We Need To Break The Spell: Against Secularism, Physicalism, & Humanism

I just finished reading Bernardo Kastrup’s excellent book The Idea of the World: A Multi-Disciplinary Argument for the Mental Nature of Reality (2019). The book is a critique of the physicalist ontology and a spirited defense of an idealist ontology that, as I see it, is essentially nondualist.

In this post, I’d like to comment on (1) secularism, (2) physicalism, and (3) humanism. Understanding how these three strands are woven together should give us a certain picture of the modern world and of the tragic predicament we find ourselves in.

I. Secularism

Secularism is the view that there is only this temporal world. Derived from the term saeculum, secularity, over time, has come to mean the rejection of any notion of eternity, of any eternal world, of anything beyond the inexorable unfolding of chronos time.

What secularism advances without making it seem as if it’s advancing anything at all is the interminable nature of what I have elsewhere called “diurnality and mundanity.” Concerning “secular monks,” I there wrote:

[For secular monks,] [t]he practical conduct of everyday life defines the scope of human existence, with daily affairs, tasks, and projects all shaped by habits. There is no world but this one, no day but today, no self but the one knitted together in this perishable mind-body composite. Mundanity, diurnality, and finitude combine to make up a profane ordinariness, an order in which it is unimaginable that anything could possibly happen beyond what is typical and expected. I am finite, time is scarce, and this world is all there is.

Secularism entails the horizontal flattening of the world such that every event lifelessly resembles every other event. In other words, secularism places its stamp of implicit approval on the ordinary events in the temporal world. Life under secularism is like the dullest soap opera, with each episode like, while promising to be other than, the last one.

II. Physicalism

Physicalism, or materialism, is the view that everything is physical. That may not sound like anything interesting or terribly disturbing, but it turns out to be both. Consciousness, for instance, is held by physicalists to be what is constituted by, or generated from, a physical arrangement of elements in the brain (this is a paraphrase of Kastrup’s formulation of physicalism). Among other things, Kastrup argues that physicalism simply cannot solve “the hard problem of consciousness” (Chalmers): that is, the problem of how it’s possible to explain the qualitative experiences we undeniably have–the sweets we each taste, the reds we each see, the sounds we each hear, and so forth.

“Who cares?” you might say. Here’s why you should care: downstream of this view will come dismissive rejections of free will (see Sam Harris, Free Will on why free will is thought, by physicalists, to be an illusion), of any notion of postmortem existence, of anything that could be considered sacred, and of any connection, really, with meaning.

Notice what we’ve seen so far: secularism says that everything is temporal and physicalism that everything is material or physical. If both positions are correct, then it follows that everything is temporal and material. Or the material unfolds in the temporal, the temporal consists of the material.

If you don’t begin to feel how horrifying this is, then I invite you to take a second, harder look. Nihilism is already on the prowl. But wait for humanism!

III. Humanism

According to humanism, “man is the measure of all things.” I still find it difficult to make this clear beyond my felt sense of what it means, but here goes:

Try to think about what we care about during Covid-19. We care about ourselves first (think about the reckless behavior of many summer-goers) and about other human beings. Notably, we care about the perdurance of the physical body (secularism plus physicalism). Next, we care about pets yet, to be sure, only insofar as they are ours. Next, while we may, from this humanist point of view, care about what is limply today called “the environment,” the chief reason is that we don’t want to keep spoiling our front and back yards: we’re worried, that is, about there being no homes for future generations of (you guessed it) homo sapiens. To a considerable degree, then, we care about “the environment” for instrumental reasons, not for inherent reasons.

Viewing life through humanist eyes, you come to see that the human drama is pretty much all we care about. Not theos or cosmos but only anthropos. In fact, we care about humankind because we seem to know no divine or cosmic kind, because we know–this is true–no great intimacy with the folds or pleats of reality.

IV. Putting Them Together

Secularism gives us our singular and myopic this-worldly orientation: time is scarce. Physicalism sweeps away any talk of, let alone the possible reality of, Consciousness (Advaita Vedanta), transcendence, and so on. It’s all mechanisms and physical laws all the way down. Then humanism, bringing up the rear, gives us our weird, pretty lame purpose: be narcissistically concerned with the human species first (e.g., “socially impactful work”), with any other living organism only to the degree that it serves our own purposes.

Here they are in a nutshell: you are a human agent living in the temporal world and set to expire when the body, being material, perishes. Good luck!

The consequences of these views are (1) stupidity and depthlessness: no way of inquiring into matters of ultimate concern because these are ruled out from the outset; (2) Total Work, the view according to which each human being is a Worker; (3) hedonism, the view according to which we’re here also to pursue the pleasures of sex, food, altered states, etc.; and, of course, (4) nihilism.

It is therapeuticized culture, together with the massive entertainment industry, that makes us believe that everything is all right when it so clearly is not. The former helps to socialize us while handing us “good coping strategies” while the latter, an opiate, sedates us, mollifying our tense nervous systems.

“A picture held us captive” (Wittgenstein). Damn right it has! Born into mystery, we are beings bound for transcendence. We must see through the illusions of secularism, physicalism, and humanism before we can truly break the spell.