Revisioning Materialism: Naturalizing Mind / Denaturalizing Nature


During my absence from the blogging and hibernating in the deep woods of Montana I began a process of re-thinking and re-visioning my stance toward the various traditions of realism and materialism. In the process of that I began working toward a new book that would set down my own philosophical path. For a long while I’ve tried to be neutral on this blog and just uncover what I see in various philosophers without interjecting my own critiques, etc. I think this has been good for users that may be new to philosophy, or be less than versant in the nuances of this vast territory. Translating concepts into simpler units of knowledge for those who have neither the time nor the proclivity to do their homework (i.e., the vast learning and education entailed in reading through the history of philosophy, reading both primary and secondary literature, etc.) is difficult in itself. I’ve felt that blogging is difficult enough to continuously combat or critique others work without first presenting just exactly what these philosophers are actually saying. So I’ve kept back from critique and stuck with commentary, embellishing and translating the best I could difficult concepts and notions into everyday parlance.

Yet, in the background I’ve been working on my own revisionism of materialism. In the process of that I’ve begun a work in progress over the past few years that treats of both the history of materialism, as well as its transformation within the contemporary scene. We’ve seen within the sciences the accumulation of a scientific naturalism in various guises and nuances that has culminated in the sciences of the brain: neurosciences, et. al. The process of naturalizing the mind has been in process for quite a while, yet it has steered clear of philosophy and concerned itself with the factual aspects of the brain itself. Obviously philosophers of Mind have since Hume been concerned with the Mind/Brain problem which to this day has been unresolved. Various revisions of materialism over the century have dealt with this debate.

Scientists in their everyday practice see most of the debates as beside the point, since they are concerned not with concepts per se but with the actual physical processes of the brain itself rather than the conceptual tools that describe these processes. Philosophers are more concerned with the problem of consciousness and the Mind rather than the practical physical process that shape it. Obviously there are shades of gray here as in all things, where scientists will bridge the gap and use conceptual tools drawn from both the sciences and philosophy; while philosophers will base their own approach on a reading of the sciences. None of this is news.

In our time we’ve seen the debates about Mind and Matter undergo various revisions due to the impact of the new neurosciences and the pragmatic imaging tools that underpin the work of scientists. If as Badiou suggests that science is one of the conditions of philosophy, then any materialist philosophy worth its salt will have to take under consideration the new sciences.

In the course of preparing this work I’ve had to revise my own views concerning the Mind and Matter debates. Let’s face it our notions of Mind and Matter have been undergoing revisionings over the past couple of centuries. If the process of modernity has been concerned with a distancing (desacralization) from the religious world views held by our ancestors, then both the sciences and philosophy in their naturalist and materialist perspectives are concerned with a continuous revising our views upon Mind and Matter. Nothing new here.

What has also changed since the time of Kant is our age old views of Self (Subject) and World (Substance) and their place within modern sciences and philosophy. Is the Mind reducible to the processes of the brain (epiphenomenalism) or is it separate/transcendent? Is matter as in the old materialisms dead inorganic stuff or is it something else altogether? Is Nature a total system of material things of which humans are but concrete accretions of thinking substance; or, is the natural world and universe neither whole nor complete, but rather a realm of fragility, filled with cracks and gaps, holes and unknowns, a place of conflict and contradictions rather than as many cosmologists in centuries past believed a harmonious system of totalized substance? Modern physics especially in quantum mechanics and the macro-sciences of theoretical physics show us a universe of disharmony and conflict, a place of black holes, exploding stars and galaxies colliding, of dark matter and dark energy that is neither material as we know it in the phenomenal realm nor knowable directly through scientific instruments. Rather an invisible and immaterial energy and structure that leaves its traces indirectly through its interactions with the phenomenal world. What is a layman to make of it all?

In the sciences we are seeing a process of naturalizing the mind taking place, while in various philosophical approaches under the heading of new materialism, dialectical materialism, etc. we are seeing the denaturalization of matter. Where do the sciences and philosophy connect / disconnect? How do they inform each other, or should they? The question of Mind and Matter and the dialogue between the sciences and philosophy have long concerned me. There are those in the sciences that think philosophy is an archaic and outmoded for of thought and should be made obsolete, while philosophers argue that it is the sciences that need the conceptual tools of philosophy to clarify the facticity of their work. Is there a truth from both sides? Is this an if/else debate? What concerns me are not the debates themselves but the underlying concepts that feed into the debates themselves. For me what is central is the changing views of Mind and Nature that have in the past two centuries undergone drastic revisioning. This is what my new work will trace within both the  sciences and philosophy.

One needs to clarify the issues, understand what is shaping them, and how our views on Mind and Nature have operated in both the sciences and philosophy before we can begin debating the truth or validity of either the sciences or philosophy, and the where and how they relate to each other – if at all, in building a new view of the universe – human and inhuman alike. All of our debates in politics, economics, and the concerns over climate change, etc. stem directly from our views on Mind and Nature. Any book that purports to discuss such issues will know its partiality and inadequacy from the beginning. The sheer magnitude of data alone forces one to make decisions, delimit the set of data required to present the case: so any book on such a vast subject will realize its status as an ongoing movement in a project, not a completed task. I’m no different from any other thinker, the limits of my reading and life experiences will sustain my work. As my friend R. Scott Bakker continually hones in on we neglect more than we know, and what we know is minimalist compared to the vast riches of the world.

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