Materialism

My year-long struggle with materialism may finally be ended.

I shall summarize the problem. For a long time I objected to materialism without knowing why. Eventually I made a concerted attempt to articulate my problems with it.

It turns out that my strongest ethical intuition is that whatever happens is good and acceptable. There is no true wrongness in existence. Ethics consists of following the way of the universe, without fighting for or against anything. My inability to believe in badness constrains my worldview significantly.

Every sufficiently developed metaphysics implies an ethics, and every sufficiently developed ethics implies a metaphysics. For instance, Christianity has both a metaphyics (God exists, Jesus is his son sent to save humanity, we go to heaven or hell when we die) and an ethical theory (be a good Christian). The metaphysics and the ethics do not make sense without each other. If the metaphysics is false, then it makes no sense to follow the ethics. If the metaphysics is true, then the ethics are the only ethics that it makes sense to follow. We may make similar comments about every religion. Each religion gives us a metaphysics and an ethics which cannot be separated from each other.

Materialism is a metaphysics, so under our theory it must imply an ethics. What ethics does it imply? Precisely this: that nothing objectively matters, and we can choose to hold whatever value system we care to hold. Note carefully that under many metaphysics, this is not true.

For a long time I rejected materialism because I did not agree with the ethics that it implied. To me, materialism was a despairing worldview. The chief problem I had was that materialism does not place inherent value on humanity or enlightenment. The most serious problem was the idea that we die with our bodies. It seemed wrong to me that human existence should be limited and finite, and that it should be possible for this thing, the only thing of value, to be destroyed by unconscious, amoral, and random forces.

I felt that the world existed for the sake of humans, and humans existed for the sake of God. The goal of the natural world was to become human, and the goal of humans was to become God. This ethics necessarily implies a metaphysics. It requires us to postulate the existence of God, postulate reincarnation, and in doing so reject materialism.

An additional aspect of my problem was my inability to believe in true badness. I cannot believe in hopeless situations. It could conceivably be the case that humans are what matter, and that human existence is limited, finite, and subject to arbitrary annihilation. But under this worldview, evil exists. So I cannot hold this view.

At this point the only solution I saw was to reject materialism. But this was difficult for me to do, because I felt that I might be deceiving myself. There is no observable evidence to the effect that materialism is false. Materialism is, if not definitely true, certainly a possibility that is not ruled out by the evidence. The only thing that ruled it out was my ethics. Being a logical person, I was not comfortable with this.

A couple nights ago I came to a resolution of this problem, and possibly the end of my long struggle with materialism. I came to believe in the possibility — though not the certainty — that materialism is true. In order to do this I had to become emotionally OK with the possibility.

The dam broke when I realized that dying and permanently ceasing to be conscious could be like enlightenment. I thought, maybe humanity and consciousness is a cosmic accident that has no bearing on anything, and the universe as it is, dead and amoral and unconscious, is just fine without it. I was able to believe this, and be OK with it.

In part I was able to believe it because it lined up well with things I already felt. I already saw humanity as a piece of gum on a giant cosmic shoe. I already felt that the way of the universe was askew from human concerns, and that really our existence was subordinate to the existence of another force unimaginably vaster and grander than ourselves.

These were never propositions of despair for me, because I always saw the higher force as good. I always wanted to be on its side. Thus, my only ethics was to follow the way of the universe. Whatever the higher force wants, I want. If this isn’t true, then I just need to change what I want until it is in conformity with the way of the universe.

So I translated the foregoing ideas into the context of materialism. Under materialism, the universe doesn’t care about humanity. OK, then; if materialism is true, then I don’t care about humanity. If it’s possible for me to die, then I am OK with dying. If it’s possible for the whole human race to be gobbled up by nanobots in the next ten minutes, then I can accept that as a good outcome.

I’m OK with the idea that a human is not a more valuable form of existence than say, a star or a squirrel or a rock. I’m OK with the idea that consciousness is not more valuable than unconsciousness, that intelligence is not more valuable than unintelligence. If that’s true, then when we die we just change to a different form which is neither better nor worse.

My impulse to believe in universal goodness is, apparently, so strong that I am more ready to stop caring about humanity than I am to stop having faith in the way of the universe.

I am not at all depressed any more by the idea that materialism is true. Actually, it has broken down the walls between myself and nature. I used to be caught in the Enlightenment idea that humans are superior to nature and that it exists for us. Now I feel that we are one with nature and not superior to it. All physical things appear more wonderful to me now that I see them as being as valuable as I am.

Under materialism, nothing matters. But this does not have to be a proposition of despair. If nothing matters, then by virtue of this everything is beautiful and acceptable.

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  1. #1 by Eric on December 19, 2011 - 5:22 am

    Are you sure that Materialism is a metaphysics? Your average materialist may disagree, because remember that they do not believe in the metaphysical. It’s like saying this water looks blue, this water looks red, this water looks green, and this water… Oh, that’s just an empty glass without water in it. In fact, now that I think of it- the other waters that I thought I saw don’t exist.

    So I’m not sure Materialism really implies an ethics, although it does imply a worldview, I think.

  2. #2 by antitheology on December 19, 2011 - 5:35 am

    That’s a very good point. I’ve noticed an unfortunate double meaning to the word “metaphysics,” and I find myself using it both ways.

    On the one hand “metaphysics” can mean the study of that which is beyond the physical: the truths which we can’t determine through our senses, and which are therefore outside the domain of science.

    On the other hand “metaphysics” can mean the study of existence in general: the attempt to determine, from a bird’s eye view, what the universe looks like.

    So in the first meaning, materialism is not a metaphysical theory. In the second meaning, materialism is a metaphysical theory.

    The word “metaphysics” is problematic, but I don’t see much to be done about the problem. The vocabulary we need isn’t really there, and inventing new vocabulary is something to be stringently avoided in my opinion.

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