The Mystical Quality of Materialism

I’ve often described myself as not being a materialist. I often have to qualify that statement by saying “in both senses.” Inevitably, I get asked “what’s the other sense?” To which I reply “in the philosophical sense” and I explain that I don’t subscribe to the school of philosophy that holds:

Materialism is a form of philosophical monism that holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental states and consciousness, are results of material interactions. According to philosophical materialism, mind and consciousness are by-products or epiphenomena of material processes (such as the biochemistry of the human brain and nervous system), without which they cannot exist.


This view looks at the universe as just made of stuff. There is no god, no soul, and no free will. Each consciousness is just the result of a peculiar formation of matter. I don’t believe in this view because it doesn’t match my life experience, yet I’ve found value examining it.

I find value because I’m struck with dissonance when I witness the pop-culture version of the materialism. To me, that view seems dishonest because it espouses that the atheistic rational self is king. There is nothing bigger than oneself – or ego. Everything experienced can be explained by science. There is no magic in the sense that are things that are impossible to explain or touch with the rational mind. There is no mystery – only causes that have yet to be explained.

The problem with this mindset is that it isn’t rational because the material view is filled with problems beyond our understanding.

When we look hard enough at life with a sterile materialistic lens, we are amazed at the mystical vision that emerges. In this vision there is little room for an individual self and what room there is for it is infinitesimally small.

The magic starts at the beginning of life when a sperm fertilizes an egg. From this moment onward the process of building the hardware of consciousness is in motion. By the time a child emerges from the womb, there is enough instinctual self awareness to cry when needs aren’t being met and a rudimentary sense of separation from the environment.

Later as the child develops a more solidified identity is molded from the environment and social conditioning. Eventually, we have a human who has a sense of self who has strong opinions on who they are and who they are not.

How did this person go from no self as the raw atoms that composed the sperm and egg to a person? Materialistically much of this process has been discovered. We know much about  the cellular mechanisms that lead to a mammal’s growth from an embryo to an adult. However, we don’t know really know that much about the materialistic basis for consciousness. What we do know indicates that our sense of self is an illusion. In fact, our body is made up of an uncountable number of cells that are acting independently and in purposeful order that allows for our physical form to persist through time (for a little bit!).

An alchemical Ouroboros

Western philosophy has been eating its own tail in trying to resolve the problem of mind body dualism. Increasingly, the materialistic view is becoming the popular view. In this view, a universe where there is no mind is emerging. There is only the body and its material components. Incidentally there is a living computer (brain) made of the fabric of the universe that can perceive the mind body dualism, but it doesn’t mean that the mind perceiving has a basis in reality. Yet, it is only through this consciousness that we perceive the universe.

The limit of the material self is the sense organs. Beyond the typical sense organs of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling, we possess the capacity to use our consciousness to construct mental imagery and frameworks. Through the process of growth from an embryo we were creating more than just a sense of self. We were creating the entire universe as we experience it. Our brains are putting together a sense of reality based on the inputs from the sense organs. Even the rules of gravity became internalized in our brain through the experiences in our sense organs. We have constructed inside of us a conception of the universe which our sense of self inhabits. Everything we experience and know comes out of the brain’s material configuration. There is nothing else. At first glance, we are caught in a paradox of meaninglessness.

Let’s take this as is. Everything that is ourselves as we know it has bloomed out of the material universe and created this sense of self that we are experiencing right now while reading this paragraph. There is no objective basis for the existence of self in the materialistic view. Then, it follows that if the self is just the mechanical result of physical interactions in the material universe, there is effectively no free will for the entirety of our actions is determined by the configuration of matter and energy through time.

Eventually, the particular configuration of matter and energy that we perceive to be our self fails to self-replicate and our body dies. With our body decomposing, our consciousness is gone. The entire identity that we scaffolded out of nothing is nowhere to be found outside of its effects on the environment (including other consciousnesses) outside of the body. In the scale of galactic time, our life is nothing more than a speck of dust that formed and disintegrated for a fraction of a nanosecond.

A dissected human nervous system. This is what is in our bodies and moving about.

So, now what? We have a universe of unknowable size containing lifeforms that move based on their environmental configuration. Those lifeforms are made from the material of the universe. Yet, they function with an illusion of time and sense of separation from the universe. They are like nervous systems floating in liquid moving in time interacting with other nervous systems. The lifeforms are exchanging configurations of matter and energy which rewire their own material. Zoomed out, there is an entire planet of such patterns of life of varying complexity in constant motion like a big chemical stew. Zoom further out and you see a solar system that is interacting with this planet stewing with life. Zoom out yet again and you see an entire galaxy with mind bending distances and funny physics. If you push the human conception of the universe to the maximum, you see a universe that from the standpoint of a human being is functionally infinite. From our standpoint, the possible configurations for matter and energy are infinite.

If we accept the materialistic view as is and stand back, what we see is breathtaking. We see a universe in which there is no separation from ourselves. This universe is infinite in scale and transcends time. A consciousness that is inseparable from the universe came into being allowing a portion of the universe to have a limited perception of itself. The universe outside of the perceiving faculty of our own consciousness is unknowable. There is nothing objective nor is there anything subjective for it takes a consciousness to perceive the material world to create a taxonomy of what is and what is not.

Timeline of the universe. A representation of the evolution of the universe over 13.77 billion years.

Where is God, the soul and free will in all of this? Those are taxonomies that fall apart just like the terms objective, material, causation and time. You can define the terms to correspond to portions of the universe that fit within the materialistic view, but that it is still just a thought. God can represent the vast unknowable universe. The soul can represent our perspective of separate self that does the experiencing. Free will can represent our functional capacity to be creators of this universe with our actions because pragmatically we can never understand the materialistic causation that led to us taking any action.

In a view of reality where all states have original causes, the chain of causation for all events springs back to the creation of the universe – the big bang. If all of existence started with a singularity exploding, then all causes radiate from that explosion.

This leaves a universe where our conceptions of God, the soul and free will spring from a center point that radiates out. The universe as we experience it is still being created. It is still expanding and so are we. At the center of it all is an unknowable point before the beginning of time.

This entire worldview is filled with magic and mystery. How could a brain made of the physical material of the universe understand something as big as the universe? Where is free will in a nearly infinite world confined by rigid causation? Does the consciousness perceiving have an independent existence? All of these questions are breathtaking if you stare at them and apply the questions to your own existence. If these remain abstract mental ideas to you, then there will be no meaning and wonder.

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