There are two major definitions of materialism, which we tend to conflate in casual consideration. [See Wikipedia entry.]
The doctrine of philosophical materialism states that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications – and consciousness and will are wholly due to material agency. This is closely related to physicalism, the view that all that exists is ultimately physical.
Then there is the related economic materialism, a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values, such as compassion for others.
I believe that both of these belief systems are inherently misguided and self defeating. Let me explain.
Many scientists believe in philosophical materialism, with a touching faith that consciousness will eventually be explained by science in material terms. This faith is closely linked to scientism, defined in Wikipedia as belief that empirical science and the scientific method provide the most “authoritative” worldview.
It seems to me that this is not really tenable, despite the undoubted cleverness of some of its adherents.
If we simply observe, we see our inner consciousness and an outer world – inner and outer. It is reasonable to accept that all beings of any scale experience that inner and outer – if not, where is the point of discontinuity?
As Descartes suggested, the outer is measurable, objective – and became the subject matter for the emerging science. Science became very good at creating mathematical models of the objective and establishing technologies to manipulate it, hence the technological wonders of the modern world. [Of course, any mathematician will tell you that Gödel’s theorem applies to such models, and it is impossible to construct a complete model that answers all questions. It cannot be done.]
The inner, subjective is the arena of qualities and values and cannot be objectively measured directly, so science cannot get a proper handle on it. It can try to generalise with statistics and probabilities, and it can establish material correlates [such a neurological] – all subject to the scientific method. But that’s about it.
Note that I do not mean to denigrate science itself, which is wonderful in its own domain. But it does have its limited field of application and should not imply that it can do more than it can.
Economic materialism appears to be a dominant paradigm among that class of people who drive the economic development of our great corporations and economies. It is perhaps expressed most strongly in the extreme capitalist conception that the business enterprise must make money as its primary objective, and that all other considerations (which clearly include anything to do with values and the subjective) are secondary. Thus the leaders of a corporation are required to act in the ‘interest’ of shareholders to the detriment of all else, except where explicitly forbidden by laws, which are mostly arguable by that most inventive of professions – the legal. Civil society, what is right or the public interest are well down the list of priorities – hence the widespread tax avoidance common today.
The comforting theory is that the ‘invisible hand’ will make it all work out well in the end. It is even arguable that while economies are growing this attitude works well, there are always jobs, and inflation ensures that things do not get out of hand.
But here we are, and for many years the limits to growth have become increasingly apparent. Now our very planetary environment is at stake – with climate change related effects, inexorably increasing pollution, species loss, impoverished soils and seas, resource scarcity etc – and economic growth is stalled worldwide.
And the focus on ‘money at all costs’ by corporations and governments appears to stall any attempts to properly address the threats represented by climate change and pollution.
So, in the end, this would seem to be another self-defeating paradigm whose time has passed. The focus on outer has forgotten what really matters – the inner people, their values, their relationships, their compassion,… We need to go back to doing what is right, not what makes the most money.
Both these sorts of materialism have led us up a cul de sac, and it is difficult to see how we can get out. Their time has come and gone; we need to rediscover our place in the natural world. We need to understand and act on the inner, as well as the outer.
Martin Luther King said something similar, using completely different language, a year before he was assassinated:
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin—we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
From Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” address
I have tagged this blog item ‘conceptus’, in memory of a personal project I took on in the 1980s on an early computer. I aimed to set down in ‘The Conceptus’ key concepts that I thought it was important to understand, at a time of great change and personal development. I guess this idea is still within, so I will from time to time publish items with this tag when it seems appropriate.