Materialism and stupid questions

I am a materialist; not in the sense of being a hogsy grabist, but in the sense of not thinking there is any spirit, soul, second substance or such. Not God either, of course. The wonderful thing about that particular opinion of the world is that with it, the world makes sense.

Of course I think the world makes sense with my worldview; if it didn’t, I would have excuses and blind spots and all. Ulp.

And by “makes sense” I mean something like this:

Why is there evil, gratuitous suffering, in the world? Just because. There are questions (“What is the meaning of life?” is another) that sound sensible, but aren’t. There’s no satisfying answer to such a question, because there’s no design or designer who chose how the sticks should fall. The only answers are of the is-that-all kind, the “I hate Mondays” kind: there’s suffering because the particular laws of nature governing that aspect force it so, or at least are not all that hindered by it, or not driven to courses which would remove it. There’s no morality in it. Likewise, the meaning of a human life is to make descendants; but a gene-biological answer isn’t exactly what the people asking that malformed question want. (Wait — the Selfish Gene foretold in the Bible — “go forth and fill the earth”! Unfortunately God seemed to favor group selection.)

The imperfections of the human mind make sense, too, as do religions and other pareidolic mistakes: you take a grossly inflated monkey brain that has molded itself to be an expert in the utilization of branch and log and grub, and then try to figure out where lightning comes from or how to live in perfect harmony. Humans are bad in understanding scales of time and space and the like; horrible in seeing what is instead of what they want or expect, and always eager to take a shortcut that was useful on the savannah a few hundred thousand years ago, but now just leads to Mormonism. Materialism explains the imperfection of human perceptions — which in turn explains why some things, like the nonexistence of spirits, are so difficult to grasp. (“Sure Old Stonebeard still exists in some incorporeal form — this night I have had a vision of him!”)

The scales of time and the universe make sense, too: the stage isn’t too big for these few actors, because we are not the stars. In this particular play everyone’s a walk-on or a bit part, and the only star is the Conqueror Worm. (Well, it’s not all that dark.) Earth isn’t made for men; Sun isn’t a special star; even our particular galaxy is no centerpoint of the universe; and visible matter is but a fraction of all matter, which is but a fraction of all there is, the whole dark this and that thing. (Possibly even our universe and its Big Bang weren’t anything special; but around this point the physicist-talk starts giving me blinding headaches.) There’s no plan, no purpose, just the blind pitiless operation of some set of natural laws.

A lot of the supposed big questions go away once one stops supposing a spiritual dimension. Our appearance isn’t a scheme of God, or some Banged-out god reassembling, or the universe evolving ways to examine itself; we are an accidental byproduct, dross, just an extra curlicue. Being dross occasionally feels pretty nice, though, as it means there’s no hidden purpose or goal, just laws we can figure out on our own, and then pervert to make whatever society we want. There’s no Hell waiting, so no reason really to fear; and no Heaven, so you should live to the fullest here.

There are a few objections that get occasionally lobbed at expressions of full-bore materialism like this; the chief of these is the nature of human beings: spirit, soul, intelligence, consciousness, and the like. That’s not a problem, really. Plants can sway to the sun, yet require no supernatural spark to do so, no separate mind-thing to operate the stalk. Animals feed, breed, nurse, avoid harm, and communicate with each other — but people don’t ask at which point cats got souls, or at which point the mechanical reflex life of a worm became the more complex ensouled (or enminded, or en-special-separate-parted) existence of a dog. Life is a process of material parts; intelligent life is slightly more complicated, but still the same thing: in between there is not a sharp division, but an uphill slope.

Humans, then, are just souped-up animals: gloriously more adaptable, dizzyingly more elaborate, but still just monkeys with a brain that was “made” for the facilitation of gettin’ to the act of procreation. Where the specialness of the human mind comes in, I don’t quite understand. Sure, we are better thinkers, better with abstracts and occasionally we even overcome our natural urges, but we’re still the same kind of thinkers other animals are. Just like our bodies work the same way as those of other animals do, though they are not just the same compared to any other animal, so our minds are the same kind as those of cats and dogs, just different in details, which happen to be details that turn an oxcart into a Space Shuttle.

(Because I am gloriously ignorant of the details, I suggest this analogy is even more apt because an oxcart requires an ox to become an “ox-emulator”, like a cat or a caterpillar needs its instincts (i.e. what its genes tell it to do) to function; but we humans happily live our entire lives in perversion of and defiance to our genetic purposes, much like the space shuttle goes (or went) to the skies and to space in defiance of all inherited methods of locomotion.)

One problem in seeing this is that we tend to think ourselves different because there’s an accidental gap between our species and the rest. If Neanderthals and Cro Magnons and Australopithecines still roamed the earth, we would be much less likely to think ourselves a special acme of all creation. The animals alive right now form a shadow of the tree whose one branch we humans are. By looking at the shadow one can guess how the branch grew upwards before resulting in our particular bloom. There’s no need except vanity to suppose a break somewhere there. And, personally, sometimes I look out the window and draw great comfort from my knowledge that humans are indeed cousins to baboons, and prone to all kinds irrational and irritating behaviour, and that’s all there is to it.

It’s a frequent news item that animals act like humans; it’s less often noted the humans often act like (other) animals. That’s a part of where greed, distrust, violence and the like come from — they’re not the curses of a deity, or signs of some great moral failure and betrayal. They’re just us showing our heritage of blind, pitiless indifference; and this I think makes our struggle to be better much more important. We’re not trying to be decent for God, or to regain some lost paradise, or to vibrate to some other primeval harmony. We try (or should try) to be our best because the universe doesn’t care, but we do.

It’s not a crime to be innocent of considerations like this; but I think all manner of murky things get clearer if you understand the framework they exist (or don’t exist) in. Also, I think if one gets into the habit of wondering about things like these, one will not get caught asking the same stupid questions over and over again. “What’s the meaning of life? Who’s the father of William Shakespeare and King Zog of Albania? Why is there evil? Have you stopped eating plywood yet? Eh? Ehh?

And was that previous paragraph a segue? Why yes it was; now, to get the taste of my dull, plodding pseudo-philosophy out of your mouth, here’s New Model Army, with Stupid Questions.

2 Responses to “Materialism and stupid questions”

  1. Joe Says:

    I liked reading this a lot. Good stuff!

  2. Nekocite2.0 Says:


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