Materialism (vers 2.0., Part 3)

“Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do crumbles to the ground although we refuse to see.
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind.”
~Kansas, “Dust in the Wind” (1977)

What, precisely, is this materialist “ethos” or worldview we’ve been going on about?

As trained philosophers tend to use the term, materialism refers not to a lifestyle or the love of Mammon but to a metaphysics, or theory of reality: or more precisely, a range of such. It may also refer to a methodology, which operates as if the metaphysics can be taken as a given. Some speak of a broader metaphysics and methodology, naturalism, which could include nontheistic religious like Buddhism.

Materialism, in this case, is one form of naturalism. To reduce the risk of confusion, I will speak just of materialism.

There are different forms of materialism. Marxist materialism was/is a quite different animal from the consensus that has come to prevail beneath English-speaking science. I am more interested in what different forms of materialism have in common. This is not hard to summarize:

(1) Reality means spatiotemporal reality, the physical universe we can see or detect with our senses and scientific instruments — that which can be touched, quantified, measured, analyzed, etc. Spatiotemporal just means the three dimensions of space plus time. According to materialism no sense is to be made of anything existing “outside of,” or “beyond” or “transcending” space and time, such as a God, or Heaven or Hell, or an afterlife. These are all cognitively meaningless — fodder for poets, perhaps, but not to be taken seriously otherwise.

(2) What exists in spatiotemporal reality comes down to spatiotemporal, material things — entities the behavior of which is described by unyielding laws of physics and chemistry: material objects, systems, particles, forces, energy, however we cash out the specifics. Again, no sense is to be made of any event violating these unyielding laws, such as God creating the world ex nihilo, or Jesus Christ performing miracles which would suspend or violate universal causality (e.g., being resurrected). The universe as a whole is self-existing and uncreated. It may have an origin and its present form an explanation, but however difficult this explanation, it need not resort to any form of causation “beyond” physical or material nature. We are not to assume anything exists “outside” physical or material nature, or that it is possible for an entity to act outside the causal structure of the universe.

(3) Our only reliable means of knowing the world is empirical science, based according to its own narrative on observation, hypothesis, experiment, data collection, theorizing, further testing, and replication. Natural science is just the use of the collective experience and education of trained and disciplined observers and experimenters in their various specialized domains, reaching the consensus that best fits the available data. This is the body of presumed scientific knowledge, consistent across specialized disciplines. Science, thus conceived, is not infallible. But its method ensures that science is self-correcting and progressive. Its consensus will therefore change as new data become available and are integrated into the body of knowledge.

Religion, on the other hand, purports to reveal, infallibly (as it comes from God Himself or a god or some other transcendent source), eternal and absolute truths of fact and morality unseen and therefore not amenable to scientific testing and validation.

In this view, the consensus of natural science, even if never completely settled, is decisive in what we can legitimately say we know about the universe or some part of it, such as the origins of life or of civilization or the human personality. Outside of empirical science, all is superstition, unreason, and poetry. Scientific methods have given rise to technological and economic progress. They have proven they can be relied upon. When people are sick, they go to doctors trained in scientific medicine. They do not go to faith healers. When a plague or an outbreak of illness occurs, we no longer see it as sent by the devil. We bring in specialists who develop vaccines. We no longer try to cast out demons. We consult psychologists or other counselors.

Thus we now enjoy a world of relative comfort — greater overall prosperity, better sanitation, a lengthened life span — compared with that of our ancestors say, 500 years ago or even more recently.

To those thinking in such terms, this is materialism’s primary validation. Science just is materialism. Technology and medicine, applied scientific principles, offer it further confirmation.

(4) A human being, as just implied, is no less material than anything else in nature. Our differences from other animals are differences in complexity, not kind. We are not “special,” but rather, one species of primate. Evolution did not “aim” to produce us. It had/has no “goals.” Our existence is a grand cosmic accident, as is life itself. The mind is just the brain (or, perhaps, the brain, senses, and central nervous system, along with their contents however understood). Free will, according to the behaviorist, is an illusion created by ignorance of the actual causes of our behaviors. Again, it makes no sense to say we can act outside the world’s causal structure.

(5) The materialist diagnosis of the human predicament comes down to the prevalence of superstition or lack of disciplined scientific reason, and flawed institutions based on outdated modes of thought (governmental, commercial, educational, ecclesiastical). There is also irrational prejudice, hatred, and fear of what is different; and — in general — ignorance. The cure: knowledge, through universal education, leading to better uses of science and technology, more responsible and accountable governance, through consciousness of the need for a proper balance between private enterprise and public goods.

Thus we will find our way to our Comtean third stage philosophical adulthood, giving up childish notions about a ghostly man in the sky. Adults stand on their own feet. They do not accept statements on untestable faith. They face the universe, however emptied of their earlier superstitions, with determination and courage.

(6) In term of ethics, if there is no God or transcendence, then as Russell observed, morality must be found in this world, or in ourselves, in our highest ideals however hard they are to put into practice, however often we stumble and fall in the process. While Darwinians have had ideas about morality as an evolutionary adaptation, in the last analysis if materialism is true there is no moral authority standing over us, even figuratively, outside of human culture, insisting that we “be moral” and threatening punishment us if we disobey. There is just our sense that happiness is better than unhappiness, pleasure is superior to pain, that progress is possible so that the future can be better than the past, that each of us should work to make it so, and that there should be social sanction for those who don’t.

There is, of course, the state, as an agency of punishment for those who initiate violence (cause pain) to their fellows, or otherwise break the rules their society has adopted over time.*

Morality is in this sense an invention of cultures (a cultural artifact), not a discovery of something somehow “built into” nature. What does this last even mean?

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887 – 1948) put it like this in her magnum opus Patterns of Culture (1934): to paraphrase, morality differs from place to place and from time to time. It is no less amenable to scientific study than anything else. There are many possible patterns of human behavior a culture can draw on. What is moral in a given culture are the behaviors that are expected and socially approved. Immorality, for a given culture, is just those habits the culture has refused to use. The ancient Greeks around the time of Socrates and Plato saw homosexual love as a higher type of love than heterosexual love. Homosexuality was condemned when Christianity, which rejected homosexual conduct as sinful, became the dominant worldview. Once materialism began to replace Christianity, these injunctions began to weaken. Over the past few decades the public ethos has shifted from rejection to acceptance of homosexual conduct, relationships, and even marriages. Given the materialist outlook presupposed by Ruth Benedict, in which morality is fundamentally cultural and changes as a culture changes, nothing we have seen in the Western embrace of homosexuality is out of the ordinary.

It is philosophers who have struggled since the late 1700s to find some basis for stable universal morality in a material world. Most have never been comfortable with cultural or moral relativism. Theirs is hardly an impractical or otherworldly endeavor, even if the “practical” men (and women) across the worlds of government and commerce mostly ignore it. We assume we made moral progress when we got rid of chattel slavery, or afforded women the right to vote. Do we not? We assume that a world free of racism and racial prejudice is morally superior to a world which sustains them. Do we not?

But in the absence of an articulate standard outside both our present and our past, how do we justify the claim that we made progress, as opposed to mere changes of accepted beliefs, behaviors, and institutions? When cultures meet, moreover, begin to communicate, and discover they have deep disagreements on fundamentals, how do they resolve their disagreements? The usual means, historically, has been for the two to battle it out, one finally overwhelming and offering the other a Pickwickian choice: adopt our mores, or perish! A generation passes, and the new cohort accepts the formerly alien mores as normal and expected. Again, would we call this progress?

Why be moral, moreover? This is a question that has often reared its less-than-pretty head. It has long been clear: if the majority of people did not behave with “practical ethics” at least most of the time in the sense of being honest in their dealings with others, respecting them, not stealing from them, not acting violently towards them, helping them and not hurting them, taking responsibility for their own mistakes, etc., very soon they did not have a culture. They had breakdown and chaos.

This realization, though, seems compatible with the idea that what morality does is serve as a kind of glue that cements cultures together by supplying a basis for laws or at least a set of best practices for personal conduct, resolving disagreements, and solving societal problems, without any transcendent grounding. Darwinians say that morality has survival value. Cultures not embracing a range of mores such as the above do not survive. Simple as that.

And if no one is harmed, then what is wrong with Madonna being a “material girl” and celebrating her sexuality all these years? Or a Miley Cyrus? Or, for that matter, a group that disclosed in advance its choice to perform in public nightclubs stark naked and engage in sex acts on stage? One can surely imagine, and possibly find, cultural forms of life that do not share Western hang-ups about nudity. Perhaps “lewdness” is in the eye of the beholder. Especially if no one is forced to go inside and watch.

But of course, the materialist is not necessarily a mere hedonist who loves pleasure (which, one should note in passing, different hedonists may define in quite different ways).

The materialist appealing to, say, the Libertarian proscription against initiating force (the non-aggression principle) may ask: why do I need a god to tell me that deceiving my fellow humans for personal gain, stealing from them, or acting violently towards them, is wrong?

But how does the materialist who goes this route profess to know that murder is wrong? Because it deliberately initiates force again, and destroys, a human life? Why is that wrong?

The abortionist forcibly ends a human life, and may be condemned by some but not by all.

Do we get to pick and choose? Who is “we”?

The man who injects a prisoner condemned to death by the legal system also forcibly ends a life, and many regard it as a plus that the Ted Bundys of the world are removed permanently from society.

What is interesting is that we do not call this killing. We use a euphemism: capital punishment. (Well, some people do call it the death penalty, which is more accurate. But then again, the state has always killed people legally, even if some have disagreed that this was a good thing.)

Is cultural approval versus disapproval, grounded in law if possible, or simply disseminated through education until it gains traction, the only justification we can find for moral sanction in a material world?

Surely it is self-evident that this is a sociological and not a rational justification. Or are we still making that distinction?

Finally, what if I have discovered how easy it is to flout the moral rules of my culture without getting caught? This could be something small, such as stealing office supplies from my employer, or something large, such as setting up a “business” that scammed people out of their hard-earned money.

The situation might be worse. What if my friends and I have decided, and figured out a way, to accumulate not just immense wealth but power over the body politic (immense wealth leads to power when it can buy a governmental apparatus), to rule over as we see fit. We may ignore whether those under our thumbs approve or disapprove? What can they do about it? If we are sufficiently powerful (including having bought control over military leaders), no outside force dares challenge us!

According to materialism, there is no Higher Authority to bring us back into line.

Is there any ultimate reason we shouldn’t make the attempt? Or any basis for challenging those who have made it?

Has this already happened, at least in part? In Part 2, we saw that it has.

Continued in Part 4.

*I am leaving discussion of the possibility of rejecting the state as a legitimate institution for a future installment.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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2 Responses to Materialism (vers 2.0., Part 3)

  1. “All we are is dust in the wind.”
    Or chemical scum as Stephen Hawkings put it. I wonder whether life need be so very complex as your posts suggest? I wonder if beneath your philosophical musing you may be able to wring great simplicity out of great complexity?

    After all String Theorists would have us believe that all matter, all energy is at bottom a “mere” collection of one dimensional strings of energy.

    I wonder whether humans might do better by seeking the way to manipulate the pain pleasure axis than spend an eternity wondering about questions which are, for the foreseeable future, unanswerable.

    At heart, it seems probable to me that there is no “meaning” other than that we create in this arguably pantheistic universe.

    You, me and everyone else has various basic needs. Perhaps society should work on satisfying those first and at the same time make universal happiness the goal since that, I believe, must be what drives us all in the end. Even if most of us do not realise it.

    Frankly after a lifetime of search the sort of philosophy promoted by David Pearce is all that interests me. And research into qualia and the pain pleasure axis. If we get that right, my belief is we would find existential anxiety to be a mere symptom of deep rooted human fear and unhappiness.

  2. Incidentally non of what I say is criticism. I like your post very much and agree with the vast majority of what you say. My own website is subtitled “Weltanschauung – a search for the Soul”. Even though like you I am a man of science and therefor use the term metaphorically.

    My comments are therefor not flippant, nor meant to be. And I am serious about David Pearce and the abolitionist project. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Pearce_(philosopher)

    I do not believe that we will find absolutes in the universe other than the physical laws that you describe. But we must not forget the many worlds theory which may yet prove to have found the winning formula in which case physical laws are not absolutes but will differ from universe to universe.

    Science and philosophy are all that we have, practically speaking, to lead us forward. And indeed all that we should have now that the man of reason has disposed of god and his ilk.

    So we may as well use it to make ourselves happy. There may be no up and no down in the universe. No left and no right. Equally therefore no “right” and no “wrong”.

    Therefore perhaps happiness is the only worthy pursuit. Yes we may argue that Pol Pot’s happiness or Stalin’s may be in torture, ethnic cleansing and murder but my suspicion would be that were these men truly “happy” and at peace with themselves they would not find the need to make a hell of the lives of their compatriots.

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