What is a materialist, according to me? A materialist is a person who believes that matter—material things and objects, their interactions, and the dynamic, shifting, and malleable forces that act upon and in conflict with them—are primarily what shape and constitute what we perceive as reality. Nonmaterial things, such as ideas, do not exist in any meaningful sense or have any direct impact on reality.
So, for example, a shared belief in justice does not, of itself, contribute to a just society, but rather actions, perhaps stemming from a “belief in” justice, or reverence towards it, affect the material conditions of that society to render it more just.
If we don’t believe that anything nonmaterial exists, then by extension, there is no God, there are no spirits, ghosts, “energies”, vibes, auras, invisible realms, multiverses, and especially, there are no ideals. These are all said to “exist only in our minds,” which is to say, they don’t exist.
Many questions arise from this explanation: “What is matter? What is an ideal? How are people supposed to live without ideals? Are you telling me that only things, not ideas, influence reality?”
Another important question is, “what is the value of believing this?”
Some of these relevant and necessary questions require only a brief answer, while others require a little more clarification. But I will answer them one at a time.
What is matter? Matter is anything with a physical form that can be perceived with the senses. Anything that can be felt, seen, physically manipulated, built and broken down, altered, or in any other way interacted with in a way that affects it, is matter. Matter is dynamic; it is constantly changing and being affected by its surroundings and by other matter, whether with intent as a painter’s paintbrush affects a canvas, or without intent, as the mere passage of time turns a neglected building into a ruin.
A perfect and very close-to-home example of a material thing is the human brain (yes, human beings are made of matter). The chemicals within it work to synthesize, or bring together, our varied perceptions of and reactions to reality. These chemicals, and the brain itself, are material things.
The implications of this simple, almost self-evident statement are quite profound. This means that all perceptions, memories, feelings, intuitions, desires, and ideas are merely the movement of chemicals from one part of the brain to another. The chemicals exist; they can be seen, touched, interacted with, manipulated, and they are dynamic instead of static. But the ideas themselves do not. Ideas, memories, et cetera, as actual things do not exist anywhere, nor do they come from an invisible realm or deity, but are produced as a result of material experience. That is to say, your experiences cause reactions in the brain which cause the interactions of chemicals, i.e. matter, the formation of new chemical bonds and neural pathways, and the possibility of new ideas and stored memories.
Next, what is an ideal? An ideal, in this context, is an idea which is viewed as static and unchanging. Ideals are often viewed as originating from and/or existing somewhere other than the brain and often other than “the world” or “reality” itself. Viewing ideals this way imbues them with a mystical, otherworldly quality; they seem to “transcend” reality, existing over and above “petty” material things.
Because of these associated qualities, ideals seem to possess great power unto themselves, such as the power to direct one’s actions. For example, if I value or enjoy giving what I have to other people, it could be said that generosity is one of my ideals. Hence, because it is an ideal of mine—because I have idealized it—it causes me to act generously. In this way, the word “ideal” is used to mean “principle” or “moral principle.”
Another example is a societal example: if a society’s ideals include freedom and justice, any freedom and justice that exists is the result of these ideals.
Right now, out of order, I’m going to tackle the question of “how are people supposed to live without ideals?” If, by the word “ideal,” you mean “principle,” my answer is, we aren’t. Human beings essentially would be unable to function without fixed ideas like principles, beliefs, understandings, impressions, knowledge, memories, morals, and the like (which I will hereafter refer collectively to as “ideas”). These are largely what constitute a person’s individual character, personality, and identity, and therein lies their power. For example, I believe in the principle of healthy teeth, and therefore, I brush them regularly.
The mistake that is often made, though, is believing that these immaterial things—principles, beliefs, and other ideas—possess any power, or indeed any existence, unto themselves, or outside of the brain that believes them.
When ideas are viewed in this mistaken way, they become “ideals,” not in the sense of “principles” but in the sense of have been “idealized,” or, as Dictionary.com defines it, “a conception of something in its perfection.”
In this sense, ideas that have been idealized seem to possess the ability to affect reality in an almost superior way to matter. It is as though the ideal causes the action to occur, and the action serves as proof that the ideal exists. One might try to say, perhaps, that an ideal exists “in one’s head.”
One of the main concepts I am trying to convey, however, is that an idea may, in a sense, “exist” in one’s head in the sense that it is thought about, considered, contemplated, et cetera, but that it has no other existence outside of that. To say that it does is to “idealize” it. I don’t even like to say that an idea “exists in one’s head” or mind, because I don’t believe this constitutes “existence.” After all, it is not the idea itself that exists, but the chemicals whose presence in the brain make the perception of the idea possible.
So, to make it simpler, when discussing ideas “existing” in the brain, I will borrow a term from the field of music and say that an idea “sustains” in a person’s brain or “mind.”
The idea does not, of itself, cause the action to occur or influence society. The idea does not have any power without the human being in whose brain it sustains, whether she holds it as a guiding principle or merely thinks about it from time to time. It is the human being’s willpower, not her ideal, that produces the action which leads to a change in material conditions.
Does this mean that willpower, which is itself an idea, exists, and all other ideas don’t? Well, the difference with willpower is that at least it is verifiable: if you have the willpower, the action occurs. If you don’t, it doesn’t. I can’t actually verify why you committed the action, in terms of what supposed belief or principle drove you to do it, but I know that you did it. Therefore, excluding conditions of insanity, drunkenness, or any other condition engendering a lack of control over one’s faculties, I know you possessed the willpower. In fact, I know you possessed it even if you were coerced, but I’ll get into the subject of coercion later.
Getting back to ideas in general, this concept that ideas do not exist is not meant to imply that ideas possess no power. Certainly not. It could be said tersely, though inaccurately, that society is “composed of ideas,” or at least the influence of sustained ideas, in the same way that an individual’s identity is composed of sustained ideas, beliefs, feelings, and the like.
Here are two examples of how society is “composed of ideas.” I drive on paved roads because a person or persons had an idea that paved roads would be better for society than rough, unpaved roads, and enough people agreed with it that it was collectively acted upon. I pay taxes because a person or persons had an idea that the people in a society should partly fund that society’s function; enough people agreed and the same thing happened.
Whether these ideas are implemented well or poorly is up for debate, but regardless, someone had these ideas, and then that person and/or a group of people advocated for and fought for them, i.e. acted upon them, until they became reflected in the material reality of the society. I call this manifestation of an idea in society, or in private life, its “material dimension.”
This “material dimension” expresses two extremely profound things: firstly, the degree to which an idea could be said, completely metaphorically, to “exist” in society (or in private life, but I will stick with society for now), and secondly, the scale to which the idea is dominant. Ideas like roads and taxes, interventionist foreign policy, the privatization of prisons and schools, the influence of money on politics, and the centrality of the profit motive to human endeavor—ideas that demonstrably affect and shape material reality—have an extremely pronounced material dimension (as well as a social dimension, which is also a subject for another time) and therefore could be viewed as dominant, whereas ideas like world peace, economic freedom, or public ownership of natural resources, are non-dominant.
Every single aspect of society that prevails does so for this reason: because someone or some group of people acted on the idea of it and fought to develop and expand that idea’s material dimension such that it became a dominant idea, perhaps while fighting against the material dimension of other ideas. So, dominant ideas arise from conflict.
From this perspective, those who control the flow of ideas, who reinforce and uphold certain dominant ones and curb and control undesirable ones, control, in essence, our our society, our lives, and even, to a large extent, our identities.
So now I’ve described the extreme power of ideas, a premise with which virtually everyone can readily agree. In so doing, I have answered the question, “are you telling me that only things and not ideas influence reality?” with a definitive “not exactly.”
Now, I will describe the manner in which this truism—that ideas have power—is used to separate people from their own willpower (without which ideas have no material dimension and hence no power) and maintain near-complete control over them, using a most decidedly dominant idea called “idealism,” which is the opposite of materialism.
Idealism, in this context, holds that it is not a person’s willpower, the actions that result from it, and the consequent impact of those actions on material reality that define her life, or that give her life “meaning,” but rather her ideals. It is not what she does that makes her “good” or “bad” (“good person” and “bad person” being ideas that I reject), but what she believes. Put simply, her ideals, more than her actions, define the meaning of her life.
It could be said, then, that her ideas, and she herself, have been “idealized.”
As a consequence of this understanding—that what one believes is more important or meaningful than what one does—acts of acquisition and consumption, i.e. what she buys, as well as the people she provides for, serve as expressions of her beliefs and therefore as material proof of her value. Consumption, then, is the only socially acceptable means by which she can give her ideals any material dimension. So while she may love her family and provide for them, there is no way to apply that ideal of “love” in any meaningful way to the political or economic conditions that create the unloving society that surrounds her.
For example, she can’t give all of her money to homeless people on the street. She can’t save every wounded animal she finds clinging to life by the side of the road. She can’t rescue a child being verbally abused by their parent in a restaurant, or talk to the parent with depthless empathy to build solidarity and good will. She can’t take a homeless person into her home. She can’t abstain from the consumption of animal products to express her love of animals, or petroleum products to express her love of the environment. She can’t run for public office under a Love Party banner. She can’t assassinate public officials who vote against public housing or for rent increases or to defund animal shelters or for corporate tax breaks or for endless war. She can’t move overseas and join another country’s guerrilla movement, struggling against American imperialism’s systematic destruction of their families, communities, and cultures.
Of course, she actually can do all of these things. But she won’t. Why? Because it would be viewed as extreme, odd, self-destructive, neurotic, antisocial, pointless, immoral, unpatriotic, or some other alienation. She would be entering into direct conflict with the status quo, by which I mean the society as it is. I’m not saying any one of these particular avenues is “the answer,” and some of them would be downright inappropriate and/or counterproductive, but rather that any one of them may produce a more pronounced and verifiable material dimension, and in turn, imbue more meaning to her life, than the alternative which I am about to describe.
Rather than direct conflict, she can act on her ideal in socially acceptable ways. She can give maybe a hundred dollars per month to charity and spend the rest of her money that she works 40-60 hours a week for on things like Fair Trade coffee, American-made clothing, bumper stickers with slogans like “Life is Good” and “CoExist,” locally grown produce, and cruelty-free beauty products, as well as biodegradable diapers for the children, a hybrid vehicle (even though the husband would prefer a gas-guzzler), and impeccable social media posts alternating between uplifting messages, downright despair, and vague pronouncements that “everything happens for a reason.” One could say, unironically and even with admiration, that she is “doing her best,” and at least she is “trying.”
And while I might critique her, I don’t mean to describe our hypothetical concerned citizen scornfully. In many ways, she is doing her best, and she is definitely trying. Many people do nothing at all in comparison.
But if she “believed in love” but didn’t give all of her money to poor people, fight racists on the street, or harangue and bother (or worse) public officials who fail to prosecute white-collar criminals who tank our economy every ten years, i.e. combat some of the material conditions that create an unloving world, did she really believe it? Well, she might have in her “heart of hearts,” but then why didn’t she apply her willpower to these larger-scale, more difficult tasks? Because she believed that believing in the idea is enough; she believed the idea of love has power without her. She had idealized love.
Again, all of this critique is not meant to judge her harshly. Why? Because society makes it virtually impossible for the individual to really act on an “ideal” in ways besides acquisition and consumption. We are encouraged to “believe in” things without acting on them, to make up for the “fact” that we, as individuals, have no power in our society. And, we can buy all the t-shirts that say “just do it” on them that we want.
This is a society in which the society itself does seemingly nothing to address its social ills—to have a loving society, as in our example above—while also socially disempowering the love-concerned individual to do anything substantive about these social ills either, leaving us to hope and perhaps pray that somehow, if we simply remain “positive,” “hope for the best,” and “vote with our dollar,” our ideals will win the day and “love will conquer all.”
And what is the upshot of this mentality when it dominates a society? The answer is rather bleak: a population that lives within that society but remains almost completely, willfully irresponsible of it, oblivious to its inner workings, unaccountable to the sorry state that it is in, and rejecting that accountability at every turn in favor of remaining under the assumption that “there’s a reason for everything,” “people are basically good,” “the curve of the universe bends towards justice,” “this too shall pass,” and other cliches (these are Liberal-minded ones, but of course there are more right-leaning ones as well) used to sustain hope and justify inaction, again, to make up for the fact that we can’t—in a legally or socially acceptable way—act on our principles. Which is exactly how those that control society prefer it.
Meanwhile, as mentioned, acquisition and consumerism remain seemingly the only means by which to affect material reality and/or to further the material dimension of our ideas, such as love. Therefore, any apparent threat to these processes (of acquisition and consumption), such as taxing corporations or rich people, or perhaps offering fewer than 23 flavors of ice cream, is viewed as an attack on “freedom.” The renunciation of acquisition and consumption as values, in favor of things like love, art, generosity, or social justice—each of which would involve struggling to change material conditions instead of accommodating them—is viewed as alien and a moral failing.
In our “free society,” you’re free to have (and talk about) any ideas you want; you just can’t—whether because of legal or social implications—act on them. You can imagine a world without poverty, or crime, or war, or misogynist violence, but you can’t act on that idea in any direct way. So it is not so much the control of ideas that is the end goal; it is the control, redirection, and suppression of human willpower. And idealism as expressed in those phrases I just recited—”There’s a reason for everything,” “people are basically good,” and the like—is an important tool to that end. “The individual can only do so much.”
From a materialist standpoint, it is not what an individual or society “believes” that determines its meaning, value, or impact, but what it does. It is not a society’s professed “ideals” that should be studied when trying to understand what it “stands for,” but rather its past and present actions and the way they have affected its populace and other societies.
Of course, stated intentions should be studied, but studying the totality of actions to the best of one’s ability and seeing how it compares or contrasts to those stated intentions provides a clearer picture of what ideas may have been in the mind of the actor than the best possible curation of professed ideals.
Why is it more important to study the totality of actions instead of a curation of professed ideals, especially when it comes to understanding a society? Part of the answer lies in verifiability, which I mentioned earlier.
While it is true that an idea in our heads might influence our actions, materialism holds that an idea has no actual existence even if it does result in action. The idea doesn’t exist; only the action exists. Why? Because I can’t personally verify beyond any doubt why you or anyone else does anything. All I can do is analyze the results of your actions on material conditions and interpret what ideas were in your mind when you did them, and by extension, what your values were.
Continuing on the theme of verifiability, or the lack thereof, we know that a person is capable of committing an action, good or bad, even if they do not hold the corresponding ideal. I can say I believe one thing and yet act in a manner demonstrating the complete opposite, and vice versa. Similarly, I can believe in a noble set of ideals and yet I can be coerced somehow into doing something that contradicts my ideals. Or I can simply become lazy, and throw a tin can into the garbage pail even though I supposedly believe in recycling for the environment’s sake. Where are my ideals then?
Moreover, the knowledge that I can do literally anything—whether betray a friend in a moment of feeling wronged, commit theft in a moment of deprivation and need, toss people aside while escaping a burning building, run a red light and accidentally take a human life, or commit a violent act at the behest of someone holding a gun to my head—is a source of anxiety because I know that, in such seemingly extreme moments, “ideals” don’t seem to mean as much.
If ideals actually existed in any meaningful form, they would always apply. They are perfect and static. They would assert themselves over our autonomy and make us live in alignment with them. But they don’t. As described in the prior paragraph, humans are extremely impulsive, fickle, and malleable (some of both our best and worst qualities). And why don’t these ideals assert themselves? Because they don’t exist. Ideals don’t assert anything. On the contrary, it is human willpower that is asserted and the idea follows, gaining its material dimension.
Following this, then, the action does not prove the existence of the ideal; rather, it proves the existence of the human willpower that willed it.
Why is this distinction important? For one simple reason: it is not a person’s ideas, feelings, or convictions that change the world, but rather her willpower.
Put differently, literally every positive thing that has ever been built or accomplished in society or in the world—clean drinking water, stoplights, the 8-hour workweek, integrated schools—was not the result of many hopes, dreams, prayers, and good ideals, but of action, of struggle, and of the human willpower that gave rise to it.
By extension, it is not a person’s ideas, feelings, or convictions that could be said to give her life meaning—”meaning” being defined as having had an impact on her material conditions, to any degree—but rather her willpower and the actions that result from it.
Touching on the subject of “meaning” leads nicely into the last question I raised near the top of this overlong introduction, “what is the value of believing this?” The answer is fairly simple: materialism allows you to derive a clearer understanding of the meaning of human life, i.e. that there is no universal “meaning of life.” There is no universal meaning of anything, in any sense. It is not simply that such a meaning is subjective and would be disagreed on by different people. It is that any meaning at all is an idea, imagined, without material existence or impact on its own.
On its face, this is a dour realization. How do we derive meaning in life if all meaning is imagined, if none of it is inherent to the thing itself (in this case, life)?
Well, the first step is to accept that any meaning or values or principles you do derive will exist for you and you alone. Only actions that result from this meaning or these values or principles, and the way that you demonstrate them, determine the value, impact, and meaning of your life.
Ultimately, this means something extremely liberating, at least theoretically: nothing that you or anyone else believes determines the meaning of your life. Society’s ideals—what society seems to believe—do not doom you to a predetermined meaning or purpose. Rather, your actions determine your meaning and purpose. Therefore, you are free to determine your life’s meaning in your own way. Again, theoretically.
Why did I feel the need to use the word “theoretically” twice in that last paragraph? Because, as a materialist, you are able to interpret reality—sights, sounds, interactions, societies, relationships, political phenomena, human behavior, and even your own mind—in a way that reveals the myriad methods by which society actually harshly limits our ability to determine our own purpose.
The task of creating meaning in your own life, therefore, becomes a lifelong struggle of trying to build better understandings, stronger foundations, and different avenues by which to generate and direct your willpower, and then actually acting on it despite society’s disapproval or misunderstanding. In other words, creating meaning means being in conflict with society. And all of this must occur in the face of so many possible material difficulties such as poverty and hardship, distractions such as external obligations, and inner challenges such as anxiety, fear, depression, social isolation, and procrastination. All of these must be overcome, usually more than once.
Materialists learn to identify complete and blatant discrepancies between the so-called “ideals” that are held up as societal values and the countless evidences that those ideals have a very limited (if not nonexistent) material dimension, while a misguided populace continues to vote for and remain complicit in policies that are against their own interests in the name of these “ideals,” and for whom idealism—believing and hoping and having faith while doing nothing—is a tool of their own oppression and pacification. And, you will be able to see which ideas actually dominate society: fear, ignorance, repression, hypocrisy, conformity, dominance, destruction, and dehumanization.
And you will have to remain humble and humane, because you too are subject to the implications of living in an idealist world. Your materialism is always developing and changing, just like matter itself (which, as chemicals comprising an idea in your mind, it is).
The bright side is this: in so learning about these relationships, you, as a materialist, better understand the material conditions of society—how the world actually is, not as idealists want you to see it—and what material forces acted on it to make it that way, as well as how those forces benefit from society as it is. By doing so, you will develop new ideas about these conditions and about reality itself that can produce action, because you will know with some certainty why things are a certain way and who the targets are in the process of changing them. The meaning of your life will become, even to the smallest degree, your acts of moving humanity towards a world in which the ideas of freedom and justice are dominant, having been fought and struggled for, and having defeated, through action alone, the idea that a crushed human life is somehow superior to an enlivened one.
The ultimate aim is a society that is designed, first and foremost, to not only allow but encourage each individual to determine the meaning of their own lives, unhindered by poverty, war, imprisonment, fear, or social alienation, and to fight all forces, internal and external, that would seek to curb that freedom.
Thank you for reading.