PART 1 of 4
December 30, 2015
… we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl.
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl.”
~Madonna, “Material Girl” (1984)
Madonna’s first big hit defined, in part anyway, the mindset of a generation. What did this generation want? Material affluence, which became an ideal in the 1980s and beyond after its rejection two decades before. While that earlier era had its problems as we’ll see, the new materialism opened the door to the kind of business behavior which brought about the S&L crisis, a couple of decades later the Enron and Worldcom debacles, and then finally, the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. No, greed is not good! Greed does not work! But the story is longer and more complicated than this.
The word materialism has more than one meaning. It does not refer just to a preoccupation with material goods, affluence, or pleasures and excess, although those are legitimate uses of the term. As explained in my Four Cardinal Errors (2011) and in my ebook Philosophy Is Not Dead (2014), materialism also names a comprehensive philosophical worldview which began to replace Christianity as an intellectual and cultural force, first in Europe in the latter half of the 1700s and then more rapidly in the 1800s. In the 1830s, Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857) offered a philosophical ideology known as positivism, which would ensure that materialism became the dominant philosophy of science. Meanwhile, Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) developed his dialectical materialism underwriting a theory of historical progress resulting from material economic forces that would culminate in Communism. Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) offered a materialist theory of the origins of species, including humanity, with his theory of evolution by natural selection which quickly became the mainstay of modern biology. Wilhelm Wundt (1832 – 1920) developed an experimental psychology suitable for studying human beings conceived as little bundles of responses to stimuli: material boys and girls. As some of his leading students were Americans (e.g., G. Stanley Hall of Johns Hopkins University), he became the intellectual godfather of behaviorism as well as educational psychology as materialism came to the U.S.
Philosophically, the replacement of Christianity with materialism culminated when Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844 – 1900) Zarathustra proclaimed that “God is dead!” followed by Nietzsche’s own call for a “revaluation of all values.” Nietzsche was one of the most ruthlessly honest thinkers who ever lived. He realized that once God and transcendence vanished from your worldview, everything changed. Everything those notions made meaningful also vanished. The death of God meant the death of morality in any standard sense, and this could not be evaded forever. Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) penned “A Free Man’s Worship” (1903) and was more hopeful in finding ideals of peace and justice in the dead universe disclosed by materialist science. The impotence of these ideals was revealed in the disasters of future decades: the world wars, the brutal dictatorships, the casual genocides, the many hidden cruelties such as global sex trafficking (young girls kidnapped and forced into prostitution so sociopathic pimps could get rich), and finally the rising specter of scientific oligarchy by a technocratic elite.
Optimists insist that despite the carnage we have made incredible levels of technological progress thanks to scientific advances. This much is true. We have cured diseases, sent men into space and returned them safely, and now have the means to communicate with one another visually across oceans (e.g., with Skype). Violent crime in advanced nations has fallen consistently over time. Poverty has diminished. But we inhabit a world of dangerous imbalances. Viewed ethically, something is terribly wrong, and every thinking person knows this. Technology has also produced weapons capable of laying waste to continents. Some of its products threaten the food chain, the disruption of which would precipitate mass extinctions. Technologists splice genes, work on AI, and speak of “transhumanism.” I am reminded of one of the great movie lines of all time, from Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they forgot to stop and ask if they should” (Dr. Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum).
Materialism as trained philosophers use the term refers to a metaphysics, or theory of reality, a range of views we can summarize succinctly with the following:
(1) Reality means spatiotemporal reality, the physical universe. No sense is to be made of anything existing “outside of,” or “beyond” space and time, such as a God, or Heaven or Hell. Eternity and transcendence are meaningless concepts.
(2) What exists in spatiotemporal reality comes down to material things — physical entities (particles, forces, energy, however we cash out the specifics), which obey unyielding laws of physics and chemistry. Again, no sense is to be made of anything outside of these laws, such as God creating a world ex nihilo or performing miracles which would suspend or violate universal causality. The universe is self-existing and uncreated; it may have an origin and its present form an explanation, but these need not resort to any form of causality “beyond” physical or material nature. Naturalism, in other words, is the mandated methodology.
(3) Our only reliable means of knowing the world is naturalistic science, based on observation, hypothesis, experiment, data collection, theorizing, and replication. Natural science is just the use of the collective sense experience of trained and disciplined observers and experimenters in their various specialized domains. Science, unlike religion in this view, is not infallible but is self-correcting and progressive. Its authority, even if never settled, is decisive in what we can legitimately say we know about the universe. Outside of science, all is superstition, emotion, and unreason. Scientific methods have given rise to technological and economic progress, the world of relative comfort we now enjoy, and this is their primary validation.
(4) A human being is no less physical than anything else in nature. Our differences from other animals are differences in complexity, not in kind. 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). Free will is an illusion created by ignorance of the actual causes of our behaviors. It makes no sense to say we can act outside the world’s causal structure.
(5) The diagnosis of the human predicament comes down to the prevalence of superstition, a lack of disciplined scientific reason, flawed institutions (governmental, commercial, educational); prejudice, hatred, and fear of what is different; and — in general — ignorance. The cure: knowledge, through universal education, leading to consciousness of public goods, more responsible governance, better use of science and technology. Thus we will find our way to our philosophical adulthood, giving up childish notions about a ghostly man in the sky and standing on our own feet.
(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. While Darwinians have had ideas about morality as an evolutionary adaptation, in the last analysis if materialism is true there is nothing standing over us, even figuratively, insisting that we “be moral” and threatening punishment us if we disobey — aside from social sanction and the state, of course. Morality is in this sense an invention of cultures (a cultural artifact, an anthropologist might say), not a discovery of something built into nature.
Morality differs from place to place and from time to time, as anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887 – 1948) spelled out in her magnum opus Patterns of Culture (1934): cultural relativism, in which cultures draw from the many possible patterns of human behaviors possible for them to approve. What is “immoral” is whatever set of patterns a culture refuses to use.
Philosophers have struggled since the late 1700s to find some basis for stable morality in a material world, a very practical endeavor, as it was clear even then: if the majority of people did not behave ethically at least most of the time in the sense of being honest in their dealings, respecting others, helping and not hurting them, taking responsibility for their mistakes, etc., very soon you did not have a society. You had breakdown and chaos. This, though, was compatible with the idea that all morality does is serve as a kind of glue that cements cultures together by supplying a basis for resolving disagreements and solving societal problems, without any transcendent grounding. The Darwinians would say it had survival value. Cultures not adopting such mores do not survive. Simple as that.
Is this the only reason we should be moral in the material world? What if I can get away with not being so? Is there any reason I shouldn’t make the attempt?
� 2015 Steven Yates - All Rights Reserved
Steven Yates has a Ph.D. in philosophy and is the author of Four Cardinal Errors: Reason for the Decline of the American Republic (2011) and Philosophy Is Not Dead: A Vision of the Discipline’s Future (ebook, 2014). He blogs occasionally at WorldPress.com. He lives in Santiago, Chile with his wife and two spoiled cats, and is working on his own online education project, the New Lyceum Academy for Philosophical Studies (website forthcoming).