Ultimate meaning: Physicalism or Thanatology

Once you make a discovery how can you say what it means? Of course, you can simply say what it means to you, personally. But suppose you want to place it within the larger world of our shared meanings, how do you go about doing that?

First you would identify places in that larger world of our shared meanings where your discovery belongs. For example, suppose you discover something about thermoregulation in yaks on Mount Everest, what meaning could you give that? You’ve many choices. You could report it with wry humor as a traveler’s tale. You could report it in medical terminology for its potential relevance to human medicine. You could report it as a scientific finding in biology. In each case you’d use the form of discourse appropriate to that location in our world of shared meanings. You’d probably omit dry humor in a medical report.

Many choices. But what are main ones? I’m going to compare two. One is, the world of science as physicalism. The other is thanatology--what things mean in relation to our anticipating our own death. Physicalism was defined in the first half of the 19th century by August Comte in his Positivism, in which he declared that every discovery should be accounted for in terms of ever-more fundamental branches of science. So a discovery of thermoregulation in yaks would be given meaning in terms of the underlying biochemistry, that chemistry in terms of physics, and physics in terms of mathematics. That operation goes by the name of reductionism. You report on your discovery in terms of the appropriate sciences. Meaning in thanatology, on the other hand, comes from how things look to you on your deathbed, as you look back upon your life, or in advance to forestall regretting on your deathbed commissions or omission you’re responsible for in the course of your life.

How does that work out in practice? Take the issue of free will, for example. What set of terms are appropriate for discussing it. Since that will depend on where in our larger world of meaning it belongs, where is that? For our present purposes, let’s see how differently we’d discuss free will in the contexts of reductionism and thanatology?

Already trouble looms. Which set of terms would you agree to use in discussing free will? Those of physicalism, or those of thanatology? If neither side will give in and use the other’s terms, I have a suggestion—decide which meaning location takes precedence and use that location’s terms. In practice the choice is simple. If you are both young then take science as your context and use reductionist terms. If you are both older use the terms of thanatology. If one of you is young and the other old, find other partners of ages similar to yours, and start over. You can’t discuss free will without agreeing on a context right at the beginning.

The two discourses are so fundamentally different as to actually contradict one another. The discourse appropriate for a scientific context will involve terms like physical determinism--how each event or situation emerges from the one before strictly according to the laws of physics. It will draw on how the addition to modern science of equations governing relativity and quantum mechanics together generate an envelope defining all possible phenomena and how within that envelope there is no room for free will independent of brain chemistry. It may include reference to mental events: physical events can cause mental events such as when pain follows a physical impact, but with the proviso that, not being physical themselves, mental events cannot engage physical forces and act back to make anything physical happen, like drive behavior. The connection can go only one way: mental events cannot register in the brain so the brain cannot know about the mind—what appear to be decisions originating as mental events were actually already arrived in the brain moments before, only then registering in the mind. Experiencing the illusion that we arrive at our decisions first in mind may make us fitter in some way and so have evolved within brain chemistry, but evolution is a purely physical processes and nothing it generates, like the free will in that illusion, can be anything but purely physical.

By contrast, the discourse of thanatology centers around free will--personal agency. We are responsible for our own conscious experiences. We can decide what to be conscious of. Through what we make ourselves conscious of today we can influence what we’ll be conscious of and do in the future. We can judge what to be conscious of today by generalizing from our past conscious experiences. Here’s an example: you think, “From my past travel experiences I think I’d enjoy travel more if I learned about architecture.” So you buy a book on architecture. Your brain is no more than the agent you use to execute decisions you arrive at in consciousness.

Terms for thanatology can be borrowed from the discourse of the Ancient Stoics. For example, “Indifferents” for things in life that may make conscious experience enjoyable but aren’t crucial. For the Stoics these included wealth, status, even loved ones and your own life. By dwelling on loss of indifferents they hoped to reduce the impact that losing these indifferents would have on their consciousness. What mattered more was maintaining in consciousness a self-respect that came from standing up for what you felt was right. We might rather insist on giving priority to our own chosen kind of consciousness. Stoic principles generally are consistent with a thanatalogical approach to life as opposed to the scientific discourse.

The physicalist and thanatologist simply experience existintg in two different worlds. For a physicalist, the free will implied in personal agency--being able to choose what to be conscious of--is prohibited by the universal rule of physical determinism. No way could physical behavior, such as the buying of a book, be driven by conscious experiences knowing about or caring about each other, such as knowing from past experiences in the course of travel that learning about architecture would enrich future conscious experiences. For reductionists, physical behaviors cannot be driven by qualia such as consciously anticipating future conscious experiences, those would have to be accounted for in round-about terms of corresponding events in brain chemistry. By contrast, for a thanatologist all the meaning in the world comes from how conscious selfs can drive behaviors to have effects on other conscious experiences. The reductionist world is like a flat picture someone tells you about projected on a screen on a distant planet, it has no living reality. It has nothing to say about how conscious experience develops in each of us in the course of our lives, it can provide no wisdom about how to enrich future conscious experiences. It literally means nothing.

The two discourses also differ crucially in how they regard time. In the scientific discourse the significance of science doesn’t change much as you age.  In the thanatological discourse time is a major element. In youth you study your own ways of being conscious so as judge what to make yourself conscious of in your present, in later life you enjoy conscious experiences enriched by all the initiatives undertaken by your younger self. On your deathbed you look back and savor how you managed conscious experiences over the course of your life, how well you exploited the capabilities evolved in us for managing mental events and for expressing them in the world around us. Life is a narrative about how through early experiences you discovered your own form of consciousness, about the conscious experiences you then initiated over the course of your life, and how successfully you brought a lifetime of conscious experience to a happy resolution on your deathbed. In this context science is an indifferent. You could create as rich a lifetime of conscious experiences in the time of Shakespeare as you can today, existence of particular technological conveniences or scientific discoveries are indifferents.

Thanatological considerations figure prominently in many belief systems. Much of popular Christianity revolved around what you had to do and think so as to merit entry into heaven after death. Folk psychology assumes personal agency: much of what people do is assumed to be what they consciously chose to do, and other people judge them on that basis. Works of literature usually describes characters as deciding what to do, and often imply judgment as to whether they have lived “good” lives, “good” meaning having made efforts to improve their own conscious experiences and those of other people.

Which qualifies as the better candidate for ultimate meaning? I see no contest. Thanatology is obviously the winner. It is about what we most directly experience, what matters most to all of us—conscious experiences throughout the course of our lives. Science can be no more than part of that. If we all decided to ignore science it would simply disappear. But we will care about our conscious experiences whether science exists or not.

Given that, let’s see how it influences our thinking about another controversial issue—how we evolved  All living creatures appear to dread death, so in some sense all of life is thanatologist. Yet today’s primary scientific theory of evolution is reductionist, built around a mechanism involving only purely physical processes. It seems wrongly situated in our world of shared meanings. Professional evolutionists complain that the public seems repelled by their scientific theory. In such a situation, they might look to locate themselves in the world of our shared meanings anew.  Today’s main alternative evolutionary theory, Lamarckism, does that, it assumes living creatures have some degree of personal agency, that the evolution of species is driven by decisions individual creatures make and habits they adopt. Why do scientists say that is wrong? Not because it isn’t true, not because it could only apply to us humans—Lamarck’s specialty was invertebrates--but because it contradicts reductionism. Reductionism has become what circularity of planetary orbits was for medieval astronomy, a principle more important than what it was meant to illuminate. If we were to come up with a theory of evolution today to account for all of human nature, including our ability to predict outcomes of events and act so as to bring about the outcome we favor, would our theory give greater weight to the universal experience of personal agency or to Comte’s insistence that all our theories be reductionist?