The Cosmic Back Massage

Most people are too comfortable with their worldview. They are unaware of the implications and presuppositions for their beliefs. Everybody from the Christian to the atheist, the rationalist to the empiricist, the physicalist to the idealist – they are quick to point out absurd conclusions in other people’s worldviews, but they overlook the absurdities in their own.

Frankly, I don’t think any worldview can escape absurdity. Given the peculiarity of the universe in which we inhabit, there is no pristine belief system – every one comes with dirty, unsatisfactory conclusions.

The most popular superficially-pristine worldview is physicalism – the idea that everything in existence is constituted by states of the physical universe, and that nothing exist “outside” of spacetime.

These beliefs are frequently coupled with hard determinism – the idea that “everything has a prior cause, stretching back indefinitely, and these chains of causality are never broken.” This means from the point after the Big Bang, everything had to unfold exactly as it did – there is no “random chance” or “free will” that can somehow change how events unfold.

The universe, to the physicalist, is akin to a billiard table. The Big Bang was a gigantic break of the pool balls, and we’re simply witnessing how the balls scatter about and bump into each other.

It would be a neat and tidy worldview, but there’s one problem: where does conscious awareness fit into the physicalist narrative? As far as I can tell, consciousness interjects the absurd into physicalism. Any attempt at explanation results in unsatisfactory conclusions (though, of course, this doesn’t imply that physicalism is wrong).

Are We It?

It’s remarkable how quickly a hard-nosed skeptical physicalist will turn into a medieval mystic when consciousness is brought up. Indeed, there seems to be an entire genre of materialists who have their own form of spirituality – something akin to pantheism.

They say woo-woo sounding things like, “The universe is in the process of becoming aware of itself”, or, “We are a way for the cosmos to learn about itself.”

Sounds like some Pocahontas-type stuff. But it actually makes a great deal of sense. Follow the line of reasoning.

a) Every part of the universe is constituted by the same kind of physical “stuff”.

b) We (humans) are part of the universe.

c) We are aware of things in the universe.

d) Therefore, “humans” are ultimately one small part of the universe becoming aware of itself.

It’s a remarkable idea. The universe is filled with mindless matter, whirling about, crashing and exploding into other clumps of matter. Remarkably, way off in a distant galaxy, the matter bumped into itself just right – and out popped self-aware, volitional clumps of matter that walk around talking to themselves and writing about all the other clumps of matter they interact with.

It’s a mindless universe creating little minds out of itself – a fact that only the little minds can comprehend.

If that doesn’t sound outrageous – even spiritual – I don’t know what does. Yet, given the premises involved with physicalism, that’s the conclusion that follows.

Until This Point

Some people see an even deeper connection with the universe through physicalism. Not only is the universe becoming conscious of itself through humans, but the entire universe plays an integral part in our daily life.

Consider the implications of hard determinism. At any given moment, things are a certain way, and they couldn’t have been otherwise. Meaning, every single moment of your life – and every moment in the future – was destined to be, as part of a grand unfolding of the entire universe.

Nothing happens – nothing moves or is moved – in isolation. It’s all intimately connected with everything else, ultimately resulting from the Big Bang. That means when you go to the Post Office, every part of your trip is another effect of the same root cause. Every explosion in your car engine, every flower you see on the street, every person you interact with – they are all little impressions of the Big Bang. Every word you say, every feeling you feel – it was all destined to happen at that specific time and place.

Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that when pleasant things happen to spiritually-inclined physicalists, they often attribute it to the universe. They say things like, “Just ask the Universe for help, and it will help you. The entire universe has created you and everything in it.”

When you find a quarter on the ground – or when you accidentally stub your toe – it is the story of the universe unfolding within you, in a very literal way. No part of your life, conscious or otherwise, exists “outside” the universe, and therefore, it is the universe.

You might even say: your existence is equally as necessary as the universe’s existence. After all, when we reference “the universe”, you are inescapably part of it and result from it.

Feeling the Force

I am very uncomfortable with these conclusions, and they struck me as utterly absurd a few days ago.

Every so often, I go to the local masseuse to get a deep massage for my back. I grew too fast as a kid, and now I have back problems. As I was lying on the table with her elbows digging into my back, it struck me: what am I feeling, and how can I explain it?

Superficially, I would say, “I feel this lady’s elbows massaging my back muscles.” But that’s not precise. Such an explanation requires a definition for “lady”, “elbows”, “massaging”, “back muscles”, “myself”, and some theory of possession – i.e. I was referencing “my” back muscles.

Without trying to define such things, I can say more simply, “I feel forces.”

This brings up the central question: where do these forces come from?

From the physicalist standpoint, we cannot be satisfied by answering, “The forces come from the masseuse” – the chains of causality stretch farther back than that. The masseuse is simply a collection of matter that is responding to external stimuli. There is no room for “free will” or psychological decisions. Nobody ultimately decided to be there at the moment – I was destined to lie down and she was destined to elbow me.

The only consistent answer is to say, “the forces I feel come directly from the Big Bang.”

In effect, I wasn’t feeling some lady’s elbows. I was feeling cosmic forces that merely manifested themselves in a lady’s elbows.

The entire universe was giving me a back massage.

Or, perhaps more precisely, the universe was giving itself a back massage.

Not only that, but it was a nearly miraculous event – every previous state of the universe was leading up to that moment. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that spiritualist-physicalists see the profound in the mundane. The entire universe leaves little impressions of itself everywhere – from the flower to the human to the gigantic galaxy a trillion light-years away.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying “This is absurd and therefore false.” Like I said earlier, absurdity is inescapable. Cosmic massages might seem ridiculous, but what’s the alternative? Did my massage instead come from a “conscious, self-aware being who can mentally control parts of the universe”? That doesn’t seem satisfactory, either.

I am not a physicalist, and I am drawn to appeals to common sense. In my opinion, the reason my massage wasn’t cosmic is because humans are not billiard balls. Nor are we causally determined. My experience with humans makes much more sense when I can say, “That event happened, but it could have been otherwise. The masseuse and I made a series of decisions – we expressed our individual conscious wills – and the physical universe was only part of the equation.”

In other words, I find the physicalist worldview unpersuasive, because it leaves out all the mental phenomena involved with getting a back massage. Our experience of the world incorporates both the physical and mental, and we can’t satisfactorily eliminate one category or the other. However, this position comes with its own set of absurdities. Non-physicalism isn’t pristine either, and it will be a topic for another time.