Materialism will be mocked

Every generation scorns the ideas of reality that came before it

Throughout history, our predecessors in science and philosophy have been convinced that their particular understanding of reality was, at least largely, correct. Yet time and again, subsequent generations have proven—or at least were convinced of having proven—them wrong. Each generation has looked upon the ideas of their predecessors as naïve, simplistic, even superstitious.

During the Renaissance, scientists attempted to explain electrostatic attraction by postulating the existence of an invisible elastic substance—called ‘effluvium’—that supposedly stretched out across bodies. Strange as it may sound now, at the time effluvium was as plausible an explanation for empirical observations as subatomic particles today, which are equally invisible beyond the effects they putatively produce.

As the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment, scientists began trying to frame every phenomenon in terms of the action of small corpuscles—atoms—interacting with each other through direct contact. Any explanation that failed to conform to this template was considered an appeal to magic and therefore implausible, to say the least. This is why the ideas of an English scientist called Isaac Newton were ignored and even ridiculed for decades; Newton dared to propose that objects attracted one another from a distance by virtue of an invisible, mysterious force he called ‘gravity’. We know how that story developed.

Thomas Kuhn observed in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that changes in science and philosophy’s sense of plausibility aren’t monotonic. They don’t progress steadily forward—they oscillate. Indeed, since Einstein’s general theory of relativity, we are back to rejecting the magical action at a distance that Newton thought gravity to be. Now, we have the much more plausible, reasonable, hard-nosed understanding that apples fall to the ground because the Earth… well, bends the invisible fabric of spacetime around us, as described by an entirely abstract Riemannian geometry that would have made Euclid scoff.

Please notice that I am not questioning the correctness of our scientific predictions of nature’s behaviour, insofar as they are empirically verified. General relativity unquestionably makes accurate predictions. So did Newton’s gravity and—yes—even effluvium in their own time. What I am pointing out is that the way humans think about these predicted behaviours—that is, our visualisation or mental picture of what is going on—can be regarded as either eminently plausible or utterly implausible, depending on the particular historical junction and culture from which they are considered.

Our current mental picture of gravity under general relativity—namely, curvatures of spacetime—may be considered utterly implausible in the future, even though that won’t change the fact that general relativity makes correct predictions as far as the sensitivity of our measurement instruments today allow us to determine.

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In this context, what Kuhn realised was that the mental picture our predecessors in science and philosophy had about what was going on was ‘produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge’. Yet, subsequent generations had excellent, even decisive reasons to consider them wrong. The inevitable implication is that we structurally believe in nonsense. There is no reason to think that things are different today. Future generations are bound to look back at our mental picture of the world and laugh at our myopia and obtuseness—our gullible tendency to appeal to magic.

And what, you ask, will they find to laugh at? From physics; multiple different types of imaginary parallel universes, each type potentially comprising a multi-dimensional infinity of such universes; ten spatial dimensions, seven of which are allegedly invisible and imagined to be curled up into tight little knots of extraordinary—and imaginary—hyperdimensional topological complexity; widely conflicting views about the nature of time, such as that time does not actually exist, that time is the only thing that in fact does exist (space being illusory), and that time exists but isn’t fundamental—emerging instead from microscopic quantum processes; the accommodation of complete unknowns by mere labeling, such as the notions of dark matter and dark energy. The list goes on, and effluvium starts to look very reasonable and benign in comparison.

But what takes the cake isn’t the wild speculations of modern physics; instead, it is the metaphysics of materialism, which has come to dominate our culture and even our language. Just think of things that matter, things that are immaterial and therefore don’t matter, etc. The very root of the word ‘matter’—mater—means mother, matrix, that from which we came into being.

Metaphysical materialism imagines a purely abstract matrix—namely, matter—that allegedly exists outside and independent of mind, and then tries to explain mind in terms of this abstraction of mind. That it then resoundingly fails to catch its own tail doesn’t seem to be reason for embarrassment, or even weaken materialism’s good standing in our intellectual establishment. As obvious an appeal to magic as it is—namely, the magic of conjuring up the qualities of experience from the quantities that exhaustively define material arrangements—it is still considered eminently plausible today, just as fairy sorcery once was.

Be that as it may, the key question here is this: just how is it that we repeatedly end up attributing plausibility to nonsense? What makes us blind to the ultimate untenability of our mental pictures? Why do we regard—with a properly snobbish attitude for good measure—our ludicrous appeals to magic as legitimate, rational, rigorous and even hard-nosed?

I have a little theory about it. At any point in history, scientists and philosophers inherit a certain set of foundational values and beliefs—Kuhn famously called it a ‘paradigm’—from the culture they live in. This inheritance defines their sense of plausibility, which is thus also inherited: whatever is validated by their cultural context is bound to sound plausible to them, at least until they examine it more critically. If you and I had grown up with talk of fairies, we would find it entirely plausible that certain odd happenings—such as things being misplaced, disappearing or some people falling mysteriously ill—are caused by fairy sorcery. That we’ve never seen a fairy wouldn’t make them any less plausible than elementary subatomic particles, quantum fields and superstrings: all these invisible entities are imagined on account of their alleged effects.

The point is that our sense of plausibility isn’t at all objective or reliable. What I described above, for instance, is a kind of ‘plausibility by habit,’ which is almost entirely subjective. In fact, such plausibility by habit is—at least in my view—precisely what keeps metaphysical materialism alive, despite its insurmountable problems and internal contradictions.

But then, with time, scientists and philosophers eventually start noticing that their reigning mental picture of reality—I shall call it ‘picture 1’—either cannot account for some phenomena or requires modifications and extensions that start to sound implausible even under the values of the reigning paradigm (think of the layers and layers of epicycles in Ptolemaic astronomy, for example). This is the point where a fundamentally new mental picture of reality—‘picture 2’—is finally proposed, which tends to focus more or less blindly on addressing the known weaknesses of the previous one. And here lies the problem.

You see, the key psychological motivation for developing picture 2 is to solve or circumvent the known problems of picture 1. If picture 2 is successful at this task, it tends to be enthusiastically embraced like a longed-for messiah. But the myopia induced by the enthusiasm prevents picture 2 from being critically evaluated as a whole, given the complete body of evidence it is supposed to explain. Nobody has interest in kicking all the tires, because everybody is busy celebrating the great advancement that has descended upon us. And so nobody quite sees the new problems and gaps that picture 2 introduces.

By the time a new generation of scientists and philosophers starts noticing these problems and gaps, it is too late: a whole new sense of plausibility is now in force; our whole psychology has shifted. The culture is now committed to picture 2 as an advancement, and it naturally doesn’t want to give up on this perceived progress. Whatever problems are left must be addressed by incremental additions or adjustments to picture 2, not a new mental picture. We want to believe that we’ve finally got things right and just miss some details; we want to bank and secure the perceived advance, issuing promissory notes to keep the remaining problems at bay. This is, in fact, exactly what metaphysical materialists do when confronted with the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’: “we can’t solve it now” they say, “but one day soon we will”. And so we keep on waiting.

The advent of metaphysical materialism during the Enlightenment did solve some problems. The largely religious mental picture of the world that preceded it couldn’t account for the regularities of nature’s behaviour (that is, its seemingly unbreakable ‘laws’ and automatisms) or the overwhelming suffering and injustice inherent to being alive. As psychiatrist Carl Jung once put it, before materialism we tried to account for far too much in terms of spirit. Hence, a compensatory reaction in the form of metaphysical materialism was to be expected. Moreover, materialism did help the fledgling science of the time to separate its objects of study from the inquiring subject, thereby attaining a level of objectivity that has been instrumental.

Therefore, with great enthusiasm and irresistible momentum, the western intellectual establishment has embraced materialism and banished the old metaphysics as a relic of superstitious times. But how many scientists and philosophers of the time stopped to notice that materialism, in fact, created more problems than it solved? Who realised, back then, that materialism fundamentally can’t explain experience itself, which is all we ultimately know and have? Who, in the 19th century, realised the contradictions that the combined views of metaphysical materialism and Darwinian evolution incurred?

Today we think that materialism is plausible, by mere force of habit and inherited cultural momentum, even though there is an important sense in which it can’t explain anything without an appeal to magic. Indeed, materialism is an appeal to one or another magic trick, which we call ‘strong emergence,’ ‘eliminativism’ or ‘illusionism,’ depending on personal taste. Just about everything else is more plausible, if one assesses our metaphysical situation truly impartially.

In truth, materialism has survived thus far not because of magic, but because of tricks: in order to defend materialism and secure our perceived progress since the Enlightenment, intelligent scientists and philosophers—who have staked their public persona and self-image on the validity of materialism—have been deploying their brainpower to manufacture plausibility for it.

If an intelligent person is committed to a certain mental picture of the world because of strong—though typically unexamined—psychological investment, it is extraordinary how much they can do to obfuscate the implausibility of the picture, and then manufacture plausibility for it based on a mixture of conceptual conflation, hand-waving and promissory notes. One can basically make anything sound plausible if given enough time and peer support. The history of science and philosophy illustrates this in abundance, but I prefer to provide contemporary examples that are closer to us.

Because materialism cannot explain experience, some materialists have gone as far as to deny that experience exists in the first place. The attempt is to legitimise a kind of insanity for the sake of manufacturing plausibility. And because it is intelligent people who do this, they are able to weave fantastically ambiguous and obscure arguments around their claim; so ambiguous and obscure that it becomes effectively impossible to figure out what they are actually saying, if anything.

For instance, in my experience, if you ask a consciousness-denier whether they think—yes or no—that the pain they would presumably feel if they were tortured exists, they are likely to say they do. But if you then point out that their answer implies that consciousness actually exists, they may say “no, what we call pain is merely a functional state, not actual experience.” “But then you do deny our felt pain!” you might add, just to watch—in understandable frustration—the conversation loop back to the beginning and repeat itself. Philosopher Galen Strawson called this peculiar manoeuvre ‘looking-glassing,’ but I prefer to call it ‘plausibility by obfuscation.’

In order to manufacture plausibility for the current paradigm as a whole, intelligent scientists and philosophers are—ironically—even prepared to sacrifice the plausibility of any one element of the paradigm. For instance, experimental results in quantum physics have now refuted physical realism: there is no physically objective, standalone world of tables and chairs out there. The only way to avoid this empirical conclusion is to postulate a mind-boggling number of new, undetectable, parallel but real physical universes being magically created every time someone or something merely looks at the world. Or else we have to accept that the physical world of tables and chairs exists only insofar as it is observed. Which option do you think is less implausible?

Renowned physicist Sean Carroll is convinced it is the former. And he is not embarrassed to admit it, for we live in a culture in which his preference for magic is—remarkably—not regarded as ludicrous. The price Carroll is willing to pay to manufacture plausibility for metaphysical materialism risks turning physics itself into a caricature.

More banal than trickery however, and I believe the main reason why materialism is considered plausible by the average educated person, is that they don’t understand what materialism means. In other words, what people think of as plausible isn’t actual materialism, but a misunderstanding that passes for materialism. Specifically, many educated people fail to understand that, according to mainstream materialism, the colours they see, the tones they hear, the textures they feel, the flavours they taste and the aromas they smell exist only inside their skull. The world of their experiences is supposedly entirely within their head. What is out there is devoid of all qualities of experience; it can’t even be visualised, for visualisation always entails qualities.

The best you can do is to picture it as a purely abstract realm of ghostly silhouettes and mathematical equations, but even this goes too far. Indeed, famed mainstream physicist Max Tegmark has posited that the world out there is, literally, pure mathematics. Now, how many casual materialists would still consider materialism plausible if they truly groked this? Remarkably, ignorance is a great tool to help manufacture plausibility for materialism.

And so, just like every generation before us, we enthusiastically continue to embrace nonsense; we enthusiastically manufacture plausibility to preserve mistakes with which we’ve become identified.

The only way to break out of this cycle is to realise that the mind excels at deceiving itself. As the history of science and philosophy attests, this is what the mind does best. And the very idea that we can be objective investigators, impartially assessing the world around us, is the mind’s greatest self-deception. Our mental pictures of the world are inherently unreliable. The day we have the courage to bite this bullet at a cultural level is the day we will begin to make real progress.

“But what kind of progress?!” I hear you ask indignantly. For if we can’t trust our own mind, how can we progress? Remarkably, this act of seeming intellectual suicide opens up a solid avenue of understanding, one utterly unlike the conceptual quicksand in which we have so far found ourselves stuck.

By understanding and acknowledging that mind—if given the chance—always deceives itself, we lose almost everything. But not quite everything. One final option remains viable: all there is is mind. Reality is a mental construct; it consists of mind tricking itself into believing that there is something outside mind. Because the collective madness of our mainstream worldview has thoroughly infected our language, I can’t even begin to convey to you how obvious this seeming absurdity is. Instead, you will think I am crazy. And that’s fine too.

Just beware: to say that everything is in mind doesn’t mean that everything is in your or my mind alone. For even the notion that you and I have our own private mind—separate from others—is part of the self-deception. To truly understand what this hypothesis means, one has to dig deep, very deep, into layer upon layer of ingrained and unexamined assumptions inherited from culture and by now almost hardwired into our DNA. Most people can’t or won’t go there. The mere attempt exposes them to what I call the ‘vertigo of eternity’; the appalling realisation that what is actually going on is not even commensurable with what they think is going on.

Language—at least our present language—cannot do justice to reality; the latter escapes conceptualisation. But through scrupulous conceptual reasoning we can still get close to it, which is precisely what I have been attempting to do for over a decade with my body of work. To progress we must see through the self-deception; we must grok how the plausibility-manufacturing industry creates a hall of mirrors around us; we must realise that those who scream ‘reason!’ the loudest are often the most deluded and unreasonable ones. And then, one day, there might just be a generation who will look back to their forefathers and finally say: “darn, they did get it right.”


If you want to hear from leading thinkers like this debating renowned philosophers, cutting edge scientists, headline-making politicians, and beloved artists, come to HowTheLightGetsIn Hay 2020 for four days of debates and talks alongside music, comedy and parties.

Bernardo Kastrup will be appearing in The Limits of Material discussing consciousness and idealism.

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Joe Anderson 15 November 2022

Interesting article.

Frank Spence 14 August 2022

Another idealist! Wow. But the same reasoning leads me (uncomfortably) to solipsism. Experience has one subject. Others, whether supposedly material or otherwise, and even Self, are constructs within experience. I would love to hear a convincing argument for the reality of other subjects.

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Hugh Manbeing 30 June 2020

"The very root of the word ‘matter’—mater—means mother, matrix, that from which we came into being."

That's such an interesting little fact that I had to stop reading at that point.

Jeff Wunder 26 June 2020

"For even the notion that you and I have our own private mind—separate from others—is part of the self-deception."

So... I deceived myself into believing that I have a self? Isn't something logically amiss there?

I'm sorry. Everything I know or think I know -- all the science, math, philosophy, art etc -- none of it has ever actually been separated from my experience and my perspective on reality. I suspect the same is true for you, and your theory of everything. Perspective may be more fundamental than you think.

James Cross 4 March 2020

Unfortunately there is no historical evidence of progress on any metaphysical questions. One could make a reasonable argument that the metaphysical views of today are not substantively different from those of two thousand years ago. Science does progress and reaches consensus even if the consensus of today may not be the same as that of yesterday or what we will be tomorrow. There is no consensus in metaphysics. There are no new arguments, only new spinning of old arguments. Whatever metaphysical arguments scientists make are not made on the basis of science but are incidental to it.