I. Definition and Key Ideas
Unlike the popular definition of materialism—caring only about material things—the philosophy of materialism is a claim about the nature of reality. Materialism is the belief that everything is made of matter and energy, with no “immaterial” entities like souls, spirits, or supernatural gods. In addition, materialists do not believe in “metaphysical transcendence,” or any layer of being that goes beyond the material world.
Materialism is also a central element of secular humanism, a movement that rejects traditional religion in favor of living an ethical life based on reason and compassion rather than obedience to any God or holy book. Secular humanists believe in science and the betterment of human life, and try to draw on the best that human thought has produced, often reading in ancient philosophy and Eastern religions, which are easier to reconcile with materialism than western religions.
II. Materialism Examples in Pop Culture
“Those who see the cosmic perspective as a depressing outlook, they really need to reassess how they think about the world. Because when I look up in the universe, I know I’m small but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe, and the universe is connected to me.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson)
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a popular television personality with ideas similar to those of Sagan and Feynman from section 3. Here, he expresses one of the basic ideas of materialism: because we are entirely made of matter and energy, just like the rest of the universe, we are intimately connected with that universe. The atoms that make up your body were all created during cosmic explosions — so even though you are not the creation of any god, in the materialist view, you are still part of the vast, dynamic organism that is the universe.
In the video game Civilization: Beyond Earth, there are several pseudo-religious factions with strong materialist elements. The Supremacy Affiliation, for example, will cause the player’s civilization to worship technology, dedicating their lives to cyborg immortality. This religion has many of the same elements as a traditional religion, including a hierarchical structure and more than a few overzealous fanatics – but it’s entirely based on a materialist philosophy.
III. Materialism vs. Transcendence
Transcendence is an important idea in many philosophical and religious traditions, but it has a complicated relationship with materialism. To understand this relationship, we have to keep in mind several different kinds of transcendence:
- Metaphysical / Ontological transcendence (rejected by materialism)
There is a layer of existence beyond the material world. Everything that we see, touch, or experience is only one layer of reality and we can achieve enlightenment, which will liberate us from the limitations of this material world.
- Epistemological transcendence (OK in materialism)
Human knowledge is limited. Our minds are not capable of grasping all aspects of reality, so we should be humble about how much we truly understand the world. It is possible to have “transcendental” experiences, caused by music, religious ritual, dreaming, etc., but these experiences only take us beyond our usual sphere of knowledge and perception, not beyond the boundaries of the material world.
- Ethical transcendence (OK in materialism)
To become moral people, we have to expand our consciousness beyond the self, and embrace a broader “self” that includes others. Parents, for example, may have ethical transcendence when they feel their children’s pain as their own. The ultimate goal of ethical transcendence would be to expand this sort of empathy to all humans, or even to all sentient beings.
The word “transcendence” means “going beyond,” and if you have trouble remembering the different forms of transcendence, just think about what they’re going beyond:
- Metaphysical / ontological transcendence: going beyond the material world
- Epistemological transcendence: going beyond the limits of human knowledge
- Ethical transcendence: going beyond the self
And there are many specific practices for transcendence; pretty much every religion has its methods and ideas about transcendence. But in general, they all involve altered states of consciousness, with meditation and prayer being the most common nowadays, whereas shamanism was the most widespread method during the most ancient times.
IV. Famous Quotes About Materialism
“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe… At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure . . . ” (Richard P. Feynman)
Materialists are often criticized for failing to see the full richness of reality. They are accused of “reducing” everything to dull matter, thus stripping it of its beauty, mystery, and majesty. But materialists reject this claim, arguing that the material world is incredibly beautiful and mysterious when examined closely. Physicist Richard Feynman beautifully sums up this view by pointing out that a materialist scientist can appreciate the beauty of a flower while at the same time appreciating the beauty of its cell structure, its evolution, its ecology, etc.
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” (Carl Sagan)
Like Feynman, Carl Sagan was a scientist and author who argued for the beauty and mystery of the materialistic world. In this quote, he emphasizes that “spirituality” doesn’t necessarily mean anything supernatural or unscientific – it means the experience of awe at the mystery and majesty of the universe, an experience that science can provide .
V. The History and Importance of Materialism
Western materialism is usually traced back to ancient Greece, when the philosopher Democritus came up with the idea that everything in the universe is made up of “atoms,” and these atoms, in different arrangements, make up all the different things we see around us in the world. Very few people took Democritus seriously at the time, but of course his idea turned out to be remarkably accurate.
Materialism exploded in importance during the Scientific Revolution. In this period, the early scientists were developing experimental methods that we still use today, and laying the foundations for a modern scientific understanding of the universe. For many of these scientists, materialism was not an ontological conclusion, but a methodological assumption. That is, it wasn’t a truth that they discovered or necessarily believe in, but rather a working assumption that they made in order to arrive at truth; they realized that they had to stick to things that could be observed and measured in order to prove anything.
So they didn’t necessarily think there was no God (almost all of the early scientists were devout Christians), but they believed we could understand the world more deeply than just by saying “God did it.” And since science successfully discovers materialistic explanations wherever it seems irrational to look for supernatural explanations. Science has never denied that God exists, and many scientists see themselves as discovering God’s handiwork as they study nature. However, it is true that science makes God seem less relevant.
As science developed and proved more effective than older philosophies, this methodological assumption gradually morphed into a metaphysical conclusion. Scientists, and fans of science, increasingly accepted materialism based on their belief in its beauty and completeness, rather than just treating it as a provisional assumption. That’s how we ended up with thinkers like Feynman and Sagan in the previous section, who are dedicated to the materialistic vision of the universe.
In addition to the religious controversies, materialism is criticized for not being able to account for free will. The material world, as traditional science understands it, is governed entirely by materialistic laws: if you know the location and velocity of three billiard balls at one time, you can mathematically predict where they will go at any point in the future, including how they will bounce off of each other. It would take a lot of information and some complex calculations, but you could do the same for the material universe as a whole. Quantum theory makes the predictions inherently probabilistic instead of determined, but that isn’t any better for “free will.”
Given that the material universe is determined in this way, how can free will be possible? If human beings are entirely just biological machines, then everything we do is entirely determined by the laws of physics; there’s no room for free will. Many materialists are determinists, meaning they view free will as an illusion, and deny that it has any reality.
However, there’s another way out of the problem, called compatibilism. For compatibilists, determinism and free will are both true. They arrive at this conclusion in various ways, which are fascinating but too complex to lay out in full in this article. One compatibilist strategy, for example, is to argue that free will is an emergent property, one that results from the sheer complexity of the human mind: in principle, our choices are ultimately determined by the physical world, but the process of determination is so complex that for all practical purposes we might as well be free.