Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Business Method & Theological Diversity - Strict Materialism

This is the second post in the series Quaker Business Method and Theological Diversity. If you haven't already, you will get the most out of this post if you read the opening post in the series. That post will also include links to all other posts in the series as they are posted.
5 balls suspended in a Newton's Cradle, with the right-most ball lifted and about to fall to strike the next ball.
Having started with the traditional view, it seems appropriate to turn to a conception that seems to be absolutely diametrically opposed to that traditional view, and one that seems to be very much in people's minds when they are worried about the impact of non-theism in our Meetings. It is a position that, in line with my understanding of philosophical terminology (which might be a little off, not being a philosopher), I term “strict materialism”.
Materialism describes schools of thought that hold that matter is the fundamental stuff of reality, and everything else – including mental processes and cognition – are purely results of interactions among material things. I use the term strict materialism to refer to those materialists who most strongly and sceptically reject anything that even smells like a non-material effect, in the absence of strong evidence and a clear explanation. They accept rationally explained, reproducible effects like radio transmissions and the internet, but reject ideas like mind-to-mind contact or other parapsychic phenomena, or such things as spirits and gods.
It is important to understand that materialism does not necessarily inherently lead to a rejection of such things. It is possible to see the fundamental underlying nature of reality as material, but still believe in such unexplained and unproven phenomena; it simply requires the idea that such phenomena occur and have a material explanation, we just haven't found it yet. As such, a materialist might even believe in spirits and gods, but that they have underlying material existences and interact with the world in a material way. Such material interaction need not be through gross matter – materialists do not deny the impact of ionising radiation or wireless communications, after all – so a materialist can have quite a mystical bent, they would just hold that ultimately all of these effects are rooted in matter, that there is nothing immaterial, and most likely no “soul” as distinct from brain and mind. Perhaps gods are some sort of gestalt impact of the minds of people, to some – provided one can imagine a material, if not direct, means of that happening.
The strict materialist would reject all such things, in similar fashion to the sceptical, science-oriented atheist; indeed, such an atheist would fall into this category. Yet, there are people who take such an approach to questions of spiritual things, and are Quakers. They participate in worship, and in business, and do not understand things in a metaphysical way at all. It's not hard to see why this causes some discomfort to the more traditionally-minded, or even to some mystical non-theists (more on which in a later part of this series). How does it make sense to them? Do they think Meeting for Worship is just relaxation/meditation? Is business just some mystical window-dressing on modified consensus decision-making?
To be perfectly frank, for some Friends, yes. They don't see anything beyond the everyday in these key practices. I struggle to cope with the inclusion of such Friends, and yet I would not demand their removal, because there may simply be a gap in understanding, a failure to see on one or both sides, that would allow things to make more sense.
However, most strict materialist Friends that I have spoken to are not at this extreme. They do understand a special meaning and relevance to Quaker processes, they just reject any metaphysical meaning to them. This is where there's a conceptual leap to be taken; how can they see a special meaning to these religious activities, and yet not see it as metaphysical?
Well, there is one way of conceptualising it for such Friends that I have come across, which I find particularly helpful for these sorts of exploration and comparison. This is the conceptualisation that I will share with you now.
Rather than seeing the inner light as something external or mystical, in this conception it is a subconscious part of our own mind, a “better self”, with innate ethical sense, perhaps also superior abilities to make connections in insufficient data. It is the source of inspiration, what is working when an idea or concept suddenly “clicks” in the mind. The part of the mind of a veteran firefighter that knows just when a ceiling is about to collapse, or tells an experienced doctor when they should run that test that is usually pointless.
In this view, the discipline of silent worship is about creating a greater, more deliberate connection between the conscious mind and this hidden genius. In a Meeting for Worship, ministry for those who hold this view is the insight of this hidden mind brought to the surface by that discipline. Likewise, in Meeting for Worship for Business, the discipline allows the attempt to deliberately bring this brilliant subconscious mind to bear on the matter in question. The process of unity may be seen as some sort of subconscious connection, though some unknown physical means or through subtle, subconscious use of body language, between this subconscious element in the participants. The sense of the meeting is thus where there is broad agreement between the subconscious intellect of those present, and the fact that we can reliably reach such a position a validation of the somewhat consistent capability of this hidden mind between individuals.
This holds the human mind supreme, that source of inspiration that other Friends ascribe to a deity or some non-specific divine force is entirely and completely human. It is not, however, entirely and completely us in the usual sense. It is another us. Starting from a Freudian view, it could be seen as a fourth component of the psyche. In the Jungian view, it might be part of us more strongly associated with the collective unconscious. I certainly think it is a part of the mind that exists, though I do not associate it so much with the inward teacher we encounter in the silence.
The principle peril here is almost the converse of that in the traditional conception. While this conception allows that it is not the rational, conscious mind, considering that it is your own mind may lead to a perilous tendency to bring the rational mind in to the matter too much. Taken to an extreme, it may lead one to question several traditional elements of business discipline, such as leaving silence between contributions or limiting the number of times you rise to speak. It may also deny the ability to make a decision with inadequate information – an ability which should not be relied upon too much in any case, as more information generally leads to better results, but I expect that many Friends have witnessed astonishing decisions that turn out to be correct based on sparse information. Of course, I expect many Friends have also witnessed the poor results that can come from over-reliance on the Spirit in want of information. This conception also lends itself to a strong trust in expertise; while the traditional conception might disregard expertise through excessive trust in a theistic god, in most cases expertise cannot supplant the discernment of the whole group. In my experience, such expertise should be heard, and valued, but not deferred to except in relatively extreme circumstances. Indeed, I find it best if Friends with relevant expertise not endorse a particular outcome on the basis of their expertise, but rather set out advantages and disadvantages of different courses.
It is an interesting conception. It is not one that I subscribe to, but there are ways in which it is closer to my own thinking than the traditional view is; of course, there are also ways in which the traditional view is closer to my own thinking than this model. Six of one, half a dozen of the other… were it not for there being further conceptions than these two and the one to which I subscribe.
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