Updated: Apr 13, 2022
Note: This post is part of my "philosophy bites" series that expands my social media posts about philosophical topics into blog form. These are not academic essays with a plethora of footnotes and agonizingly constructed arguments, but I do hope they spark conversation. Please remember to share, like, and comment! The original instagram post can be found here.
Challenging deeply rooted assumptions
I have always seen philosophy as the great liberator of invisible assumptions. These assumptions root so deeply in our collective culture that they are impossible to see without the incisive blade of critical thinking. Concerningly, philosophy has been so undervalued in recent decades that our assumptions remain comfortably enmeshed in popular culture and the individual psyche, leading to new forms of irrationality (born of unmet psychological needs)— from the rapid rise of (literal) belief in astrology to the epidemic of conspiracy theories. I will advocate this until I die: critical thinking classes should be general education requirements from elementary school to high school.
These assumptions take many forms, from radical individualism to biological determinism (I owe a debt to Dr. Brent Slife as an early mentor in recognizing these assumptions in the field of psychology), but the most fundamental of these assumptions is philosophical materialism, or physicalism.
Materialism (or physicalism) is the invisible paradigm that structures everything we “know” in modern society. It’s the reason that the sciences are preferred over the arts and humanities, why individuals feel they have to seek or find the meaning of life (and the crisis of meaning for those who cannot find it), why we don't study philosophy in high school, and why most feel it’s leap of faith (if not wholly irrational) to believe in life after death.
If you are unaware of the meaning and assumptions of materialism, then you are almost certainly a materialist by default. This is the ideological water we swim in, the unquestioned framework through which we interpret all empirical data. Keep in mind that facts cannot interpret themselves (this faulty assumption is called data determinism). All data requires an interpretive framework— conscious or unconscious— in order to acquire any meaning. By questioning these underlying assumptions, I hope to help make these frameworks conscious.
The (il)logic of materialism
Philosophical materialism has nothing to do with the kind of materialism that privileges material goods over psychological or spiritual goods, though you could certainly argue that these two movements are linked. Philosophical materialism can be summarized simply by the line: only matter matters. According to materialism, only matter can be known to exist.
But what is matter? It's a theoretical construct that is described purely by mathematical quantities. Qualities (this includes all sensory experiences, from the sensation of seeing red to the taste of a ripe persimmon), consciousness, and mental states are only secondary phenomenon. In other words, an invisible world of pure mathematics we call “matter” precedes conscious experience and gives rise to conscious experience.
But matter cannot, by its own definition, be experienced. So, materialism posits that something which cannot be experienced gives rise to all things we can experience, including experience itself, i.e. consciousness. Rupert Spira, in conversation with Sam Harris, says this is a claim more miraculous than believing in a creator God (an unseen deity that gives rise to everything seen), and that at least theists who hold this belief realize this is a matter of faith. Materialists tend to accept this assumption as a matter of fact.
Bernardo Kastrup summarizes the materialist argument thus:
"Materialism requires the following four statements about reality to be true:
1. Your conscious perceptions exist;
2. The conscious perceptions of other living entities, different from your own, also exist;
3. There are things that exist independently of, and outside, conscious perception;
4. Things that exist independently of, and outside, conscious perception generate conscious perception.
Notice that the statements are ordered according to how many new assumptions they require. Indeed, statement 1 is very close to the famous cogito ergo sum, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ If you can be sure of anything at all, it is that your conscious perceptions exist. So statement 1 is the one absolute certainty you can ever have. Statement 2 requires a small leap of faith: it states that there are other conscious entities, like other people or animals. You can never be absolutely sure that anything or anybody else is conscious... Yet, the leap of faith here is small, since it merely postulates other instances of a category – namely, conscious perceptions – that you already know to exist. Statement 3, on the other hand, requires a much more significant leap of faith, since it postulates an entirely new category – namely, things outside conscious perception – for which you can never have any direct evidence. Indeed, everything you can ever know comes into consciousness the moment you know it, so the belief that there are things outside consciousness is an abstraction beyond knowledge.
Statement 4 [things that exist independently of, and outside, conscious perception generate conscious perception] is even worse. It postulates that things you can never know to exist are actually responsible for the only thing you can be absolutely sure to exist: your own consciousness. It postulates that abstractions generate what is concrete. This is quite an extraordinary statement in that it completely inverts the natural direction of inference: normally, one infers the unknown from the known, not the known from the unknown!
Idealism requires only statements 1 and 2 to hold. In other words, it acknowledges the most certain and then requires merely a small leap of faith. The reigning materialist worldview, on the other hand, requires all four statements above to hold; a gargantuan leap of faith. Clearly, idealism is the more skeptical, cautious metaphysics."
What can science tell us about consciousness and matter?
Next week, I will be posting scientific evidence that deeply challenges the idea that the brain generates consciousness. This has far-ranging implications that could change the way you see life, death, and meaning.
In the meantime, what do you think about the logic or illogic of materialism? How about the alternative of idealism? Are there any other alternatives do you prefer? Or are you still unconvinced that materialism is an insufficient theory?
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
P.S. I owe a huge debt to Bernardo Kastrup in this post and the following post about scientific evidence against materialism. Although my area of academic study focuses on idealism in the continental philosophy tradition, Kastrup is leading the modern revival of idealism in a way that our science-biased society can appreciate for his engagement with neuroscience and physics (also, I'm pretty sure he is a genius). Check out more of his work at the Essentia Foundation, on Amazon, or on his personal blog.
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Watch this shorter argument against materialism:
Are you merely a dissociated personality of a larger mind?
Read all of Bernardo Kastrup's articles in the Scientific American here:
Watch this free course on analytic idealism from the Essentia Foundation: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL64CzGA1kTzi085dogdD_BJkxeFaTZRoq
Derrida's critique of metaphysics (mind as inescapable):