How Does the Natural World Coincide with Our Inner Experiences?
A few weeks ago, I laid out some of the major points of disagreement in this world. These can be thought of as dilemmas because so much unnecessary conflict in our world hinges upon whether someone believes in this or that.
Some of the dilemmas that were identified in the previous section are closely related to each other, with significant conceptual overlap, and some of them are dependent on other dilemmas. We want to narrow this list down to the crux of the matter, which would be the most consequential dilemmas that lie at the heart of the clash of worldviews. Indeed, the interrelated dilemmas that pit religion, spirituality, faith, and dogmatism against science, reason, and secularism seem to be at the heart of one of the greatest overarching conflicts of our age. If we look closely at the dynamic of the religion/spirituality vs. secularism dilemma, we will find that this is actually not the deepest and most consequential dilemma. Some thinkers like to focus on the science vs. faith and reason vs. dogmatism dilemmas as the most significant of our age, and there is no doubt that science and reason are underappreciated by large swaths of the global population. We can certainly acknowledge that reason is far too often lacking, and that dogmatism is far too pervasive among people and that this does cause unnecessary conflicts and suffering, but focusing on that issue distracts us from the biggest problem of them all.
The most central problem is that we lack inner awareness and we don’t have the tools to effectively communicate our inner experiences with each other. This is probably one of the main reasons why many people are reluctant to embrace science and instead prefer the comfort of their faith and one of the main reasons why people of different backgrounds in life fail to effectively communicate with each other.
If we had the ability to better understand our own experiences and to adequately communicate such details with each other, including with people who have different worldviews than ours, and if we could also better understand their inner experiences, then we could build bridges between communities and we could alleviate and avoid conflicts. This is because those on all sides of the religion vs. secularism divide have inner experiences from which they derive their sense of right and wrong, but we aren’t acknowledging this, and we aren’t putting sufficient effort into trying to better understand these experiences. If we can’t understand these experiences ourselves, then we could not expect to be able to communicate such details to others, much less to build a shared understanding of such knowledge.
Some might take issue with the contention that these conflicts stem so much from the lack of inner awareness. The objective sciences, notably including evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, have allowed us to understand the inner workings of the human brain to a large extent, including our inner demons that tend to lead to conflicts and also the so-called “better angels of our nature”, which have been instrumental in leading to greater peace and harmony in the modern world. This understanding, however, stops short of determining what is objectively right and wrong.
In the purely physical sense, which is the only way we can really understand things objectively, there is nothing in the world that is right or wrong and there is nothing that is good or evil and nothing ever could be, as judged entirely by physical realities. The sciences that are driven by a commitment to objectivity allow us to understand so much about reality, but they do not give us tools to judge that any physical state of affairs is objectively better than any other.
In the purely physical sense, atrocities such as mass murder, rape, torture, and genocide are simply physical states of affairs. The most detailed objective understanding that we can have of these sorts of events would show that they are nothing more or less than complex changes in the configurations of atoms and subatomic particles. If we can envision peace and happiness among large numbers of people, this could actually be understood in quite similar terms, if we are only considering that which can be known objectively and that which would be the purely physical realities about such a hypothesized scenario. Indeed, global devastation and world peace would both have similar definitions in a purely objective and physical sense because they would both be nothing more or less than some complex configuration and change of atoms and molecules and other things that are known to exist in a purely physical sense at the smallest level.
How can one of these scenarios be objectively better than the other? We know, we certainly know, that the peace and happiness scenario is much better than the mass murder, rape, torture, and genocide scenario, but on what grounds do we make this judgment? We do not make this judgment based on any objective criteria. It is obvious that we know this because of how it feels to be such people who would be dealing with either scenario. In one scenario, people suffer excruciating suffering and death. In the other, people live happy and fulfilling lives. These two scenarios are indeed very different, but we wouldn’t notice this difference by studying the molecular and subatomic level. We would notice a difference at the biological level, but since this is understood to be entirely derived from the molecular level, this difference is not something that would carry any objective value. The two scenarios would be different in the biological sense, in that one of the two would involve living people and the other dead people, but that fact would not get us to the point where we could judge that the living and happy scenario would be valued above the suffering and dead scenario. We just could not derive objective values from objective facts. It is only when we imagine what it would be like to experience such things, to be the people in those places, and to feel those things, that we have the ability to make this type of judgment.
We do make such judgments in life, but these are not mind-independent and thus they are not objective. We can try to use reason and objective science to try to determine guidelines for what is right and wrong, but this endeavor is not going to be very effective because any such line of reasoning is ultimately incoherent since it runs up against the age-old “is-ought” problem. We can only use reason and science to understand the way things are, not the way things ought to be, at least not based on the common understanding of contemporary science, which is usually understood to be entirely focused on objective study. If we tried to examine where our sense of right and wrong ultimately derives, we would have to admit that it would be closely tied to our own inner experiences and the inner experiences of others. Our preferences, our values, our wants, our needs, our rights, our hopes, our dreams, and our fears all depend on us being conscious minds. It is true that these things can be studied objectively and scientifically, but only to a point.
The problem is that these experiences are not objective because they are so dependent on direct first-person experience. And thus, this seems to more centrally hinge upon the objective vs. subjective dilemma and also the material/physical vs. immaterial/nonphysical dilemma. We can conflate these dilemmas and we can describe the outline of two opposing worldview types, wherein nearly all fully fleshed-out worldviews that enjoy popular support among people will conform more or less to one of these two.
On the one hand we have worldviews based on objectively known facts and where it is assumed that everything in existence is material substance and governed by natural, physical processes, and we can refer to this type of worldview as naturalistic, since nature is central. On the other hand, we have worldviews where subjective, first-person experiences are given special significance and where something immaterial and nonphysical exists, and we can refer to this type of worldview as idealistic. We’re using this term not because such worldviews are highly optimistic (as that is one sense of the word “idealistic”) but because ideas are their main focus. Note that this is conceptually distinct from the similar word “idealist”, which in certain philosophical concepts refers to the notion that everything in reality is ultimately reducible to ideas or subjective experiences. We are only using this term to denote a type of worldview in which something nonphysical exists, and this term encompasses diverse worldviews including idealism, dualism, and various religious and spiritual belief systems. There is a lot of diversity among idealistic worldviews and some of them in fact do not deny the existence of the physical universe and also some of these worldviews might consider the nonphysical to be somehow natural, but we are reserving the term “naturalistic” in this context to denote the types of worldviews that only recognize the existence of the natural material/physical universe.
When we fully examine the implications of both naturalism and idealism and try to evaluate which of the two makes the most sense, it seems quite bewildering. I’ll save for next time the analysis of naturalism vs. idealism.
Can ethics be objective? Let your voice be heard in the forum.