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My Absent Career 9: Quale before me

Last updated on 1 Jan 2023

I should pause for a minute before launching into the episode that finally scuttled my academic ambitions (of earning money), I should explain my absolute lack of interest in qualia, souls, spirits, ethereal minds, and moral realities.

When I lost my faith, it wasn’t just an intellectual decision. It never is. There needs to be a crisis of faith, a situation which challenges the foundations of one’s view of things. In a chapter in the book I am writing right now, I discussion conversions and what happens during them and why, but for now, let me give you my personal account.

I did some things that are not terribly bad (in fact in retrospect they were quite life affirming). But in the Lutheran theology of my authorities there are a class of sins called the prohibitiva, from which according to (I think) Philipp Melanchthon, there is no forgiveness. One of them is sin against the Holy Spirit, and it seems that dating a Catholic girl is one of them.

So, faced with the present danger of eternal hell, I asked myself, “What do I need to believe to live my life?” Since I was damned if Lutheran evangelicalism was true, I mean. I tried, in short, to reconstruct the hermeneutical bubble of my religious beliefs from first principles. I had, after all, constructed that bubble intellectually some eight years earlier. Maybe this time I would end up with a more liberal theology.

So after much thought, and rejecting some obvious starting points (cogito ergo sum for example) I decided that the one thing I needed to hold true was that a physical world existed. I knew, of course, that this was philosophically contested, and I’ll get back to that in a bit, but it seemed to be the least belief one needed to live.

I then started the process of figuring out, to my own satisfaction at least, what else I needed to believe. Did I need moral absolutes? Did I need to accept a noncorporeal soul? What about referential constants for language? And so on. Reader, after some 45 years since, I have found absolutely no need for any such non-physical beliefs. Not souls, minds, moral realities nor deities (at least of the philosophically traditional kind). I became a metaphysical positivist.

Now questions like this depend a large amount, as I later worked out, or prior categories and expectations. For example, we are repeatedly told that substance dualism – a distinction between mind and matter – is the “default” viewpoint of all humans. But I knew that was not true from my studies of, ironically, the Eighth Century Prophets of the Tanakh, or as the Christians call it, the Old Testament. These books were Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah, but of course only the first Isaiah (chapters 1 to 39). The nebî’îm (singular nabî’) were a class of speakers to Judah and Israel on behalf of YHWH (maybe pronounced as Yahweh, in Israel in the south) or elohîm (God, or the gods in Judea in the north). If anyone should have been substance dualists, it should have been them.

Instead, they seemed to me to be without firm metaphysical commitments on the afterlife. There were all kinds of language used, allegorically, literally, and poetically, that indicated that they viewed life as having a corporeal body, and Sheol, sometimes translated from the Tanakh as “the grave”. Of course they didn’t have any common view either, so I gathered they varied by time and location.

In the philosophy of explanation proposed by Bas van Fraassen and Alan Garfinkel in the 1980s, an explanation is an answer that satisfies the criteria in which the answer is sought. Some expectations are rooted in what van Fraassen called the foil, or the set of viable options. But what those expectations are varies again, in place and time. By starting with the physicalist assumption and waiting to be forced out of that set of alternatives by argument or evidence, I had inadvertently changed the foil that religious and dualistic views relied upon.

Now many philosophers do think that there is an inexpressible something, a quale or “what it is to be a” thing that the physical account doesn’t capture, but whenever one seeks to express it, it evaporates. I have a mind, yes, but it is a physical process in my body. It exists nowhere else. What it is like to be me is just to be me, the limitations of language be damned. The inexpressible is not a fit explanandum. And once you recognise that I have a unique set of traits and a perspective, nothing beside remains…

Change the expectations, change the narrative.

One Comment

  1. Aaron Clausen Aaron Clausen

    I’m sure I’ve read your account of your loss of faith before but I found it an interesting read. Faith (or the lack thereof) is seen as such a profound expression of our personality, even if in practical terms, like paying the utility bill or choosing what to eat for lunch, it doesn’t seem that applicable.

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