The way it shakes out in history, most modern critical social thinkers and progressives tend to be materialists. In the eighteenth century that made some kind of sense, but today it seems to me highly problematic, if not fatally dangerous.
Materialism, moreover, has devolved into a sacred cow, as Thomas Nagel learned when he recently published a book called: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.
This evoked hysterical denunciations from defenders of the faith who
yammered for an inquisition and chortled about burning the heretic.
Why all the furor?
Why do so many scientists and philosophers cling
to a view that isn’t scientific at all but metaphysical and political?
The politics date from the European Enlightenment with its vision of
science replacing religion and technology reforming society.
Superstition — devil talk, miracle talk, soul talk – anything that
smells of religious dogma must go. Materialism during the so-called
Enlightenment, politically speaking, meant freedom from so-called Romish
And the soldiers of the Enlightenment pushed on, eventually
announcing that God was dead, and that spirit and mind were also
defunct. The idea of soul would take a big hit, too. Henceforth all
things mental would be analyzed in the strictly physical terms of
neurochemistry. Science would advance by expelling all ghosts, spirits,
angels, demons, and eventually the whole universe of subjectivity. The
reductive ideology of materialism became the sledgehammer to smash
tradition and KO the benighted reactionaries of the ancien régime.
But things change and materialism today is increasingly viewed as an
outmoded ideology. To begin with, popery is no longer the enemy of
science. In fact, the current pope, Francis, is widely seen as a
progressive force who speaks for the myriad victims of corporate
capitalism but also for recognizing the absolute urgency of the climate
What is materialism anyway? It’s the claim that nothing exists but
material things, properties, and relationships. The practical effects of
the creed are destructive and totalitarian. So, for example: I say I
have a thought, a feeling, a dream, a desire, a memory, a regret, a
surge of hope. Sorry! says the materialist, you have no such things!
They’re delusions, relics from the lingo of folklore, mere verbal tics.
In reality, you are nothing but your neurons, your
neurotransmitters, in short, your brain. And your brain is a physical
machine determined exclusively by physical forces.
Thus the reduction laid bare: a peculiar type of terrorism, in my
opinion, a subtle sort of mental beheading. Or call it sneaky sorcery:
with a gesture of negation, “science” banishes whole realms of value and
experience to ghettos of epiphenomena.
The strict ideology of materialism invalidates the world of what we
call consciousness. That’s the conceptual degradation. But it gets
worse. The concept of materialism has a touch of megalomania, it wants
to spread its wings, and so it morphs into stances, practices,
institutions. Materialism is driven to act out in the fields of life,
often in ways that affront nature and humanity.
Big Pharma provides an apt illustration. It makes, sells, promotes
and advertises chemicals as the default way to respond to the bulk of
human ills, defects and disorders. This has a corrupting influence on
psychiatry and people end up being redefined in terms of what the
pharmaceutical industries can do for them. Your identity fuses with your
drug prescriptions. This we may call acting-out drug-mediated materialism.
The Danish physician and terrifying whistle-blower, Peter Gotzsche, in Deadly Medicines and Organized Crime
(2013), shows in massive detail how Big Pharma is more interested in
profit than public health. Big Pharma, he argues, dwarfs organized crime
in the amount of pelf it rips off from the public and in the amount of
misery and death it inflicts on its victims. This is materialism that
specializes in wedding moral hoggishness with intellectual hypocrisy.
Materialism – the conceit of it – is, I repeat, totalitarian in
scope. In our techno-mediated culture, step by intrusive step, there’s
no place to hide because our inner world keeps shrinking, ever-easier to
breach by invasive technologies. Meanwhile, our every behavioral
footprint is recorded somewhere and placed under electronic
surveillance. The thing we used to call our self no longer
marks an asylum, an interior citadel, but is stripped down, digitized,
exteriorized, tagged and reduced to metadata. The self as inner sanctum
mutates into a localized entity, subject to government control and
market manipulation. Materialism, no friend to the human soul, is the
perfect ally of state power.
Materialism may be incoherent. It may be prone to fatal
counterexamples, but as a conceptual force acting on human experience,
it is world-conquering. That shouldn’t surprise us. After all, it
represents with implacable authority the force of matter over mind, with
America as the triumphant showcase of this philosophy in action.
America’s destiny is manifest in its gross national productivity, and
remains a shining city on a hill of corporate acquisitiveness. Three
manifestations of this spirit of materialism would be correct to
describe as being on the rampage: capitalism, militarism, and
The first, a system without loyalty to person, polity, or humanity,
which worships one god, Profit; the second, a masterpiece of world
history, the modern military-industrial complex where bombs, blood, and
profiteering march (and lounge) lockstep in the temple of materialism;
and third, cited above, Big Pharma, the mammon of materialism at its
If materialism has turned into a hydra-headed monster, we must do all
we can to undermine its pretentions to absolute power. For my part, the
doctrine is a non-starter. Any attempt to prove it is true implies an
ability to assess the value of an argument, but that ability I hold is
something irreducibly mental. Ergo, materialism faints away,
We need however to arm ourselves with something more powerful than logic. Our logic must be strong enough to engage the heart.
Thomas Nagel devised a famous argument against materialism in “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”, an essay in his book, Mortal Questions.
If you are a bat, you have some way of perceiving and engaging the
world. And for that to happen, a subjective viewpoint is necessary. It’s
hard to imagine what it’s like to be a bat, in part because a bat’s
brain and sensory-motor system differ from a human’s. Still, there must
be something that it’s like to be a bat in a bat’s world, something that
is irreducibly batty.
Physicalist science has no way of grasping what it’s like to be a bat
because it has no way of grasping a subjective viewpoint. It can handle
the objective, measurable features of the world. But bats, like humans,
in so far as they have some sort of a conscious worldview, occupy a
dimension, a domain of reality beyond the reach of physicalist science.
We should be thankful that professor Nagel has stood up for us all in
his defense of our being irreducibly what we are.
Nagel’s question, which hinges on the idea of consciousness,
coincides with recent studies of animal consciousness. In the end, the
question ratifies the reality of consciousness permeating the whole of
sentient nature. A recent book about octopuses by Sy Montgomery
invokes Nagel as her philosophical ally. Montgomery asks: What is it
like to be an octopus? It turns out that being an octopus is a pretty
amazing thing. Imagine having your brain split up into a whole bunch of
arms, arms that can see and hear as well as feel and grasp!
Until recently, the title of Montgomery’s book would verge on the comical: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
(2015). Such locutions still draw disapproval from mainline scientists.
Talk of the “soul” of an octopus probably sounds as weird as talk of an
ecstatic friar levitating to the top of an olive tree.
In my opinion, Marc Bekoff’s The Emotional Life of Animals is as important to science as (say) the hypothesis of natural selection. It might be more important if Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini are right in What Darwin Got Wrong, and the notion of ‘natural selection’ is more descriptive than explanatory.
It seems to me that the full recognition of animal consciousness
would amount to a Copernican revolution in the life sciences. It would
mean waking up to the rich inward life of all animate nature, and many
people who love their animal companions would appreciate this step
toward a more soulful conception of science. This is one way we might
move toward arguments that touch the heart.
The standard scientific view is that living organisms are biological
machines, hence devoid of feeling. It certainly is expedient to think of
them that way, as usable and disposable. If the lower animals don’t
feel, they have no rights, and we can use them as we would any material
resource, for profit and pleasure.
And consider this. For a strict materialist there would be no real
difference between a golf ball and a piglet. The only difference might
be that if you T-off with a piglet, you might hear a curious cry or an
oink of protest.
Economic reasons drive many to deny consciousness to the animals we
cage, kill and eat, experiment with, convert to clothing, and extract
profit from in endless ways. So in a ruthless application of Occam’s
razor, one could say: Keep it simple and assume all living creatures
other than your circle of friends are vacuous automata.
But remember: don’t ever ask: What’s it like to be a
nonhuman animal, maimed, tortured, or murdered for fun, science and
financial profit? If you did, you might feel forced to rethink some old
ideas about right and wrong and feel pricked by a restive conscience.
Nagel’s question, “What is it like to be a bat?” is a template for
asking a raft of pointed questions — about other people. So, for
example, white folk might wonder and ask: What’s it like to be a black
person in the United States not knowing if some police officer is going
to kill you if you make the wrong move with your hands? A question can
throw open a world of new thoughts and even new feelings.
The template provides a platform to explore and make explicit the
conscious world of other living beings. Instead of reducing them to
abstract ciphers, we might get curious about their very different worlds
and points of view. Wondering, asking, listening might combine to
prompt us to exercise our imaginations. We might think of these as
valuable exercises in mind-expansion.
Once we adopt this line of thought, the question is apt to come back
and tug at the shirt-tails of our humanity. There are so many questions
we might find difficult to ask. For example, what indeed is it like
today to be a refugee in flight from war, terror, oppression, economic
ruin; in Africa, in the Middle East, all over our destabilized planet?
No end of unsettling thought-experiments are possible. The what’s it like
question, if we let it, could haunt us at every step in our daily life.
We are, after all, involved with other conscious beings and must
interact with them. Everyone we meet confronts us with the unspoken
question of what it’s like to be that being. The face that smiles or
frowns at you is a mask that conceals a mystery.
Remove the mask at your own risk. Things can get uncomfortable.
Questions may have recriminating overtones. Almost anywhere on earth,
for example, it’s problematic to ask: What’s it like to be a woman in a
world whose history has mainly been defined, described, and dominated by
In countless situations, the question might come up — an
embarrassment for hidebound materialists who shy away from first-person
narratives. What, for example, if I were to pose the question: What’s
it like for native Americans living on a reservation in their own native
land? What’s it like having their culture, language, and beliefs
destroyed while being violently uprooted from their way of life,
thousands of years old?
According to strict materialists, we shouldn’t ask such questions
because our mental life and all its vaunted subtleties and nuances are
at bottom ontological gimcrack, stuff without real substance. For
example, we should never ask: What’s it like to be one of the eighty or
so thousand people tortured in solitary confinement in the American
Nor should we ever ask the tiny minority who own the bulk of the
world’s wealth: What do you suppose it’s like to be one of the 99
percent, one of the countless struggling, impoverished millions?
that really like – in detail, please?
We could go on with questions like these. Every one of them about
some brutalized conscious being would be a question about politics,
economics, and injustice, and as well a question that exposes the
hollowness and complicity of the default creed of materialism.
Techno-hubristic exploitation of Earth has set into motion
destabilizing forces, catastrophic climate change, and violent
revolutionary discontent springing up everywhere. As far as I can see,
the real danger is not immigrants, terrorism, or any religion, but the
dehumanizing materialism that acts out under a thousand hypocritical