in Daily updates, Economics, Geek stuff

The terms ‘materialism’ and ‘materialist’ seem to be popularly misunderstood. As such, it bears mentioning that there are two wildly different interpretations of what these terms mean.

Perhaps the more common interpretation is based around a desire for material possessions. In this view, a ‘materialist’ is someone who continually wants to own more things.

A much more interesting definition holds that being a ‘materialist’ means that you believe everything in the universe is made of comprehensible materials, interacting with each other on the basis of laws we can understand. This viewpoint definitely raises important questions in philosophy – and potentially lethal ones in theology – it is also much more worthy of consideration than the fact that neighbour X might want a bigger car than neighbour Y.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Litty December 7, 2007 at 9:27 pm

Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me
I think they’re OK.
If they don’t give me proper credit
I just walk away

They can beg and they can plead
But they can’t see the light, that’s right
cause the boy with the cold hard cash
Is always mister right, cause we are


Living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl

Some boys romance, some boys slow dance
That’s all right with me
If they cant raise my interest then I
Have to let them be

Some boys try and some boys lie but
I dont let them play
Only boys who save their pennies
Make my rainy day, cause they are


Living in a material world [material]
Living in a material world

Boys may come and boys may go
And that’s all right you see
Experience has made me rich
And now they’re after me, cause everybody’s


A material, a material, a material, a material world

Living in a material world [material]
Living in a material world
(repeat and fade)

. December 7, 2007 at 9:18 pm

Bad Religion

You’re obsessed and distressed ’cause you can’t make any sense
of the ludicrous nonsense and incipient senescence
that will deem your common sense useless
This ain’t no recess!
I want to believe in you but my plan keeps falling through
I know I have to face the harshness, grin and bare the truth
And I have to walk this mile in my own shoes (and I’m no fool!)
I’m materialist
A full-blown realist
And I guess I’m full of doubt
So I’m prone to have it out with you
I’m materialist
There ain’t no fear in this
It’s there for all to see
So don’t talk of hidden mystery with me
Mind over matter it really don’t matter
if the street’s idle chatter turns your heart-strings to tatters
Flatter hopes don’t flatter and soul batter won’t congeal
to mend a life that is shattered into shards
Was it in the cards?
The process of belief is an elixir when you’re weak
I must confess, at times I indulge it on the sneak
But generally my outlook? not so bleak (and I’m not meek!)
I’m materialist, call me a humanist
I guess I’m full of doubt
So I’ll gladly have it out with you
I’m materialist
I ain’t no deist
It’s there for all to see so don’t talk of hidden mystery with me
Like Rome under Nero, our future’s one big zero
Recycling the past to meet immediate needs
And through it all we amble forth to persevere and climb
Our mountains of regret to sow our seeds
I’m materialist!
I’m materialist!
I’m materialist!
I’m materialist!

ARP December 7, 2007 at 9:42 pm

Materialism of the latter type also raises serious questions about free will

_ December 7, 2007 at 10:15 pm
tristan December 7, 2007 at 10:19 pm

Materialism is, as far as I know, originally a term for Marx’s rejection of Geist in the german idealist tradition. It is wrong to conflate materialism with empiricism. It is correct to say materialists believe that all that exists are physical bodies. However, this does not imply that the essence of materiality is opaque or one-folded. Zizek argues that the minimum condition of materialism is pure difference – which manifests itself in subject and object, thrownness and projection, beings and being,

Milan December 7, 2007 at 10:25 pm


As is frequently the case, I have no idea what you are talking about.

Milan December 7, 2007 at 11:08 pm

The Bad Religion song quoted above is about the relatively interesting meaning of ‘materialism.’

The Madonna song refers to the more common and duller understanding.

Claire December 10, 2007 at 10:45 am

Further to Tristan’s email, i would add that by far the most interesting use of the term ‘materialist’ relates to marx-inspired versions of historical materialism, which holds that all history and social evolution is driven by changes in the way man makes the things he uses, sells and buys. Like most ‘isms’, materialism does not imply any normative value attached to material things, but merely that it is the best explanatory lens through which to explain social facts. Madonna was half way right by saying that she was ‘a material girl’ (c/f economic man, political animal etc etc.). But she incorrectly uses this analysis to justify her greed. Her song should have included a verse that caveats the 80s as a time when the weltgeist happened to be going through a ‘greed is good’ phase of historical evolution.


Milan February 16, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Here is a nice quotation describing an aspect of materialism:

“Proteins are, after all, intrinsically sculptural. They are shapes that translate an action into a volume, that give verbs bodies. And they do so in a purer form than any art. The shape of photosystem II doesn’t just represent the process by which light is brought into the service of life. The shape is that process; there is nothing to the process but that shape. Make something that shape – as living creatures have been doing for the best part of three billion years, maybe more – and it will do what it does.

Physicists went looking for the secret of life, for a new starting assumption that would allow biology to be rebuilt as physics had been. Instead, they found that, down among the molecules, there was no secret. Just atoms in shapes. Simple shapes like the double helix; complex ones like photosystem II.”

Morton, Oliver. Eating the Sun. p. 139 (hardcover).

Tristan February 16, 2009 at 5:23 pm

“The shape is that process; there is nothing to the process but that shape.”

Ok, but how is this materialism? This is asserting the being of shapes – forms in the non-platonic sense. As I always say – what is called materialism would be better called “formalism”.

Milan February 16, 2009 at 5:27 pm

The materialism lies in the absence of mysteries that cannot be resolved through the study of the atoms and molecules. Anything you might want to know about photosynthesis can, in this view, be uncovered through the observation of the component elements.

Yes, both the material and the arrangement are relevant. The point is, they are all that is relevant.

. February 16, 2009 at 5:31 pm

“Life is one member of a class of phenomena which are open or continuous reaction systems able to decrease their internal entropy at the expense of the free energy taken from the environment and subsequently rejected in degraded form.”

John Desmond Bernal

Tristan February 16, 2009 at 5:38 pm

So, all that is relevant is the things that appear and the shapes in which they appear?

Do you not see how this claim is ambiguous as to whether its reductive or anti-reductive? This can just as easily be used to defend a phenomenological approach as a scientific-empiricist one. I personally think that the radical-empiricist, post-war French reading of Hume is the most interesting “materialism”.

Milan February 16, 2009 at 5:49 pm

So, all that is relevant is the things that appear and the shapes in which they appear?

I don’t think we need to be this vague.

In order to understand physical processes, it is necessary to understand the components of matter, their locations, and the manners in which they interact. I think the photosystem II example is especially poignant because it is easy to appreciate the ways in which those things are all essential. It matters, for instance, that there are four manganese ions in the precise locations where they exist.

Tristan February 16, 2009 at 6:04 pm

Ah, but where are these components, if what they are is their shapes? What they are is not where they are or what they are but how they are – what form they have. Their being is more effervescent than you wish to believe. Take for example, my plant. What is my plant? Is it the atoms that make it up? But it is also the way it endures through time, displaying similar but ever changing shapes? What is the thing that perdures through time? Not the atoms (they wilt and fall away), but the shapes are preserved. And the shapes can move, and evolve – this is what is sustained.

Milan February 16, 2009 at 6:08 pm

That is definitely an interesting question.

Photosystem II, for instance, is constantly getting smacked around by the atomic oxygen it produces by splitting water. The fact that it is able to repair itself, and replace elements that have become overly damaged, is absolutely central to the continued existence of all life on earth.

Life is, as the John Desmond Bernal quote describes, one of several systems that are able to exchange the energy they find around themselves into increased order within themselves.

Milan February 16, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Similarly, this point on genes. Your plant is full of genes that have existed for hundreds of millions of years, in the sense of being a particular set of information. In the sense of being actual physical molecules, they are only as old as the cell they reside in.

Milan February 16, 2009 at 7:43 pm

These two situations are interesting reflections of each other:

They demonstrate the different mechanisms through which form and matter can each be conserved.

Tristan February 17, 2009 at 2:26 am

Yes – but, what counts as form and matter is sometimes context dependant. For example, from the perspective of the medal bearer, the medal is the form and the gold is the matter. But, to the atomic physicist, the ‘gold’ atom is the form, and the things that make it up are the matter. And to the sub atomic physicist, etc…

And it goes in the other direction as well – to the person who makes houses out of noble prize medals (perhaps not the most realistic thought experiment, this), the noble prize medals are the matter at the house built of them is the form.

A better example of this is new one-piece macbooks – to the Kitimat smelter, the block of aluminum produced is the form, which to apple is the matter out of which the laptop is made.

Milan February 17, 2009 at 9:07 am

Good point

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