A reflection on the fragments of Diogenes of Apollonia
In my previous reflections I have made numerous references to the existence of truth and value which – when perceived through the imperfect human faculties – spawn knowledge and quality respectively. To be fair there exists a coherent and consistent argument to be made against such ideas – materialism, particularly in its relativistic and sceptical variety. I seek to demonstrate the acidic effectiveness of said materialism – but also to argue for its proponents to exercise coherence through their ethical and political philosophy.
On confronting dualistic, monistic and other such spiritual metaphysical arguments, the materialist will deride any such philosophy as ‘mumbo jumbo’ based on the wishful thinking of those who are too cowardly to face the death of the soul. This necessarily sees the rejection of revelatory texts and faith as means of comprehending the universe – but also arguments from pure reason.
Despite having a healthy scepticism of the capability of their faculties, a materialist would argue that the only reliable source of information about the universe is sensate experience. In the pursuit of this information they ruthlessly apply reductionist logic in the form of Ockham’s Razor to discount the potential for such metaphysical entities as ‘value’ and ‘truth.’ To the materialist these ‘universals’ are nothing more than expressions of societal conditioning and ethnocentrism.
Many so called postmodernist, relativist and ‘enlightened’ hedonists will happily follow this line of argument to this point, using it to justify their own agendas of uncovering oppression and hypocrisy within ‘structures of power.’ However, I would argue that this line of analysis is incomplete – neglecting some of the more difficult aspects of materialism.
In the absence of metaphysical arguments for ethics, materialists generally argue for a grounding human interaction along the lines of the utilitarian argument – maximising pleasure and minimising pain. It is this line of reasoning that forms the backdrop to all materialist arguments for human rights, self determination, and equality. These positions have been used by materialist and non-materialist philosophies to argue against capitalism, racism, sexism, and other perceived oppressive structures. However, I want to now turn to the internal consistency between materialism and these ‘natural ethics.’
If we accept the concept of pleasure as good, particularly in the context of modern brain chemistry science, then some rather glum conclusions can be drawn. Essentially, without accepting dualism, we would have to accept good as maximising the number of people with the right mixture of Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins.
The problem is that by accepting a chemical account of goodness then we delve into the realm of psychopharmacology and narcotics. If ensuring maximum happiness is the goal, then surely enforced prescription of opiates is the best mechanism for increasing net pleasure. If we accept this chemical definition completely, then the best world would appear something like a massive hospital, with robotic staff ministering the bare minimum liquid diet to keep the incapacitated and lobotomized patients – the entire population of humanity – in a chemically altered state of bliss.
An even darker thought is when we consider – is the pleasure of a life to be considered the net weight of said chemicals or the period of time the subject is in the correct chemical state divided by the time said subject spends alive? If we accept the second proposition then said hospitals become massive breeding facilities where human embryos are nurtured to the point at which they can neurologically experience pleasure and are then euthanised with an overdose of opiods – a constant cycle of birth and immediate destruction through a spasm of ecstasy.
The only way out of this nightmare of chemistry would be to suggest that said pleasures are not chemical but derived relative to the individual. Once relativism is accepted as the at the core of materialism A relativist could argue for at least normative value from within an individuals frame of reference. however this necessarily entails accepting that said value has no ethical quality – in that there is no objective measure to say that the values of a serial killer are invalid.
Furthermore, if there is no value by which to measure actions against as good or bad then why should we care? To these human rights a materialist should ask: what value is there in equality? I would posit that in the absence of universal values equality is only good in the self interest of those who are without power. Similarly, the same corrosive analysis could be applied against utilitarianism: what good is the pleasure of others in a materialist cosmos? Unless it directly leads to you gaining pleasure – nothing.
Any positivist philosophy – Marxism, Liberalism, Libertarianism – when exposed to this materialist philosophy crumbles. Those who would argue that the short term gain of such relativistic values go against the overall benefits of cooperation miss the point. In materialist philosophy, taken to a logical conclusion, benefits to anyone have no universal value – it doesn’t matter whether your actions are positive or negative for future generations.
Although the examples I have provided are from the perspective of someone extrapolating materialism to an argument for ‘rational selfishness’ I would posit there is an even darker spiral in this nightmare materialism – nihilism. If there is no value, then why should one engage in any activity at all. In this analysis even normative value is worthless, the kind of nihilistic ideology from which the void beckons. Dwelling too long on this school of thought can turn the mind to self-destruction.
With this unpacking now complete, one can ask what my intention was this reflection. I would posit that one cannot argue from materialism to a philosophy of ethics. If you argue against universal truth and value then you must accept nihilism. At this stage of my amateurish inquiry I do not know how to argue effectively against such a school, although I find it intellectually repulsive. To those of you seeking understanding or truth, all I can say is that although it can be intellectually fruitful to paddle in the shallow waters of nihilism, never loose sight of the conclusions that such a philosophy entails.
Muirhead Bone, Chateau near Brie on the Somme, 1918