I. For Once, An Easy One
A Reader Asks: You write for a feminist blog. How come you spend so much time talking about biology and psychology?
Answer: Gender discrimination in all its permutations from patriarchal religious dogmas down to the justifications for it in alleged “cognitive science” has always found their excuse in biology. Gender is a fact of biology. The struggle against patriarchy is inescapably linked with the struggle against biological determinism as applied to the lives and rights of women.
II. And One That Requires More Time Than I’ve Got
Another Reader Asserts : No rational person can not be a materialist.
Answer: To start, I’m paraphrasing a long diatribe which wasn’t a very clear demonstration of reason. I’m also going to assume by materialism, you mean the idea that nothing but the material universe, as we can know it, is real.
Most importantly, materialism can’t account for human rights, individual rights, dignity and a host of other assumptions and ideas that are non-optional prerequisites for a decent life. The non-objectification of women was one of the early and most basic demands of second wave feminism. The demand that people not be considered and treated as objects, is inherently anti-materialistic. This demand’s continuing relevance can be found most weeks on talk shows on which a psychologist, “cognitive scientist” gives a reductionist explanation of the “differences” between men and women. Heard one just last Monday on NPR. Materialism is not as often discussed a problem for feminism and other aspects of human rights* as its manifestation in speculative psychology, but it is an important one. I don’t think the two are unrelated.
Objectification is one of the sturdier legs of the oppression of women, objectification is part of the dark side of materialism. Its continuing relevance is seen in entertainment programming that encourages a view of women as objects for use, as seen below. Our experience and history convincingly demonstrates that unless a society is pervaded with both the ideals and FEELINGS that people are more than objects for use, that they have inherent rights, that they are not bound by the material comprising their bodies, liberty will disappear. Watching the current popular culture of the United States, I’m convinced that viewing people as merely manifestations of their chemistry leads to the opposite of dignity and freedom. The continuing oppression of women, minority groups, workers, children, those kept in sexual bondage, is based in the treatment of people as material objects. You can not escape the fact that to see people as anything else you have to go outside the limits of what is commonly bounded within materialism.
The short answer to the question itself is that materialism is an ideology that makes the claim that nothing but the material universe exists. It is a philosophical ideology, not a fact of science. Its inflexible and presumptive exclusion renders it no kind of fact.
Though many scientists are materialists, some aren’t. The activity of science is exclusively concerned with the material universe so it could be said to be formally materialistic, if the idea didn’t carry too much of that metaphorical garbage talked about here last week. Scientists, being people, aren’t limited in their personal lives by the subject matter of their work, they can have ideas apart from it and often do. That some avowed materialists sometimes are genuine supporters of human dignity and freedom, is evidence of this flexibility of human beings and the limits of ideology. Their genuine feelings for these things are often explained through their generally astute observations of the incompleteness of our knowledge of biology and the material universe. In a number of cases, their support of human rights and dignity so clearly overrides their adherence to an ideology that I think is destructive of those things that I’m happy to give them the benefit of whatever doubts I could have. I could be mistaken, though I don’t think I am. I’m not going to question their sincerity.
The complications of the ideology of materialism begin in the fact that what is included in the “material universe” isn’t agreed on even by materialists. For a lot of them, especially the devotees of the most popular forms of sci-jockery, it excludes an entirely arbitrary list and forms a kind of Index of Prohibited Ideas.. Though some of those ideas are included by other materialists. As a general rule, sci-jocks are generally very, very light on the philosophical part of it, most of them can’t argue their way out of a paper sack. Ideologues generally aren’t too good with dealing with ideas and even evidence not contained in their ideology. When it pretends to be an extension of science, the results are anything but the discourse of reason.
Materialism isn’t a matter of reason, it’s a matter of exclusion. It’s a matter of pretending that we know the limits of existence and those are contained within the abilities of human reason and science . But it is among the clearest of facts that human beings in 2009 possess nothing like a complete knowledge of the universe, not even the observable universe. And it is just as clear that there could be an infinite realm of “things” that are beyond human capability to perceive. The pop materialism that pretends ours knowldge is sufficient to support their prejudices is proof of its irrationality. But, then, pop materialism has always seemed to be mostly a frat boy affair. Excluding the unworthy, an often mean-spirited bonding among the in crowd, spitting at those passing on the sidewalk below.
Some materialists give lip service to liberal ideas but are obviously more wedded to their ideology than they are to the essential foundations of liberalism. Those materialists seem especially to congregate in the social sciences and are often clear advocates for the opposite of liberalism. Quite frankly, unless someone supports the basic assumptions required for liberalism, I suspect their liberal positions will always be shaky at best, too often a sham. That sort of pseudo-liberalism isn’t limited to materialist ideologues. It is pervasive among liberals who strike a generally libertarian line as well. Unless you are willing to take the leap into the metaphysical position that people have rights and dignity that result in their freedom you will end up supporting positions destructive of those . You can’t be a liberal if the results of your program aren’t liberal. I don’t have any confidence in that kind of superficial liberalism. We can see its results every time we turn on TV.
* You could suspect this is a remnant of the real contributions of Western Marxists to early civil rights struggles, though I think that support was never supported by the materialism of Marx but in the better nature of many idealistic Marxists. I don’t think the best intentions of some Marxists are the results of their adherence to materialism but an expression of their best intentions. I think it's time that the struggle for human rights drop the reluctance to call its philosophical basis what it is, a idealistic struggle essentially at odds with materialism.