Friday, April 16, 2010

Mind is Matter!

I often hear people complain of our society being too "materialistic" and that "materialism" is the cause of our environmental problems. I'm not so sure that this is the case. Ours is certainly a consumer society, but materialistic, it is not.

Materialism is a tricky thing to pin down. We are society driven by technological and scientific advancement, and technological and scientific advancement, in turn, is largely rooted in the philosophy of materialism. To quote from Wikipedia:

In philosophy the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance.

Materialism, as a philosophy, often meets with objections of being too narrow, reductionist, and spiritually empty. While I don't necessarily disagree with these objections, I question the common assumption that ours is really a materialist culture.

It seems to me that, in the West, most of us are profoundly out of touch with material reality. This is manifested in many ways:

Our ignorance (though thankfully this seems to be changing) as to where our food comes from;

Our lack of awareness and engagement with the local geography and ecosystems in which we live;

Our lack of understanding of the objects, appliances and gadgets that are part of our daily lives; how many of us actually understand how a computer, car or refrigerator works?

Finally, our collective inability to deal with the multiple environmental crises we now face.

It seems to me, that, rather than being a materialist society, we consistently choose virtual reality and mental constructs over actual, physical reality. I noticed an interesting example of this while browsing through the desktop photos that came with my version of Windows: they are all beautiful images of nature. They are chosen, no doubt, because such images are universally pleasing, and on one hand, this reflects our innate longing for the natural world. However, as a culture, we seem to consistently favour such virtual representations over the real thing.

Another example that comes to mind is the incessant clutter of products that pass through our daily lives. On the surface, this would seem to be damning evidence of our materialism. But when somebody purchases a product, such as, for example, a new computer, a car or a tube of lipstick, is it because they want the actual, physical object, or are they really attempting to acquire some immaterial quality that the object represents, such as youth, beauty, or status? One need only to talk to an advertiser to know the answer.

It seems to me that the clutter in our lives, the consumerism and resulting environmental degradation, is not the result of rampant materialism, but the exact opposite; a longing for transcendence from the earthly plain.

This is rooted, most clearly in our time, in centuries of Christian ideology in which the earth is seen as a place of evil and temptation. The goal of a good Christian is to resist the temptations of the flesh and gain entry into heaven. I also see currents of this thought running through much of New Age philosophy. One thing that has always bothered me about New Age practices is that, while they seemingly reference natural phenomena( ie. astrology, the use of crystals, animal "totems", etc.) they seem to be primarily cerebral in nature, mystical but not actually grounded. They offer us that same promise of transcendence of material reality, neatly summed up in the phrase "mind over matter."

The exact same idea is echoed in contemporary promises of a utopian, digital future, a world in which everybody is connected through the internet, creating a magnificent, global village, powered by some miraculous source of "clean" energy. The internet is a realm of pure "mind", an ethereal web through which we float, disembodied, beyond the confines of geography. If there is no such thing as heaven, the internet is the next best thing.

We desire products that will take care of the physical realities of living for us, so that we may be free to pursue matters of the mind, unfettered by the burdens of our physical and biological selves. Planes, trains and automobiles allow us to quickly travel long distances with hardly any physical exertion, when in the past such distances would have taken days or weeks, and required considerable supplies and preparation. Refrigerators and supermarkets mean that fresh food is constantly available to us: we hardly ever have to worry about hunger, which is probably the most sure reminder of the existence of the body. These are not the products of a material culture, but a culture bent on escaping material reality.

I want to talk a bit more about the internet, because, even though not all of us are religious, or subscribe to any line of spiritual thought, we are all, to some extent, participant in the promise of transcendence offered by the internet.

As we progress into a so-called digital future, we must remember that we are all, ultimately, earthly beings. The internet, so ethereal as to seemingly emerge from nothingness itself, is nevertheless rooted in millions of computers, for every one of which raw materials must be mined from the earth, processed, and put together by human hands, often in countries like China or Taiwan, where labour is cheaper. Computers must be operated by people, people who need to be housed, clothed and fed. Computers must eventually be disposed, and the lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium and other chemicals that they contain must be somehow prevented from contaminating soil and groundwater.

Even if we succeed at uploading our brains onto some digital medium, that medium will still have to exist in the physical world, where it will be subject to rust, corrosion and decay, not to mention the possibility of being obliterated by some natural disaster. It will also need to be powered somehow.

As we continue our project of transcendence, whether spiritual or digital, we lose sense of our rootedness in the physical earth itself. As long as we view ourselves apart from, or above, physical reality, we will continue to destroy the very earth that brought us into being, and on which we depend for literally everything, including our minds.

This post is getting very long, so I will finish with one last thought:

Before we had the World Wide Web, there was another internet. Internet, after all, stands for "interconnected network". The internet that we are really a part of, and owe our allegiance to, is the interconnected network of life: the network of plants, animals, water, soil and air that is our very existence.


  1. Our minds are already transcendent; while a thought is physically manifested through the firing of neurons, the thought itself (the internal image world) is not placed anywhere spatially or indeed in time. It already transcends the harder realities of the physical world. It is a shadow -- unreal, dreamlike, ethereal, yet crucially part of our existence. Thoughts themselves, in order to be perceived, are inextricably linked to physical reality. The reality of neurons firing. The reality of the change of seasons. The transcendental quality that deep spirituality teaches us to observe is therefore only a LIVING experience of transcendence when deeply rooted in the physical world.

    The issue is that years of Judeo-Christian ideology have physically placed transcendence "somewhere beyond the earth". A heaven place. No. It is of the earth, and of our own making. Nor can I believe that that 'transcendence' is an end result or an afterlife. It is a perpetual reciprocity: our subjective experience reacting and perceiving the physical dimension. The illusion is that a transcendence comes about by a physical death. Let us take that idea as a artistic rendition of what happens during the "transcendental moment". It is a self-death. A moment of reciprocity with the nature of life itself through PURELY PHYSICAL experience yet with simultaneous subjective placement within a fixed moment in space and time. In the moment of transcendence the self dies. The miracle is that it rises again, and continues living.

  2. Everything I wrote seems irrelevant. A river could say as much, and probably with more poetry.