Saturday, February 27, 2016

embroidering at the edges

I've previously tried to sum up "materialistic naturalism" in two carefully measured statements. First, under sufficient impartial scrutiny, anything supernatural doesn't demonstrably exist or have indispensable relevance. Anything supernatural yields no identifiable repercussions besides those that mistaken ideas in general can have...such as sweeping influence over culture and personal behavior. Second, all the natural things not disqualified by the first statement come from, are composed of, participate in, and will eventually wear down into smaller pieces of, material stuff (physical substances/forces).

Understandably, this position appears narrow and minimalist to the many people who are determined to wholeheartedly follow the beliefs which it excludes. They may suggest a compromise: for many if not most domains of knowledge, they'll concur that materialistic naturalism suffices. The other beliefs they follow will be along or beyond the edges of that large conceded middle. Their view is like imagining that each person's comprehension is a whole fabric connecting their beliefs like threads. The middle of everybody's fabrics will be plain, ordinary, and indistinguishable from everybody else's. But the edges will be customizable opportunities to creatively embroider. There, each believer could feel empowered to embroider...and embroider...and embroider. Poking holes, so to speak, through another's edge embroidering would be considered mean and unnecessary, because everybody has compromised on not refashioning the middle. Those like myself who follow unblended materialistic naturalism would be accused of a literally negative recommendation: that to decline to embroider is the choice which is most consistent, most harmless, most productive, most upfront.

To maintain harmony, perhaps I should try embroidering a bit too. No one who acknowledges the validity of embroidering could object. I'll start from the base acceptance that most things will act normally most of the time. Yet suppose there is a frequently hidden mysterious power that manifests in confounding ways. This power emerges at several isolated points on Earth: a Pacific island, for example. Because of its unique properties this island tends to evade discovery, but from time to time vehicles of different types stumble onto it. So the island is inhabited. Furthermore, a succession of individuals are selected to act as caretakers of the island and its power. The role of caretaker includes unnatural but not unlimited abilities, especially a halt of normal aging. This is still only one rarely explored island and one person, so this still only qualifies as embroidering a tiny edge.

Then a violent confrontation happened between a specific caretaker and his brother. Afterward, the brother absorbed a different set of abilities from the island's power. His normal aging was also halted. Although they were fatal enemies, the prior caretaker had made it impossible for them to kill each other. Instead they competed to test whether the island's inhabitants were fundamentally good or evil, both the ones born there or newly arriving. The inhabitants became a tribe that knew about the caretaker and his brother without usually interacting with either directly.

However, a secretive research organization managed to find the island, penetrate its peculiar defenses, and settle there to perform an array of amazing experiments. It was so secretive that it never published its findings; it stayed outside the edge of known science. The tribe of inhabitants clashed with the organization, killed off its members, and then seized all of its facilities and equipment. The pivotal factor in the battle was a man who had left the organization as a child and grew up as part of the tribe. Later he successfully usurped and exiled the former leader of the tribe. The exile purely desired revenge and recapturing the island's wonders for himself alone. He didn't want to expose the island's existence to outsiders. So it continued to not be inside the four edges of a typical map. 

I'd possibly embroider some more...a lot more, but I'll quit. The details I've related are unconnected to almost everything and everyone in the world. To that extent I've stayed compatible with the middle portion of the fabric and stuck to embroidering at the edges. Is this case believable? If not, why is it less believable than the range of others? Why wouldn't it be equally protected by the proposed taboo against criticism of edge-only embroidering? In a category that's proudly unrestricted by concrete limits to start with, what criteria would indicate that a case has strained credibility to the snapping point?

A superb answer to these questions is to not assume—without compelling reasons—exceptional, preferential differences between the mundane middle and the wild edges. If my coworker doesn't show up at their normal start time, I don't assume that they're deceased. If I misplace my car's key fob, I don't assume that its atoms have left the cosmos. If I consume chemicals that "expand my consciousness", I don't assume that I've successfully established that neuroscience requires the notion of a human soul after all. If I read in the news about inexplicable observations, I don't assume that the future theory that will accommodate those observations will be an exact opposite of current theories. If there is a concealed Pacific island, it's not savvy to assume that it exudes extraordinary power. If there are missing vessels and aircraft, it's not savvy to assume that those were doomed to go off course and reach an island. If there is an organization performing quiet research, it's not savvy to assume that it's investigating occurrences of teleportation. If there is wreckage of a missing plane, it's not savvy to assume that it was faked by a wealthy man whose hope is to eventually return to the island he was exiled from.

Following materialistic naturalism doesn't actually imply that I think the search for knowledge is finished. Neither does it imply that I think everything left to know will be predictable. It implies confidence in the odds that the bedrock characteristics of new knowledge won't be kooky. The new will be metaphorically jogging in the same "ballpark" of materialic naturalism alongside the old and not sailing half a world away.

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