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.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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7 Responses to “Materialism”

  1. Pingback: Fine Tuning and Blunt Retooling | "Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column"

  2. rcs207 says:

    Time is not measured in minutes, but in moments. Thank you for these beautiful ruminations, Abigail.

    • Abigail says:

      I guess “minutes” would be slices of uniform length. And “moments” would be lived time? It seems that lived time is sometimes long and sometimes short, sometimes empty and sometimes super-charged, filled with disclosures.

  3. Ryan Stillwagon says:

    Abigail, beautiful ruminations. The anecdote of Dante’s first love as teacher through where the world ends and imagination begins especially resonates with me, personally. I am also reminded of college, in a class on Islamic Sufism, of the concept “zauq,” or the momentary taste of the divine, being worth a lifetime of discipline, asceticism and community in order for Sufi practitioners to have a chance of achieving this goal. Ways of life will always be in flux I suppose, and as they should be. In this generation, at this moment, it is imperative to remind each other what matters when using the tools of Big Data: the commitment toward each other.

    • Abigail says:

      I’m so appreciative of your remarks Ryan. About Big Data: it seems we are living in a world where we are over-saturated with something variously called data or information or inputs. The stuff is supposed to help us, and in many ways it does — though it’s hard to be sure if the help outweighs the potential for harm.

      I wrote my first book on an inherited 1936 L.C. Smith Corona. The machine had keys that went clackety clack. It lives in memory. Manhattan was my home town and for many years I used to take it to a small, dark repair shop between Third and Second on 86th Street, in the back of which sat an old man. In my world, he was The Last Typewriter Repair Man. One day, I found the shop closed. The curtain had gone down. I may have been the last person in the neighborhood to concede the end of an era, but by now all agree that we can’t go back. So the question is, how do we go forward?

      Our challenge is to remember what the information (& its helpfulness) is for. Finally, the question is whom it’s for. Life is about the who, much more than the what. It is we who receive the information. What are we — and our lives — about?

  4. In this ever increasingly evil society it is so easy to get lost in fear, fear that locks us up away from each other. Abigail, thank you for this reminder of the power of love. Blessings, Loretta

    • Abigail says:

      Thank you so much, Loretta. What you wrote is really moving to me. Contemporary philosophies give us the assignment (hopeless on its face) of finding meaning in an absurd world. Yet we sense — that can’t be feasible! Philosophies of the absurd give rise to fear (why wouldn’t one fear if life is the mere site of randomness or blind power drives?) and fear in its turn gives rise to philosophies of the absurd. I remember once driving home in a blinding rainstorm from Kennedy airport. My prayer was, “God, please don’t let me be so scared that I can’t see the road!”

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