, articulated first by LeMettrie in the 1748 essay “Man a Machine” and culminating in present-day works such as Daniel Dennett’s trenchantly argued Consciousness Explained, is merciless. There is no kernel of awareness, no seat of the soul, no “Cartesian Theater” (to use Dennett’s term) where the soul (spirit, consciousness) views incoming sensory information. In other words, there is no refuge for subjectivity, whose conversion to the measurable then suffers no limit. The progress we have made in analyzing perceptions such as vision and hearing can be extended indefinitely. Not even consciousness itself—the sanctuary of the Cartesian soul—is exempt. According to recent research, mystical states of unitive experience—oneness with the cosmos or with God—correspond to measurable activity in certain parts of the brain.[24] Perhaps with the right electrical stimulation, someday we’ll be able to experience them on demand. There is no state of consciousness that does not arise from or correspond to some state of the brain, which, after all, is composed of matter obeying the same physical laws as any other matter in the universe.

Got that? All your thoughts, all your feelings, even your religious experiences, are nothing but the interaction of the various masses that make you up. Science seems to negate our very souls.

Despite the negation of the soul that seems to follow from Mechanism’s fullest expression, organized religion does not seriously challenge Mechanism. Religion essentially agrees with the orthodox scientific view that the universe operates according to mechanical principles, except for certain special circumstances in which a being external to matter, called God, interferes in the universe’s deterministic laws in occurrences called miracles. By separating God out from the universe and consigning Him to the role of clockmaker and occasional miracle-producer, the Church’s response to science abetted its despiritualization of life, as should be expected given that both institutions spring from the same fundamental cultural forces. In both the scientific and the religious view, the human being is essentially alone: in the former case because there is no God at all, and in the latter because God has been separated out from the material world in which we live.

Dennett’s dismantling of the Cartesian Theater is just the final step in the separation of spirit and matter, because once spirit has been reduced (as by Descartes) into a mote of self-consciousness disconnected from the flesh machine of the body, it becomes entirely irrelevant to the physical world and therefore to science. Disconnected from matter, for all practical purposes it may as well not exist at all.

In the face of Cartesian dualism and the burgeoning explanatory power of science, religion retreated inward, away from its former role of explaining the workings of the world, to concern itself exclusively with “spiritual matters”. But no retreat could be far enough to evade the long reach of science, which demolished one by one the remaining mysteries, converting spirit to mind and mind to brain. With psychiatry and neurology elucidating the biological basis of thought and emotion, there is little room indeed for the non-material soul.

Some people try to rescue meaning, significance, and sacredness by citing mysteries that “science can never explain.” Ironically, as these mysteries succumb one by one, the universalist claims of reason and the Scientific Method emerge all the stronger. More ironically still, these attempts actually reinforce the core assumption responsible for the desacralization of the world in the first place: in short, that the sacred and the miraculous are to be found outside the mundane workings of the world. Actually, they are to be found within.

This proposition, which I will develop in Chapter Six, circumvents the entire culture war between science and religion while subverting the fundamental assumptions of both. In this war, the forces of science are represented by a group of philosophers sometimes called the “New Humanists.” Led by Daniel Dennett, Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, Marvin Minsky, Richard Dawkins, and Lee Smolin, they uphold the ideology of the Scientific Program, proclaiming the imminent revelation of the last of nature’s mysteries: free will, love, consciousness, and religious experience.

These philosophers are waging a crusade against their chosen number-one enemy, the forces of religion, which appeal to our intuitive sense of a purpose and significance to life in positing an external god, spirit, or equivalent force that infuses life and the universe with meaning. The philosophical problems of this dualism are well-known: primarily, if an extra-material spirit interacts with matter in any way, how can it still be extra-material? If it is material, then in which constituent of matter does it reside? The main physical forces are (it is claimed) already known and described in equations. And as the New Humanists like to show, the realm of the mysterious, which might otherwise seem to require new forces, is ever shrinking, leaving the theist with only two apparent choices: (1) to relinquish the world of matter entirely to science, rendering spirit a mere ghost in the machine, wholly impotent and wholly inconsequential, or (2) simply refuse to see the evidence of science, disbelieving in (for example) evolution despite enormous evidence.

Accordingly, we have in our society two distinct trends in institutional religion. Corresponding to the first choice, religious belief becomes increasingly irrelevant to life in mainstream society, having little influence over the way we live; concurrently, corresponding to the second choice, large numbers of fundamentalists are dropping out of mainstream society into a polarized world of the saved versus the unsaved. In the first instance, religion has no bearing on material life: regardless of religious affiliation, all watch the same TV programs, root for the same sports teams, buy the same brands, go to the same schools. Because it is inconsequential to the material world, religion can be kept out of the classroom, out of the boardroom, out of the conversation. In the second instance, paralleling their denial of the consensus of the facts of the world, some religious groups withdraw into an insular subculture in which religion once again imbues every aspect of life. Accordingly, they educate their children at home, associate only with others of like religious persuasion, protect their children from the “demonic influences” of such institutions as trick-or-treating, Harry Potter, and Pokémon, abstain from television, rock music, and popular culture, and even form their own communities, sometimes within fortified compounds. Their insularity is another permutation of “removal from this world” that characterizes modern religion.

The apparent diametric opposition between the New Humanists and the religious fundamentalists is a facade that masks a fundamental agreement: that to accept the scientific world view is to lose meaning, purpose, significance, and sacredness. We are at a loss to conceive of the sacred non-dualistically, in the absence of something external to make it sacred, to infuse it with the spirit that plain matter lacks. One purpose of this book is to offer a conception of spirit that is not dualistic, and therefore a conception of spirituality that does not remove us from the life of this world.

While Daniel Dennett is a resolute champion of scientific orthodoxy and a firm believer in the Scientific Program, his work sets the stage for a return to a wholly enspirited universe. For he has dismantled the dualistic division of reality into two separate aspects, spirit and matter, pointing to the illusory nature of the discrete self—the Cartesian observing point of consciousness. His is not a new insight—Buddhists have been saying essentially the same thing for thousands of years—but his work is significant for its explanation in non-dualistic terms of the properties of consciousness, and for its exposure of lingering dualistic assumptions in science.

We have come full circle. From our animistic beginnings in which matter and spirit were one, we have progressed through millennia of widening separation between them until, eventually, spirit became wholly non-material and therefore non-existent. We were left with matter alone. How is this any different from the animist?

There is in fact a key difference. The difference is not in the attitude toward spirit, though; it is in the attitude toward matter! The respiriting of the world lies not in bringing an extra-material spirit into matter, but in understanding that matter itself possesses the properties formerly attributed to spirit. The whole world is spiritual. It does not contain or possess spirit; it is spirit.

This book proposes a conception of self that is not a discrete, separate entity but an emergent property of complex interactions encompassing not just the brain but the entire body and the environment too, both physical and social. To pretend otherwise is to cut ourselves off from most of what we are. Taken to the Cartesian extreme, it cuts us off even from our own bodies—which are no longer really self but just matter—as well as from our feelings. “I think, therefore I am.” Am-ness lies in thought alone. Or less, because the logic of Descartes says that the self is not the thoughts but that which is aware of the thoughts, the “mote of self-consciousness” mentioned above. The logical conclusion of the self-other duality is to reduce the self to nothing at all. Could this be yet another source of our society’s ambient anxiety? Could this progressive reduction of the self to a non-existent point of awareness in denial of all that we are be a reason why we compulsively add on so much not-self, so many material and social possessions, in a futile attempt to recover lost being-ness?

 

[19] Campbell, Joseph, Myths to Live By, Viking Press, 1972. p. 76 of the 1993 Compass reprint.

 

[20] Mumford, Lewis, Technics and Civilization, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1934. p. 51

 

[21] Although contemporaries such as Leibniz and Berkeley disputed Newton’s idea of “absolute space”, insisting that position could be defined relative to stars and other objects, the absolute Cartesian coordinate system is very hard to get rid of whether or not it is seen as physically real. That is because it is encoded into the Euclidean mathematics of Newton’s theory. Even if there is no physically real absolute space, the fact that properties such as position, length, and time are invariant across frames of reference allows one to mathematically construct an absolute coordinate system.

 

[22] Velmans, Max, Understanding Consciousness, Routledge, 2000. p.264.

 

[23] Cited by Anthony D’Amato. Whales: Their Emerging Right to Life (with Sudhir K. Chopra), 85 American Journal of International Law 21 (1991)

 

[24] See for example Andrew Newberg, Eugene G. D’Aquili, Vince Rause, Why God won’t Go Away, Ballantine Books, 2002