Continued from Stuck? 1 Education of a Materialist.
I always had intimations that there might be something more to life than materialism, choosing the label ‘agnostic’ if pressed on my beliefs [atheism seemed to me to be irrational bravado].
Mathematics had given me an insight of enormous value in my subsequent deliberations. Gödel’s theorem[i] shows that any mathematical system is in a sense incomplete – there are things outside of the system that cannot be known within it. Since much science is essentially about the construction of mathematical models of reality this seems enormously relevant to our subject. There can be no complete model of the universe. Period.
Physics also suggested that the materialistic viewpoint had its limitations. Paradoxes of relativity indicated that different people apparently aged at different rates. Quantum theory seemed even more challenging. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle suggested that science could not be as precise as it had seemed. You couldn’t even know, at the same time, how fast a particle was moving and where it was. And something was a wave or a particle depending on what you were looking for!
Quantum phenomena also included non-locality, when physically remote parts of the universe appeared to be causally and instantly connected[ii]. So-called paranormal phenomena came to seem quite plausible, and indeed are well documented, despite being apparently resistant to proof by controlled experiments.
Astronomy and its bedfellow cosmology offered exciting materialistic visions of our context in space and time. ‘Big bang’ theorists argued against, and prevailed over, ‘steady state’ theorists. And yet what did it all mean – and what came before the bang?
In the background I was becoming aware of the exciting psychology of Freud and Jung, then humanistic psychology and Maslow, and later Assagioli’s psychosynthesis. People grew to self actualisation or individuation. I had special experiences that later found the label ‘peak experiences’. I was convinced that these were intimations of my own potential for something more[iii].
I was also drawn towards the Eastern religions, particularly through the evocative novels of Hermann Hesse[iv] and the philosophical writings of Alan Watts[v]. There seemed to be sense here, notably in Buddhism and Taoism. But Christianity became more and more of a puzzle. The great European Gothic cathedrals were wonderfully evocative and inspiring buildings, surely pointing to something more than material concerns. The teachings of Christ largely made sense. And yet I became increasingly aware of the great crimes done over the centuries in the name of the church and Christ, such as the persecution of Cathars, the various Inquisitions and Crusades, even the apparent tacit support of the Nazi regime in the Second World War. I realised that the church, and the religion, were not the spiritual essence.
And there were great heroes, such as M.K.Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who achieved great things for humanity, apparently driven by the fire of an unselfish spirit.
Twenty years later, there is much more evidence of the validity of a ‘spiritual’ world viewpoint, from many great researchers, including the Integral philosophy pioneered by Ken Wilber and a whole raft of inspirational spiritual and psychological teachers. Yet, the materialistic emphasis of the everyday world continues as ever, driven by the interests of those in power, across the world, reinforced by the internet and social media that encourage us to skate across the surface of things, rather than penetrate below and inwards. The contradiction between the teachings of the great spiritual leaders – Christ, Buddha, Taoism, Hindu, etc. – and the institutions established in their name, is ever apparent.
To be continued in Stuck? 3 Personal crisis and growth.
Featured image of stars by Nova Dawn Astrophotography,
CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons
[i] Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel’s theorem is discussed in The Emperor’s New Mind, Roger Penrose. Of course, chaos theory has more recently demonstrated that non-linear systems can exhibit inherently unpredictable emergent properties, but that’s another story…
[ii] A modern perspective on Quantum Theory is in Schrödinger’s Kittens, John Gribbin
[iii] The Outsider, Colin Wilson was a strong early influence.
[iv] Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse is a particularly sublime work.
[v] See e.g. The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts
3 thoughts on “Stuck? 2 Early doubts”
This is where our paths started to diverge, Barry, only because I couldn’t claim to have been thinking as deeply about these issues. Certainly not exploring it as deeply. But my conclusions were similar very early on. I remember as a child growing up in a mixed-religion neighbourhood (for the time, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish), when my Catholic friends came back from church saying that if we weren’t Catholic we’d go to hell, “Why would God punish people around the world depending on what religion they are?” You sum up my thoughts from my quite young years well, “the church and the religion are not the spiritual essence.” Looking forward to part 3!
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I really appreciate this post and your honesty about your journey towards questioning materialism. I think it’s important for us all to question our beliefs and be open to new perspectives and ideas. Gödel’s theorem is fascinating and definitely relevant to the limitations of our understanding of the universe. It’s humbling to realize that there will always be things outside of our comprehension.
I’m curious, though, about how you reconcile this idea with the pursuit of scientific knowledge. If we accept that there will always be limitations to our understanding, does that mean that we should stop trying to gain knowledge and insight into the universe? Or should we continue to push the boundaries of what we know, while acknowledging that we will never have a complete understanding? It’s a difficult question, but one that I think is important to consider.
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Thanks for commenting, Frances.
I think that scientific exploration is great, so long as we understand its limits. Science based on ‘objective’ knowledge inevitably cannot understand important subjective things like values and life itself.
Science ultimately depends on the subjective approach of the experimenter and the inter-subjective consensus of colleagues. The more it takes these things into account, the more valid its conclusions.