The Existential Implications of Materialism

Materialism is the worldview in which it is believed that consciousness and all other phenomena arises as the result of the interactions among physical matter. Materialism is often accompanied by a few other world views which either validate materialism or are often erroneously used to do so. These other world views are logical-positivism, which holds that the only meaningful statements are those with physical evidence or which satisfies the rules of formal logic; and scientism, which holds that only the scientific method can provide meaningful statements. These three philosophical assumptions usually support one anothers conclusions while often being in conflict with other methods, world views and a philosophically and logically sound basis. All three rely on empiricism, yet the superiority of empirical methods cannot itself be proven empirically. Materialism and its counterparts work within the circular logic that its claims methodological superiority as objective Truth proven by its claims of methodological superiority as objective truth.

Before we go further into the philosophical, logical and existential problems of materialism, let us discuss the age old philosophical problem of free will versus predetermination. Although these concepts predate their usage in western monotheism, we will focus on the judeo-christian notions for simplicity and familiarity.

The theological concept of free will states that the creator has endowed us with the ability and freedom to choose between good and evil, right and wrong or any other decision great or small. If we have free will then we are responsible for our actions and therefore make the choice about how to spend our lives and eternity all on our own.

The opposite of free will is pre-determinism, which states that everything which ever has or will happen was determined by the creator prior to or at the time of creation. Every bit of reality and every choice has already been made before us and we are helpless to control our destiny. Even those decisions which we think are ours were already planned out for us before time and so whatever glory or misery we experience in this life or after is inescapable.

While most advanced Christian scholars hold to the idea of free will, believing their God to be just and fair, populists notions of biblical theology simplify and take literally some passages to such a degree that the average faithful persons beliefs reflect notions consistent with pre-determinism. The common parishioner in the evangelical west believes that God or his agents intervene or influence human affairs individually or at the group level. One can pray for such encouragement, guidance or assistance; which would be completely inconsistent with a God which gave us and expects us to use our individual free will.

The philosophical image of our existence portrayed by theologically ignorant pre-determinists is so logically unsatisfying that serious intellectuals have discarded it for centuries, both theists and atheists alike. As the new scientific, rationalist worldview began to replace the ideology of monotheism it began to adopt certain dogmatic premises of its own. Materialism and its counterparts have begun to replace religion ideologically within western culture. This has renewed the philosophical problem of pre-determinism as we shall explore.

The materialist worldview holds that human beings are merely a novel combination of physical materials which produce consciousness. This has become one of the greatest philosophical problems of modern times. While intellectuals outside the materialistic worldview argue that consciousness is not a product or side effect of matter, that it may be a separate but symbiotic phenomena or the cause of matter itself, materialists view individuals as machines whose thoughts, behaviors and choices are largely pre-determined by physical factors.

Within the field of neurology, scientists attempt to attribute all of our subjective phenomena as causal interactions within the electro/chemical circuitry of the body and brain. What we think, who we are, how we act and what we enjoy are all thought to be determined not by conscious choice but rather as effects of our physical being. Whether you are happy, law-abiding, prefer cheeseburgers to chicken wings or enjoy Mozart are not choices you have made or even accidental residues of your experience, but simply mechanistic reactions to the specific make up of your biological, neurological and genetic predispositions. In the materialistic worldview individuals are robots programmed to think and act as predetermined at the time before or at creation.

Although the materialistic worldview could possibly be objectively True, even though this is far from being proven at this point, what we can say about it is that it is philosophically and existentially demeaning. If we are no more than meaty automatons playing out some grand cosmic mishap then our lives have no meaning or purpose. Everything that we think, do or are, are means to no ends. Nothing really matters.

The pervasive idea of existential meaningless could prove to be correct. But unless I was only predetermined to think so, it seems to me that such an ideology is no basis from which to create human happiness. Such a nihilistic philosophical dead end as pre-deterministic materialism is counter-productive to our well being as individuals and as a species. Drawing from that basis there is no point in improving the human condition or seeking purpose, meaning and fulfillment. Unless we believe that these things are a choice, there is no way that we can chose them. Our beliefs about who and what we are help us to make the choices that entail human progress. And our beliefs about why we exist, although they may be unprovable, are the most important factor for determining what human progress means. While it may be impossible for any method or worldview to prove exactly why we exist, even though materialism and its counterparts can prove how we exist, the far more important question is often the one which is more difficult to answer. Refusing to address a question because you cannot be sure what form the answer may take is intellectually treacherous and cowardly.

I read about it on a placemat
In a diner I cannot recall
And what it stated was that
Nothing really matters at all
And it went on to say
In every way
That existence is accidental
But I thought that I may beg to differ
But how do you argue that
Life must have some kind of meaning
Unless
I guess
You are just a placemat

5 thoughts on “The Existential Implications of Materialism

  1. A Free Man’s Worship by Bertrand Russell provides a good discussion of how one might adapt to a universe that does not care about Mankind. The practice of science does not compel us to reject metaphysics but thinking people will usually come to that conclusion. If the universe and all it contains (both sentient and inert) is just an accident and without either purpose or permanence, so what? We have the intelligence to choose not to despair. Woody Allen’s films are fine examples of the adaptation of the individual to a silent universe.

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  2. I feel like there’s a fairly large assumption here that just because someone believes that what makes up consciousness is merely the physical makeup of the being means they also believe that choice does not exist and everything is predetermined. Consciously can be an accident of physical elements without also meaning that there is no external influence. There can be both. Things can be adaptable to their circumstances and malleable without having some metaphysical element.

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    1. If consciousness is an epiphenomena of matter, as materialist science insists, then consciousness is determined by that matter, which is driven by the genes agenda for evolutionary fitness. If you believe in materialism and free will, then you must reject all the evidence materialism has produced.

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      1. Maybe I’m misunderstanding you, but I feel like you’re missing my point. If memory exists, and consciousness is just a result of physical aspects alone, then clearly the outside world can have an effect. Maybe the physical drives how we can deal with it, but what happens to us clearly affects our actions given that we learn from past events. Nothing is predetermined in so much as anything that happens around us can change how we proceed going forward.

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