Being material

So, to your question… How can you NOT be materialistic? I think to make an answer to this easier you have to reframe the question. What is not material? And what is material? And then you get to familiar ground. Nothing is actually material. It just appears to be. I refer to the example that is always quoted, and I have used it elsewhere on this blog. A table is not a permanent object. Thinking about it, the idea is a stupid one. Where are all the tables that were around in, say, 1920? Most now exist as rotted or decomposed material, or as ash in some form. A more immediate example, something with a much shorter desirable life, is a car. Cars deteriorate and become useless very quickly. And yet they are a burning object of desire. It is easy to see why the desire to own a beautiful car quickly becomes a source of anxiety and unhappiness, condemning the desirer to a life of continual cherishing of an object which is clearly not worthy and incapable of responding to such attention, since it is deteriorating. What can be worse than to cherish something which is disappearing before your eyes? So from here you can say that materialism is not the belief in material objects but the belief that material objects are material and permanent. The problem is not one of trying to conceive of a philosophy that is anti materialist, because there is no need for such a philosophy. Material is anti-material. Material is not material, and materialism is an illusion. In order to be less materialistic, it is therefore necessary simply to try to remember that this grand illusion is exactly that, and that the real purpose of human existence is to care for all living things as they exist in this state of uncertainty and flux and change, or as the Christians say to love one another.

I want to say a little more about materialism, not just because it is encompasses most dominant strands of modern Western philosophy and thought, but because it is an insidious world view that has come to govern most of our popular and social assumptions about the way we live. We are used to observing things as permanent objects, when they are palpably not so. So the important point above, in understanding the concept of compassion, is that the bird in my example is not an object but a living thing, and a living thing is in a constant state of flux and change.

But even inanimate objects are always in this constant state of change. Nothing is ever static. The example most often cited in this familiar argument is that of a wooden table. It might appear to be a solid thing, but over future time it changes, ages, decays and is eventually chemically transformed into other substances and living things – and in the course of past time is has itself evolved from living things which have in turn aged and been transformed. It is a transformation of material in the process of further transformation and it is therefore not a permanent object. It is not hard to see that the same is true of all objects, and in fact that the more technologically advanced an object is the more rapid this process of transformation, ageing, obsolescence and further transformation is likely to be. Nothing therefore exists, in the sense of permanent existence.

So from here you can say that materialism is not a belief in material objects but a belief that material objects are material and permanent. It is not a statement of fact but of psychological dependence, because these imaginary permanent objects are by virtue of their perceived permanence turned into goals, awards, rewards, achievement and desires. And unsurprisingly they then become the reason for much wasted time and energy, and the cause of much unhappiness. Materialism is an invidious and self deluding world view into which we all at (most) times fall simply because it is so pervasively and aggressively promoted by commercial organisations through advertising and media, as well as by states and governments as the driving force within capitalist economies. It is also a block to the understanding of how things actually live, grow and change, which can become a block to a more compassionate and positive way of life.

Impermanence is closely connected to the nature of truth. If we accept the impermanence of things, many statements we rely on as ‘facts’ and therefore ’true’ become unreliable, or at least only true in a temporary and contingent way. It is important to connect objects and facts in this way, because the impermanence of objects also applies to many factual statements and factual truths. It is clear that truth, in the example I gave above, is entirely disconnected and distinguished from material factors which are merely the means of its expression.

The question then needs to be asked, does impermanence undermine all factual truths? If something is a true fact, independent of materialist human ideology, doesn’t it then have longevity? Is not two plus two equals four, for instance, or ‘the earth has a moon’ (or ‘we perceive that the earth has a moon’) a statement of a permanent state of things, or at least as permanent as makes no difference?

It is certainly true that maths has longer lasting principles than a table. However we know that maths evolves. Maths is a fact of the same order as the body of the bird in my example. It is a condition, not a truth. What we consider to be proven today may be unproven tomorrow and scientific understanding is no less uncertain, although I have much more to say about maths and science, and I will deal with this separately. We certainly know that the moon did not exist once and will not exist again as a small planet near earth. The only difference between a moon and a table is scale, both physical and temporal. The transition of the matter of the moon may take place in a longer time frame, but that is not to say that the transition of material is not happening and will not happen. Clearly it is, and it will, and therefore it is as much a mistake to say that the moon exists permanently as it is to say that a table could be permanent. (It is also a fact that our consciousness and understanding have evolved and will evolve further so this is also not a fact that will remain true over time.) So while it is a fact that we perceive the moon, it is only temporarily true.

This non-existence does not depend upon human perception. The moon may be in a state of flux whether it is perceived or not. If we were discussing whether it existed, and were therefore true, this question would be an important one, but if we accept that moral truth is different to factual truth the issue of whether an object does or does not exist without human perception is now a less urgent one. The only question human beings should be interested in is whether these entities as living and evolving things can be helped (or damaged) by human intervention. Clearly, since the moon is part of a living system, there is a role for human compassion in the attempt to play a small part in its preservation and health. In the case of a mathematical equation there is a different case for the role of compassion.

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