Two Critiques of Materialism

1. What are you most certain of and how do you know it?  Let’s say you’re pretty sure about many things but most certain about mathematical truths (e.g., an equilateral triangle has three 60 degree angles).  Let’s say to prove this you draw a triangle on the chalk board.  But the triangle on the chalk board is imperfect: the lines are grainy and not quite straight, etc.  In fact, every physically produced triangle will fall short of the perfect triangle.  But all of your mathematical knowledge about triangles is based on the perfect triangle—the one in which the lines are perfectly straight and the angles exactly what they should be.  That ideal triangle, the one that doesn’t exist in the material world, is the only one you really know anything about, but luckily that knowledge carries over, albeit imperfectly, in the material world.  And mathematical knowledge, being the most certain, is a model for other kinds of knowledge.  So according to this theory, the material world does exist, but for us to have any real knowledge about it requires assumption of an ideal world that transcends this or that material object.

2. The second critique disagrees with the first, and assumes that knowledge is sensory based.  All knowledge begins with the five senses.  But what knowledge do you gain from the five senses?  Knowledge about the material world?  Not at all.  “The pillow is red” is not a proposition about the pillow itself, but about how the pillow registers in the retina.  “The pillow is soft” says nothing about the pillow in itself but only addresses how the pillow registers tactile sensations in neurons under the skin.  In fact, we may agree that the pillow is largely empty space with tiny atoms bombarding each other. But this knowledge too has been derived from empirical studies that rely in the first instance on sensory data.  So all we know about are the imprints made upon our own body’s sensory registers.  If there are material things out in space which exist independently of our sensory judgments, we can know nothing about them in themselves—we can only know about them post-processed, as it were.  So according to this theory, the material world may exist, but we’ll never know, because all we know about are the products of our own subjective processing plant.


The first critique was favored in the 4th century BC by Plato, who deliberately rejected empiricism (and the Greeks had already theorized that the world was nothing more than billions of tiny particles called atoms bombarding one another and creating the appearance of solid shapes—a conclusion they drew through philosophical inquiry without any need for scientific instruments, and a materialist conclusion Plato had studied and rejected on the grounds that it could only give us low-level knowledge accessible to the senses, knowledge of material reality, which is only a shadow cast by a more ideal reality accessible to reason).

The second critique was favored by the empiricist, David Hume, who was presumably following the empiricism of 18th-century scientists to its logical conclusion—that the material world was either non-existent or utterly unknowable.  (There are counterarguments—and rebuttals—Kant, e.g., would pick up exactly where Hume left off. But it’s interesting to see how the ultimate empiricist, Hume, and the ultimate anti-empiricist, the rationalist Plato, both conclude that a purely materialist world view is untenable.)


Four Sheaths of Identity

alt. title: Paean to D. H. Lawrence and Walt Whitman

alt. alt.: The Meaning of Holding Hands

The Vedantic philosophy of the East sees human identity in terms of sheaths housing the true self. It gets pretty complicated, but we can settle on four sheaths: physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Think of each as a sock the Self is wearing. The sheaths are not actually separate, but coextensive, so they are really different ways of looking at the same sock, but seeing them as separate layers makes them more comprehensible from the everyday point of view.

When I hold your hand, it’s not merely a physical act, but a trigger, an indicator, an objective marker of all sorts of transcendental knots and connections forming at the emotional and intellectual and spiritual layers of being. If I go deep within myself at that moment, I can feel it to be so.

Today’s religious followers too often feel only the mock-spiritual, an economy of meaning perversely separated from the physical, which leaves them with something dry and unsensual. Obliged to deny sensual richness, they remain sensually impoverished.

Today’s materialists too often feel only the physical and “demystify” the other sheaths into anemic scientific formulas, abstractions with all the transcendental and cosmic life drained out of them. And they wonder why they are unfulfilled, or half-fulfilled, in life.

I feel within myself the measure and vanishing point of all sheaths.
I am the fulfillment of a destiny.
You are the fulfillment of a destiny.
We are the fulfillment of a destiny.

And we know this to be true.

We can fight against it and tie ourselves in knots of neurosis and frustration. Or we can untie the knots, accept the full freedom that destiny expresses through us, and open the flow.

kyle cropped1

Painting (“Ghost in the Range”) by Kyle Nugent (

Regifting and Post-Tech Ethics

Roiled in the recent holiday spirit, my friend, Brit, asked if I could do a regifting manifesto in the vein of my fashion anarchy manifesto. I thought I’d over-comply and build an entire ethical system around regifting. Thus the following.

I think of ethics as having a constant layer and a layer of culturally-specific variables. The constant layer – the golden rule – is fairly simple, and is constant even as expressed differently by Kant, Jesus, Plato, Confucius, et al. As the Dalai Lama puts it: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

On the variable layer, ethical conundrums arise with each age and within each culture. As the Mayan calendar ends and we move into the post-technological age, I see a few practical strategies for ethical behavior that might navigate us from late capitalism to the Age of Aquarius.

First, we have to restructure our ethical vision to meet changes in the natural environment. Technology has reached a point where it can (a) rapidly strip-mine all remaining resources off the face of the earth in pursuit of quick profits, or (b) distribute resources as needed to all parts of the world. The Corporate State wants to bind people to the consumerist ethic that keeps technology on track (a). One person alone can’t stop that consumerist mentality, with its concomitant greed and political structures, all designed to maximize how much stuff can be hoarded. But there are things individuals can do. And through the old-fashioned ripple-effect of friends of friends of friends, and the newfangled speed of social media, we can change the cultural sensibility more rapidly now than in the past.

Thrift store shopping (kudos to Macklemore). Simple. Why burn through Mother Nature’s resources more quickly than you need just to satisfy the “new stuff” fetish that has been cynically implanted into our brains by the Corporate State?

Regifting. If you have something you know a friend would like, why not give them something that has a little bit of your own life imprinted on it, something with real traces of sentiment, something that shows you’ve sacrificed a little bit of yourself for them to keep forever or until such time as they regift it and pass along the chain of accumulated sentiment? Things made with your own hands would fall into this category too, at least so long as those things are given in the spirit that the receiver is welcome to pass along the object, which is now a locus of emotional history and not just an anonymous commodity, to someone else that he or she would like to bring into the chain.

Regifting will not get traction as quickly as thrift store shopping, because the Corporate State has buried this taboo into its subjects more deeply. After all, since regifting completely detaches the idea of “the purchase” from the idea of “meaningful gift,” the Corporate State rightly sees it as an even bigger threat. All the more reason for us to get a movement going to make regifting cool. And here we must rely on a new generation of teens and twenty somethings, as the stigma will be too much for most older people to overcome on their own.

So practice regifting, practice thrift store shopping. And practice fashion anarchy, too, as it will maximize creative leeway for every individual and at the same time liberate our most basic self-presentation from the commodified versions of self being sold to us for cold cash at retail outlets and big box stores every day. It will also dispel, and perhaps transform, the motivation of some of consumer culture’s most dogged enforcers (those who act as fashion police). If individuals do these things and promote these ideas mindfully, we will already be moving toward a culture where self-actualization and human achievement is no longer measured in terms of purchasing power.

But don’t underestimate the resistance we will encounter. On the economic level, these apparently small lifestyle choices shift the priority from ever-growing economies to sustainable economies, which is a very dangerous idea to the status quo of profiteering giants who are currently managing the global economy. On the other hand, don’t overestimate the power of those giants. As the earth’s resources are depleted, the age of consumerism will die. The writing is on the wall. The ice sheets are melting. What little rainforest remains (now about 6% of the land surface) could be consumed in about 40 years at present rates. The Age of Aquarius is coming. The only question is whether it will happen via a utopian or dystopian pathway. In the utopian model, human ideals are transformed and we come to find fulfillment in creatively sustaining the resources around us. In the dystopian model, our appetite continues to grow until there are not enough resources left to sustain growth, and the species begins to implode as resources dry up while humans still define themselves by how many resources they can personally control. Now make your choice.

A small concession on intelligent design

Let me put it this way. I do believe, e.g., that the human body has enormous intelligence inscribed within it – thousands of times more so than the medical establishment (which may have mapped 1/10 of 1% of the body’s operating intelligence) can fathom. The same for the seahorse, the butterfly, and the praying mantis. How does the fertilized egg know what it has to do to become a fully elaborated starfish? What intelligence drives a species of cactus to develop just these kinds of thorns?

My concession is that I believe there is enormous intelligence driving through these processes. But I disagree with “intelligent design” people on probably everything else. I see this enormous intelligence first of all as evolved intelligence, and certainly not the result of an anthropomorphic god deciding in an anthropomorphic way on what features he will give each species (and then jealously demanding acknowledgment from said creatures).  Does this make me a materialist? Not really. I believe the physical universe is one abstraction of reality, and hence I believe that there are transcendental layers to reality (or other abstractions of reality) as well. And I believe that the intelligence we see infused in physical reality may be tangled up in that transcendental manifold.

That said, I am absolutely opposed to intelligent design being taught alongside evolution as if it too were science. I would, however, be in favor of teaching philosophy to kids at early ages, and intelligent design might have an appropriate place there, so long as it doesn’t become too normative and kids are allowed to think critically about the issues, attacking as well as embracing various ideas of God.

Kant’s supposed relativism

To my friend who argued that Kant denied that we have any direct knowledge of the objective world and is therefore a relativist, I’ll give my take on Kant, and maybe one of my professional philosopher friends (at least one of whom I know is listening) can add his or her two cents.

My friend’s premise that Kant denied us any direct knowledge of the objective world is true. The conclusion, that Kant is a relativist, might then seem a no-brainer, but a close look shows that this conclusion does not follow from the premise.

Kant is indeed famous for subjectifying everything at the end of an eighteenth century which sought, through empiricism, to objectify everything. What is the most basic thing about the world as we know it? Space and time. Kant meticulously argues that space and time are not “out there,” not things in the world but ways of organizing the world. They are the subjective categories through which we make sense of the otherwise inaccessible flux of reality. But crucial is the idea that they are subjective categories and not objective facts. And if space and time are subjective categories, then it follows that everything we know about the world is subjectively constructed. Or, in Kantian terms, the world we know is the phenomenal world. It turns out that our knowledge presupposes a noumenal world anterior to the phenomenal world, but we have no access to such a world – it exists for us merely as an abstract, logical prerequisite.

This radical subjectification of the human experience would seem to throw us into a dizzying relativism, but not so in Kant. Indeed, Kant tells us in his early notebooks (before the Big Three critiques – of pure reason, of practical reason, of judgment) that his whole goal is to find universals in a world that seems to have spun off into relativism. Kant’s epiphany came when he saw that if we were to have universals, we would have to locate them subjectively, not objectively. The objective world cannot give us universals because it is, insofar as we have access to it, always already shaped by subjective categories of understanding.

So how does Kant find a universal ground for ethics? I’m not sure because the Critique of Practical Reason is the one I’m least familiar with. But I can say how he does it in regard to aesthetics (the subject of the Critique of Judgment).

A true (valid) aesthetic judgment is (1) disinterested, (2) subjective, and (3) universal. Disinterested: “The satisfaction which we combine with the representation of the existence of the object is called ‘interest.’” I.e., if the satisfaction involves a vested interest in the existence of the object, it is an interested judgment. “You’re beautiful because our sex is great” is NOT a disinterested judgment: “A judgment about beauty in which the least interest mingles, is very partial and not a pure judgment of taste.” To be freed from such interest, a judgment must be subjective: “When the question is if a thing is beautiful, we do not … depend on the existence of the thing … but … judge it by mere observation … We wish only to know if this mere representation of the object is accompanied in me with satisfaction, however indifferent I may be as regards the existence of the object of this representation.” Only a subjective judgment is truly disinterested, and thus only a subjective judgment can be universal: “For the fact of which everyone is conscious, that the satisfaction is for him quite disinterested implies in his judgment a ground of satisfaction in all men.”

So to achieve an unbiased view, you must strip away all vested interest in the existence of objects at hand. Only then can your judgment be disinterested and therefore universally valid (and by definition, then, you are viewing it subjectively, as mere “representation” without regard to its objective existence).

I assume the analogy holds for ethics. An ethical judgment, to be valid, must be universal, and it can only be universal if disinterested, and only disinterested if subjective (stripped of all self-interest in the objective reality of the representation at hand).

What my friend who started this discussion wants, Kant would say, is not an objective ground of ethics per se; he wants a universal ground of ethics. And he would do best to find it subjectively, not objectively.