Monday, December 22, 2008


I am currently talking to an ‘anonymous’ contributor to Network Norwich (here) who, for various reasons, I refer to as Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith is a Christian dualist: that is, he sees the cosmic drama very much in terms of a superior spiritual world set over against the inferior world of matter. Mr. Smith attempts to resolve those notorious ghost/machine incompatibilities via the introduction of a third component that he identifies as the soul which acts as the medium between incommensurables.

It is precisely this kind of dualist dichotomy, real or imagined, that I have been putting under the spotlight for a long while now. And for good reason too: so much human angst, so much existential heartache, so much religious alienation from the cosmic context, are bound up with man’s perception or misperception of his nature and place in the greater scheme things. Atheism is inclined to the view that we are no more or less than a configuration of a small subset of the matter we find in abundance around us. There is a consequent anxiety, even paranoia, that because we therefore apparently occupy no special or sacred place in the cosmos then perhaps one day the material cosmos, either in the form of machines or natural calamity, will visit us with disaster. Moreover, unconscious matter, rather than sentience seems the dominant and even primary cosmic phenomenon. Deep space views delivered by the Hubble telescope show more of the same: just more and more starry whirlpools of insentient matter indifferent to human affairs. The huge star fields over our heads are surely more than a mere façade painted onto a canopy. Billions of galaxies and eons of prehistory, we instinctively sense, must have a noumenal existence, thus making our place in the greater scheme of things seem insignificant. We experience great pains and passions, but extreme materialism not only sees humanity as ultimately fading without trace but even denies the reality of those ephemeral pains and passions.

As a reaction against all this Dualism is a seductive philosophy. It seeks support in the intuition that the activity of matter is mechanical, absent of sentience and has an independent ontology very distinct from our self aware selves. Although this intuition is not shared by animistic societies it is a common perception of industrial societies who have exorcised the haunted environment and now view it purely instrumentally and mechanically. And so industrial societies are acutely aware of the dichotomies of mind and matter, will verses mechanism. Ironically religious dualism doesn’t question the materialist’s assumption that an independent gritty matter is a real ontology. Instead it sees matter as a potential upstart and rival to the sublime spiritual world. Religious dualism is humanities way of reaffirming the specialness and sacredness of humanity by attributing an extra spiritual ingredient, an extra zing that sets humanity apart from and above mere matter.

And yet dualism as a philosophy is by no means obvious: Idealism challenges it by suggesting that matter cannot exist without mind, and moreover that matter is a phenomenon of mind. Berkley’s idealism sees God’s Mind as the substrate ontology and matter as an ephemeral concept that floats for while inside that Great Mind.

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