The Great Dilemma
In a recent post, I explored the pros and cons of two foundational ways of looking at reality: naturalism and idealism. The only solid conclusions that came out of this are that naturalism and idealism are fundamentally incompatible with each other, but that also if we are honest with ourselves, we cannot simply disregard either perspective on reality. Either perspective can be understood as internally coherent and plausible and neither of the two can be dismissed entirely.
This essentially comes down to whether or not everything that exists in reality can be reduced to the physical and material. The material/physical world known from science must exist, but it might not be the only thing that exists. At first, it might seem easy to consider everything in reality to be reduced to that which is physical and material, since we have detailed objective scientific evidence that the universe contains just that. It does seem almost supernatural or mystical to think of anything else existing. We don’t seem to have any real evidence for the existence of anything immaterial or nonphysical and we don’t know how we could study it scientifically.
However, those who embrace science and are inclined to a naturalistic worldview will end up having to fully consider the implications of this worldview and whether indeed one can make sense of the totality of reality in terms of naturalism. If one were to commit to believing in naturalism, that would be deeply flawed and untenable because, as was explained above, that would seem to defy some things that would be known from firsthand experience. On the other hand, believing in idealism would also seem to be unworkable, because it would deny the findings of modern science. Therefore, it seems that both options are fundamentally problematic.
There is a very large number of people who accept some form of an idealistic worldview and also a very large number who accept a naturalistic worldview. The greatest difficulty comes when people of these two worldviews interact with each other but have fundamentally incompatible beliefs, which makes productive communication very difficult or impossible. We can see that the question of whether the material/physical world is all that exists in reality is an extremely consequential one. There is so much that hinges on whether there is any deep truth to our first-person conscious experience that cannot be reduced to the material/physical world, and thus we can call this “The Great Dilemma”.
This fundamental question of reality is what is at the root of a very large amount of the unnecessary division in our global society because so many of the educated and science-embracing people have a hard time getting on the same page with those who are more spiritually and religiously inclined. All too often, people on both sides of this divide think that they have things figured out and that they know what exists and what doesn’t exist in reality and that they have the methods and tools to develop the appropriate knowledge, but we can now see that things are not so simple. Neither of these two camps, which are on opposing sides of The Great Dilemma, can claim to have a full and detailed understanding of all that exists in reality nor to even having the intellectual tools to develop this understanding.
There might be a way to overcome these fundamental differences of thought and opinion, however deep they might be. We can ask: Are these two worldviews really so incompatible? There might be a solution to The Great Dilemma that would involve somehow reconciling naturalism with idealism, and thus to acknowledge that which is known from both of them and to bring them together into some new and comprehensive worldview. The problem, however, is that we don’t have anything like a science to develop that understanding. We don’t have a roadmap nor a guiding light to find our way through this maze of information, and so we seem to be hopelessly lost.
Attempts to reconcile these sides have been made by some eminent thinkers of the distant and recent past, but the details are very murky because so much is unknown. The aim of such efforts would be to preserve all that is known about the natural material/physical universe through science while also incorporating our first-person conscious experiences that give us our moral foundations. If we were to do this, notions like human equality, liberty, human rights and social justice would not be mere inventions, but would be derived from inherent truths. Such projects are well-intentioned, but so far have never produced anything worthy of existing alongside legitimate science. These attempts to sort out some possible connection between the outer physical/material world and our inner world of conscious experience have always relied heavily on speculation rather than evidence-based investigation. There are many theories that have been proposed in an effort to show how the natural world that we know from science is compatible with the lived conscious experience from which our moral convictions ultimately derive, but none of these has heretofore been able to stand up to scrutiny.
There are various faith-based religions and worldviews that incorporate spiritual experiences that might, at first glance, seem like good candidates for this effort to reconcile the natural universe with consciousness. Unfortunately, most religious and spiritual systems include features that can seem mystical, eccentric, dogmatic, or just plain incoherent and they don’t often have a good track record in embracing modern science.
On the one hand, there are countless religions throughout the world, each of which claims to be correct, and there does not appear to be any objective way of evaluating which, if any, of these could in fact be correct – aside from the instances where they might involve claims and explanations that run counter to the modern scientific understanding of the universe. On the other hand, while there are secular belief systems that are more in line with modern science, there does appear to be merit to the argument advanced by some people of faith who say that believing only in what comes from modern science does not leave room for a foundation for morality or a meaning of life – at least not as a real part of the universe that exists regardless of anyone’s point of view. This is, of course, what people of faith and secularists alike are seeking: the truth of how things are in reality, not merely some person’s fanciful ideas.
The biggest difficulty in this effort lies in how any other plane of reality could possibly coincide with the material/physical universe. This might be knowable somehow, but we don’t have this knowledge now, and we don’t even have the intellectual tools that would outline a path for developing this knowledge. Instead of trying to solve this problem, in the short term, we should instead simply acknowledge that we don’t know. We should accept that we don’t have an answer to this question of how the material/physical world might coexist with our lived conscious experience.
To reiterate the reason for this: if we insist that the human body and mind are entirely made up of material stuff and driven by physical laws, then we won’t have a way for our feelings and moral convictions to have a basis in fact, which is quite contrary to what we know from our firsthand experience. It is easy enough in theory for some people to say that they only believe in materialism/physicalism or in any sort of worldview where nothing beyond this exists, but anyone who claims to believe this needs to acknowledge the problem of how lived experiences such as pain, suffering, happiness, and values play into this. The only conceivable way that there could be deep reality to our moral convictions would be if they somehow transcend the physical universe. It is easy enough to argue that this all can be explained in terms of physical states of affairs within the brain, but we know from experience that there is something else going on.
Perhaps there is no viable alternative to the naturalistic worldview, one that would take into account all objective evidence and embrace the findings of modern science, but the absence of a viable alternative does not entail that we should commit to naturalism. In fact, we don’t need to commit to any worldview. One may still have a fairly solid hunch that naturalism is correct, or perhaps that idealism is correct, but it still makes sense to have an open mind and to withhold judgment on this matter. The best way forward is for us to set aside presuppositions with regard to what ultimately exists in the universe and what are the ultimate causes of the workings of our minds. It is only through the process of bracketing out all of these notions that we might be able to find a solution to The Great Dilemma.
The first step to a solution here is that we don’t have to make everything reductive. We don’t have to privilege one form of knowledge above all others. We can accept that physical/material universe that is known might not be the whole story, but that we don’t yet have the epistemological tools that would allow us to figure out what else might exist. We certainly should not deny the findings of modern science, but nor should we pretend like objective scientific studies can explain everything important about the world. Although people often speak of “objective reality” in a way that they seemingly mean to include everything that truly exists and that was not dreamt up nor wishful thinking, it is actually possible for aspects of reality to be out there in the real world somewhere but in a way that is beyond the reach of our best tools for objective study. Objectivity gives us our highest level of confidence because mind-independent facts are free of personal biases and distortions, but that level of certainty is not always possible, especially when we’re dealing with people’s inner world.
The convictions that originate within our inner world are not all imagined and fanciful. It might turn out that some aspects of our inner world are shared by all, or perhaps many, conscious beings. If that were the case, then these would be features of reality, no less than atoms and molecules. We need to acknowledge that we do not know the solution to The Great Dilemma, and we need to be willing to consider how subjectivity could become better understood through greater inner awareness that would be used in conjunction with societal understanding.
What are your thoughts? Use the comments feature to join the conversation.