Atheism does not imply materialism
I am an atheist, an infidel, a denier of God and the soul and the intrinsic meaning of anything ever – and as such a ne’er do well grump, I often encounter other such folks on the giant atheist convention center that is the internet, as well as in real life (not really) who share my views, and that’s always nice. Sadly though, I’ve realized lately that I do not actually meet the traditional, dogmatic definition of one who rejects tradition and dogma, and thus I do not seem to really fit in with most atheists. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like I would have any trouble. Let’s go through the checklist:
1) Do I believe that the universe was created, guided, sustained, or in any way related to the existence of any kind of Supreme Being? Nope.
2) Do I believe that there is anything more important or more worthwhile than the present life? Nah.
3) Do I accept belief in any system, religious or not, unless it can be directly verified through personal experience and objective investigation? Not in a million years.
But then a weird fourth question seems to get tacked on: Do you believe that there is anything except elemental, corporeal matter? And it is on that question that I falter. See, my dirty secret is that I am not a materialist, and that I do believe in the existence of non-physical qualia. Such a belief seems to make one a pariah amongst many atheists, who seem to be incredibly proud of their opposition to fixed, unchanging doctrine and their championing of rational, objective empiricism, except of course when such examination leads to positions that they have not sanctioned. So what is a man without a philosophical country to do besides write a grumpy, rambling discussion of consciousness on his own blog for the benefit of him and maybe four other readers?
Shit’s about to get philosophical.
I believe in a radical empiricism, one that holds experience not as a representation of a chemical or electrical process but as the forerunner of existence; our qualia – feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness – are not functions of a physical system such as the brain or nervous system but instead an emergent property of the non-physical experience of knowing. Our consciousness interacts not with physical objects, such as a chair or stovetop, but with experience, data, the knowing of soft or hard, cool or hot, pleasant or painful; consequently, what we conventionally consider to be ‘things’ are actually ultimately describable only as bundles of sensation or sense data. Reality is experience, the intersection between that which knows and that which is known. Human beings can only make sense of their place in the world through the observation of the consciousnesses that arise through contact between the mind and the physical world. This pragmatic empiricism is best described as phenomenalism.
I believe this because I am confident that objective, experiential observation of the nature of qualia will reveal a fundamental category difference between that which is known and that which knows, i.e. an ontological distinction between the nature of what can be referred to as the physical – people, places, and things – and what can be referred to as the mental – the subjective qualities of knowing related to sense data. The existence of non-physical qualia is to me a fundamental axiom in that we cannot examine any existent thing without first acknowledging that our ability to observe is in fact separate in nature from that which is being observed; to use the qualia generated from our experience of the physical world in order to then categorize qualia as not dissimilar from that which its generation springs is no more rational than taking the position that you are illiterate due to a particularly persuasive essay.
Thus I would argue that the existence of a differentiation between the known and that which knows, a category difference that not only reveals itself through literally every act of experiencing but also one that underlies the very logical conceptualization of experience, is not deniable in parsimonious or otherwise empirically grounded approach. One must make the presupposition of qualia functionally separate from the physical in order to justify the existence of experience – either that or one must invent a position neither supported by science nor reason that suggests the ability of physical matter to create systems with ontological properties separate from those found in its constituent parts, an emergent dualism that has no basis nor support in observable reality. The inescapable reality of our world is such that the inherent dissimilarity of physical matter and experience, both in fundamental category as well as ontological nature, cannot be denied unless one makes a prior recourse to a presupposition of materialism.
We call the opposite side of such a philosophical coin solipsism, the idea that a proper response to the apparent existence of the known and the knower is the assumption only of the knower. I would like to posit that materialism is equally groundless in its assumption only of the known, i.e. the physical. Both positions come in conflict with observable reality in that neither can explain within the confines of their worldview why the behavior of one category of existence does not match the model of the other; the solipsist, who struggles to twist the physical into some sort of debased mental projection, is equally as lost as the materialist, whose greatest possible answer for the undeniable discrepancy between the apparent function of the physical and the mental is a strained attempt to paint the experiential as a mystical projection of an assumed physical process for which there is no evidence.
Phenomenalism, which is actually simply the Western term for the epistemic base supplied by the Buddha as our means of interacting with the universe, rejects both dichotomies by making what is, in my mind, the only rational assumption: that what appears to be physical is in fact physical, and that what appears to be experience of the physical is in fact experience of the physical. By emphasizing empirically verifiable experience, formed through the contact of perception and perceived, as the base of reality, the Buddha’s teachings function as a characteristically ‘middle path’ between solipsism and materialism, one which follows direct observation to its logical conclusion by avoiding recourse to presuppositions based not in reality but conceptual conjecture and cultural bias.