At the moment, I’m working on a jointly written piece to go up at Social Epistemology’s online review section discussing some of the philosophical implications of a new book, Curtis White’s The Science Delusion. It’s not a very good book, but one of the things it demonstrates really clearly (by its existence, not by anything it explicitly says) is the power of a particular cultural narrative in our society. This is the idea that materialism, the idea that the only substance that exists is the matter/energy of atoms and light, is an inherently reductive notion.
In other words, it’s the idea that to say humanity is made entirely of matter robs us of some dignity. That it makes human life crude and mechanistic; that it conceives of a person as a clockwork mechanism. That only when there is an immaterial aspect to human existence can we truly live with all the freedom and dignity we should. Humanity’s material nature is something that represses us and holds us back.
Sartre, at least in this particular chapter (about page 180 of my edition) offers a cackling retort. He says that unless humanity were wholly matter, we wouldn’t be able to act in the world. Acting in the world is, in a very basic sense, the manipulation of matter. And you can only manipulate matter if you are in fact matter. In this sense, it’s our material nature that frees us because it gives us this power to act in the world. We are embedded in the material world so intimately because we are part of the material world.
It’s a wonderful atheist counter-argument to one of the most powerful cultural narratives of our time: the notion that only the immaterial can elevate us, and that the only genuine dignity lies in rising above or escaping from the world. When you think about it, this notion is remarkably widespread in our society and history, to the point where it’s almost common sense. Yet Sartre easily points out (in a paragraph half filled with rhetorical questions, no less) that the greater dignity is the physical power to change our own world.
And within a couple more pages, he’s moved on again to another idea. Whole books could be written about the ideas he passes over so casually. It’s rare that I’m this impressed by the everyday fertility of one person’s mind.