An academic essay on the limits of Empirical Materialiism with respect to explaining the nature of human experience, especially with respect to the supernatural.


Supernatural events are attributed to the action of forces beyond that of the physical world. In the far past, many events were beyond rational explanation, due to the primitive knowledge of the physical world available to the ancients. Therefore ancient wisdom attributed virtually all physical events, ranging from the movement of planets to the arrangement of tealeaves in an empty teacup, to supernatural forces.

In modern times, empirical studies have well defined many scientific rules of the interaction between matter, time, and space. Scientific models describe forces like gravity that predict the movement of planets. The rules of mathematics further ascribe models for predicting trends in apparently random events. Indeed, the immense progress in our understanding of the world, produced by empirical research of the last few centuries, has persuaded many to believe that there is no more to reality than can be modeled by science. The immense successes of scientific progress have resulted in an increasingly unilateral adoption of a purely materialist perspective, whereby the mind is nothing more than a collection of neurons. Amongst all philosophical schools, the materialists have risen to almost total ascendancy in Western culture. According to the materialists, our behavior in bulk is described by genetics and Pavlovian conditioning.

According to the materialists, our experience is nothing but the product of changing chemical balances in the brain. So great is the progress we have made in understanding the scientific rules in even the most complex creations of nature, the materialist perspective usually dismisses ancient wisdom as simple miscomprehension, on occasion even deriding it as naïve stupidity.

Amongst the materialists, the single school of thought which has predominated culture in the last 100 years has been the physicalist view. The physicialists are minimalists, removing all ideas of mind interaction from their view of reality altogether. According to the physicalists, we are no more than monkeys who are capable of making more advanced tools than chimpanzees.

However, such empirical reductionism meets its match when confronted by the deeper laws of spiritual experience. Occam’s razor cannot remove the existence of dreams, visions, and supernatural experiences, yet such attributes of existence defy empirical validation and measurement. More so, we as human beings have our own internal clocks, weighing scales and measuring sticks that rarely agree with the Department of Weights and Measures. Sometimes hours whiz by, and sometimes seconds last forever. A suitcase gets heavier the longer we carry it. A duck egg looks green to me and blue to you. And whatever we experience, we can always say we are experiencing something else. The empirical model of scientific experiment requires controls to limit interacting parameters, so that one single variable can be extracted and manipulated. Variable isolation and manipulation cannot be applied to the vagaries of our experience. Emotion for example is the product of indefinite variation which if controlled changes the emotional experience. The modernist views of the physicalists therefore dismiss the vagaries of experience as mostly irrelevant (except when they cause problems to society, at which point experience is usually subjected to the demeaning procedures of behavioral and chemical manipulation).

In accordance with ancient wisdom, there should be a reactionary force in society when one viewpoint is overly exercised. And indeed, the modern arts have moved in apposition to the purely materialist view. Modernist poetry, for example, has become increasingly experiential in nature. In its eagerness to capture the nature and rules of raw experience, the modernist movement eschewed the strict rules of meter and verse, moving in the opposite direction from the increasingly ordered form of modern science.

In fact, poetic and allegorical forms in literature are far more suited to depict supernatural laws than any scientific model. For example symbolism and metaphor can evoke the multiplicity of vague connections and relationships in our mind that lie at the root of our emotions, thus inducting us into a spiritual communion with the author—in the hands of the experienced writer, our experience even becomes mystical, when deep truths are touched in ways we do not fully understand. Just because an experience is mystical, however, does not mean the experience does not follow rules.

Modern proponents of experiential rules include thinkers such as C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell, who analyze how symbols and metaphors can invoke mystical experiences. Their analysis often assists with understanding our initial reactions to a poetic or allegorical image. Yeats for example wrote:

“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;”

Joseph Campbell defines water as a symbol of the “unconscious” or “shadow,” referring to deep, unacknowledged mental processes below the subconscious. By this analysis, tide would then be an irresistible unconscious movement. Blood, together with ceremony, invokes another powerful image, that of the universal force of ritualistic sacrifice. A “ceremony of innocence” indicates that those in the ceremony are living in pure persona, not heeding deeper thoughts that could betray their own innocence. And finally “the ceremony of innocence is drowned,” implies that persona of innocence cannot be maintained, due to the force of countering underlying unconscious forces. In Jungian perspective, the failure of persona is experienced as traumatic, so this couplet should be intensely disturbing—as indeed it is.

Analysis can thus reveal laws that explain our experience when reading the poem. The laws are indeed supernatural in that they are beyond those that can be measured in the physical world. The laws of experiential symbolism are however not unnatural, but normal phenomena in our everyday lives—laws that govern all our experiences such as dreams, fears, and inspirations.

Maugham succinctly tells an old story about fate, capturing in one paragraph the same darkness we experience when we sympathize for Laius and Jocasta, the parents of Oedipus. The master, in trying to protect his servant, actually propels his servant to death:

Death speaks: There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra. (4)

Why is this story so evocative? Maugham uses a series of curious techniques to invoke a mystical mood. The story’s voice is the spirit of Death itself, yet the storyline follows the Master’s perspective. The effect is to detach the story from the individuals, making it more indefinite as to whom the story really is about. Stylistically, the short story also omits quotation marks and compresses all dialog into one paragraph, violating contemporary stylistic conventions, with the effect that the voice seems to shift strangely with each pronoun. The storyteller is even in third person when first mentioned.

By omitting character names, and putting the action in Oriental cities (that would have been most obscure at the time of authorship), the story takes on a mystical air. The supernatural nature is further accentuated by Death’s professed surprise. Apparently, even the spiritual agent of Death that is mentioned in the story was not actually in control of its outcome, implying a higher, unmentioned source of control.

The physical details also seem odd. The servant’s death itself is not described at all, in fact, the death has not even occurred at the end of the story. Instead the details are of the coarse jostling and poor treatment of the horse by the servant. The character of Death, whom we expect to perform the main action or murder, is instead pushed into an incidental background. The story leaves us hanging with an ominous focus on the act of the Master. We are tempted to think he could not even have saved his servant by not obeying the servant’s command and lending the horse, because the invisible “higher force” would simply have intervened and changed events in a different way.

Maugham has used our suspension of belief, which we are accustomed to exercising while reading fiction, to give the power of fate greater mystical energy. By deflecting focus from the spiritual figure of Death, and leaving the actual agent of fate unmentioned, we are less inclined to question whether the character of Death himself of the higher force of fate is in fact real. By deflecting attention from the spiritual force and leaving agency unexplained, Maugham engages our own doubts on the existence of God, while simultaneously, the storyline tells us that some controlling agent must exist. Therein lies the ‘magic’ of the story; our attention is focused on the paradox of where the appointment with Death was to be, but the story is really about the unmentioned mystical nature of Fate, so well understood by the ancients, yet dismissed in modern times as unscientific confusion.

This deflection of attention is the typical sleight of hand of a magic trick, exercised in prose. The innocent reader may see the story as magical, but not know why. The experience seems inexplicable, and therefore magical. But there is nothing strange about the existence of magic. Magical powers cannot do anything that is unnatural, because magical laws are themselves natural manifestations of supernatural forces.
For the articles in current purview, the authors are touching on some of our darkest experiences—those where we are helpless in the face of events. Does this mean the forces behind the events are evil? There is nothing evil about the forces--Evil arises from how we let them influence us. In modern times, after reading these articles by Maugham and Yeats, most individuals simply feel uncomfortable and helpless, without knowing exactly why. Ancient wisdom tells us why we feel those ways, and what the servant should have done in Maugham’s story, should we choose to listen. As to what ancient wisdom tells us: that is another story!

Works Cited

Kennedy, X.J, and Dana Gioia, ed. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction Poetry, and Drama. 8th Edition. New York: Longman. 2002.

Maugham, W. Somerset. The Appointment in Samarra, Kennedy and Gioia 4.

Yeats, William Butler. The Second Coming. Kennedy and Gioia 1022.


- Ernest L. Meyer (copyright 2006)