by Sam Buntz
In a blog post for the New York Times Opinionator, NYU Philosopher, Thomas Nagel, defends the idea that a purely material explanation of the universe will remain incomplete (“The Core of ‘Mind and Cosmos’”). In order for science to reach a full account of the true nature of existence, says Nagel, it will need to find some way of talking about the non-physical, about Mind (or Spirit—but Nagel’s a philosopher, and philosophers prefer Mind.) He says that no matter how thoroughly science may come to grasp objective reality, our subjective experience will still remain, in a sense, unexplained. Nagel writes: “Mind, I suspect, is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy. I would add that even some theists might find this acceptable; since they could maintain that God is ultimately responsible for such an expanded natural order, as they believe he is for the laws of physics.”
Most thinkers who argue for the materialist worldview (meaning the worldview that asserts that the only real substance is matter—not the worldview of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, though they’re not mutually exclusive positions), like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, believe that science will eventually find some way of talking about the subjective in physical terms, or that it already has. But for Nagel (and I totally agree with him), it seems that this is a logical impossibility. The rules of the game, as set up by those who espouse scientific-materialism, don’t really allow inquiry into subjective experience. Nagel doesn’t spell it out, but I think this is because an investigation of subjective experience would require a method that is, overall, subjective—but comparatively so, searching through the varying accounts of different people’s subjective experiences (I mean, their subjective experiences of their own subjectivity), in order to reach conclusions that may be less concrete than those of physics, yet, perhaps, still very convincing.
But what would such a method look like? I believe it would need to involve the analysis—and, preferably, the practice—of meditation. In Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Sufi, Christian, and Jewish forms of mysticism, one sees many different attempts to access the fundaments of being, to see the-one-who-sees, approaching the directly mental or spiritual nature of experience, beyond the limited physical conditions in which it occurs. It is like the paradox of an eye attempting to swivel around to see itself—but a paradox that, evidently, solves itself at some point in the process. To provide an example of what such a subjective method would look like, the Hindu teacher, Ramana Maharshi, recommended continually asking the question “Who am I?”, attempting not just to pose the query, but to struggle to see the answer. Eventually, this was to lead to a direct realization of the Self. Even an avowed atheist polemicist, Sam Harris, has stated that mysticism is actually a “rational form of inquiry,” and practices Buddhist forms of meditation.
Years ago, thinkers like William James and Arthur Koestler probed into these forbidden regions without fear, and their investigations were especially valuable because neither one had a dogma to hamper them. They were free to draw conclusions as they would. Nagel has the same advantage—he does not accept any of the current religious explanations for reality, but he is more committed to discovering the truth than resting in a purely physical, self-regulating clockwork universe. And his style and substance could hardly be mistaken for anything “New Age.” Yet, while Koestler and James spent a lot of time screwing around with the paranormal, I think there’s little fear that Nagel will base his search for a principle of Mind on these shaky grounds.
But I think an investigation of the mystical experience, in a wholly scientific spirit, would do wonders for the study of philosophy, religion, and psychology. People are already conducting it, but it has yet to take off in the world-at-large. The idea already has seen some progress—for example, Harvard Medical School researchers were able to show that Tibetan Buddhist monks could actually control their body temperature through a certain meditation practice. Yet, those researchers were mainly looking at the objective states in the monks’ brains—their analysis did not try to search out the realm of Mind. Hopefully, a rigorous scientific sensibility can bring itself to bear on a comparative study of mystical experiences, without making assumptions religious or atheistic. The consequences, I imagine, will not only have philosophical benefits—getting us closer to the truth—but practical benefits, as well. Space, after all, is probably not the final frontier. The vast terrain of the Self, despite the excursions of some early psychologists, remains, for the secular world, a largely undiscovered country, in need of an updated map.