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Materialism and Its Discontents

Keith Ward, God and the Philosophers (Augsburg Fortress: 2009), Excerpt, pp. 143-147.

The clear facts of consciously valued experience and of freely chosen purpose, the intelligibility and elegance of the deep structure of the physical world, the visions of transcendent value in art, the categorical demands of duty and of the search for truth, and the testimony of so many to a felt power making for goodness and uniting the mind to a higher selfless reality of wisdom and bliss — all these things the materialist has to consign to illusion. May it not be that it is the materialist who is refusing to see what is there?

Materialism may possess the powerful attraction of economy and simplicity in its basic postulates, but it also has some major discontents. These are discontents that a materialist may feel in trying to arrive at a wholly adequate and plausible account of reality as we know it in experience. They pose severe problems for materialism. And though the problems may be insoluble or may just have to be lived with, they remain sources of dissatisfaction for anyone who wants to adhere on philosophical grounds to a wholly materialist philosophy.

A first discontent is that the ultimate basis of matter now seems to be unknown. Contemporary materialism faces some very grave problems, largely raised by quantum physics. This is particularly annoying for materialists, since science tends to be a major plank on which materialism is based. The gravest objection is that it has become increasingly hard to say just what ‘matter’ is. If your philosophical theory is that everything that exists is composed of matter, it is frustrating to admit that you don’t know what matter is. Matter is very unlike hard solid lumps of stuff. It seems to be a ‘veiled reality’, beyond space and time as we experience them. So it is not clear that consciousness, or some form of mentality or conceptual world, can be ruled out as impossible in principle. If that is so, materialism in the strict sense is no longer so appealing.

A second discontent is that consciousness — thoughts, feelings, sensations, images, and intentions — remains almost wholly inexplicable in purely physical terms. Materialists take out a blank cheque on the future, and say that we may find a physical explanation one day. But the truth is that no one has the slightest idea even of what such an explanation might be. The contents of consciousness seem to be new, emergent and irreducible sorts of reality, and even the most reductive physicalist occasionally feels a twinge of unease that there may be more to consciousness than matter.

A third discontent is that morality seems very difficult to account for in physical terms. Perhaps the human sense of moral obligation and the importance of pursuing moral ideals can be accounted for in terms of evolutionary psychology. But there remains a nagging feeling that moral values have a categorical and objective force that appeal to genetic and cultural imprinting alone cannot fully explain. To found morality simply on achievable compromises between conflicting human desires may be what the materialist has to do. But how then can we avoid losing that sense of self-sacrificial action for the sake of doing what is right and just, that most of us secretly admire?

A fourth discontent is that we would have to renounce any sense of objective purpose in life. We might have to grit our teeth and bear it. We might even learn to enjoy the thought that we live in a pointless universe, where there is nothing for the sake of which our lives ought to be lived, unless we more or less arbitrarily decide on some ephemeral goal of our own choosing. Yet the sense that our lives, however obscurely, fulfill some sort of plan, or realise some ‘proper’ or authentically human possibilities, is hard to escape. Even Jean-Paul Sartre’s determination to live in total freedom is, in some sense, a determination to live an authentic human life, to be what humans ought to be. We would really need to be very certain of the fact that there is no purpose or goal in human existence, to undermine the common human sense of purpose or destiny. The discontent is that we can never be certain enough of our theoretical disproof of purpose to be quite sure that the sense of purpose many people feel is illusory.

A fifth discontent is evoked by our committment to rational thinking and to the postulate that our universe has an intelligible and rational structure. Philosophy, logic, mathematics and science all presuppose that it is possible and important to understand the world in a rational way, and that our theories and opinions are not just the products of complex chains of physical causes and effects which happen not to have been eliminated by excessive inefficiency. Committment to reason points to the rationality of bring itself. And whatever matter is, there is absolutely no reason why it should have a rational structure, or why rational thought should be able to discern that structure. The discontent is that materialism, in seeking to be the most rational way of understanding the world, seems to presuppose that there is a rational basis for the world, that the world is not just a chain of purely contingent physical causes and effects. Materialism always seems to be in danger of undermining its own claims by its undue concern for truth as an ultimate value.

A sixth discontent is that, for a materialist, there is no possibility of a final explanation of the universe. There is no possible explanation of why there is something rather than nothing, and of why what exists is the way it is. The materialist may reply that no such final explanation is possible on any view, and that we must stop all explanations at some more or less arbitrary point. But many, possibly most, philosophers have held that there can be a self-existent being, necessarily what it is and a source of supreme value. Humans may not be able to comprehend the nature of such a being in any adequate detail. But they can discern its possibility, and the fact that it must be a reality of supreme rational necessity and intrinsic value, from which the universe flows in an intelligible way. It is a major philosophical discontent of materialism that there is not even the possibility of such final explanation.

A seventh discontent is that the thoughts of some of the greatest philosophers and the experiences of thousands of the wisest and most morally heroic mystics and religious teachers, will have to be set aside as delusions. It is depressing in the extreme to view the lives and experiences of those who have loved the Good and the Beautiful for its own sake, who seem to have achieved the peak of human achievement and experience, and whose lives are transparently joyful, kind and gracious — and to conclude that they are founded on a mistake. I am inclined to say that, even if such lives are based on mistaken beliefs, it is better to live in such a way, and to do so would never give cause for regret. Where — as is actually the case — there is no objective way of deciding whether such beliefs are mistaken or not, it must be a cause for discontent that some of the most intense, reflective and creative experiences in human history will have to be discounted because of some rather abstract and highly disputed theory that only material things, and nothing but material things, exist.

These are some of the discontents of materialism. They do not demonstrate that materialism is false. But they may throw some doubt on the claims to theoretical certainty that materialism is a true and adequate interpretation of human experience of reality, and of the nature of reality itself.