Bernardo and Me
Without question, the most important living philosopher today is Bernardo Kastrup of the Netherlands. To put it bluntly, he is nothing short of astonishingly brilliant. He hands down outshines every academic philosopher in every major research institution, bar none. With a PhD in both Computer Science and Philosophy, he is wielding the equivalent of a supercharged intellectual sledgehammer against the already cracked foundations of the mechanistic materialism, or operational physicalism, that still serves as the unquestioned metaphysical underpinnings of mainstream science, philosophy, and western culture at large. When the history of this tumultuous period is eventually written, he will emerge as a key figure in effecting the transition to the new culture that is now in the delivery room of history, crying to be born.
What is most interesting to me at a personal level is that, by his own reckoning, Bernardo (if I may—I feel as if I know him!) began as a materialist by default. During his computer science days, he worked, among other places, at the prestigious CERN large hadron collider in Geneva. In other words, he was deeply ensconced in the belly of the beast. The philosophical position that he came to hold at present, which he calls “analytical idealism,” is the very antithesis of that initial, largely unreflective, nearly reflexive materialism. His numerous books and podcast interviews have detailed his arduous intellectual and personal odyssey. I have listened to many of his podcast interviews now, and am in the joyful process of reading through his already considerable oeuvre.
One particular point that intrigued me when I heard Bernardo’s inspiring story has to do with my own trajectory–or perhaps more accurately, the lack thereof. The brilliant title of one of Bernardo’s books is Why Materialism Is Baloney (2014). Exactly! Here is an excellent and visually entertaining five-minute summary of that apt title:
But my question for myself was this: Why was I never tempted to buy, let alone eat, the baloney? Why didn’t I need to undergo what the scholar of religion, Jeffrey Kripal, dubs “the flip”?
Baloney and Biography
So far as I can tell, from my earliest memories, I was never a materialist. Why? Was this the result of some sort of natural immunity? Did I come into this world already “fully vaccinated” against the dominant strains of our cultural retrovirus? Or, was it an accident, as it were? Was it the result of some sort of chance combination of factors relating to upbringing, personal psychological quirks, environmental influences, and so forth?
Of course, even such “merely biographical” questions are not innocent of metaphysical assumptions. Are we all merely products of an environment, including social and cultural conditions and circumstances, into which the accidents of our biological draw happen to thrust us? Or, is there something “within” us, as William Wordsworth suggested, that “cometh from afar?” Something that is not a mere product of biological patterns, or the environment within which it finds itself thrust, but which reacts to, and is either nurtured or challenged by, those merely external conditions?
To put it most succinctly: Are we just accidental robots? Is our identity limited to a mechanical physical body, assembled by chance, as Bertrand Russell insisted in his essay A Free Man’s Worship: “the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving . . . the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms”? Or, are we essentially something non-robotic, something that is not reducible to physical processes–a non-material “soul” that interacts with such seemingly accidental events?
Now let me be clear: Soul-body dualism is not something that I endorse in an ontological or metaphysical sense. I am firmly in Bernardo’s analytical idealist camp. But at a phenomenological level, I think such a feeling or sense of duality captures a certain undeniable quality of our universal experience of being human. The best discussion of the mystery of human character from this perspective that I know of is contained in James Hillman’s masterful book, The Soul’s Code (1996):
“Fairy tales, the poems of Rumi, and Zen stories say something about this doubleness, this strange duplicity of life. There are two birds in the tree, a mortal one and an immortal one, side by side. The first chirps and nests and flies about; the other watches.” (Hillman, p. 181)
This, of course, is a reference to that famous story, which first appears in the Vedas, and is subsequently quoted in the introduction to the Mundaka Upanishad:
Two birds, fast bound companions,
Clasp close the self-same tree.
Of these two, the one eats sweet fruit;
The other looks on without eating.
(The “tree,” of course, is The Tree of Life. In the western tradition, it is the same tree that God placed in the center of the Garden, which, eaten from once, is the tree of duality (knowledge of good and evil); and a second time, of eternal life–the very prospect God is intent on foreclosing when he kicks Eve and Adam out of Eden.)
Bearing this experiential dualism in mind, then, strictly as a phenomenological tool, I will set out some of the factors of the “two birds” as I have experienced them as operative in my own early life.
Coming From Afar
There is no question in my mind that I have always identified naturally and primarily with the bird who merely watches—in Wordsworthian terms, the soul, not the body. “Great philosophical questions,” writes Hillman, “turn on the relation of visible and invisible” (p. 94). Yes, indeed; and ordinary lives, too.
As far back as I can remember, I felt myself to be in contact with something that somehow lay beyond or beneath what I perceived through my physical senses. Different activities gave me an experience of this same “beyond,” including being out of doors in nature (being in my own backyard, the park, or by the seashore in particular); dreaming (even and especially nightmares); and reading certain kinds of material. I was indeed reading from a very early age. I shocked my kindergarten teacher when I read aloud from a Dr. Seuss book intended for older children. She was so nonplussed that she sent me on a mission to a neighboring classroom to repeat my “feat” to another teacher. The fact is, I started school already able to read. I did not need Dick and Jane. I think this precocity led me to experience a depth of my “inner life” early on that ignited and fed the fire of my imagination. Later on, the stories that were tinder to this fire were a wide variety of myths, science fiction, biographies of artists and scientists, horror, and superhero comic books. All facilitated my sense of breaking through to a far vaster, deeper level of reality.
Much, much later on in my life—in the late 1980s—I heard Joseph Campbell tell Bill Moyers, in one of The Power of Myth interviews broadcast on PBS, that “the basic theme of all mythology” is simply:
“ . . . the notion of a plane of being that’s behind the visible plane, and which is somehow supportive of the visible one, to which we have to relate.”
Campbell’s succinct and tidy formula captured perfectly the common element of all my early experiences of the “beyond.” All were alternate roads to that single destination—though as a child, I doubt that I could have articulated it precisely in that way. Notwithstanding, I did, somehow, however inchoately, sense it.
But what led to this early and persistent identification with the perspective of “soul”? Were there features of my environment—my upbringing, the culture of the time and place into which I was born and raised—that, in a causal sense, “determined,” or at least might have greatly influenced, my outlook? Or was it something innate?
Looking back, it seems to me that there were—as there always must be—cross currents and countervailing forces at work.
My parents were both deeply thoughtful and highly intelligent people whose beliefs and values stressed the importance of intangibles: good behavior towards others, reading, appreciating music, and art in general, and being inquisitive. My mother had only a high school education, but she was brilliant in many areas, and was highly intuitive. She could “read” people instantly, and often had insights into past and future situations that, in hindsight, seem quite psychic. My father, who was in respectful awe of her abilities in this area, used to only half-jokingly, and with the greatest respect and affection, call her a “witch.” He was a more practically-oriented person who ran his own business for decades, and he knew that he depended on her intuitive insights and judgment. Yet, despite his practical bent, he, too, greatly valued “the inner life,” even as he enjoyed the more social aspects of his business relations. Dad just loved to talk and tell stories—“bullshitting,” as he called it. Neither parent was religious in any conventional sense. But my father developed a passion for American Indians, and had tremendous respect and admiration for their attitudes towards Nature and life. My mother’s spirituality, if I can call it that, came out of her deep psychic and emotional sensitivity, born of someone who lost her own mother to a botched surgery when she was but seven years old, and her best childhood friend to an automobile accident only ten years later, when she was in high school. She was no stranger to death; and I think that was something that I picked up on. Although they both worked very hard, they were not “materialistic” in the consumerist sense of placing a high value on acquisition. They always encouraged and supported my intellectual preoccupations, introspective bent, and creative abilities.
While I can trace certain threads in them and their lives that are continuous with my own, I cannot say with any degree of assurance that they “molded” me or “determined” my outlook. This for the simple reason that I know far too many individuals who turned out to be the very antithesis of their parents (whether for good or ill). Or at least they had cast themselves far enough away from the tree, that you wouldn’t be able to make a good guess as to where those particular apples originally came from. I rather think of my parents as the wise custodians and cultivators of a peculiar, often difficult seedling, for which they had an instinctive affinity and respect. Not just anyone could have nurtured, let alone loved that child. What they provided was a safe hothouse in which an exotic, sensitive plant could grow and unfold its potential. I owe them a great deal–more than I could ever repay.
But, to repeat, the question of influence is a tricky one. I would say that my parents greatly facilitated my development, not that they determined it in a strictly causal sense. Here I find myself in broad and deep agreement with what Hillman calls his “acorn theory”:
” . . . which holds that each person beds a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived . . . . You are born with a character; it is given; a gift, as the old stories say, from the guardians upon your birth . . . Each person enters the world called.” (p.6; p.7).
Of course, we can either cooperate with this innate push of our daimon, our inner guide, or fight against it; we can answer the call, or, if we wish to court disaster, as Joseph Campbell outlines in terrifying relief in Part 2 of Chapter One of his epochal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948)—aptly titled, “Refusal of the Call”—we can choose to refuse it. Sometimes, we may initially balk, take a wrong turn or two (or ten), and only much later on in life learn to bring forth that which is within us, in the words of Jesus in the Gnostic Thomas Gospel:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” (Saying 70)
As Campbell cautions, quoting in translation a famous Latin saying from the Middle Ages that typically proved terrifying to the ordinary soul, it’s also true that one may not get a second chance:
“Time Jesum transeuntem et non revertentem: ‘Dread the passage of Jesus, for he does not return.” (Hero, p. 59).
Merely recognizing the existence of what Hillman calls the “acorn,” or, as the title of his book expresses it, “the soul’s code,” does not, in and of itself, explain why and how some individuals heed their daimon from the outset, more or less wholeheartedly; whereas others–dare I say most of us–experience conflicts, hesitations, perturbations, tergiversations, and numerous trips down dead end lanes and blind alleys. While still others seem utterly oblivious to all inner voices and instinctive impulses, and readily submit to the dictates, however superficial and confused, of their time and place. No matter what, there is still a mystery here.
Speaking of matter . . .
“Materialism” or “Materialism”—or Both?
I am not a sociologist, social psychologist, or historian. I can only speak from the memories of my own firsthand experience, and my layman’s knowledge of the era in which I was brought up.
However, before I say anything further about these conditions and cross-currents, I want to talk about the meanings of certain key terms, some which I have already been using without defining them—a big no-no in philosophy! Socrates once said that if we don’t examine what we mean, we might as well pack up and go home and burn our philosophical shingle. For we have committed the original philosophical sin: not examining ourselves. But this analysis will also serve as a useful loop back to my biographical reflections.
In ordinary speech, as in the observation, “Oh, they’re dyed-in-the-wool materialists,” we’re talking about people’s values. And what “they” value first of all are things: material objects like houses, jewelry, fancy clothes, boats, cars, etc. Secondarily, it is the ability or power to get what they want, or to satisfy their desires, and, in the process, to establish and verify their superior social status. For some, the greatest object of their desire is their demonstration of power over their environment, including other human agents. For others, it’s about enjoying the things themselves; so you could say that these are Hedonists or Epicureans who live for pleasure of one kind or another. But in some cases, such pleasures are so ephemeral, fleeting or even nonexistent, that acquiring them is only a means to an end of demonstrating their mastery. What counts most (pun intended!) is quantity: how much money one has, how many houses one owns, how expensive is the car one drives, how many clicks can be generated or eyes on web pages, etc., etc. Life is a numbers game for cost accountants. One of my favorite bumper-stickers from the 1980s, the so-called “Reagan Era,” was the one that read, “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” In the 1987 Oliver Stone movie, “Wall Street,” the aptly named Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, makes a passionate speech in which he delivers that apocryphal line: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Not the minimalist “less is more,” but rather, the maximalist, “more is better.” The economy must grow or die, like the shark that can’t stop swimming.
Used in a properly philosophical sense, however, “materialism” is a metaphysical thesis, an ontological statement about the nature of reality, namely, that only physical matter (and its measurement) is ultimately real. Everything else, including and especially psyche, the ancient Greek word for “soul”–which became synonymous with “mind,” or, more recently, with the more scientific-sounding “consciousness”—is epiphenomenal, an incidental byproduct or secondary effect of material entities and processes. The analogy most often used is this: Just as the kidneys produces urine, so the electro-chemical activity of the brain produces our endogenous experience of brain function, or “consciousness.” The corollary, of course is: If your kidneys cease to function (they die), no urine will be produced; and if the brain ceases to function (it dies), then no consciousness, either. In other words, you are only your physical body. When your body is dead, you’re dead, period. End of story.
But since “proof” of such a materialistic reduction evades neuroscience, which cannot currently solve “the hard problem of consciousness,” a looser form of materialism, called “physicalism,” emerged in modern times, Physicalism is a kind of promissory note on hard-core materialism. It acknowledges that we can’t prove the truth of the materialist thesis as of yet. We cannot at present completely explain or understand how the brain works, or translate, without semantic and phenomenological residue, every statement about subjective experiences (“I am unhappy”) into objective correlates of electro-chemical processes that can be observed, measured and finely calibrated (“My serotonin and epinephrine levels are . . .”). But physicalists maintain that there’s no good reason to believe that we’re not on our way to such a reduction and a “final solution” to “the hard problem of consciousness,” once and for all. And I am not naive in using that morally and historically loaded term. I think there is, in the materialist/physicalist “habit of mind” (as the British idealist philosopher, R.G. Collingwood, might have called it), a certain disdain of consciousness that is born of fear, and a concomitant desire to annihilate that which is feared.
The next logical question, then, is this: What connection (if any) is there between “materialism” as a general metaphysical thesis, and “materialism” as a theory of value?
Here I will defer to no less an authority than Plato—and perhaps to Socrates himself. In the course of defending himself against capital charges at his trial as portrayed in Plato’s Apology [par. 29d-e] (Plato’s first published dialogue, and doubtless most faithful to the ideas of the historical Socrates, his mentor and friend), Socrates inveighs against his fellow Athenians, who, he says, care far too much about “the body,” and not nearly enough about “the soul.” This sounds like a metaphysical statement. However, if you read the text carefully, “soul” is identified in terms of what it is concerned with, namely, such things as “wisdom” and “truth;” whereas “body” is mainly preoccupied with such matters as “wealth, reputation, and honors.” That is to say, “the body” loves money, power, and social prestige.
The tacit suggestion seems to be that there is a close, perhaps intimate, connection between metaphysical and axiological materialism. “The body” focuses on tangibles, things that can be measured; “the soul” on intangibles, or things that can’t be measured in such crude terms. To embrace metaphysical materialism is thus at least to make it more likely, if not strictly speaking necessary, to become Gordon Gecko. Or Alciabiades and Critias, the young Athenian aristocrats who betrayed Athens on behalf of Sparta in order to gain additional wealth and power. Plato, unlike Bernardo (for whom mind, or the field of subjectivity, is the only ultimate reality) was a metaphysical Dualist, for whom matter is a separate, irreducible reality, secondary to consciousness, having an independent existence. To invert the rightful relationship between consciousness and matter, however, is to invite and reward an acquisitive mentality, in which one seeks to accumulate power over others, instead of seeking power over one’s own acquisitive impulses and desires.
As Socrates argues in the conclusion of the Apology, either physical death is the end of psyche, or it’s not; it’s a simple binary. If not, then materialism is just plain wrong. Then we have to think about the future of psyche: the fact that consciousness survives physical death, and has a new situation and environment in which it must operate. Filling in those blanks is where myth (Greek: mythos, meaning “story”) comes in. By “myth” Plato meant: (i) the stories of postmortem journeys produced by near-death experiencers (which we know he was intimately familiar with, because he wrote about the soldier Er, who had an NDE, in his great book, the Republic); (ii) stories of the afterlife produced by inspired poets like Homer and Hesiod; and (iii) reports of visions inspired by shamanic-type rituals and the controlled ingestion of entheogens, such as what almost certainly took place at the shrine of Eleusis.
And, as Socrates also implies, while some may look forward to such a prospect, others, whose life-choices were predicated on the prospect of utter annihilation and lived by the creed “those who die with the most toys, win,” may not. Obliteration would likely be their preference. Unless, of course, they could figure out some way to indefinitely postpone bodily death, so they could go on accumulating and dominating virtually forever. Enter postmodern “Transhumanism”! We’ll either “download” consciousness into an android mechanism, or else, through genetic mutation, the installation of cybernetic implants, and artificial intelligence, modify the biological body to create a bionic being that will surpass homo sapiens sapiens and “live” indefinitely, if not exactly forever.
But here one might object: Certainly there are and have been metaphysical materialists who aren’t materialistic in a crude moral sense. How about some of the great scientists whose primary, and morally lofty aim is the gradual accumulation, not of mere things, but of knowledge, which consists of proven truths. The “truth” that is the aim of scientific inquiry is a conception of correspondence with nature as it objectively exists, independent of all subjective views of it–uncontaminated by “consciousness,” in other words. This is “the view from nowhere,” as the philosopher Thomas Nagel succinctly put it. “Truth” is thus an abstraction derived from actual practice, or at least from the desiderata of scientific inquiry.
Here I would make a couple of points:
1. Truth for Plato no mere abstraction; it is not something that exists not just in my or your mind or our minds, but in reality in its own right, apart from all particular minds and thoughts. This is true of all of those entities or impersonal principles that he calls the “Forms,” or Eidae. “Knowing” in its true and proper sense is identified, even in an early dialogue such as the Euthyphro, with a special kind of vision. We will know it when we “see” it, or “look upon it.” And I don’t believe that he is speaking merely metaphorically or analogically here. My philosophy professor from long ago, the great Plato (and Hegel) scholar, J.N. Findlay, believed that Plato obtained his “theory” of Forms from direct personal experience through his own participation in the Eleusinian Mysteries. When they are truly apprehended, the Forms are the objects of a certain kind of perception, an inner vision. Truth, Wisdom, Beauty, the Good, etc. are the basic structuring principles of the field of consciousness, and their existence is not dependent on human beings, or their thoughts or inquiries. The poets might have spoken of these principles in more anthropomorphic terms, as gods and goddesses, Titans and Monsters. But what is important is that cosmic powers or inflections of consciousness exist that are greater than the minds of individual humans, or even than the species as such.
2. There is a kind of hubris that underlies the whole Enlightenment project. This Promethean inflation is not merely reflected in today’s Transhumanist fever dreams, but it is also deeply if only tacitly embedded in much of the self-help and self-improvement genres: the assumption that humans (or at least their élite) are, or should be, headed for apotheosis. Long before the Newtonians implied it, René Descartes openly affirmed it in his Discourse on Method (1637). He said that if we work methodically to find the truth, we can achieve virtual omniscience: “there is nothing so far distant that one cannot finally reach nor so hidden that one cannot discover.” Perhaps such omniscience can only reasonably be understood as the communal property of all scientists rather than the private property of one solitary researcher, but no matter; in principle, it is achievable. And if we take Francis Bacon’s proposition that “Knowledge is itself power,” and substitute “power” for “knowledge” in Descartes’ dictum, we have the following simple, but entertaining syllogism:
(1.) Absolute knowledge is possible. (Descartes: Given)
(2.) Knowledge is power. (Bacon: Given)
Therefore, absolute power is possible. (Q.E.D.)
The properties of omniscience and omnipotence, which once belonged exclusively to God, have now been rested from that sovereign and claimed as the collective property of the human community of scientific inquirers. This was the Communist revolution before Communism! The King is dead; long live the kings!
Indeed, maybe forever.
Please note: I’m not in any way defending Cosmic Monarchical Theism, nor am I pining for a reactionary return to some sort of Medieval vision and habits of mind. Far from it. Science was a genuine step forward, and there’s no going back. But we have seen in our history how loyalty to our own abstractions–even the loftiest ones of truth and freedom–can easily lead to a moral vacuum and the Machiavellian devil’s bargain that the ends justify the means. The Terror, the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, not to mention slavery and the genocide of the American Indians, are just a few token examples. Power over externals—nature and society—is intoxicating, and likely addictive. Doctors Jekyll, Frankenstein, and Oppenheimer were all noble researchers dedicated to the ideals of scientific truth, increasing knowledge, and the betterment of mankind. And yet, they all gave us monsters.
What I would say, then, by way of summary here, is this: that while metaphysical materialism may not, strictly speaking, logically or necessarily entail moral materialism in any of its principal versions (as accumulation of things, pleasurable experiences, or the unbridled lust for power and control), it does creates an existential vacuum in which nihilism and the sense of meaninglessness can flourish; and what better amalgam to attempt to fill that void than the materialist ethos? Here I agree wholeheartedly with Bernardo’s analysis. In that sense, moral materialism seems to presuppose that the binary choice set our by Socrates in the Apology has been resolved in favor of “the body,” in Plato’s wider sense of that term.
Sputnik and Progressland
With this little philosophical excursion under our belts, let us return, then, to my reflections on my early development in the light of some of the larger cultural forces at work.
Now, to repeat the obvious, I am not a sociologist, a social psychologist, or an historian. And I don’t intend even to try to be comprehensive here, or to trace the possible impact of every significant historical event or cultural trend.
Yes, I do have vague, sketchy memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis and bomb shelters. We used to practice “air raid” drills in school, where we would line up in our class, and then move out into the hallway, where we would be instructed to lie face down down on the floor, and observe complete silence—no mean feat for seven-year-olds! I even have an early, if vague, memory of JFK’s election and inauguration, and rather clear, still disturbing, memories of his assassination (as well as the subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy). I remain convinced that that tragic and traumatic event was an inflection point on many levels. I also remember watching the Beatles make their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show, and listening to their songs on a small, tinny transistor radio–the latest technology. I also remember our class going down to the school cafeteria to watch the launch of the Mercury space capsules, where we would all gather around one relatively small black and white television to watch Walter Cronkite talk.
But what I want to distill from these items, as important as they are and were to me personally, is what might be called the larger cultural “ambiance.”
As the dictionary defines it, “ambiance” is “the character and atmosphere of a place.” Cultures are always shot silks, however, and appear differently from different angles of vision. Of course, where one sits socially and economically, and in terms of all the possible variables of class, race, gender, religion, etc. are obviously significant in terms of how they impact our experience and color our vision. So I will give my own highly sketchy and impressionistic view—my “feel,” if you prefer a more kinesthetic/tactile term—and reflect on my response to the various patterns I was experiencing. Overall, it was a feeling of gross discomfort.
Although it is a gross oversimplification, I want to identify two main items which are not exactly just singular events, but gravitational fields that drew together and synthesized many particulars and broader cultural trends. The first is Sputnik; the second, General Electric’s exhibit at the 1964-65 World’s Fair (held in Flushing, Queens, New York City), the GE Progressland pavilion.
I was born in the same year that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik; hence I have no actual memory of that event and its immediate aftermath. And while I am usually averse to citing Wikipedia, here I’m going to be lazy; and for those whose memory doesn’t stretch back quite that far, here is the basic rundown:
“Sputnik 1 . . . was the first artificial Earth satellite It was launched into an elliptical low Earth orbit by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957 as part of the Soviet space program. It sent a radio signal back to Earth for three weeks before its three silver-zinc batteries ran out, and continued in orbit for two months until aerodynamic drag caused it to fall back into the atmosphere on 4 January 1958 . . . The satellite’s unanticipated success precipitated the American Sputnik crisis and triggered the Space Race, part of the Cold War. The launch was the beginning of a new era of political, military, technological and scientific developments” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sputnik_1)
Sputnik didn’t so much change anything as it substantially greased the wheels that were already turning, and greatly accelerated their velocity. For what had been clear trends now became, in the view of those in power (and I don’t mean merely political power), a categorical imperative: a matter of national survival, and perhaps of literal life and death. The Soviets were already an established nuclear power, having exploded their own first test bomb in 1949. But this new development in space threw high test gasoline on the fire. The technological push, as a key part of the Cold War competition, became, from the standpoint of the United States, a prime military and geopolitical necessity.
Here I will focus on only one aspect of “the Sputnik crisis.” Two years after its successful launch, in 1959, the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow gave lectures at Cambridge University that were subsequently published that very same year as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959). Now, I did not read this book until I was in graduate school, at the suggestion of my main advisor at the time, who had written extensively on the British philosopher and historian R. G. Collingwood (1889-1946). Collingwood had been a fierce critic of the pretensions of science to be the main, or only form of genuine knowledge, as well as an idealist critic of metaphysical materialism. I had begun work on what would become my dissertation, which was an examination of Collingwood’s early philosophy of religion, especially as developed in his unpublished writings (nachlasse). But my interest in Collingwood, and my general sympathies with his outlook, goes back to my undergraduate work in philosophy with my mentor (and subsequently my dissertation director) Alasdair MacIntyre, who was himself both a critic and admirer of Collingwood’s views.
I mention this because it was only in hindsight, after I read Snow’s book, when I was already in my mid-twenties, that many things about my own childhood experience with my education and American culture in general became clear to me. For what Snow’s book was a part of—and I don’t want to exaggerate his influence, or give him too much credit by saying that he single-handedly caused this development—was the systematic derogation of the humanities, in favor of the intentional and directed elevation of science, mathematics, and later, computer studies. In short, what is nowadays referred to as STEM. While Snow’s book and its argument was directed first and foremost to a British audience, the movement of which it was a part did not have national boundaries or pay much attention to the nuances and details.
Basically, Snow argued that Britain was totally unprepared for the postwar world, as its “antiquated” educational system had always emphasized literature and the humanities (especially the study of Greek and Latin) at the expense of science and mathematics. While he gave American education some kudos for traditionally being more even-handed in its approach and emphases, if there had been such even-handedness, in the aftermath of Sputnik it was soon to disappear in favor of something quite different.
Can you truly hear the sound of one hand clapping?
What came, even here in the US, in the wake of Sputnik and Snow, was a transformation not only of the curriculum, but also of the methods and aims of teaching. And here I’m speaking specifically of math and science education. By the time I was in third grade, “the new math” had been introduced, which I found incomprehensible. While I had been a natural, almost instinctive and certainly voracious reader, I was soon to feel left back in those areas that were not being emphasized. It was not just the content that was being taught, but the ways of teaching themselves. Particularly later on, in junior and senior high school, it seemed to me that most of the teachers in these areas were teaching not just primarily, but exclusively to their best students. If you didn’t have an immediate grasp or intuitive understanding of the equations (in algebra) or the formulas and principles (in chemistry and physics), the teachers weren’t interested in trying to explain them to you. Why? Because I think their primary aim now was to find, cultivate, and funnel the genuine prodigies, to send them up the pipeline as smoothly and quickly as possible, as an educational and national imperative.
This virtual worship of science and technology was not, of course, confined to the classroom. But as I went further in my education, I could see its influence in many of my own professors, and in the recent history of philosophy, which had been dominated in Anglo-American universities by logical positivists, and then “analytical philosophers” who disdained anything remotely metaphysical, including their cousins, the “ordinary-language philosophers” whose anti-metaphysical biases played out in minute and painstaking deconstructions of uses of language that violated their unacknowledged materialist biases. The overall aim of analytic philosophy was to annihilate the past “pretensions” of those philosophers who had believed that there is something more to reality than what can be measured or analyzed, and thus to make the world safe for the claims of science (understood in purely mechanistic materialist terms) and mathematics to be the only genuine paths to knowledge.
Then came the postmodernist deconstructionists who subsequently rejected this entire project as itself a pretension of reason to an objective truth that doesn’t exist. Their path was largely to descend into a relativism that dismissed the “love of wisdom” (that’s what the Greek word philosophia literally means) as reactionary religious preaching unfit for a truly critical mind that had abandoned religion back with Nietzsche’s 19th century pronouncement that “God is dead.” The notion of using human language to point to something significant beyond language is absurd. All we have is human conversation. The late Princeton philosopher Richard Rorty (who called his position “pragmatism”):
“A post-Philosophical culture, then, would be one in which men and women felt themselves alone, merely finite, with no links to something Beyond. On the pragmatist’s account, positivism was only a halfway stage in the development of such a culture–the progress toward, as Sartre puts it, doing without God. For positivism preserved a god in its notion of Science (and in its notion of “scientific philosophy”), the notion of a portion of culture where we touched something not ourselves, where we found Truth naked, relative to no description” (Consequences of Pragmatism, pp. xlii-xliii).
Philosophy is about words, not “life” or “reality.” As Rorty warned, “beware edifying philosophy.” Already in 1939 in his Autobiography, R.G. Collingwood condemned the trend of turning philosophy into what he dubbed “a futile parlor game” (p. 50). Or, as Bernardo has expressed it, most academic philosophy today is a form of joyless “mental masturbation” that gets articles published, tenures and promotions awarded, and awards granted—but nothing of any genuine lasting human value achieved.
Yet, in retrospect I could see that none of these aforementioned cultural developments or pressures were enough to move me off from my own sense of things, my own interests, values, preoccupations, and perspectives. My childhood fascination with what might be summarized as “the mystical side”—religion, mythology, dreams, paranormal phenomena and parapsychology—stayed with right along into adulthood and my subsequent pursuit of philosophy. While I often felt like the “odd one out,” and was in no rush to broadcast my innermost thoughts and feelings too widely, I held on, and out.
Of course, the dominant cultural forces would inadvertently call up recessive or countervailing forces. I indicated this, in shorthand form, at the beginning of my discussion when I mentioned “the Beatles.”
The whole “counterculture” was in some sense a critical response to the mainstream culture’s attempt to resolve the “Sputnik crisis” in the way that it did. So, you could say that there were elements in this response—the Hippie revolt, in short—that were encouraging of my natural preoccupations and focus, from the psychedelic explosion to the opening to the East and its modes of accessing the numinous. The thing is, I was a bit too young for LSD (I was aware that my older cousins were experimenting), and the Maharishi, for whatever reason, didn’t interest me. Furthermore, it didn’t take long for the dominant forces of the culture to commodify and thereby contain and absorb—or, as the hippies used to say, “co-opt”—the “revolution.” The “inward turn” that championed non-consumerist values and anti-materialist ideas largely became a niche marketing tool. The ability of the cultural dominants to remain dominant in this way should not be underestimated.
Which brings me to:
At the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Queens, New York, one of the most popular exhibits was the GE Progressland, which “included a look at America’s figurative and literal electric future.” The exhibit was sponsored by the General Electric Company (one of the Defense Department’s biggest contractors, of course), and designed by none other Walt Disney, the demiurge of the very concept of modern mass entertainment, which deliberately and consciously (deviously?) blurs the line between fantasy and reality, creating what one of my longtime favorite authors, Philip K. Dick, in a mordantly brilliant essay entitled, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” called “fake fakes”:
“For example, in Disneyland there are fake birds worked by electric motors which emit caws and shrieks as you pass by them. Suppose some night all of us sneaked into the park with real birds and substituted them for the artificial ones. Imagine the horror the Disneyland officials would feel when they discovered the cruel hoax. Real birds!”
I first read Dick’s essay in 1985, and many of his “science fiction” stories even earlier. He was a mystic and a prophet in the true sense: He saw the future because he saw deeply into the present, and beyond it into the timeless substrate of our experience; and he warned us what was coming because he hoped, that by issuing that warning, we might change course and avert disaster.
But Disney’s idea was really the plan from the beginning of the scientific revolution: to have such utter control over nature so as to replace it altogether with an artificial construct, a virtual reality controlled by an artificial intelligence built by humans, and in the process taking on initiative, and even consciousness itself. Moreover, when “real” (i.e., biological) birds are custom-made to order, with genetically enhanced codes of our choosing, and perhaps implanted with cybernetic control devices, what will a “real” bird be anymore, anyway? This is the end of “progress”—and here I am quite deliberately playing upon the ambiguity of the word “end,” which means both: (i) the final or part or stage of a process; and (ii) intention, aim, or purpose: that endogenous force or principle of order which brings the thing to its fruition—which the Greeks called telos. The telos of the scientific study of nature is the end of nature itself, and Uncle Walt is dying to sell you tickets to watch the eschatology unfold.
Here, taken straight from the Handbook of the 1964-65 World’s Fair, is the description of the centerpiece of GE’s Progressland exhibit:
“CAROUSEL THEATER. In the first part of the program, separate auditoriums, each holding 250 people, circle into position and are carried past stages on which life-sized, three-dimensional, animated human figures move, talk, laugh and act out the story of electricity in the home from the Gay ’90s to the present.
¶ A late 19th Century home is shown. Its inhabitants struggle with all the latest luxuries: telephone, gas lamps, gramophone, kitchen pump, a hand-cranked clothes washer and a hand-pumped, air-suction vacuum cleaner.
¶ A home of the ’20s comes next, with coffeemakers and sewing machines, “monitor”-topped refrigerators and a homemade cooling device for hot weather: an electric fan that circulates air over a cake of ice.
¶ The ’40s are recalled with the little, round television screen, plus some odd applications of electricity: e.g., housewives mixing wallpaper paste with cake mixers.
¶ The glories of today glitter in a living room at Christmastime, a glass-enclosed, electrically heated patio, a kitchen that all but runs itself.”
For “kitchen,” in the last sentence above, substitute “world.” With that small substitution, the quaintness of the blurb, with its barely suppressed breathlessness at a “progress” that today is laughably antique, is transmuted into a sobering prophecy of the bleak human future, when the very word “biological” will become a pejorative. The world is a machine: we have believed this since Newton’s time when the most advanced machine was a clock–the so-called “clockwork universe.” Now the image of the machine is, of course, the computer; so we have philosophers and physicists suggesting that the world is a great computer, or that ultimate reality is not solid matter, but bits of information–our beloved data. Do you have a good data plan? Just kidding! This is just Mechanism version 2.0, and we are still just robots doing our menial jobs, or “meat machines,” in the memorable phrase of Marvin Minsky, the M.I.T. father of Artificial Intelligence. Until, naturally enough (!), it’s time for us to be recycled and sold off for parts; while Elon Musk and his cyber-vanguard will have their brain engrams downloaded into the mega-processors of super-androids who will be capable of constructing their own progeny, and keep on transferring those engrams into next year’s model—and the next after that, and after that, on and on, ad infinitum into the future.
In the Progressland exhibit (and in the Fair as a whole), we have all of the threads neatly tied together in one neat and tidy package: philosophical materialism, technological virtuosity, military and geopolitical triumphalism, consumerist hunger, and mass infotainment, with its manufacture of an ersatz reality.
And what has all of this to do with me?
I was in first or second grade when I remember, one particular Friday afternoon (our customary time), receiving my treasured copy of My Weekly Reader, a widely distributed educational newspaper for children. This particular edition contained a photograph of the Unisphere, the symbolic and geographical center of the fairgrounds, as well as a brief article describing the soon-to-be opening extravaganza. For those who may not know, here is a telling description of My Weekly Reader:
“First launched in 1928, My Weekly Reader sought to make the national news accessible to elementary school children. By the early 1970s grade-specific versions were available for students from preschool to the sixth grade. . . . My Weekly Reader was the brainchild of Eleanor Murdoch Johnson, the director of elementary schools in York County, PA. Seeking to balance children’s preference for myth and fantasy with greater knowledge of world events [italics mine], Johnson pitched the idea of a weekly newspaper for elementary students to American Education Publications, publisher of Current Events, a newspaper for 6th graders established in 1902. Circulation reached 100,000 the first year and by the end of the 1930s, first through sixth graders had their own edition.” (https://worldhistorycommons.org/my-weekly-reader)
C.P. Snow was absolutely spot-on after all! American education was light years ahead of Britain in its derogation of the humanities in general, and “myth and fantasy” in particular—terms which were definitely beginning to acquire a pejorative cast. It so happened, though, that I was highly interested in news and “current events.” Perhaps because, at least in part, I had already sensed that, behind the mere presentation of the “facts” lay just another story—a fantasy or myth, if you prefer—that was just as compelling, in its own way, as the Batman and Spiderman comics with which I was enraptured:
“Despite its claim to present the news with accuracy and fairness, from its inception through the Cold War, the current-events newspaper provided more biased than balanced coverage of international events. News articles avoided issues of conflict (e.g., Civil Rights movement) and instead promoted an anti-Communist, pro-Patriotic Cold War perspective. For much of the twentieth century, My Weekly Reader imaged its readership to be both Caucasian and Christian.” (https://worldhistorycommons.org/my-weekly-reader)
Being Caucasian, but not Christian, and having parents that were strongly in favor of civil rights and other “liberal” causes, I would find myself out of sync with much of the dominant perspective; a position that occasionally proved to be somewhat confusing and uncomfortable. But that didn’t mean that I was completely immune to its allure. I still watched Uncle Walt’s show on TV! After reading about the opening of the World’s Fair, I mercilessly nagged my parents to take me there. I just had to see all the wonderful, marvelous, spectacular exhibits! At first they resisted. After enough nagging, they relented; and we went.
For me, the most memorable and enjoyable part of the whole excursion was the train ride to Queens, where the fairgrounds were located. It was my first actual train ride; yet I was already utterly enamored with trains. I had been given a set of American Flyer model trains by my parents as a gift. The engine was an accurate model of an electrified diesel with a rooftop pantograph used by the New Haven Line.
The silver passenger cars were illuminated from the inside, with black silhouettes of the “passengers” outlined in the windows. I would turn off the room lights, sit back, and watch the train circle the tracks over and over again. This was pure magic. Sitting there on the floor in the darkness, watching the lighted cars go round and round in that circle, I would be pitched into that blissful “zone” of consciousness for which I did not yet even have a name. I would imagine myself on the train, seated by the window, watching the scenery as I rolled by, traveling to some far-off exotic locale—like New York City! When I finally got to ride an actual train there, it was literally a dream come true.
The Fair itself was another matter.
To this day, I still recall particular exhibits, like the GE pavilion and the General Motors Futurama, where we sat in an automobile bench seat that traveled around this enormous theater past miniatures of all kinds of futuristic scenarios—cities with flying cars, and the like. But my most vivid memory is the overall feeling of disappointment and emptiness that I experienced after we left. Indeed, what struck me later on was the similarity of this feeling to the disillusionment I’d repeatedly experienced after receiving a new toy, and becoming absolutely bored with something that I’d badly wanted only days or hours before.
What I was discovering for myself was the meaninglessness of the basic acquisitive consumer ideal that took off in the post World War Two era. It was nothing but a crock. “Progressland” was the fantasy, and it was an enervating and dangerous one, both morally and psychologically, at that. Of course, at the time, I couldn’t express it in these sophisticated terms; I just sensed it. It was only later on, when I had to make critical life choices about my career and values, that I was fully conscious of what I was doing, and why.
I return, then, full circle, to the question I posed at the outset of my post:
Although I was growing up, in my most impressionable years, in what might be considered the cultural high-water mark of both metaphysical materialism and the consumerist materialism of endless acquisition, what gave me immunity from these ideological infections? Was it something that I got from life, or something I brought with me into life–a “soul seed” in James Hillman’s sense?
Here I am forced to admit that I still cannot answer this question with any definitiveness. It remains a mystery.
However, when I recall the bliss I experienced watching that model train roll around the circle in the dark, I am convinced that I always enjoyed an orientation to what I heard, on a podcast, Jeffrey Kripal refer to as “the vertical axis.” We usually imagine this vertical axis going upward, into the heavens and the old image of the gods residing up above; but it also goes downward, into the roots of what C.G. Jung dubbed “the collective unconscious,” or what Bernardo would simply call the field of consciousness. The horizontal axis is everyday life in our usual mode of thinking about it, as perceived by our physical senses and processed through the limiting filters of our outdated concepts three-dimensional space and linear time. This is flatland: We do stuff, we get stuff, we avoid stuff, we feel stuff, we remember stuff. But fortunately, for whatever reason, I had retained a lifeline to transcendence; an uncut umbilical cord to that unseen dimension which lies just beyond and behind everything seen, and in and through which we are connected with everyone and everything.
I’ll close my post here with three of my favorite quotes.
The first, from Heraclitus, who knew that when you enter the soul, you are plunging into a depth without boundaries:
“You could not discover the limits of soul, even if you traveled along every road to do so; such is the depth of its meaning.”
The second is that wonderful line from Goethe’s Faust, Part II, that Joseph Campbell so loved to quote:
“Alles Vergängliche Ist nur ein Gleichnis.”
(“Everything transitory is but a metaphor.”)
And the last, from W.H. Auden’s poem, “In Memory of Ernst Toller,” oft cited by James Hillman:
“We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.”