Monday, 13 February 2017

The Decline of Materialism

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
Materialism is the theory that matter alone exists – however this is too simple. Let us assume, rather, that materialism is the arranging of our world in our minds – and since we are speaking of materialism, we do this on the basis of what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. 
That is, in speaking of materialism, we are speaking of all that we learn about a material world through our senses – either directly, or through the instruments which we use. And so defined, materialism may seem to promise us a complete understanding of our world. We have certainly made enormous strides. We are able to tease apart the sub-atomic world, see billions of years back in time, and map and manipulate the complex genetic code – among many other things. However, there are at least four limiting and complicating factors to a materialistic outlook, each of which vastly reduces its scope and its power:
• It is one thing to discover the laws of nature, yet quite another to predict their outcomes. We see an analogy in the game of chess. While the rules of the game are simple – a pawn advances like this, and a king like that – the outcome of these rules is another matter altogether. A chess board, which is simplicity itself in the scheme of things – a mere sixty-four squares and thirty-two pieces – taxes the human mind to the very limits of its powers. It is the easy part, one might say, to design a supercomputer, or to plot a trajectory to Pluto. The impossible part is to predict the ripples on a pond, or to anticipate the path of a snail on a wall. Worse than this, we too often fail to foresee the negative outcomes of laws we imagined we had mastered.

• If materialism is the arranging of a material world in our minds on the basis of what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, consider then that others, too, arrange the world in their minds – and these others enter my world and my considerations. It is not I alone now, who seek to arrange the world in my mind. As soon as I factor another human being into my thinking – let alone a few, even hundreds, not to speak of a million more – the complexity of knowing my world becomes unthinkable. It is beyond imagination on the graph of intrinsic complexity.  We therefore separate out such situations from the ‘natural sciences’, and call them ‘human sciences’. It happens wherever others enter the picture.

• The natural sciences are, in a sense, an open book. Yet in order to understand the human sciences, we need to understand how others arrange their worlds in their minds. In order to accomplish this, we now find that we need to understand how they communicate this – and we must infer it from semiotic codes.  A plethora of views, an ocean of feelings, vast beyond our comprehension, is expressed with facial expressions, nuances of speech, gestures, postures, behavioural codes, ideological codes, and so much more – all of them full of variation and caprice.  This takes us another quantum leap away from that materialism which advances through the senses.

• But the way that we use these semiotic codes, noted Jacques Derrida, we are continually deferring meaning.  Francis Bacon put it like this: words beget words (which beget words).  It is much like having money in a bank, which has its money in another bank, which has its money in another bank, and so on. It is easy to see that one will never access one's money. Which is to say that, while the things of sense seem concrete, our words merely hover over the surface of reality.  If mind and matter were to correspond in a one-to-one relationship, we would have to be mere ‘machines’. Yet suppose now that all living forms have such ‘hovering’ minds.  We may in fact be living in a vast, teeming world which is wakeful in every part.
Materialism, we said, is the arranging of our world in our minds, on the basis of what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. On the surface of it, this promises us a complete understanding of our world.  Yet then we come up against the problem of outcomes. Further, we come up against the problem of others – through which we separate out the human sciences. Then we discover that we need to engage with complex and subtle semiotic codes. And finally, we might need to account for a world which is populated not merely with seven billion human beings, but with living agents beyond number or knowing. One by one, each of these four steps, in quantum leaps, diminishes the usefulness of materialism. By and large, our advancing understanding of the world would seem to be taking us further and further away from the materialism the philosophers once knew.


  1. That's an Easter Duck, I presume...

  2. I think, perhaps there's an interesting parallel to be made between Easter as an occasion for chocolate eggs (hence materialist) and as a Christian celebration of an altogether immaterialist kind.

    Is the sense of the word 'materialism' not better convyed with 'empiricism' here? I do find isms are always shading one into another...

    1. It is Vaucanson's duck, except in colour. Voltaire wrote puzzlingly, 'Without the voice of le Maure and Vaucanson's duck, you would have nothing to remind you of the glory of France.'

      Materialism and empiricism do seem to shade into one another. Materialism = nothing exists but matter. Empiricism = we know everything through our senses. I sought to 'recast' materialism here, as this seemed to offer a way to better understand it.