Beyond Brain Machines

05/11/2015 10:18 am ET | Updated May 07, 2016

An ad on National Public Radio regularly promotes the sale of machines that exercise our brains. They're used by millions of people everywhere, a tinkling voice announces. Then the news comes on, full of horror stories, news of greed, cruelty, injustice, stupidity, hypocrisy and barbarity.

Yes, we do need help -- things are looking bad -- something radical is called for, something to raise up the human condition. But brain machines?

It is the vogue, and all you need do nowadays is utter the word neuroscience! It's as if the key to all the mysteries were finally in hand. The brain mavens are in earnest: Sooner or later, everything human will be explainable and controllable by neuroscience. We're approaching the time, warns physicist Stephen Hawking, when super-smart robots may take over the world. With talk like this, the dawn of the golden age of neuro-fundamentalism seems to be breaking.

To my ears it all sounds grim. Still, in a technical sense, it captures the ultimate aim of "reductive materialism," the scientific worldview that tries to explain everything and reduce everything to non-conscious matter. Properly understood, it's a grisly idea. The brain machines may make us brainy, but in the end, and officially, it has been decided that we are mindless. But really -- what do the brain-scanning machines reveal about our minds? Nothing at all -- there is no there there -- just correlations with chemical and physical goings on. Because we can't measure or detect our thoughts or feelings directly, it's assumed by the reductionists that they don't really exist.

This is not a philosophical game. Look around and ask yourself what kinds of belief are driving the tiny percentage of people with all the power and influence, the elites everywhere in charge? And ask not what they profess to believe but what their actions prove they believe.

Take the government officials who run our country. We know about the lobbies that run them, and how it is done by means of money and intimidation -- raw materialism in action. Or consider the pharmaceutical industries fixated on profit above care for consumers. Or the corporate take-over of our prison-systems, the shameless profiteering from suffering and ruined lives.

Above all, ponder the murderous materialism that profits from arms sales and the big business of war. The greatest war machine in the history of the world at the highest price is proof of what America's leaders believe in: not gentle Jesus but the shock and awe of military might. And speaking of America, materialism displays its innermost self in the hoggish machinations of unfettered capitalism. Money, in sum, is our Moloch of materialism, and we all know that those who worship Him are legion.

None of the ills caused by this philosophy can be overcome by mere argument. What's needed are deep changes of consciousness that touch all levels of life and society: a revised sense of our values, a new vision that celebrates our humanity -- not our neural anatomy. What we need is a new paradigm for living on Earth.

But trouble awaits those who tinker with the entrenched worldview. Talk in the wrong circles about intangibles like soul, values, or spirituality could be costly. A very active, very dominant worldview has descended upon our beleaguered nation. Science has mutated into scientism, the quest for knowledge into an ideology more about profit and prestige than love of truth.

We have our scientistic levelers today who try to explain everything higher in terms of anything lower. They fail to do so regularly. Still, they manage to project the influence of their ideas everywhere. For example, there are levelers who reduce all talk of spirits -- and of spirit and the spiritual -- to terms of delusion or hallucination. Is such, we might ask, a subtle, unacknowledged form of terrorism?

But not to give up! There are loud murmurs of discontent, many voices of protest against this crass divorce of science from human spirituality. There is, in fact, a growing movement of consciousness activists, individuals sharply critical of the reductive mindset, opposed to the nihilism of the disciples of Moloch.

A new view is forming amid our roiling Zeitgeist, emerging from the research and practices of many scholars of religion, physicists, psychologists, neuroscientists, artists, and others in creative discontent everywhere. A new consensus is taking shape: We can break out of the prison of reductive physicalism.

The message of the protestors revolves around one momentous idea: We humans are bearers of the great mystery of being -- the powers and potentialities of consciousness. Clearly, there are new ways of thinking about our greater selves, our greater consciousness. Unlike the constrictive obsessions of what Harold Bloom has called the "school of resentment," the new consciousness activists are busy expanding our worldview. They're challenging the assumptions of who and what we are, of what we can do, of what we can experience.

The new consciousness activists demand a more robust model of what it means to be human. They invite us to face the mystery of ourselves -- learn to dialogue with our hidden minds, mobilize our latent potentials. We had better get on with it, if we hope to last on our beautiful planet. Our beautiful planet is turning into a garbage dump: a sad but spot-on picture of the soul of reductive materialism.