The Materialist Superstition

By Gilder, George | The American Enterprise, September-October 1998 | Go to article overview

The Materialist Superstition


Gilder, George, The American Enterprise


The continued prevalence of the materialist superstition was manifest in a recent Time cover story titled "In Search of the Mind." The magazine authoritatively declaimed that "consciousness may be nothing more than an evanescent by-product of more mundane, wholly physical processes." According to one neuroscientist, "being awake or being conscious is nothing but a dreamlike state" that has "no objective reality" because we can "never actually touch or measure it."

This materialist superstition has long roots in Western culture. Indeed, for 300 years most intellectuals have been dedicated to its agenda of self destruction by seeking to overthrow mind and replace it with inert, blind, and meaningless matter. The effort originated in the triumph of Newtonian physics in the seventeenth century. Newton was himself a deist, but he had a vision of the world that was profoundly materialistic and determinist. He believed that at the basis of the universe were solid, immutable, impenetrable, mindless bits of matter. Further, he maintained that the universe was built up from these bits of matter in a great determinist machine, like the workings of a clock. Although he acknowledged his theory required a watchmaker (led, this need wax rejected by followers who exulted in the enormous power over nature that machines based on Newtonian physics gave them.

Since man subsists not on his practical possibilities but on his ultimate philosophies, this sort of materialist determinism soon became the implicit religion of science and the profound enemy of all other religion and morality. Even as the scientist's practical advances promised to prolong life and enrich its pleasures, his philosophy seemed to destroy life's meaning.

The computer initially contributed to this vision of materialist determinism, because even human intelligence was now seen as likely to succumb to a mechanistic rival. In gaining dominion over the world, we worried about h)sing control of our own machines. When transistor switching speeds plummeted into the trillionths of a second, it seemed plausible that tot all its user-friendliness and endearing idiosyncrasies (such as "common sense") the brain was no longer "merely a computer" but in fact far inferior to computers in speed and computing power.

The computer thus lent enormous new authority to the determinist vision. Not only could it be used to achieve enormous new advances across the range of the scientific enterprise, but the computer itself constituted a model for comprehending the very fabric of thought in materialist terms. The computer seemed to subordinate thoughts to things, mind to matter, soul to solid-state physics. It seemed to unmask the mind and demystify it, and thus to banish sacred and spiritual powers from the world.

With science believed to have abandoned man and the dignity of his soul, men rose up to claim the dignity of science for squalid temporal schemes of the State and to ascribe soul to the new machines. Religion, in turn, after having contributed indispensably to the birth of science, began renouncing the great human enterprise of understanding and mastering nature.

Desperate to reassemble the shattered grail of faith, the public clutched at a new pagan polytheism: Materialist intellectuals widely worshipped the god of the machine, artists reveled in the god of the senses, and churches retreated to a pre-industrial vision of an ecological Eden.

People came to believe in a religion that closely resembles that of pygmies in the jungle: believe only in things you can see, and touch, and measure. The pygmies worship the Sun, the trees, and the world. Modern intellectuals worship the measurable, palpable, visible, mechanical kinds of phenomena that their senses can present to them, and deny as a matter of principle all that exists beyond this domain.

The pygmies in the jungle have at least this advantage: they believe the trees are fundamentally alive.

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