As a social scientist living through horrific political, economic, and public health crises, I should be embracing with all my might philosophical materialism, the epistemological model behind science. That I don’t could cost me personal and collegial respect, not to mention friendships. So, what exactly is philosophical materialism, and why do I find it ultimately non-collegial?
Philosophy precedes science. It’s impossible to have science (or the sciences) without a presupposition about what is real, which is the arena of philosophy. Philosophical materialism says that all that is real or factual is material or physical in nature. And I find this too limiting.
I am more attuned to the Eastern philosophical model, intellectually supported these days by quantum physics, particularly the early 20th-century German physicist Werner Heisenberg. It holds that non-material phenomena, such as dreams and hallucinations, are as real as physical phenomenon such as rocks and rivers, in one sense, even more real. (My dream is a reality sui generis. It is not electrochemical activity in my brain.) What’s more, all material and non-material phenomena come into existence from individual conscious intention and belief; there is no truly independent universe out there.
The good philosophical news here about the anti-materialist epistemological model is the plausibility of a multi-world or multi-dimensional universe. If reality is a product of consciousness, rather than the other way around, it seems to me Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s claim that we have “nothing to fear but fear itself” is really possible. In fact, the psycho-therapeutic value of that statement is considerable.
But what do I do with my propensity toward progressive activism? And what do I do with those great discussions I have with my friends on how disgusting and horrible the Trump administration is? Can I have both perspectives at the same time? Emerson said that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. And it seems counterintuitive to be, following the Bible, “in the world but not of the world,” to see everyday life as play, as a sort of game created by me and only for me.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing for “alternative facts,” as the supporters of Trump do. I’m not denying science or the dangers of Covid-19. When I go out, I social distance and wear a mask as needed. But I also believe there is a reality outside of rocks and rivers, so to speak, a reality created by my consciousness, an immaterial realm that has its own existence, whether for me or for all of us. Some might call this a “higher” realm; I prefer to see it as linked to the material, for I myself am both physical and mental, both material and immaterial.
Those epistemological paradigms, material and immaterial, provide me with solace in these dark days. Not everything is controlled by others, and especially not by the Cult of Trump. I decide. And for me that’s an empowering thought at a time when power is being actively denied to so many of us.
Richard Sahn is a retired sociology professor and a regular contributor to Bracing Views.