This question was posed by Philosophy Today magazine. Here is my answer…
It’s not necessary.
This deceptively simple question has such profound implications for our sense of independence. I take a bottom-up approach to understanding reality. We have developed coherent and comprehensive physical explanations for our world. Using empirically-based sciences, we continue to build an understanding of the living and non-living aspects as it is now and has been over its 4.5 billion year history of Earth. There are still gaps in our knowledge and will also be so. Either way the growth of awareness of the physical reality over the last 500 years has been extraordinary by any measure.
However there still seems to be a significant ontological gap between the third-person physical explanations of the world and our rich first-person experiences. But is there?
Consider the following. Imagine all humans suddenly dying or consider the Earth some 750,000 years ago. Either way there would be no self-reflecting living things with personal experiences or imaging’s that concerns us today. The physical explanations of reality would be fully satisfactory, if somewhat incomplete. So the need for this gap does seem to depend on having animals like us with the ability for self-reflection. To put this timeframe into perspective we evolved to our present form some 100 000 years ago about 0.002% of the history of Earth.
We have a couple of ways of dealing with this gap. Firstly, we could infer an ontologically separate non-physical reality (NPR) – many people do. This reality could be as large as a parallel version to our total physical reality. Many see this type of NPR being filled with an all-powerful being as well as being a repository for the non-physical aspects of dead human beings – their ‘souls’. Or, for many, the NPR could be as limited as a repository for our first-person conscious processes – the “mind” – residing somewhere in the brain. This very limited form of NPR would disappear with the death of the host.
All versions of NPR seem to solve the dilemma of the gap between physical existence and your personal experiences until you delve into the detail. Immediately you notice two things. There is no physical evidence that these NPRs exist. That may seem self-evident as they are “non-physical” realities. Also there seems to be no satisfactory explanation of how these NPRs interact with the everyday physical world. For me, explanations around miracles, magic and supervenience do not “cut the mustard”. They are non-explanations and shouldn’t be considered enough to be convincing.
Given the main question let us concentrate on the universal NPR with an all-powerful being. The first difficulty is which one? The obvious sources of information, other than personal wishes or desires, are the many human religions. Given the age and obscurity of their sacred texts, most believers rely on interpretations from the religious leaders for their understanding about NPR. Even then the variations and contradictions of teachings within each religion and across different religions are staggering especially when presented with such certainty. Given the variations of theory and teaching surely a person’s belief must be an accident of birth both time and place.
From my limited observations there seems to be only a few common factors amongst the religions. There is a certainty that their version of NPR exists (often with an all-powerful being); that the universe has an underlying purpose; and that knowledge of this will give you an insight to the meaning in life. Many use the promise and threat of life after death to control people’s behaviour. No evidence other than personal revelations and testimonies are offered to support these beliefs. Even here the religious theories are malleable with regular adjustments to confirm to society expectations. Their “absolutes” is more “relative” than they wish to admit.
“The Vatican has overhauled its list of mortal sins, adding several more to cope with the age of globalisation.”
Alternatively, we could work with a physical view only. It is reasonable to expect that science will provide better explanations as to how the brain processes perceptions, feelings and cognition to manage our body’s interrelationships with the external physical world, including social relationships. Newer theories arising from neuroscience, linguistics and philosophy are proposing ways of understanding the human condition such as morality, aesthetic appreciation and socialisation. Theories like “embodied realism” provide satisfying explanations for human cognition within an embodied relationship with our environments.
Moreover there may always be a separation between third-person knowledge and first-person experience. And is that really a problem? You can still enjoy music, films, plays and art without participating in a romantic fantasy that will never fulfil its promises.
© 2008 Alex McCullieNo comments