Materialists and Idealists
In the first part of this essay, I made some bold hypotheses and ended up with outrageous promises.
I will repeat then: The niche crisis is in itself not a problem, it is just an inevitable result. Therefore to handle it we have to find the cause. I think that the cause, broadly speaking, is the domination of things of our civilization. (The pollution-related to cars, trucks, and roads is not the problem, it’s the result, the problem is that we LOVE to drive, LOVE the power and feeling related to moving a big machine fast. The problem is not outside the culture but inside the culture) It started, I think, and I will talk about it later, from peculiar language development and now it is literally killing us. We can correct this, but in order to do that we need to start with the conversation, maybe even create a new language, a new set of metaphors and mythology. This is part 2.
Part 3 will start the conversation about the promises of the new beautiful world.
I thought that this domination of things had to do with the eternal distinction between materialists and idealists.
I checked a few philosophy texts, some psychology sources, and of course: Google. It all left me befuddled. Nothing fitted the bill.
- The philosophy was as always useless; neither early materialists like Democritus and Thales, or late like Marx and Engels were really materialistic, nor idealists like Berkeley or Hegel had anything to do with the niche. The primordial sin of our civilization must be somewhere else.
- If it was a sin, maybe the religions would do the trick? Oh, I don’t mean the trick they do with humanity for the last 50 000 years. I mean the elusive distinction of believers vs nonbelievers – often understood as idealists vs materialists. But, no, all of them, fundamentalists, mystics, atheists, humanists, all of them want to be good and all are greedy and all want their kids to be successful.
- Big psychology- Myer-Briggs tests and others- and folk psychology tell me: materialists are bad (that’s for sure) and unhappy.
-they give babies coca-cola instead of milk.
-they murder to steal money or a nice jacket or even sneakers.
-their science is wrong: Newtonian, solid brick and mortar, not relativity and “observer’s Universe”.
– they are responsible for technology, corporations, gadgets, and consumerism.
-among the believers, the materialists are the worst: young Earth, literal interpretation of scriptures, seeing beliefs as real and factual, sacred rights, holy wars, and xenophobia.
So, idealists must be good: they live frugally, don’t eat meat, like theater and poetry, hiking, nature, meditation, praying, and dancing.
Mahatma Gandhi, Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, Oprah and Albert Schweizer, etc, etc. We need to be like them, but we can’t. Why? All of these famous idealists were driven, obsessed by humongous overwhelming ideas, usually not very happy, crazy overachievers, rather miserable “I will show them” people.
We are all good normal people and we cannot be like them, well, do we actually want our children to be like them?
The research shows that typical materialists and famous rich materialists were not so happy and if they were happy it was the idealist part of them which did it. Like philanthropy of Rockefeller and Gates. And making material achievements a priority in life actually make self-expression and good relationships more difficult. It looks that it is not switching from materialist to idealist that is necessary- it would be impossible anyway.
So, we want our children (and ourselves) to be happy first. Then we have to find a way to be happy without hurting the planet.
These distinctions require thinking. Thinking and discussions and role-modeling. What is necessary and doable is noticing how indoctrinated we are by generations of automatic concepts of success, the meaning of life, and happiness. Things: a well-paying job, a good house, a fast car, and a pretty woman. It is a very one-sided picture of the American Dream, which is actually a dream of most of the people in the world.
If we explain to people that this dream is untenable, that the planet can not support it, that we have to give it up, to sacrifice our dream for the planet, and for others …. We’ll go nowhere. Tell the leaders, CEOs, generals, and clergy to relinquish the power to save the planet… we’ll go nowhere. Tell economist that capitalism needs to pivot and production of things and energy has to shrink and …we’ll go nowhere.
What can we do? Dealing with things is so easy, the numbers are on their side.
Dealing with ideas, relationships, Unknown, feelings, even art, and literature – all require and benefit from critical thinking, shifting dimensions, using imagination ( some people talk about transformational education). Dealing with things do not… Things are: cheaper or more expensive, hotter or cooler, slower or faster – so easy to deal with, so inviting for the categories, divisions and … ownership. And it is literally how the hell broke loose.
And how did we get like that? The evolution of the nervous systems and ethology will help here. Animals are not materialists, their brains are full of behaviors ( in the notebook of the observer, like Jane Goodall watching her chimpanzees), for them (say, chimpanzees) they are the experiences. The trick is to avoid bad experiences like pain, hunger, or fear and maximize good experiences- satiation, control, safety even belonging. Not much different than early humans. Hominids, also hunter-gatherers, lived in more or less egalitarian societies, where the leader, usually male, possessed very little, except for mates.
In our search for the origins of this worldview dysfunction or of materialism, I’d like to point to the two moments that were pivotal. 50 to 10 thousand years ago communication became a language. Animals and hominid’s “language” followed their world of experiences. It described behaviors (experiences), even sometimes complex ones like bees dance, crows teaching their children about bad people and butterflies astral navigation, but they were still behaviors. And then, at the toddler stage of our civilization, something happened to humans. And to humans only: see the interesting hypothesis of Dr.Hrdy (among others). I said “toddler” because, as a pediatrician, I observed the same magic hundreds and hundreds of times in the office and you might have seen it in your home. A 15-month-old human infant is a pretty complex being. She can talk a little, but she understands a lot, she knows her surroundings, she even mastered the skill called “object permanence”. She knows pretty much how the world around works, what is anger and fear and sadness, hunger, and the bliss of cuddling with mom. But, your dog or even a crow in your yard can do all of these. And then, out of blue, your child will point to the pineapple on the table: “What’s that, Daddy?”
And an abyss opened, a huge difference between humanity and all known sentient and artificial beings. Only humans can ask for the name of an object not related to any function or behavior.
What was first, naming objects or materialistic society? I don’t know, but what is important is that it happened recently, so materialism is not in our genes ( neither are things, really, and their objectivity is perfectly questionable!)
It is also possible that the” invention of things “ timing is not mere coincidence. Because it is the time ( 50 to 20 000 years ago, when we almost got extinct- about 10 thousand people left, or less!) when our egalitarian society could have changed. Maybe it was the pressure of a shrinking niche related to climate change, after the Toba volcano eruption and ice age. We behaved (we actually were) like cornered animals, we tried to survive against each other. With the rule of violence, fear, and anxiety our worldviews changed. We tried to get happy with things, so we learned to get high on power, violence, and control. Interestingly, more or less at the same time we developed societies with haves and have nots, (Mesopotamia, Egypt, China), and having was better, and the things to have to be on the top were, well, things.
Our primordial “personality” stays dormant, waiting to be awakened… We need another renaissance chapter in our civilization. With our technology and advances in knowledge of the human mind, we can make a better renaissance than the original Italian One. A mixture of materialism, idealism, humanism, and all that is needed to take care of this planet. We can do it, but it will take the new conversation on being authentic, working on one’s personal unique worldview and on creating unique, personal mythology. James P. Carse in the “The religious case against belief” argues for this conversation, for questioning. It is what the real religious people (read: happy, authentic, mature) do – question belief, use the paradigm and language of their religion just for one, but all-important purpose – to question the world, to embrace the Mystery. To find the meaning, the worldview, the happiness. Well, not to find, to journey on finding it.
It is going to be a renaissance – the rebirth of the type of mind which made us human. We have it inside: the excitement and awe of the Unknown, the curiosity, joy, and imagination. Loving, playing, arguing, making fun and derision, showing others, and ourselves’ foolishness. We’ll thrive on experiences instead of gadgets- we’ll treat them as assets, cherish them, and make them richer and richer as our complexity and intelligence grow.
This optimistic story does not need to be true. It would be reassuring and promising. And I am asking for so little. Just start talking, open your mind, and imagine. Well, we are not completely off the hook- this new plan includes role-modeling, right? Somebody has to change first or at least start changing. This conversation, this work will lead to a new curriculum, more on that unknown black hole in Part 3.