In philosophy of mind, materialism (also known as physicalism) is the view that certain neural processes are consciousness or generate consciousness. The basic idea is that everything (i.e., everything that exists) is physical or material, so consciousness must also be physical. Rather than advancing a critique of this view, I’d like, in this post, to look at the downstream consequences in mainstream culture. They are not good.
We’ve come to believe, erroneously yet persistently, that when the brain is dead the light of consciousness is snuffed out. And we’ve come, further, to presume that brain death spells the end of our identities.
If, as I’ve defined it before, meaning just is being in touch with some greater reality, then meaning is impossible for whatever creature is necessarily circumscribed by the limits of its own consciousness. The brain may, it’s alleged, be afforded “peak experiences” or “altered states,” but these are just that: temporarily altered states and not the delocalization and expansion of being into what there ultimately is.
It’s not for nothing that, owing partly to materialism, nihilism abounds.
Fear of Death
Materialism suggests that the death of the physical body entails the end of consciousness. And there is nothing more or else than this.
Given the ways in which materialism has flowed downstream, it’s not surprising that many people are deathly afraid of dying and of death. Moreover, many try, hubristically and impossibly, to “leave a dent in the universe” (Steve Jobs), so that they may feel as if their lives were not lived in vain. Existential anxiety is inevitable for any self-reflective person who has succumbed to the materialist worldview.
An Indifferent Universe
Neither classical physics nor quantum mechanics, unlike alchemy, makes any claims about an animated cosmos (anima mundi) wherein we might find ourselves. Instead, our lived experience is that the universe is indifferent, aloof, and mechanistically-mathematically understood. We feel it is, feel it as nothing to us, and this, I assure you, is a radical departure from understandings of the cosmos that predate modernity.
If I am just a limited consciousness, then I’m already primed to care about my life rather than a life shared in common. Whereas other religious traditions find ways of describing how one person may be “cut from the same cloth” as all other persons (for instance, Christianity invites us to see ourselves as “children of God” while Buddhism argues that there is nothing but Buddha nature all the way down), materialism can do no more than gesture toward homo sapiens‘s capacity to cooperate. Yet Covid-19 has exposed just how tenuous such an evolutionary argument is, at least in the United States. While materialism does not entail social atomism, it certainly prepares the way for its reception.
In the final analysis, materialism offers us no grounds for seeking because there is nothing to seek and nowhere to seek it. While the Axial Age helped to disclose the possibility of individual salvation through transcendence, our materialist paradigm can countenance no such possibility. Under materialism, there is no depth, no height, and no width; there is no way to seek, nothing worth seeking, and no reason to start seeking.
The only pallid options are forms of amelioration: habit changing, life hacking, wellness enhancement, and self-development.
We are in deep trouble and have been for quite a while.