Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


Why Materialism is a Dead-End

How misunderstanding matter has led us astray

AdobeStock 297898416

We live in an age of science, which has enabled technological advancements unimaginable to our ancestors. Unlike philosophy, which depends somewhat on certain subjective values and one’s own sense of plausibility to settle questions, science poses questions directly to nature, in the form of experiments. Nature then answers by displaying certain behaviors, so questions can be settled objectively.

This is both science’s strength and its Achilles’ heel: experiments only tell us how nature behaves, not what it essentially is. Many different hypotheses about nature’s essence are consistent with its manifest behaviors. So although such behaviors are informative, they can’t settle questions of being, which philosophers call ‘metaphysics.’ Understanding nature’s essence is fundamentally beyond the scientific method, which leaves us with the—different—methods of philosophy. These, somewhat subjective as they may be, are our only path to figuring out what is going on.

Materialism—the view that nature is fundamentally constituted by matter outside and independent of mind—is a metaphysics, in that it makes statements about what nature essentially is. As such, it is also a theoretical inference: we cannot empirically observe matter outside and independent of mind, for we are forever locked in mind. All we can observe are the contents of perception, which are inherently mental. Even the output of measurement instruments is only accessible to us insofar as it is mentally perceived.

We infer the existence of something beyond mental states because, at first, this seems to make sense of three canonical observations:

(i) We all seem to share the same world beyond ourselves

(ii) The behaviour of this shared world doesn't seem to depend on our volition

(iii) There are tight correlations between our inner experience and measurable patterns of brain activity

A world outside mental states, which we all inhabit, makes sense of observation (i). Because this shared world is thus non-mental, it isn’t acquiescent to our (mental) volition, thereby explaining (ii). Finally, if particular configurations of matter in this world somehow generate mentality, it could also explain (iii). And so our culture has come to take for granted that nature is essentially material, non-mental. Again, this is a metaphysical inference aimed at tentatively explaining the canonical observations listed above, not a scientific or empirical fact.

The problem is that such metaphysical inference is untenable on several grounds. For starters, there is nothing about the parameters of material arrangements—say, the position and momentum of the atoms constituting our brain—in terms of which we could deduce, at least in principle, how it feels to fall in love, to taste wine, or to listen to a Vivaldi sonata. There is an impassable explanatory gap between material quantities and experiential qualities, which philosophers refer to as the ‘hard problem of consciousness.’ Many people don’t recognize this gap because they think of matter as already having intrinsic qualities—such as color, taste, etc.—which contradicts mainstream materialism: according to the latter, color, taste, etc., are all generated by our brain, inside our skull. They don’t exist in the world out there, which is supposedly purely abstract.

Second, materialism lives or dies with what physicists call ‘physical realism’: there must be an objective world out there, consisting of entities with defined properties, whether such world is being observed or not. The problem is that experiments over the past four decades have now refuted physical realism beyond reasonable doubt. So unless one redefines the meaning of the word ‘materialism’ in a rather arbitrary manner, metaphysical materialism is now physically untenable.

Third, a compelling case can be made that the empirical data we have now amassed on the correlations between brain activity and inner experience cannot be accommodated by materialism. There is a broad, consistent pattern associating impairment or reduction of brain metabolism with an expansion of awareness, an enrichment of experiential contents and their felt intensity. It is at least difficult to see how the materialist hypothesis that all experiences are somehow generated by brain metabolism could make sense of this.

Finally, from a philosophical perspective, materialism is at least unparsimonious—that is, uneconomical, unnecessarily extravagant—and arguably even incoherent. Coherence and parsimony are admittedly somewhat subjective values. However, if we were to abandon them, we would have to open the gates to all kinds of nonsense: from aliens in the Pleiades trying to alert us to global catastrophe to teapots in the orbit of Saturn—neither of which can be empirically disproven. So we better stick to these values, for the price of having to apply them consistently, even to materialism itself.

Materialism is unparsimonious because, in addition to or instead of mentality—which is all we ultimately know—it posits another category of ‘substance’ or ‘existent’ fundamentally beyond direct empirical verification: namely, matter. Under materialism, matter is literally transcendent, more inaccessible than any ostensive spiritual world posited by the world’s religions. This would only be justifiable if there were no way of making sense of the three canonical observations listed earlier on the basis of mind alone; but there is.

Materialism conflates the need to posit something outside our personal minds with having to posit something outside mind as a category. All three observations can be made sense of if we postulate a transpersonal field of mentation beyond our personal psyches. As such, there is indeed a world out there, beyond us, which we all inhabit; but this world is mental, just as we are intrinsically mental agents. Seeing things this way completely circumvents the ‘hard problem of consciousness,’ as we no longer need to bridge the impassable gap between mind and non-mind, quality and quantity: everything is now mental, qualitative, perception consisting solely in a modulation of one (personal) set of qualities by another (transpersonal) set of qualities. We know this isn’t a problem because it happens every day: our own thoughts and emotions, despite being qualitatively different, modulate one another all the time.

Finally, materialism is arguably incoherent. As we have seen, matter is a theoretical abstraction in and of mind. So when materialists try to reduce mind to matter, they are effectively trying to reduce mind to one of mind’s own conceptual creations. This is akin to a dog chasing its own tail. Better yet, it is like a painter who, having painted a self-portrait, points at it and proclaims himself to be the portrait. The ill-fated painter then has to explain his entire inner life in terms of patterns of pigment distribution on canvas. Absurd as this sounds, it is very much analogous to the situation materialists find themselves in.

The popularity of materialism is founded on a confusion: somehow, our culture has come to associate it with science and technology, both of which have been stupendously successful over the past three centuries. But that success isn’t attributable to materialism; it is attributable, instead, to our ability to inquire into, model and then predict nature’s behavior. Science and technology could have been done equally well—perhaps even better—without any metaphysical commitment, or with another metaphysics consistent with such behavior. Materialism is, at best, an illegitimate hitchhiker, perhaps even a parasite, in that it prays on the psychology of those who do science and technology.

Indeed, in order to relate daily to nature, human beings need to tell themselves a story about what nature is. It is psychologically very difficult to remain truly agnostic regarding metaphysics, particularly when one is doing experiments. Even when this internal story is subliminal, it is still running like a basic operating system. And so it happens that materialism, because of its vulgar intuitiveness and naïve superficiality, offers a cheap and easy option for such inner storytelling. In addition, it has arguably also enabled early scientists and scholars to preserve a sense of meaning at a time when religion was losing its grip on our culture.

But now, in the 21st century, we can surely do better than that. We are now in a position to examine our hidden assumptions honestly, confront the evidence objectively, bring our own psychological needs and prejudices to the light of self-reflection, and then ask ourselves: Does materialism really add up to anything? The answer should be obvious: it just doesn’t. Materialism is a relic from an older, naiver and less sophisticated age, when it helped investigators separate themselves from what they were investigating; but it has no place in this day and age.

Neither do we lack options, as we can now make sense of all canonical observations on the basis of mental states alone. This constitutes a more persuasive, parsimonious and coherent alternative to materialism, which can also accommodate the available evidence better. The fundamentals of this alternative have been known at least since the early 19th century; arguably even millennia earlier. It is entirely up to us today to explore it and, frankly, get our act together when it comes to metaphysics. We should know better than to—bizarrely—keep on embracing the untenable.

Latest Releases
Join the conversation

Sign in to post comments or join now (only takes a moment). Don't have an account? Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Google to get started:

Thomas Groover 6 March 2020

In response to Logan Leatherman: I'm wondering if your work is more successful than materialist investigations into mental health and mental illness, which despite a century and a half of effort, has been a colossal failure.

And in support of the blogger, the advent of non-reductionist investigations into mind have been quite revealing, and as Stanislav Grof put it, non-ordinary states of (human) consciousness have yielded by far the most useful information in regards to the human mind. And to further the somewhat dire predicament of the materialist perspective, the burgeoning field of psychedelic research is populated entirely by dualist researchers (with exceptions being a handful of brain imaging experts intent on "proving" that mind is physical). This is because, except for the imaging data, the research is non-reductionist and questions of why psychedelics are such a powerful tools cannot escape the dependence upon the subject's experience, in evaluating outcome. So to summarize, evaluations of the effectiveness of this research are necessarily non-reductionist, and if you have not studied the extensive literature as I have, you have no position from which to debate effectively. And to advise against further digging a hole for oneself by belittling philosophical questions, I can reassure that the psychological benefits experienced by subjects in this research are supplemented in virtually all cases by major shifts in philosophical outlook.

Logan Leatherman 16 January 2020

This is why I’m glad I’m a scientist. My work has actual predictive and practical usage in the world. All armchair philosophy like this does is create its own parameters and then argue in circles within those parameters, using contrived terms and attempting to make sense of what’s not actually there. Most philosophy is a waste of time because of exactly this, but by all means continue to pat yourselves on the back because you’re such “great thinkers”. Let science, with the help of what philosophy is actually useful, continue to pull society into the future while you lot continue to pedantically talk in circles, contradicting each other with nothing more than your own respective conjectures. I sincerely hope your parents are proud.

Brian Steere 1 30 December 2019

Are we not participant in the ongoing or unfolding development of science as our cultural authority?
Or indeed the framer of our identity and worldview - which are twos sides of one currency.
But our science has become a corporate technologism sets a global framing of narrative dictates.
Consolidating to a technocracy of imposed or 'socially engineered' regulatory structure replacing political process, relational responsibility and the felt and share qualities of human being - with robotic substitution that parody life while enabling a corporate predator to effectively farm its carbon units, or mindshare?

While I have been opening broadly to the scientific realm (and thinking or cultural developments of the world) over the last decade or so my background is more intuitive and experiential - as a re-integrative willingness of alignment in being.

This gave me some advantages of being opened to the need for reintegration (wholeness, congruency, coherency) and freedom from reputational constraint in that I can and do look into anywhere or anything that resonates to my sense of self-honesty.

Self-honesty goes deeper than we think - to a quality of discernment of what we think - and the capacity to recognise the reality experience of the thought we accept and align in by acting from and embodying as true of us.

The relational nature of the reality of which we are an active extension is a whole in all its Parts - for which we have no image or form - indeed we have to align in a differentiation from pure experiencing in order to 'have an experience' in terms of a relational definition. To think about, or perceive the experience of facets of whatever is Happening - into terms of happened.

Many take the subjected mind of judgements and meanings as to what happened - as the mind - and see it as extremely frail - not unlike its 'body'.
Hardly the basis of Creative Power - excepting undeniably able to colour its own subjected experience according to the thoughts it accepts, runs or is conditioned and has acquired as adaptation to the world of definitions, meanings, and rules, that it seems to be almost entirely subject to - apart from its will to judge experience towards possession of control - set against a sense of chaos that is held out of awareness by rules, inhibitions, defences and deeper cultural and 'biological' filtering through the framework of the total personality structure.

So I witness to a split mind of order and chaos - that of course embodies our mythic archetypes in complex entanglements as the attempt to Cast Out rejected self - and survive or prevail thereby as separate, dissociated, private agenda, at expense of the quality of awareness of wholeness in all its Parts.

That Reality (this word can be used to mean many different things) simply Is always already true - is therefore prior to any 'discovering' or recognition - and yet is the magnetic impulse or our vibrational desire for experiencing. A-traction of recognition to embodiment of the extension of the idea of recognised appreciation and gratitude or coherent meaning.

I just felt to write something to say hello or introduce myself in terms not of personality but of a consciousness of Many in One in which there is a unifying quality in seemingly disparate facets. Embodiment doesn't end with a birth, or an adaptation to the prevailing culture - but unfolds to become an 'Instrument of Thy will' - that is to say a willingness to get our of our own way - such as to make way for recognition, and appreciation that wholes or heals and undoes the futility of struggle within impossible premises - to open a practical sense of unifying purpose in terms of movement of being - as distinct from an overlay of meanings that have come to be believed and reacted to as if 'built into' the world we perceive and respond to.
Movement within being is in terms of shifting focus and perspectives that are not really linear - and so experiential recognition allows some degree of thinking or talking about qualitative consciousness in parables or symbols - as long as it is remembered that we can only point to the 'living' and that we function best in doing so when we allow ourselves to be guided, directed and supported by a 'field relationship' in the same was a holding balance while playing around on a bike.

My general sense of 'thinking in the world' is "Seek but do not find!" - such that all apparent discovery serves to open a need for a greater budget of time and energy - that translates in socio-political terms as sacrifice of the 'living' to the idols of our seeking.

Just in terms of the idea of a dead Universe - I highly recommend
"New Views Of The Interstellar Medium”
(Along with the Safire Project itself - and much of the perspectives of electrical underpinning to our 'Experiencing Universe' that a mainstream model is predicated against seeing - for reasons psychic-emotional, cultural and proprietorial).

Thoughts never leave the mind that thinks them - but we can cast out to sow and reap experience as if they have such power - from our own wish to BE or become free of the Mind that we live in, are of, and can only cover over or forget BY the intensity of invested emotional intent to differentiate or indeed deny, cast out and see something ELSE in substitution.

Not a little of my input is in alignment with A Course in Miracles - but by no means exclusively and always in terms of a consciousness that has grown in me rather than a pick and mix construct of social identity.

I don't like isms to become solid for they become identities and rule-sets. Embracing our physical as communication or indeed communion of a wholeness is in no way inconsistent with endeavour in the world of science or the arts - or the uncovering of the common roots of both.

Brent Meeker 13 December 2019

For scientists, materialism is just a working hypothesis. What mentalist fail to appreciate is that there is no fundamental understanding of matter either. Are quarks real or only types in our equations? Nobody cares so long as the equations give the right predictions. Meta-physical puzzles over whether the wave-function is real or is it path integrals or only useful in that they may suggest avenues of research...nobody worries about what's really real. The reason materialism is ascendant is that it has predictive power. It predicts that if given a certain drug you will become unconscious and give a different drug you will be conscious but not remember it. Psychology has a few reliable predictions too, mostly about illusions and propaganda (because of marketing research). But what has mentalism predicted? In the near future we will have artificial intelligent robots and we will design and manipulate their personalities and discussions of perception and feeling will be engineering questions. And like matter we still won't know what thoughts are, but we will be able to create them...instead of just having them pop into our heads.

Marco Masi 11 December 2019

A breath of fresh air. I think this is a well written piece that gets to the point. We are living in a society still dominated and permeated by a physicalist reductionist mindset. This is so pervasive that even those who claim to be not, more or less unconsciously cling at it nevertheless. This is not merely a philosophical issue, it is a question of how we practice science. While this exclusivism was once beneficial to science now it is severely hampering its progress.

Tronar Rhodan 26 November 2019

A very well written and logically arguing article about the fundamental truth of our existence. I guess anybody liking this article would probably also like to content of the book "My Big TOE" (TOE=Theory of Everything) written by nuclear physicist, NASA consultant and decade long consciousness explorer Thomas Campbell. He is basically saying the same, but with more detail and developing his entire Theory of Everything from only two simple assumptions. His book does not require any creed, dogma or illogical conclusions. It not only explains why our universe came into existence and why consciousness is fundamental, it also solves decades-old questions like why the speed of light is a maximum velocity in our universe or why entangled particles exchange information in real-time without any delay at all and thus at a speed beyond the lightspeed.

After reading that book, you truly get a new perspective on everything and any other book I have encountered so far is merely adding a piece to the puzzle that fits into the framework provided by My Big TOE.

Jason Barr 20 November 2019

Paul, We don't know how the mental creates what we observe, we just know that it's intelligible.

We know subjectiv experiences can cause other subjective experiences because they are in the same mental category.

A thought of my daughter can trigger and emotion of pride etc.

So this system of experience is intelligible because we start with consciousness.

So the idea here is that there's experiences in the mental domain beyond our personal psyches which then causes our perceptions of spacetime and objects.

It's just one experience causing another.

The issue if you believe in Physical Realism, as it has two problems:

Not only can it not explain how brain produces subjective experience, but the issue is that it's not even intelligible.

So we go off the lesser of two evils here.

What's a harder pill to swallow, that our conscious states are just extensions of universal consciousness (in the way whirlpools are extensions of an ocean), or that there's no continuity at all? There's a third-person, completely objective material quantitative reality which creates a radically distinct category out of nothing; the first-person, subjective, experiential and qualitative reality.

So neither idea can really explain rigorously "how it happens", the point is that there's intelligible way for it to possibly happen if Materialism is true.

At least Idealism is intelligible, dispite the lack of perfect mechanical steps of how it works - the mind is not fundamentally mechanical anyway.

Hope that helps :)

Paul Entwistle 19 November 2019

I find this broad argument attractive, and it certainly gives us an alternative perspective to questions such as 'how can our material brain - or neurons - either be or affect our 'mental' states?' and so forth.
But do we not have a conception of the mental domain as either transcendental, or at least, shall we say, intangible? A corresponding question then surely arises if we accept only a mental aspect, how do mental faculties create what we perceive as highly mass- and force- related effects, such as being run over by a train? (as in 'I refute it thus').
For a coherent proposition must we not equally have a view on how mind manages to perceive or create things we interpret as highly physical outcomes and processes?
Or do I continue to miss the point?