26 April 2013

Metaphors and Materialism

brain pathways
human connectome project
OVER the years I've been puzzled by the horror of materialism that some people exhibit. Materialism never really bothered me. It's been pretty successful and I like some of the stuff it comes up with: medicines, computers and communications tech, air and space travel, electric guitars. Cool stuff.

More recently, however, I have tried to explain that I am philosophically not a materialist. I don't think we have direct contact with the material world. My understanding is that we can infer things about that world, but not know it directly. Any explanations relating to the world are perforce explanations of our experience of the world, rather than the world itself, something I try to make explicit in my writing. I'm chiefly concerned with the nature of experience rather than the nature of reality.

In the course of exchanging comments on the different ways of understanding consciousness I had a little breakthrough in understanding the aversion to materialism. Michael Dorfman, said this:
"I'm just saying that there's no good reason to assume that consciousness/qualia/etc. are reducible to matter."
I have read the works of George Lakoff for many years now, with varying degrees of comprehension. To be honest some of it is still over my head. However, it's from Lakoff that I learned about the idea of embodied cognition (which makes me think a disembodied mind is an oxymoron). I learned about metaphor from Lakoff and his writing partner Mark Johnson. And it was seeing this statement by Michael in the light of Lakoff & Johnson's work in a book called Metaphors We Live By that lead to an insight. I hasten to add that Michael chastised me at some length for suggesting that he might think the way I'm about to describe. But I think we all do at least to some extent, myself included.

The phrase "reducible to matter" is an abstraction. Lakoff & Johnson show that virtually all abstract thought is carried out metaphorically. And that the metaphors we use to manage abstractions are rooted in our experiences of the world and the way we interact with it. "Reducible to matter" implies that matter is more fundamental than other kinds of substance. The metaphor is: MATTER IS BASIC (I'll follow Lakoff & Johnson's convention of putting explicit metaphors in upper-case). The major contrast with matter in the West is spirit.

Spirit is what animates or vivifies dead matter, but it is a separate kind of substance which can be independent of matter. It may or may not reside in a separate realm of spirit and may or may not be associated with an afterlife. Where matter can collapse back into its inanimate state, spirit is the opposite. Freed of its association with matter, spirit rises up. Although spirit is associated with animation, motion and change it seems not to be affected by these. Spirit is like a catalyst that is involved in a chemical reaction, but remains unchanged at the end. These days we often hear spirit referred to as 'energy', a word borrowed from physics. As frustrating as it can be to hear this word misused, energy is what animates matter (or what makes matter animate). Spirit which is a pre-scientific concept does have affinities with energy in the scientific sense, especially if we are not very sophisticated in thinking about science. Another cross over area is quantum mechanics. The popular versions of quantum mechanics emphasise the apparent subjectivity involved in the world (the observer effect was originally pointed out as a flaw in the Copenhagen Interpretation) which hints at spirit underlying even matter at the most basic level. As post-Christians we may not explicitly believe in spirit, but I think it lurks in the background.

Metaphors exist in webs of relationship. For example what is fundamental is (practically and metaphorically) lower down. And with respect to spirit: MATTER IS LOWER; SPIRIT IS HIGHER. This is a spatial metaphor. Lakoff & Johnson relate it to our experience of being bipeds: when we are alive, healthy and active we are upright; when we are dead, unhealthy and inactive we are prostrate. That is to say the spatially vertical metaphor can be understood to relate to our experience of physical verticality. The metaphor MATTER IS LOWER; SPIRIT IS HIGHER is related to the more basic metaphor UP IS GOOD; DOWN IS BAD. And thus logically MATTER IS BAD; SPIRIT IS GOOD. Metaphors are thus not stand-alone, but interdependent and interconnected. We begin see the metaphorical implications of "reducible to matter".

Because GOOD IS UP, and SPIRIT IS UP, heaven above is the realm of spirit (or is it vice versa?). Earth (down here) is the realm of matter. Below earth at the nadir (down there) is Hell. So we have heaven, the world, and the underworld as the basic pre-scientific structure of our cosmos. This structure emerges from the notion of good-and-evil combined with an afterlife. [1] We might not believe in God or heaven or any of this, but we understand these metaphors because we have grown up in a society where these are part of the landscape of abstract thought.

A metaphor like UP IS GOOD is not an absolute. For instance: more inflation is bad, but the vertical spatial metaphor also applies like this: MORE IS UP and LESS IS DOWN. In this case because MORE IS BAD, UP IS BAD. We don't usually struggle with deciphering these metaphors despite the complexity and conflict. Indeed we may not even notice that we are using metaphors. There are many ways in which metaphors based on experience can be used. We can say that a house "burned up" and also that it "burned down". Two distinct metaphors are involved. "Burning down" means that the house was reduced to a more basic state (the construction falls down or is reduced to ash); "burning up" means the substance was consumed. Compare "eaten up" and "used up", which reflect another metaphor: EATING IS FIRE. Fire sends flames, smoke, and sparks upwards, into the realm of heaven. This is important for fire sacrifices - the substance of the oblation is converted into flame and smoke (which is more like spirit than solid matter) and is wafted upwards into the sky, to the realm of spirit. Fire is the agent in both cases, and the result is the same, but it is reached via two distinct metaphorical routes, reflecting different experiences of, and interactions with, fire. The appetitive aspect of fire is prominent in Buddhism, particularly in the Ādittapariyāya Sutta (SN 35.28, PTS iv.19) aka the Fire Sermon. And the goal of Buddhism is for the fires of greed and aversion to be extinguished (nirvāṇa 'blown out').

For the most part we use these metaphors unconsciously. When we say that we grasp what someone is saying we don't consciously translate the metaphor, we don't need to. We automatically understand the metaphor because it is part of the language and culture and it is rooted in our own experience of the world. Words are not real entities and cannot be physically grasped. However we intuitively understand the metaphor WORDS ARE OBJECTS. And any conceivable physical manipulation of objects can be applied to abstract objects such as words. Words can be twisted, spun, or thrown back and forth. Words can lift us up, put us down and spin us around for example. Words can be hurtful. What I say may come "as a blow". Also words can take on any property that an object might have. Words can abrasive and hard or smooth and soft. Hard words are uncomfortable, soft words soothing. Colourful language can shock or stimulate. None of these statements are perplexing to an English speaker, even for a second, but all of them are metaphorical manipulations of an abstraction. We understand these metaphors because from the moment we began to think abstractly they have structured our thoughts. (This idea is related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but that digression must wait for another essay).

I've already applied Lakoff & Johnson's ideas to the CONSCIOUSNESS IS A CONTAINER metaphor (see The Mind as Container Metaphor). I'm trying to steer away from the word consciousness at the moment since it seems tied up in the myth of subjectivity and no one seems to know exactly what it is. In that previous essay I tried to show that this container metaphor for the mind is essentially absent from early Buddhism. For us the MIND IS A CONTAINER and THOUGHTS ARE OBJECTS; and thus THE MIND IS A CONTAINER OF THOUGHTS: viz. "What do you have in mind?" "open your mind to me", "keep a lid on your thoughts". The physical basis for this metaphor is fairly obvious since our head is literally a container and we have extensive experience of the properties of containers.

All metaphors are possible, but we tend to use them selectively. Because the head is a container and contains the brain and since the mind is also an object: THE MIND IS IN THE HEAD. The mind and the brain occupy the same container. So there is no cognitive dissonance for us in saying for example: "the thoughts in my brain" as opposed to "the thoughts in my head". Both metaphors work. The limit seems to come around the metaphor THE MIND IS IN THE BRAIN. The metaphor THE BRAIN IS A CONTAINER is just about acceptable, but to go further and say that THE BRAIN PRODUCES THE MIND is a step too far. The problem seems to be a conflict related to matter and spirit. For matter to become living and conscious requires an infusion of spirit from the outside. Also the container is generally conceived of as passive. The container itself does not manipulate the object it contains. The thought object in the mind container is like a marble in a jar. What does the manipulating of the thoughts (the "grasping" of ideas) in the container is generally understood to be 'I'. Despite all the arguments of scientists and philosophers, intuitively there seems to be a homunculus at work. The result is that:
Matter can be animated by spirit; but spirit cannot be animated by matter.
This metaphysical proposition is transparently obvious to a native English speaker and has far reaching implications. I suspect it's true in other languages as well. The equation of life featuring matter and spirit is not associative. The order of the words is important - one cannot take on the function of the other. It's only with conscious effort that we think differently, and even then we still behave as if this is true. Profession of belief is very often distinct from intuitive belief. One of the purposes of Buddhist practice is to try to align the two. Flesh is a special form of animated matter, which I will come back to shortly.

Most Buddhists seem to be at home with the concept of disembodied consciousness moving between lives to be reborn, manifesting as ghosts, leaving the body at times, and all the other supernatural phenomena. We have no problems with 'subtle energy' or 'subtle bodies'. Cakras, nadī, Qi, and prāna are all fine by Buddhists these days. Buddhism seems to be compatible with Reiki, Kinesiology, homeopathy, shiatsu and acupuncture; with Hatha Yoga, Qigong and Taijiquan. We Buddhists happily use words like 'spirit', 'spirits', 'spiritual', and 'spirituality'; and phrases like 'spiritual life', 'spiritual death', 'spiritual rebirth', 'spiritual healing', 'spiritual welfare', 'spiritual awakening', 'spiritual practice' and so on. Of course when pressed we will deny an unchanging spirit, because we know by rote that it is a wrong view.

With regard to flesh we need to look again at the metaphor MATTER IS BASIC. This entails matter being simple, which draws us towards Lakoff's contribution on the subject of categories (from the book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things). Lakoff uses Wittgenstein's "family resemblances" but also draws on contemporary research to elaborate a theory of how we think in categories. When I use the word 'matter' it will evoke a mental category; and in that category each reader will have a prototypical image that represents the category for them. The prototype for 'matter' may well be something simple, like a lump of rock. Matter has the characteristic property of resistance (similar to rūpa in Indian thought). Matter has mass. Matter is lifeless. Matter tends to be dull. Matter is the opposite of spirit which is massless, light, free, colourful and animating. So in terms of prototypes we can see that flesh is a member of the category 'matter' but that it is rather peripheral to that category. Flesh has some of the characteristics of matter, but is more complex and more flexible than the prototype. The living creature occupies a liminal space between matter and spirit. Bridging them as angels bridge heaven and earth (the realms of spirit and matter respectively). Life comes from dust and returns to dust. Spirit is the catalyst which temporarily makes dust more than the sum of its parts.

I well remember seeing my father's dead body in 1991. I can bring to mind the image very clearly. He had been tidied up by the undertaker and was dressed as he often was in slacks and a woollen jumper. His receding hair line was even covered by a comb-over. Long eyebrows. His face was composed, frozen and waxen, but instantly recognisable. Indeed I experienced the emotional tremor of recognition that comes with meeting a loved one. However the body was entirely lifeless; completely unresponsive and inanimate. My father was both present and absent. He had been reduced to matter. I instinctively knew something was missing. I intuited at the time that the missing element was something like "spirit", though I did not use that word. Even now the experience is vivid and the dichotomy between matter and spirit remains the most obvious interpretation, though it is one that I reject on philosophical grounds.

I suspect this experience of dead loved ones may well be the source of our fundamental distinction between matter and spirit. And the source of our quest to understand what animates living things; what separates the quick and the dead.

The situation is further complicated by Romanticism. Most Buddhists I know are crypto-Romantics. They espouse the ideas of Romanticism without knowing or acknowledging that they are adopting a Romantic view of the world. Indeed some seem to imply that Romanticism is an expression of things as they are. My disgruntlement with this uncritical adoption of Romanticism has been steadily growing since reading David McMahan's book The Making of Buddhist Modernism and Thanissaro's essay on The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism. The Romantic is inevitably a dualists and focused on spirit. Romantics see matter as a mere surface beneath which they can penetrate to discover the spirit lurking within. Romantics I know love to quote Blake saying he could see the world in a grain of sand as a very profound statement. Indeed Blake did have a tendency to see things that weren't visible to anyone else. Romantics are the first to argue that Blake was a genius rather than a madman. He saw and conversed with angels, Jesus and God on a daily basis and that ought to make him a saint or a madman (and how often the line between them is blurred). Mere matter, mere flesh, is not of much interest to Romantics, though many of the Victorian Romantics sought ecstasy through the pleasures of the flesh. The original Romantics liked to get "out of their skulls" in various ways. Romantic Buddhists do it with meditation. In meditation one can withdraw from awareness of the body and float about in la la land. Which is not to say that some people are not seeking something a little more satisfying or profound through their practice.

When we put all this together the horror of materialism begins to come into focus. Matter might be suitable to be a container for mind, but not to be the womb which gives birth to it. Mind, rather, is clearly related to spirit. Matter has all the wrong qualities, whereas spirit has all the right qualities. The images conjured up by matter do not fit our images of consciousness. Thus, on an unconscious level, the idea that the mind is strongly associated with matter creates a cognitive dissonance. Unless one has studied chemistry.

Now chemistry is interesting because it combines practical applications (synthesis and analysis) with elegant models and theories about the processes involved. Chemistry in practice is fizzes, fumes, bangs, bubbles, colours, odours, and all manner of exciting transformations. In theory it has a vision of matter which is entirely different from the popular imagination. Atoms are composed mostly of space. They are entities in which there is constant movement and a tug of war between competing forces of attraction and repulsion. Atoms are little bundles of kinetic energy. They combine into molecules which rather violently vibrate, spin, twist, flex, and wriggle; molecules which give off light of every colour of the rainbow and far into the infra-red and ultraviolet. Chemistry is the study of the reactions and transformations of supposedly inert matter. When two or more molecules react they are changed into other molecules: trans-substantiated. There is still a little alchemy present in the science of chemistry. That changing world held me spell-bound for many years (and resulted in a bachelor's degree). I was an adept of that art and science of transforming matter. The possibilities of form and structure are seemingly infinite. Carbon compounds are seemingly uncountable. Every year new compounds are made or discovered and used in various ways. One molecule will kill cancer cells for example. Another can potentially be used to create a room temperature super-conductor. Chemical analysis can tell us what killed Richard III or about how the moon was created. In this world illuminated by chemistry everything is animated . Everything is moving and changing. Matter is solid, liquid, gas, plasma, super-fluid, Bose-Einstein condensate. Even such solidity as it has, is only on the surface: literally surface tension, beneath which lies pure energy. m = E/c2. Thus my prototype of matter is something very different from a lifeless, grey, cold rock!

A few weeks ago I introduced the term apophenia: "the ability to attribute meaning to patterns or events; and significance to stimuli." Psychologist Justin Barrett has proposed that we also have a faculty he dubs Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD). This is a fancy way of saying that we are a bit too ready to assign agency to objects in our experience. Barrett uses this to explain the pervasive belief in gods, but agency is a sign of life more generally; and of sentience in particular (see particularly Why Would Anyone Believe in God??). Humans have a strong tendency to see patterns, assign them significance, and attribute agency to them. We do this even where no pattern exists, the significance is entirely projection, and no agency operates. Something we did not notice until we started to look objectively at ourselves.

Perhaps what we think of as spirit is a product of our ability to attribute meaning and agency where none exists? If we go in search of spirit we never find it because it's just a story told by our over-active imaginations. We imagine ourselves to be so much more than we are and yet we have to continually paper over the cracks of our failures. We can imagine the world a better place, people as better people, but somehow reality always spoils the vision. As Buddhists we nod sagely and intone "saṃsāra" as if we understand.

Whatever the answer is, this story of matter and spirit rolls on in the West. It syncretises with our Buddhism and unconsciously informs our attitudes and approaches. We end up embracing our conditioning rather than transcending it, because we don't even notice that we are conditioned. This is the value of the work of someone like Lakoff. It exposes the structures and patterns of our mind at work. We think we are free to think new thoughts, but really we are constrained in narrow ruts.

There remains this gap in our knowledge; which because of our culture appears to be a spirit shaped gap. We are still unsure how to get from mere matter to the simplest living bacteria without invoking spirit (and in fact most scientists gloss over the part of the equation that says 'and then a miracle happens'). And for some people matter and spirit will remain forever apart. I understand this. I empathise because of my experience with my father, and because I've studied living and dead matter in some detail. However I think the horror of materialism is irrational. I don't have a problem with "we don't yet know" but I don't accept "we can never know" because that argument smells like Romantic spirit.

In fact we don't know if it will be possible to understand the mind. The answer to that problem is difficult to find because the question remains poorly defined. This in turn is (at least in part) because we still struggle on with pre-scientific legacy concepts from philosophy. We do not yet think clearly enough about what the mind is to be able to understand it. In the mean time we seem to be learning a lot. Some of it has practical applications, but all of it is fascinating. If your position is "we'll ever understand the mind" that's fine. But my challenge to you would be to justify such an epistemological position. I don't believe that anyone is in a position to know this. I don't believe it is possible to be categorical about it. By contrast I find myself optimistic about the attempt and enthusiastic about what we are discovering along the way.


  1. This basic threefold structure is found in ancient Egypt. From there is seems to have influenced Zoroastrianism in Iran. In one published and one forthcoming article I argue that from there, via the Śākya tribe, Zoroastrianism influenced the development of Buddhism. See:
    Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Vol.3 2012. Paid Access.
    The way that ideas about ethics and afterlife combine to produce this threefold structure are discussed in Gananath Obeyesekere's book Imagining Karma. I summarise my own thinking in various essays including:

29 Apr 2013 - I saw this today:
"Free will as an emergent phenomenon can be perfectly compatible with an underlying materialist view of the world." Preposterous Universe.

30 June 2015.
"The fact was that, as droves of demon kings had noticed, there was a limit to what you could do to a soul with, e.g., red-hot tweezers, because even fairly evil and corrupt souls were bright enough to realize that since they didn't have the concomitant body and nerve endings attached to them there was no real reason, other than force of habit, why they should suffer excruciating agony." - Terry Pratchett, Eric.
This is an interesting theological point. The very idea of a soul is that it is not part of the realm of matter, but purely of the realm of spirit. Lacking a body, the soul would be free of all the functions that go with having a body. Thus torturing or pleasuring a soul is impossible. So all narratives of Hell or Paradise are logically false. Not just ridiculous or fantastic, but false on their own terms.

On the other hand if a soul is susceptible to pleasure and pain, then that would imply that it cannot be purely of the world of spirit and must in fact be partially made of matter. And that contradicts the very idea of a soul.

Of course if one is bodily resurrected then that's a different story. But if the body is resurrected, then what is the point of a soul?
Related Posts with Thumbnails