My critique of materialism

Posted by – October 5, 2016

When leaving secondary school I thought my ideologies least likely to change were socialism, pacifism and atheism. (Atheism really stood for materialism / physicalism, and by extension the rejection of things like postmodernism.)

Well, the first two have undergone thorough changes, and even the third point I have finally come to see in a different light. I think I have finally found a way to understand idealism / Hegelianism / religiousness / postmodernism on my own terms. That doesn’t mean that I have become identified with those things, but that I no longer believe there is such a great difference between my views and those views, at least not necessarily.

What difference there remains has mostly to do with habit and emphasis. I do not “believe in God”, but I recognize that it could be just a matter of changing a few names I give things and some habitual ways of thinking. But if I did that, the result might not be the same as with most believers. I honestly don’t know. Probably religious people are a rather philosophically diverse set themselves, and that is one of the important things I have understood about them lately.

In the following I have summed up my “physicalist in the streets, idealist in the sheets” approach. Comments are welcome, especially regarding opportunities to expand where this is excessively terse.

Just like I haven’t become a “real believer”, I have not become a “real postmodernist”. My readers probably don’t include many religious people, but there are many who know about postmodernism and Hegelianism, and if someone wants to say “Sam, what you have written has absolutely nothing to do with postmodernism or Hegelianism”, that is completely ok. In fact I anticipate it. This is my path to these ideas, not an introduction to these ideas.


1. Our experience of the world is the experience of our senses. The world that we experience is our brain’s representation of the world.
1.1. “The physical world” is a theory our brain finds useful to manipulate our bodies in order to trigger rewarding sensations in our senses.
1.2. Subjective truth is different from belief. Subjective truth is the truth about our brain’s representations (“inner world”). Beliefs are brain-representations about physical reality.
1.3. Materialism is subjectively false, because we do not experience the material world but we do experience our brain-representation.
1.4. Beliefs do not necessarily have much to do with subjective truth.
1.4.1. We can believe that there is no free will, but we cannot discard the subjective truth of free will.

2. The domain of consciousness is concepts, moods and emotions and their interrelations; not physical reality.
2.1. Psychological experiments show that the brain assigns a rather low priority to accurately perceiving reality. When concentrating on something, we miss surprising visual cues (like the gorilla walking through the room). When socially pressured, we change our perception to conform with the group. When our ideas (this is an expensive wine) conflict with our senses (the wine in the glass is actually third-rate), the ideas win.
2.2. We can focus on our feelings and appetites almost indefinitely. The real world bores us unless it draws out something in our internal world.

3. The most salient concepts in our brain-representation have no straightforward physical interpretation.
3.1. The self is the central concept in the brain. The self comprises many organs and mechanisms that we don’t understand, and is itself represented in itself, in the brain. The boundaries and independence of many parts is unclear. (To what extent are cells independent? Or cancerous tumours? Or our microbiome? Are our mental illnesses a part of us? Are there mental illnesses? Is our social position a part of us?) The physical fact of the self is not straightforward.
3.2. Emotions are central, but as physical phenomena they are poorly understood.
3.3. Memories are central, even though they often deviate substantially from what actually happened.
3.4. The test of beliefs is not coherence with experiment, but convenience, social acceptability, coherence with other beliefs etc.

4. Physical reality is a poor guide to inner reality.
4.1. Materialism is the choice of physical reality as the fundamental plane of existence.
4.1.1. In physical reality, everything is a physical mechanism. You are (“just”) a physical mechanism.
4.1.2. Physical mechanisms are constrained by physical law. There are possibly random or unknowable elements to the physical mechanisms, but no external source of choice (“free will”).
4.1.3. The subjective experience of self-directedness or free will is incompatible with physical reality.
4.2. Foregrounding the view of self as a physical mechanism undermines valuing the self and growing the inner world. The foregrounded view of others as physical mechanisms is ultimately equivalent to psychopathy.

5. In inner reality, God, souls and free will are natural concepts.
5.1. Good outcomes not due to any person evoke impersonal gratitude. Contemplating the natural world evokes impersonal admiration and awe. Etc.
5.2. We separate the “true self” from a person’s actual actions. This is our theory about the person.
5.2.1. We especially endow ourselves with a “true self”; others are judged more by their actions, but ourselves by our intentions. This is the so-called “fundamental attribution error” in social psychology. (Why is it an error?)
5.3. We must have theories about people, because their brains are beyond observation and comprehension.
5.3.1. “Soul” is a word for our theory (or “model”) about a person. The soul is immortal in the same way as a book is immortal.

6. “God exists”, “you have a soul” and “you have free will” are not necessarily claims about physical reality.
6.1. The central purpose of God for man is worship. Promoting God-worship is a way of promoting people’s connection to divine things: goodness, natural beauty and inner truths.
6.2. Talking to someone about God and their soul is a protection against apathy, depression and psychopathy.
6.2.1. From the outside view, this is a noble lie. From the inside view, this is truth.

7. For most people, the internal truths lead to religion, a belief in self / a soul and free will.
7.1. In the inner reality, the question “Is there a God?” can be interpreted as “Is it worthwhile giving a name to my feelings and thoughts concerning awe, transcendent experiences, being on the right path and oneness / organisation of everything?”
7.2. In the inner reality, the lack of a sense of “a soul” is an expression of disconnection.
7.3. In the inner reality, a lack of sense of free will is an expression of depression and apathy.

9 Comments on My critique of materialism

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  1. sam says:

    This is another repost from Facebook; I will copy-paste some (public) comments here from there.


  2. sam says:

    Antti Saarilahti said:

    Good stuff. I’ve experienced similar development in my thoughts regarding this topic.

    I’d point out a couple of things that came to my mind while reading, though:

    1. The meaningfulness, or at the least the salience, of some the concepts you use above may be limited to languages that have a propensity for noun construction, English being a very striking example in this regard. Although this is by no means a rigorous scientific study, the comparisons of Western and Chinese philosophical and prosaic works (of Plato and Confucius on the one hand and Dickens and Cao Xueqin on the other, respectively) in the below article raise interesting questions about Western philosophy in general, much in the vein of the later Wittgenstein:

    I believe that the implication in this context is, at the very least, that it is not necessarily a universal feature of the mind to want to “give names” (in the religious sense) to transcendent experiences or notions about goodness, justice etc, or that its prevalence and manifestations may be limited and guided by language.

    2. Belief in God doesn’t come out of the blue these days but is inextricably connected to one of the organized religions of the world today. Therefore, the question of “Is there a God?” is nearly always so much shaped and constrained by external factors that I kind of disagree on 7.1. In practice, “Is there a God?” is guided by such unconscious concerns as “will I be accepted by my social group”, “will I go to hell if I don’t believe”, “so many people in the world believe in this religion, there has to be some truth in it”, “my father the priest spent his life on this thing, I could not possibly imply by not believing that it was all for nothing” etc so that the “inner” interpretation you mentioned for the question about God in 7.1 probably isn’t the primary psychological explanation for even half of the world’s believers. I’m sure it’s one of the explanations, though, and for some people may definitely be the primary one. We can also speculate if it might even have been the “original” explanation, before organized religion.

    We might further speculate that some of the people who lose their faith, so to speak, might have done so because the psychological explanation in 7.1 wasn’t an important one in their case, and when something happened with the external factors supporting God-belief (e.g. change of social group), the system collapsed due to lack of such solid internal support.


    • sam says:

      My reply was:

      Point 1 is very interesting, and is at the heart of what got me interested in linguistics in the first place.

      The standard idea about the origin of language is that it developed for communication; other animals have simpler modes of communication, and humans just pushed it further and further as their brains co-evolved along with growing social complexity. Now, a while ago Chomsky gave a lecture on “open questions in linguistics” where he touched on this, and mentioned that he doubts that theory, and instead believes that language developed for the purpose of abstract thought.

      (Of course even he probably accepts that the seed of language *is* communication, since it must predate more complex language, but the idea is that the brain is for reasoning, and language is what it reasons in, and that therefore language developed in part for that purpose.)

      This was one surprise of many I’ve had regarding the language / thought -interface. Like the thing that often happens when I say I’m bilingual: people ask me if I think in Finnish or English. I’ve never been able to answer that question, because I don’t think I really do think in language, at least most of the time. I’ve asked people whether they have an actual verbal monologue in their heads speaking out their thoughts, and many people have said that they really do, more or less. That seems completely nuts to me.

      So I’m a little unwilling to accept that language has such a strong effect on thought, but perhaps that’s due to my particular mode of thought.

      There are other examples like this. It was a matter of debate in the 1800s whether people are able to imagine visual scenes and really see them. For example, try to imagine the following: you’re standing at a seashore with black sand, the water greenish gray, the sky blue with scattered clouds, to your right a red sailboat with white sails about 100m away. Can you really see this? Or are you just putting together these symbols in an abstract way? Francis Galton gave people surveys about this and came to the conclusion that people are just different: some people do very vividly see the picture, others don’t really see anything.

      So overall: a very interesting subject, and I would like to know more about “anti-noun-construction” philosophising, but I can’t imagine being internally swayed by the results.

      Point 2 – true, but one can’t quite know how converts really feel about this. The idea of connecting around religious feelings matters. Which religion to connect around is in some sense arbitrary, but in some sense not: for most people there is a culturally / temperamentally obvious candidate. The same with ritual – the particulars of ritual may be arbitrary, but ritual itself is more intrinsic. After all, even us secularists have all kinds of arbitrary rituals.

      So the choice of religion may well come from external sources, but you gotta pick something! (Unless you want a personal religion, but for many reasons most won’t.)


  3. sam says:

    Pekka Tolvanen commented:

    This is kind of a sidestep, but do you have an idea what makes many people (I have no idea if this is universal) think that free will is external from the physical mechanisms that are ourselves? To me it seems almost contradictory. I was left wondering if there really are grounds for that the in the subjective experience of free will in itself (maybe making it incompatible with physical reality/determinism) or if it has more to do with contingent, complicated social stuff interrelated with the internal stuff.


    • sam says:

      I replied:

      No, I don’t. Of course, in the real physical world, by definition everything is due to the physical mechanism, including free will (if there were such a thing).

      Internally, I don’t feel like there’s an external “driver” in the “driver’s seat” in my brain, but that my actions just somehow come out of the whole thing.

      Then again, if I try to believe in a free will really acting in the real physical world, I can’t imagine how it could come out of a physical process. This is partly what I mean by the incompatibility of subjective truth and beliefs about the world.


  4. sam says:

    Vadim Kulikov commented:

    First – thanks for posting deep content on facebook. Also, Tractatus-style appreciated. I also have some comments:

    1.2: Current enacitivist philosophers and cognitive scientists wouldn’t share this. Representations are largely seen as off-loaded into the environment and there is no clear boundary between inner and outer world. For example in might well be that your brain does not contain enough information about how to ride a bike: it needs the body to be sitting on a bike in order to re-enact bike-driving, because it has off-loaded a lot of information processing into reality. See e.g. some lecture on youtube by Alva Noë.

    1.3: In light of enactivism experience is the result of action in the world which is constrained by the body and its environment. You have the experience of driving a Porsche and not a bike because of how your movements change your speed and sounds around you (sensorimotor contingencies). The same way you know you are looking at red and not at green (the interplay of light with shadows, head and eye-movement can be spectre-specific and even colour-blind people can sometimes use these cues to distinguish colours). Transsacadic change blindness (my favourite scientific term) is a good demonstration that a human doesn’t maintain a representation even of the current visual environment in her head.

    2. Again, Alva Noë believes consciousness is impossible without acting in physical reality. I bring him up not because he is some sort of a prophet, but because his views are most contrary to what you say (and he is alright).

    3. and 4.1.3 This is very interesting, but it might be also a matter of training. Sam Harris claims that he does no longer have the phenomenological experience of free will. During LSD-trip (which presumably resembles Sam Harris’ chronic state because of intense meditation practice) I had this feeling too. Or lack of feeling. It was clear that my body is moving deterministically, even though I could still locate the source of the movement in my phenomenology, but I kinda realised that everything is just happening. Maybe Antti or Michael can tell more about people who have grown up in eastern cultures whether they have equally strong feeling of free will as we do? I understand that they don’t. Was this actually what you meant, Antti, by the linguistic comment which I didn’t understand? :P

    5. and 7.1. I talked to Rabbi and explained this view that I have that a prayer can have a positive effect, because people who perform it think good about someone which primes them to act accordingly and cultivate positive ways of thinking towards those people which is emphasised when they tell someone (maybe even target person) that they prayed for them. So then I said that maybe we can think of God as this entity which emerges from people’s social and psychological properties which is like “an invisible hand” regulating our behaviour and lifes. Rabbi answered, as I predicted, that this is indeed God as we see him, but it is not the God itself. It is a projection, a slice of God which is available to humans. The full God is more than that and is eternal and exists independently of humans.


    • sam says:

      Antti Saarilahti replied:

      Re your question:

      No, it wasn’t. I’m largely on the same lines with Sam (Hardwick) here, the experience of free will is a psychological necessity and that’s the only sense in which it’s “real”. I’m very doubtful about Mr Harris’s claim that he’d have permanently lost the experience of free will but hey, I’m not him.

      I doubt East Asian people’s experience of free will is in any way different from ours, they just haven’t made such a philosophical mess out of such a muddy concept full of pitfalls. But besides the above, here are some interesting features of Chinese, Korean and Japanese in the context of this discussion:

      – adjectives work as predicates on their own without the copula (just imagine how many philosophical “problems” you can simply bypass when you don’t say that something “is” good, beautiful etc.; in fact, in all of the three languages but especially clearly in Korean and Japanese, predicative adjectives are syntactically and morphologically indistinguishable from verbs)
      – there is only one word for both “mind” and “heart”, which in the case of Korean and Japanese may have originated from the usage of the Chinese character 心 but at least now applies to the native variants too
      – in Korean, saying that something “is good” and saying that you like something are indistinguishable from one another
      – adverbs in Korean and Japanese are frequently (but by no means always, not even most of the time) replaced by expressions akin to onomatopoeia (sound symbolism) that imitate real or imagined sounds and thereby describe the action in question, reducing the usage of abstract concepts in these languages
      – due to the nature of Chinese characters, even abstract concepts are sometimes grounded in everyday reality: e.g. the character for “good” 好 depicts a woman with a child, and the character for “bright”, “clear” or “obvious” 明 has the sun and the moon next to each other


    • sam says:

      I replied:

      I think there’s probably some truth in the enactivist position, but I don’t think it contradicts what I’m trying to say. There’s still something in the brain that allows you to ride a bicycle, and that has to be some kind of interface representation. It can’t be completely in the bicycle, because you could still ride a bike in simulation, including in a nerve-simulation where a computer knows what to tell your nerves to convince your brain about the bicycle.

      The point about not having a visual memory / model of the world *at all* seems too strong a claim for me, but perhaps I don’t quite understand it..

      I wonder what would Alva Noë say about people whose motor abilities are completely gone, like Stephen Hawking or Jean-Dominique Bauby? (


      • sam says:

        Vadim Kulikov replied:

        I agree with you. There is literature on this topic of motorically handicapped people from the enactivist point of view, I am still getting to it. It is a challenge to them. In my view Hawking learned enough of concepts when he was young and enactive. If someone is born without any motor ability, according to ectivism , there will not even be consciousness. But that person cannot communicate, so difficult to disagree. Bauby could still flap his eyes, right?