Physicalism

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You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules’ Francis Crick, ‘The Astonishing Hypothesis’, Simon and Shuster 1995

Some atheist philosophy is ‘physicalist’, proposing that all phenomena are physical, that nothing is metaphysical. There are no ‘qualia’. This is a reductionist view. It is similar to claiming that physics is the ultimate foundational science, and that all other sciences, for example of chemistry and biology, are really second level developments of physics. Its implication for an understanding of humanity is that the total human experience is considered to be physical, including all ideas, emotions, values and virtues.

Critiques of physicalism

• Physicalism has no account for the metaphysical dimension we commonly experience. Physicalism responds to this challenge that it is just a matter of time before all metaphysical phenomena are explained physically. But by definition this claim is not yet demonstrable. We therefore need to maintain an open mind as to what the ultimate explanation of metaphysical entities might be.

• Physicalism is reductionist rather than holistic. Humanity along with everything else might be only a collection of atoms or particles, but we all realise that the configuration and interaction of those atoms adds another dimension of meaning to our human experience. Few philosophers object to the metaphysical nature of intellect and ideas, or to feelings and emotions. There can therefore no fundamental objection to recognising that humanity generates spirit, and has a spirituality alongside its body, mind, and emotion.

• Physicalism has no account of truth itself. Is truth purely physical? Even supposing how this might be so is challenging, so it’s a claim too far for a practical approach to what truth is.

• A significant implication of a physicalist world view is the prevalence of a materialistic consumerist culture where the things we have are taken to define the people we are. Lifestyle dominates. The inner life gets little attention or consideration. We want to be successful people. Whether we are kind and generous is of little import. Humility has no value.

• In any case, even if we are at some future point able to explain our metaphysical experience in totally physical terms, this does not eliminate the metaphysical. It just explains its construction. We will therefore still have the need and opportunity to address the metaphysical per se, in its own right. We do this with music today – we understand its physical sound waves but we still discuss its metaphysical quality. The same applies to human spirituality.

Alternatives to physicalism

An alternative philosophy is defined as ‘supervenience’, and proposes that a physical host can and does generate a metaphysical counterpart. In this account, ideas, emotions, values and virtues are ‘metaphysical’. They exist alongside their physical host, but only so long as they are hosted by the physical. They are differentiated from body, but are not independent from it. Humans therefore have souls or spirit, as much as they have ideas and emotions. Supervenience would expect all the metaphysical ideas and feelings to expire with the death of the physical host. This seems a reasonable interim conclusion.

To consider atheist spirituality as we propose, we have to select a ‘supervenient’ view. The atheist conclusion that there is no separate soul, does not mean that there can be no soul while our body is alive. Atheist spirituality takes the view that the physical does generate the metaphysical, that body does generate and host spirit, that we are spiritual beings. For the spiritual atheist, there is no external God, but humanity creates its own divine dimension.

Given that we accept a proposition or hypothesis of human spirituality, what does this spirituality consist of? An initial step in this forum will be to suggest that it consists of an awareness of the virtues set against the vices, and a determination as to how to live as individuals, groups and societies in the matrix of these virtues and vices. Put simply, what kind of person and society do we want to be? What is the nature of our inner life? What characterises our behaviour, our actions and reactions, our judgments?

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