Materialism’s Vested Interests

People with an inclination to rule are always keen to control and delimit the thoughts and attitudes of others as a means of protecting the exclusivity of their right to rule. Just as our tyrannical advocates of “lockdowns” and “stay-at-home orders” like to declare exceptions for “essential workers,” as this allows them to set the terms for all mankind regarding which work is to be judged important, i.e., to establish their own minds and interests as the standard of value for all men, so the world of academic research is controlled by the gatekeepers at the journals, conferences, and professional associations, who decide which kinds of hypotheses will (and will not) be granted entry to the “legitimate” discussion.

Likewise, all bureaucracies are resistant to any honest evaluations of internal waste or ineffective policies, since the officers of every bureau are the very people whose careers and incomes were created by and depend on the continuation and expansion of those wasteful and ineffective programs and policies. As Thomas Sowell amusingly explains, from his youthful experience working at the Department of Labor, any study that questions the economic value of minimum wage laws will necessarily be buried by an agency thirty percent of whose workforce is tasked with administering the minimum wage.

A modern materialist is one who insists on — who builds his entire argumentative edifice on — the belief that there is nothing in our experience which cannot, in principle, be explained entirely in terms of material causation. The mind is reducible to the brain, feelings to neurons, life to evolutionary or chemical mechanisms, and so on. That is to say, since all notions of “immaterial” reality are unnecessary, in the sense of being practically superfluous to the search for explanations, they cannot be regarded as contenders for truth.

Who, however, other than the materialists themselves, has ever identified truth with practical necessity? Truth is what is, not what you need. Your needs — or rather, to be precise, your perceived needs — should barely enter into the question of what is true. Only pragmatists espouse the view that the truth is merely what works. The folly in this premise — and this is a hidden premise in every materialist deduction — is that the needs you feel today exhaust the entire category of what you need, such that truth is effectively defined, in the sense of delimited, by the current boundaries of your perception, attitudes, and priorities. But perhaps the current boundaries of your perspective ought to be regarded, especially from the materialist’s point of view, as quite accidental, almost arbitrary, in which case the (hidden) premise that the explanatory needs you experience today represent the objective limits of what must be explained would make the materialist argument almost self-evidently invalid.

To summarize this simply, the materialist has a vested interest in maintaining that what he thinks he can explain by material reductionism comprises the entire category of the knowable, for roughly the same reason that the labor department bureaucrat assumes the intractability of the minimum wage as a precondition or “defining limit” of all policy discussion within his department, namely that he would be out of a job if reality were allowed to intrude with other, perhaps higher and less artificially circumscribed, priorities — priorities from beyond the narrow consideration of practical efficacy as measured according to the internal operational interests of his department. 

But the truth is what is, not what you need to make things work — or, let us say, what ordinary humans need to make life more “comprehensible.” To comprehend is to encompass, to wrap one’s arms around. That is always a comforting idea for the ordinary man; and the modern scientific reductionist is a very ordinary man.

To put this in the simplest possible way, modern reductionism can tell you how electricity works in a way that is most practically efficacious, but it cannot tell you what love is or what a friend is, in a manner that adds anything whatsoever to our experience. And yet only a modern materialist would be so detached from life as to imagine that the former kind of knowledge is remotely comparable, either in objective profundity or in human value, to the latter. One telling and decisive distinction between the two kinds of knowing may be found in this: The former makes life more comfortable, whereas the latter makes it less so.

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