On materialism, Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America writes, “Materialism is a dangerous malady of the human mind in all nations.” Notwithstanding Tocqueville’s condemnation, materialism, and the materialist view of human nature, have become increasingly fashionable since he published Democracy in America in 1835. The unparalleled speed at which behavioral science has progressed, accompanied by the rise of atheism and agnosticism, has led many to believe that empirical science can offer a complete account of the human creature. Theories of human nature that drew upon ancient wisdom, positing that humans possess an eternal soul which can be nourished and polluted by their free actions, are oft-rendered irrelevant, backward, and archaic. What exactly is philosophical materialism, where does it come from, what are its practical implications, and does it hold against scrutiny?
Dating back to the Epicureans of Ancient Greece, philosophical materialism suggests that everything in the world is made of matter. Thus, it can be understood best through a scientific lens, examining cause and effect and the movement of matter in the material world. On the materialist view, mental state and consciousness are likewise determined by material interactions and should, as such, be studied scientifically. Writing at the dawn of the scientific revolution, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes articulates a materialist philosophy in his book, Leviathan, which laid the philosophical foundation for modern liberalism. Hobbes opens Leviathan with an exploration into human behavior and psychology. In the same way, he contends, a physicist can summarize knowledge of the natural world by reducing it to a few law-like regularities, so knowledge of the interpersonal world can be acquired by resolving it into parts—namely, individuals and their baser passions and impulses. For Hobbes, human beings are no more than the accumulation of their preferences and desires. From there, he offers a rather bleak and cynical picture of humanity, writing that human life can basically be summarized by a “perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” Put another way, we are all dying animals, and the only real purpose to life is the pursuit of our appetitive desires. Indeed, Hobbes expressly rejects the notion that there exists a “finis ultimus, (utmost aim,)” or “summum bonum, (greatest good,) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.” Toward the end of Leviathan, Hobbes directly addresses the theory of an incorporeal, or non-physical, soul. In this regard, he writes, “… of the essence of a man, which (they say) is his soul, they affirm it, to be all of it in his little finger, and all of it in every other part (how small soever) of his body; and yet no more soul in the whole body, than in any one of those parts. Can any man think that God is served with such absurdities? And yet all this is necessary to believe, to those that will believe the existence of an incorporeal soul, separated from the body.” In summary, Hobbes attempted to reduce all human behavior to material phenomena. He denied the existence of a non-physical soul, arguing that humans can be best understood in terms of their “appetites” (their natural affinities toward certain things) and “aversions” (their natural disinclinations toward other things).
Hobbes was by no means the last materialist; he was succeeded by authoritative figures like Feuerbach and Marx, though Hobbes’ influence on the present day is perhaps the most easily discernible. To follow Hobbes in believing that human beings can be understood, in their entirety, through scientific investigation is to engage in a harmful kind of reductionism. It is to neglect the fact that while humans can indeed be understood through a scientific lens, they can also be understood in another way—namely, as objects of personal relations, capable of identifying themselves in the first person. When I address the other, I direct my attention toward their face, not as a scientist seeking to understand it, but as someone trying to connect with their actual presence in our shared world. In this way, the human face is understood as a kind of vehicle to someone’s perspective, expressed in first-person terms. However, to examine the face in terms of its anatomical significance is to lose sight of its non-scientific implications. No scientific investigation—no matter how thorough—could ever identify or pinpoint someone’s personal perspective, the place from which they address me, and which I address in turn. The human perspective is unobservable to science because it gives an account of the world in the first and second person, while science can only give an account of the world in the third person.
The first-person perspective is especially crucial in militating against materialist thinking. That I can identify myself in and use the first person indicates that I have a perspective on the world. With the ability to speak in the first person comes a special kind of epistemological privilege. When I speak in the first person, I make declarations on no basis, and with immediate awareness, about which, over the majority of cases, I cannot be wrong. To know what I am feeling, I need not refer to anything else, which would create the possibility for mishap or error. Although I can be insincere or dishonest, I cannot, therefore, be mistaken when sharing things about myself. Crucially, no scientific investigation could undermine the infallibility of my perspective since, to reiterate, science can only describe the world from the third-person standpoint while my perspective takes the form of the first-person. Empirical science describes things as they are in themselves and the properties of objects in the world. On the contrary, speaking in the first-person, I describe things as they appear to me, sharing my thoughts concerning the objects in question and not necessarily the objects to which they refer. Dialogue between individuals, each of whom capable of identifying themselves in the first person, generates a non-physical, mental realm that is inaccessible to empirical science. Thus, humans occupy not only a material dimension but also a higher, immaterial realm. In our personal dialogue, concepts like right, freedom, and responsibility are invoked only because we can specify whose right it is, who is free, and who is responsible—it is my right, I am free, and I am responsible. Science can make no such distinctions between I and You, merely examining undifferentiated objects.
The materialist view of human nature ignores all that makes humans distinct from the remainder of the animal kingdom, reducing all human actions, decisions, and motives to biological urges and chemical reactions in the brain ordered toward reproduction. Nevertheless, the human creature cannot be understood purely as the outcome of impersonal evolutionary forces. For, humans take pleasure in activities that have no apparent evolutionary significance (consider bungee jumping and bird watching) and, as it were, look past their genetic needs out to the greater social world of which they are a component. In this regard, the case of mathematics is particularly compelling. Human beings could suffice evolutionarily with only a rudimentary understanding of basic arithmetic. Yet, humans are aspirational creatures; they have latched on to a necessary realm of truth, proceeding infinitely beyond their biological requirements for survival, pondering extremely complex, abstract mathematical equations that presumably confer no reproductive advantage. This phenomenon of human aspiration is something for which a scientific view of man cannot account.
Considering all that has been said, it is evident that no matter how far it progresses, science alone could never give a complete picture of humanity. Equally obvious are the destructive implications of materialism as a philosophy. If everything is matter and nothing more or greater exists that might separate humans from the rest of the natural world, then human life has no unique value. Materialism discounts all that might compel us to ascribe special importance to human life. It is no coincidence that virtually every genocidal regime throughout history was predicated upon a materialistic philosophy. Under such regimes, it becomes so easy to destroy innocent human life since the value of human life lacks public recognition. The more obvious historical examples include Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, though the current United States falls into a similar bucket. Since the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade—which prohibited undue restrictions on abortion access—over 62 million children have been unjustly slaughtered in the womb. To justify the mass murder of society’s most vulnerable, we are told that unborn children are nothing more than valueless “clumps of cells.” In other words, babies in the womb are dehumanized on materialistic grounds. There is perhaps no more vivid an example of the dangers of materialist philosophy than our current pro-choice abortion regime. Ultimately, a world in which the immaterial goes unrecognized is a world where everything is permitted, and nothing has absolute value. This decisive point rings of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous line: “if God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” Human morality is rooted in our freedom and ability to hold one another accountable. Morality elevates humans above lower animals since it makes distinctions between right and wrong that go beyond whoever is the physically stronger or more dominant party. However, when we adopt a purely materialistic view of things, concepts including freedom, responsibility, and morality are thrown out of the window. All that is left is the brutish, animalistic competition with which Thomas Hobbes characterized the “state of nature.” Such is a world in which mothers can choose to terminate the lives of their children if they have an “aversion” toward them (to borrow Hobbes’ words).