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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).

Promissory Metaphysics

Confusing Methodology for Soteriology

David Lane

Soteriology Greek: σωτηρία (soteria) "salvation" from σωτήρ (soter) "savior, preserver" and λόγος (logos) "study" or "word") is the study of religious doctrines of salvation. Salvation theory occupies a place of special significance in many religions. (Wikipedia)
Materialist science has produced astounding results and it is premature and unwise to give up on it so soon, particularly when our investigative tools are still in their infancy..

Promissory materialism is one of the standard canards that has been frequently used against science, particularly in the study of consciousness. This two-word invective gets repeatedly invoked whenever researchers argue that we will understand self-awareness in the future because then we will have a more robust and comprehensive neuroscience. Yet, anti-materialist critics (usually of a spiritual or religious bent) are anxious to know how long we have to wait for an answer, since this type of assurance has been trotted out for decades without any foreseeable payoff. Thus, instead of showing a requisite patience, which anyone familiar with studying nature knows too well takes more time than expected, some distinguished thinkers, such as the late Sir John Eccles, who in 1963 won the Nobel prize in physiology/medicine for his work on the “biophysical properties of synaptic transmission” argued that the belief that the mind could be reduced to the brain was a “superstition without a rational foundation.” Indeed, Eccles went on to suggest that “The more we discover about the brain, the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena, and the more wonderful do both the brain events and the mental phenomena become.” Moreover, Eccles was of the firm conviction that such “promissory materialism [was] a religious belief held by dogmatic materialists.” The ironic, underlying twist here that oftentimes gets overlooked is that Eccles himself was a lifelong practicing Roman Catholic who believed in psychokinesis and miracles.

Promissory Metaphysics, David Lane

Eccles was highly influenced by the philosopher, Karl Popper, who articulated that any progressive scientific theory should, in principle, be falsifiable. That is, the greatness of any claim is proportionate to its capacity for being tested, which means openness to being wrong or inaccurate. It is this unique feature in science which is why it has been so successful in the past four hundred years. More precisely, science (unlike mathematics) doesn't offer proofs, but rather best evidences for any given theory and as such therefore becomes amenable for correction, augmentation, or rejection. Eccles had earlier in his career (prior to the 1950s) proposed that “synapse transmission was purely electrical and not chemical,” but this later turned out to be incorrect. Interestingly, Popper congratulated Eccles for his hypothesis since it was open to falsification and even though he was mistaken the very fact that it could in principle be upended was to Eccles' credit.

Popperian philosophy was of great help to Eccles at a low period during his career since it allowed him to better understand how and why science worked the way it did. Radical ideas in science are greatly welcomed to the degree that they can be potentially verified or refuted. For instance, back in 1979 in the book, Broca's Brain, the famous astronomer and popular science explainer, Carl Sagan, advanced an original, even if Freudian laced, theory that Near-Death Experiences were not about a purported afterlife but really were just vague birth memories reconstituted due to the trauma of brain death, which he argued had similarities to the shock of being ejected out of the womb. As Sagan waxed poetically, attempting to tie in visions of gods with the horrors of being cast from darkness into the light,

“When the child's head has penetrated the cervix and might, even if the eyes are closed, perceive a tunnel illuminated at one end and sense the brilliant radiance of the extrauterine world. The discovery of light for a creature that has lived its entire existence in darkness must be a profound and on some level an unforgettable experience. And there, dimly made out by the low resolution of the newborn's eyes, is some godlike figure surrounded by a halo of light—the Midwife or the Obstetrician or the Father. At the end of a monstrous travail, the baby flies away from the uterine universe, and rises toward the lights and the gods.”

For a short spell, Sagan's theory gained some currency and reached a large audience after being excerpted in the Reader's Digest under the intriguing title of “The Amniotic Universe.” What makes it a great hypothesis and one deeply worthy of consideration is that it was so ripe for testing. Sagan was following Popper's admonition to make it falsifiable. However, his theory didn't hold up to rational scrutiny. Susan Blackmore, writing for Skeptical Inquirer in 1991, explains why:

Another popular theory makes dying analogous with being born: that the out-of-body experience is literally just that— reliving the moment when you emerged from your mother's body. The tunnel is the birth canal and the white light is the light of the world into which you were born. Even the being of light can be “explained” as an attendant at the birth.

This theory was proposed by Stanislav Grof and Joan Halifax (1977) and popularized by the astronomer Carl Sagan (1979), but it is pitifully inadequate to explain the NDE. For a start the newborn infant would not see anything like a tunnel as it was being born. The birth canal is stretched and compressed and the baby usually forced through it with the top of its head, not with its eyes (which are closed anyway) pointing forward. Also it does not have the mental skills to recognize the people around, and these capacities change so much during growing that adults cannot reconstruct what it was like to be an infant.

“Hypnotic regression to past lives” is another popular claim. In fact much research shows that people who have been hypnotically regressed give the appearance of acting like a baby or a child, but it is no more than acting. For example, they don't make drawings like a real five-year-old would do but like an adult imagines children do. Their vocabulary is too large and in general they overestimate the abilities of children at any given age. There is no evidence (even if the idea made sense) of their “really” going back in time.

Of course the most important question is whether this theory could be tested, and to some extent it can. For example, it predicts that people born by Caesarean section should not have the same tunnel experiences and OBEs. I conducted a survey of people born normally and those born by Caesarean (190 and 36 people, respectively). Almost exactly equal percentages of both groups had had tunnel experiences (36 percent) and OBEs (29 percent). I have not compared the type of birth of people coming close to death, but this would provide further evidence (Blackmore 1982b). In response to these findings some people have argued that it is not one's own birth that is relived but the idea of birth in general. However, this just reduces the theory to complete vacuousness.

Stanislav Grof also weighed in on Sagan's reinterpretation of his work and found it wanting. In a section entitled “When Science Becomes Scientism” in his book, When the Impossible Happens, Grof points out that Sagan “certainly had the right to draw his own conclusions from my observations. However, disregarding my own interpretation and hallowing me as a debunker of mysticism was another matter. In doing this, he also discounted the fact that the entire second half of Realms of the Human Unconscious, the book he was referring to, was dedicated to a detailed description of spiritual experiences with many clinical examples. The material in it was actually one of the sources of transpersonal psychology, a discipline seeking a synthesis of genuine spirituality and science.”

It is little wonder, therefore, that those sympathetic to paranormal claims found Sagan's radical devaluation of NDE's and, adjacently, religious experiences in general to be a bad form of “cheap” reductionism. Rupert Sheldrake, the controversial biologist from England who is well known for promoting morphic resonance and “psychic” dogs, argues that reducing everything to matter is bankrupt. Elucidates Sheldrake in his 2009 essay, “The Credit Crunch for Materialism,”

“Credit crunches happen because of too much credit and too many bad debts. Credit is literally belief, from the Latin credo, "I believe." Once confidence ebbs, the loss of trust is self-reinforcing. The game changes.

Something similar is happening with materialism. Since the nineteenth century, its advocates have promised that science will explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry; science will show that there is no God and no purpose in the universe; it will reveal that God is a delusion inside human minds and hence in human brains; and it will prove that brains are nothing but complex machines.

Materialists are sustained by the faith that science will redeem their promises, turning their beliefs into facts. Meanwhile, they live on credit. The philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper described this faith as "promissory materialism" because it depends on promissory notes for discoveries not yet made. Despite all the achievements of science and technology, it is facing an unprecedented credit crunch.”

Yet, a closer analysis of Eccles' and Sheldrake's criticism of all things material doesn't substantiate their claim that this pathway has lost “its credibility.” To the contrary, since the extraordinary advances physics, chemistry, biology, and neurology have made is due to concentrating, almost exclusively, on how various forms of matter behave and operate under differing conditions. It is exactly the laser focus on the empirical that has resulted in the plethora of technological innovations (from computers to cars to rockets to medical surgery) that we enjoy today. What is really at issue here is time.

Because some (not all, mind you) scientists prognosticated that the mystery of consciousness would be unraveled earlier than later, Sheldrake, Eccles and others of their ilk are irritated by the lack of a major breakthrough. They see this absence as a clear sign that materialist science is dead in the water (with apologies to Thales of Miletus). And because of this they believe the door is open where before angels feared to rush in.

But despite their heated declinations, the empirical sciences are not heading for the funeral pyre nor are they on life support waiting for ultimate extinction. Must it be stated so simply? Patience in scientific endeavors is a virtue and while it is certainly true that there are those who have overhyped what the future holds in store for us—from Marvin Minsky's embarrassing predictions about when artificial intelligence will be achieved to Ray Kurzweil's exaggerations about when the Singularity we ill arrive—the real issue is that great developments often arrive later than sooner.

First, it took nearly two centuries after Isaac Newton's death for Albert Einstein to publish his magisterial theory of general relativity and transform our understanding of gravity and the relation of time and space. Second, although Gregor Mendel had published his work on genetics in the 1860s, his work was not fully integrated with Darwinian natural selection until the evolutionary neo-synthesis of the 1930s. Third, despite the fact that Friedrich Miescher first isolated deoxyribonucleic acid in 1869, it took eighty years plus for Francis Crick, James Watson, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin to do the necessary experimental and theoretical work to discover the double helix structure to DNA. The list of time lagged delays in science is a long one and we shouldn't be in the least surprised that unraveling the secrets to the most complicated structure in the known universe—namely our brain—may take much longer than we initially guessed in the mid part of the 20th century.

Materialist science has produced astounding results (our very communicative systems, especially the Internet, the World Wide Web, and the plethora of social media platforms that we use day to day are based upon its innovations) and it is premature and unwise to give up on it so soon, particularly when our investigative tools are still in their infancy. Why are we in such a rush to give up on what has already proven time and time again to be so successful?

Promissory metaphysics is much more dangerous than promissory materialism, since the former opens up a Pandora's box of an almost infinite array of transcendent narratives which on the whole resist Popperian falsifications.

We are much better off by exhausting each and every physicalist explanation before succumbing to positing ghost stories, which if we venture into that paranormal realm of spiritual forces and the like makes us far too vulnerable to believe in all sorts of nonsense. Promissory metaphysics is much more dangerous than promissory materialism, since the former opens up a Pandora's box of an almost infinite array of transcendent narratives which on the whole resist Popperian falsifications. Whereas the former, being grounded in the cosmos that we can apprehend, is by its very nature bounded in a world of competitive testing and experimentation.

Yes, there may indeed be a transcendent realm that goes beyond all that we know of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and the other sciences. But the best route to get there is by eliminating physicalist causes, effects, and explanations first. We haven't done that yet and we are not even close to exploring the enormous complexity and subtle nuances of our own brain. With the advent of computers (conventional and quantum), artificial intelligence (narrow and general), and new exploratory tools (advanced fMRI and beyond), we are entering into a whole new level of investigation that humankind has never seen before. Science is not a rushed activity and rewards those who are patient.

This isn't a promise. This is actually how knowledge acquisition works.

However, some scholars and religionists who feel that consciousness is distinct from the brain argue that our present-day tools are inadequate to explore the source from where such awareness arises. Instead, they argue that we need to go beyond the rational mind and use our “eye” of spirit (via meditation and contemplation) if we wish to accurately understand the true nature of consciousness divorced from its bodily housing. Essentially, it is the notion that only spirit can comprehend spirit and anything less (our mind, our brain, our body) only diminishes the utter magnificence of our untethered awareness. A good example of this line of thinking comes from Steve Taylor ["Beyond Materialsm"] who advocates for a non-physicalist position:

From the panspiritist point of view, consciousness does not emerge from complex arrangements of material particles; it isn't located in certain areas of the brain, or produced by certain types of brain activity. Consciousness doesn't emerge from matter because it was already there, as a fundamental quality of the universe. The brain does not produce consciousness, but it acts a kind of receiver which transmits and canalises fundamental consciousness into our own being. Via the brain (not just the human brain, but that of every other animal), the raw essence of universal consciousness is canalised into our own individual consciousness. And because the human brain is so large and complex, it is able to receive and canalise consciousness in a very intense and intricate way, so that we are (probably) more intensely and expansively conscious than most other animals.

This perspective fits well with neuroscientists' finding that consciousness is associated with the brain as a whole, rather than located in one particular part or pattern of neurological activity. If the brain's role is not to produce consciousness but to receive and transmit it, then we would fully expect it to be widely distributed in this way. Consciousness does not depend on any particular part of the brain; the brain's receiving and transmitting role depends on it functioning as an integrated, interrelated whole.

Those of Taylor's persuasion do not believe that physicalism can sufficiently explain near-death and out of body experiences, psi phenomena, or consciousness. Because of this, one has to transcend the normal constraints of the body/mind complex and elevate one's consciousness to a higher tier. Hence, this pursuit necessitates a wholly different methodology, one which starts within (not without) one's own consciousness. The laboratory is one's self and by investigating that subjective realm directly one has access to hitherto unknown regions which will illuminate the hard problem of awareness.

I strongly support the internal quest but I think we should be doubly cautious and extremely skeptical in expecting such a spiritually oriented methodology to be absent of bias and prejudice.

As a lifelong meditator I understand the reasoning behind this “third eye” argument, since in deep meditation one can indeed experience all sorts of fantastic phenomena that would otherwise remain buried and unknown. I strongly support the internal quest but I think we should be doubly cautious and extremely skeptical in expecting such a spiritually oriented methodology to be absent of bias and prejudice. We already know too well that our physical eyes can deceive us, even with the most rudimentary of visual tricks. Why would we think that our inner eye is devoid of the same?

The world is filled with individuals who uncritically believe their personal visions as objective truths, even though they may be suffering paranoia, schizophrenia, dementia, or chemically induced hallucinations.

Back in 2014 at the Quantum and Nano Computing Systems Conference (QANSAS) held at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute, in Agra, India, I pointed out ["The Theory of Meaning Equivalence"] what I thought would be super obvious to all the scientists attending my plenary talk, “the mystic must be a skeptic.” Yet, this very line and my extended discussion of Faqir Chand's radical viewpoint on religious visions and the like, generated some pointed controversy since those of a religious persuasion believe that mysticism reveals a higher, less tainted truth. But that may not be the case at all, given how easily we can be duped by what the mind simulates from moment to moment.

Granted that those undergoing a mystical encounter tend to feel that it is more vivid and more real than the normal waking state, but this doesn't then mean by extension that what they are experiencing is exempt from delusions of grandeur. Rather, such experiences are not always the same and vary according to a person's own peculiar personality. It is for this reason that there are hundreds, nay thousands, of different religions each favoring their own theological interpretations. While there may be some commonalities in near-death experiences, to take just one widely reported phenomenon, there are also important differences that cannot be ignored. Huxley's idealized notion of a perennial philosophy is just that: idealized. And the variances in mystical excursions should give us pause in prematurely accepting that they represent a higher, more transparent truth. To be sure, I think exploring the source of our own consciousness whether by self-inquiry or meditation is an altogether good practice. But we should be warier, not less, in adjudicating what we experience within, especially given how easy it is for us to be tricked by sights, sounds, and smells in our present, non-mystically mediated, world.

A telescope or a microscope is a technological extension that allows us access to greater or smaller fields of inquiry. But these tools in themselves are dependent on how we use them and they are never perfect, limited as they are with their powers of magnification. Likewise, third eye methodologies, where one turns attention in on itself via meditation, deep prayer, contemplation, and so forth, are also not pure and untainted. We are bounded by our interior inspections, just as we are with our outer sojourns. Reality doesn't come to us unfiltered, despite our doubts to the contrary.

Therefore, I think it would be wise to let promissory materialism runs its full course become succumbing to promissory metaphysics. Yes, it may well be that when we completely exhaust a physical recounting of all the ins and outs of the brain (either by reverse engineering or by 3-D computer generated simulations) that consciousness remains a mystery and that all our empirical studies are insufficient to explain how and why it exists. But if and when that happens, we will be in a much better position to advance non-physicalist theories since we will have no other recourse. Of course, this cautionary tale can also be summarized by an oft used cliché' in just three words. Haste makes waste.

Giving up on materialist explanations now, before we have run out the clock and seen what it can explain, doesn't indicate its weaknesses as much as it demonstrates our own unnecessary impatience. Finally, even if our materialist science ends up failing in the end, it will produce so many wonderful and unexpected byproducts along the way that humankind will benefit in untold and unseen ways. Then if we fail in our empirical endeavors, promissory materialism will have built a scaffolding upon which we can rightly transcend.

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