Materialism is True

Materialism is true, but not in any way that materialists would like.

It is trivially true that every event of our cosmos is materially expressed – provided we remember that matter is the potential to take form. Thus materialism is just a way of saying, “this is a cosmos.” It does not explain the cosmos. So it cannot help us understand.

Then also, while it is trivially true that our cosmos is material – that, i.e., it is a cosmos – materialism is not adequate even to its description, let alone to its explanation. The cosmos is indeed material, through and through. But it is not only that. It is also formal – which is to say, ordered and definite. Again, it is efficient – i.e., acting so as to enact potentials for action, and linked together integrally in a causal whole, so that such acts have intelligible effects. Finally, it is final – that is, ordered in each of its parts and as a whole toward the eventual production of certain ends, i.e., certain formal potentialities for action.

But materialism excises formality, finality, and efficiency from its account of nature. It says that the material stuff of which everything is constituted is neither formal nor final. Nor does it quite admit that material stuff is efficient – that, i.e., it actually does anything – insisting rather that all things are pushed about by their antecedents.

Materialism then, properly construed, is at once trivially true, uninformative, and inadequate.

Of course, most materialists do not construe matter properly. They think matter is just stuff, and that the cosmos is nothing but that stuff. They are not wrong in that, so far as that saying goes, which is not far: to say that everything is stuff is like saying that everything is a thing. But most materialists go further. They say that because everything is constituted of that stuff of which everything must be constituted, therefore there is nothing to the things that such constitutions constitute.  

Well, but wait: to be fair, most materialists don’t want to go that far. Most materialists are not strict eliminativists. They think humans, selves, persons, urges, animals, desires, feelings, sensations, cells, nations and the like – including, if we want (as we should) to be strict about it, molecules and stars, galaxies and black holes, logic, thought and reason, signs and symbols, information, signals and noise, mathematical truths, empirical science, and metaphysical notions such as materialism itself – are indeed real. They say only that all such things are nothing more than their material constituents.

But this move is foreclosed to them: if x is nothing but atoms, then apart from those atoms x is nothing at all, period full stop. X does not then exist in any way whatsoever; only ‘its’ atoms exist.

Thus if materialism as materialists usually misconstrue it is true, neither materialism nor materialists actually exist. There is in that case no such thing as materialism. Not only is that sort of materialism not even wrong, it is not even not even wrong. It is not even incoherent. It is not even meaningless noise.

It is not; that is all.

Materialism as usually misconstrued eliminates materialism.

Materialism can exist at all then only as properly construed. It can, that is, exist only as the sort of doctrine about nature that most materialists ostensibly abhor.

3 thoughts on “Materialism is True

  1. Pingback: Materialism is True | Reaction Times

  2. It’s a delight to read you again, Kristor. Just as “materialism” (as a coherent account) complements and requires (formal) realism, so also those spooky spiritualists (in whose company we friends of the Orthosphere surely number) are the real empiricists. We observe and try to make sense of what we witness. We do not refuse to admit evidence or phenomena that do not neatly fit into our working categories. We take it for granted that our categories are inadequate. How could they not be? And so we’re always embiggening (my favorite neologism from pop culture) our account of the whole. I’d say that’s a good definition of the road to wisdom.

    • Meister Eckhart called the fruit of embiggening ‘spatiosissimus.’ I revert to that notion constantly in my own thought. That began long before I read, or had even heard of, Meister Eckhart, with the introspective reflection that one effect of the learning I so enjoyed – of that delectable expansion of the domain of my knowledge – was (among other things, not least a felt expansion of the power and reach of my comprehension) to increase the surface area – call it the firmament or veil – of my ignorance.

      Spatiosissimus forever! May our understanding of our ignorance increase without end! Farther up and further in!

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