Materialism is the belief that everything in reality, including consciousness, results from material interactions. This is closely related to physicalism, the view that all that exists is fundamentally physical. In the materialistic view, the mind is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of the brain. This view requires a splitting or doubling of all reality. It implies that there is an inner subjective reality that is merely a reconstruction of the ultimately unknowable external objective reality. Hence whatever we are exists separately from everything else. We exist as minds that arise through the physical interactions of our brains. Once our bodies die, whatever we are ceases to exist.
Why materialism is so pervasive
There are many threads that work together to solidify materialism as the dominant worldview. The adoption of materialism by mainstream media and intellectual elites has a powerful influence on the general public. Once embedded in a materialistic culture we can’t help but absorb its materialistic beliefs. The more we see the world through the materialistic lens the more it reinforces materialistic values, expectations, and goals. Even those who don’t consider themselves materialists will find, if they examine diligently, that materialism pervades much of their thinking.
The power of the scientific method has displaced other ways of knowing and hypnotized many into scientism, a view that is directly related to and reinforces materialism. Scientism comes in two forms: (1) strong scientism which states that science is the only path to truth and (2) weak scientism which states that science is the best path to truth. Both of these forms of scientism fail to recognize that science provides knowledge in only one domain of human experience.
According to integral philosopher Ken Wilber reality can be experienced in 4 domains:
- The I-subjective is the internal space of one’s thoughts, emotions, sensations, and states of mind.
- The IT-Objective is the external space of the material body, brain, and anything you can touch or see in time and space.
- The WE- intersubjective domain is the shared internal space of values, meanings, language, and culture.
- ITS-Interobjective domain is the shared external space of systems, networks, institutions, and technologies.
Science can only operate in the “IT-objective quadrant,” which leaves it blind to discovering knowledge in the other 3 quadrants.
*Note none of this implies that there are different realities, only that there are different ways to know reality.
The limits of science are also extensively explored in E.F. Schumacher’s “A Guide for the Perplexed”. Similar to Wilber’s four quadrants, Schumacher’s four fields of knowledge model also illustrates that science can only provide knowledge in one field. Schumacher writes “A materialistic scientist, believes that life, consciousness, and self-awareness are nothing but manifestations of complex arrangements of inanimate particles — a “faith” which makes it perfectly rational for him to place exclusive reliance on the bodily senses, to “stay in the head,” and to reject any interference from the “powers” situated in the heart.”
The view of scientism and materialism is further deconstructed in visionary author Charles Eisenstein’s book, “The Ascent of Humanity.” Eisenstein names this view “The myth of ascent” and says it is built on two tenets: (1) Science will grant us a complete understanding of reality and (2) Technology will grant us complete control of reality. In a way, this view was inevitable because humans are technological animals and technology naturally builds on itself. From simple tools to agriculture to the internet, humanity keeps finding new ways to bring nature “under control”. Materialism continues to be a powerful and persuasive worldview because it reinforces this sense of control.
Another way of understanding the prevalence of materialism is by looking at the hemispheric differences in the brain and how they mediate our view of reality. In his seminal work “The Master & His Emissary” psychiatrist Iain McGhlichrist lays out extensive evidence showing that humanity has largely come to favor the left hemisphere’s view of the world while increasingly neglecting the right hemisphere’s vision. The left hemisphere sees the world as separate graspable objects but lacks the big-picture holistic vision that the right hemisphere provides. This left-brain dominance is another thread that maintains materialism as the preeminent worldview.
The problem of Materialism
Materialism lies at the crossroads of the many emerging crises of today’s world. The hyper-commoditization, political polarization, increasing narcissism, environmental destruction, and war are all products of materialistic thinking. Materialism is the glue that holds our egos together and perpetuates our sense of separation from one another, from nature, and from the cosmos as a whole. The lack of meaning that many are experiencing today is a direct result of this kind of thinking and perceiving.
Seeing through Materialism
Intellectualization is not enough to dismantle materialism; seeing through it requires a direct experience that radically shifts perception. Such a shift is what Jeffery Krippal calls “The Flip” – “That moment of realization beyond all linear thought, beyond all language, beyond all belief.” The flip is a radical insight that changes forever how one views themselves and reality. Krippal writes “Once one makes the flip and begins to understand that consciousness is fundamental, is a primitive of the physics and mathematics of the universe, it becomes more than apparent that every local religious ego or political identity, every local story, is historically relative, built on and constructed out of this deeper-minded matter or conscious cosmos.”Embedded in all the great spiritual traditions, such a realization at the very least dispels the certainty of materialism and opens one up to a deep sense of mystery, beauty, and awe.
Rarely does such a shift occur spontaneously in the course of daily life; more often, it is a product of dedicated spiritual practice. Mindfulness continues to grow in popularity although it is often seen through a materialistic lens. Many people start meditating to calm their minds or to somehow improve themselves but the deeper purpose of meditation is in recognizing and stabilizing one’s understanding of “emptiness.” Emptiness is the central teaching of Buddhism and an unfortunate translation of the sanskrit word “sunyata”. In the west, the word emptiness is often understood as meaninglessness or bleakness however this is not what emptiness means from the Buddhist perspective. Emptiness is the realization that nothing has inherent existence. This may seem like a gloomy realization but, in fact, it reveals the underlying interconnectivity of everything.
Not everyone is going to commit to a dedicated spiritual practice. Luckily this isn’t the only way to cleanse the doors of perception. Psychedelics are powerful substances that in as little as one session can create significant cracks in the foundation of materialism. If there is anything that psychedelics reveal, it’s that things aren’t as they seem. This kind of “suspicion” is necessary to soften the solidity of materialism and make emptiness easier to see. We may finally come to recognize that things only are what they are through their relationship to others things. Beyond any ideas of relative meaning, reality is inherently meaningful.
These realizations often have radical implications on how we live our lives. Can we continue to destroy the environment if we recognize that we are a part of it? Can we continue to play zero-sum games with others if we no longer see them as separate from ourselves? Do we continue to chase pleasure and run from pain when we realize there is nothing to gain or lose? Such questions deepen our ethics and transform our relationship to life.
My own journey of seeing through materialism has been a gradual path. At one point, I considered myself a full-blown atheist materialist. Meditation and particularly psychedelics changed that. I no longer consider myself a materialist, but I can still find materialistic threads in my thinking. I’ve come to realize that calling someone a materialist is a harmful and arbitrary distinction because to some degree materialism is embedded in all of our views. Materialism is a kind of fabrication, and we can’t help but fabricate. The only thing we can do is fabricate less. As we continue to peel back layers of obscurations, we increasingly come to see that reality is beyond distinctions or categorization. Everything is really one thing: a “material” that defies all descriptions, including this one.