Sometimes, when I am feeling particularly out of sorts, I imagine how my day or week would look to me if I were a materialist. That makes me feel better, because I remember that I’m not one.
By “materialist” I don’t mean someone avid for money or fine things. I have in mind the philosophical materialist – the person for whom everything can be explained in terms of the motion of lifeless micro-bits of matter, or mindless energy. For that materialist, we are “the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection,” and our thoughts, motives and feelings are just “the interactions of neurons and synopses across the dendritic spreads of the physical brain.”
If I were such a materialist, I’d have to think, “I’m not really thinking; these flickers of apparent consciousness are just the neurons firing.” As for the person named “Abigail,” the name is just a convenient designator for certain changing collections of social and biological inputs of varied sorts. In sum, an “I” who isn’t I, would be thinking “thoughts” that aren’t thoughts.
In conversation, the right tone would be tongue-in-cheek, and the deepest insights would be paradoxes. Human goodness and achievement would be the shake-out of luck, condemnation and blame unwarranted, justice and injustice the euphemistic labels for power and weakness.
It’s unromantic, a summons to the businesslike, erotic quick fix, because longer acquaintance – the slow, suspenseful build to disclose the person behind the desire – is only warranted if persons are in fact real and substantial. Otherwise, there’s no one there to find out about, and you might as well just move along. As Freud sums it up in his materialist recipe: “love” is an overvaluation of the genitals of the beloved leading to a distortion of the judgment. Whew! Thanks, mister.
In 1276, at the age of nine, Dante Alighieri first saw Beatrice, an eight-year-old girl at a May-Day party in Florence. He was instantly smitten. Forty years later, his Divine Comedy, or soul’s journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, assigned to Beatrice the part of teacher and escort through the heavenly phase of his journey. The last line of his epic mentions “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” This is 13th century physics, of course, but it underwrote his first love, rendering it safe for him to sustain through a lifetime and beyond.
When my father was dying, a powerful current passed from his strengthless frame to me standing beside the hospital bed, and that current seemed to contain a distinct teaching, to wit: love is the most powerful of the forces in the physical universe, stronger than gravity, the weak force, the strong force, and electro-magnetism.
Dante was right. Love moves the sun and the other stars.