Note: The title of this post is adapted from a book called Two Cheers for Capitalism, which I haven't read. I just think it's a good title.
I dictated this thing into my iPhone while doing my laundry at a motel, so my apologies if it is not up to my usual literary standard!
Having been severely inconvenienced by Hurricane Sandy, I have a newfound respect for materialism. Actually, it isn't entirely newfound, because I have often said that materialism – within certain limits – is a very good thing.
The analogy I like to use involves classical physics versus quantum physics. Quantum physics superseded classical physics and gives a more complete explanation of reality. Nevertheless, within the context of macroscopic observation, classical physics is essentially complete; using classical physics alone, you can perform all the calculations necessary to put a man on the moon. In an analogous way, materialism is extremely useful and provides us with an enormously valuable tool for everyday life. The mistake made by materialists, in my opinion, is that they overreach and claim that materialism is a complete explanation of all life's mysteries – a "theory of everything." But within the appropriate limitations, materialism is a powerful and extremely valuable methodology.
Nothing could make this more obvious than driving around in the wake of a catastrophic hurricane that left much of the Northeast without power. The sight of dark homes and office buildings, closed shops, and deserted streets was immensely depressing. It was like being a character in one of those post-apocalyptic science-fiction movies, like The Road Warrior. And when I finally got to a section of New Jersey that still had electric power, I couldn't keep a smile from my face as I saw the lighted strip malls, homes, fast-food restaurants, and gas stations. Civilization at last!
In our society, it has become fashionable to romanticize the primitive pre-technological lifestyle of aboriginal peoples. But few of those who indulge in these flights of fancy have actually lived in the conditions they daydream about. It is easy to fantasize about the life of the unspoiled "noble savage" in an Edenic garden, when you have a 24/7Internet connection, a refrigerator-freezer stocked with food, and heat and air-conditioning to rely on. Deprived of these comforts and of modern medicine and communications, most of us would not survive for very long. The scientific-technological revolution has given us a lifestyle that would be the envy of our ancestors, a lifestyle too easily taken for granted.
I realize that there are objections to this position. One of them is that science and technology have done as much harm as good – atomic weapons, global pollution, overpopulation, et cetera. These are problems, but in my opinion they pale before the ills of yesteryear, when the Black Plague killed one third of the population of Europe and when people crowded together in walled cities to defend themselves against periodic sieges by nomadic invaders.
Another objection is that materialism was not a necessary part of the scientific and technological revolution. That revolution, we are told, could have proceeded on a different basis. But I am not sure this is true. In its historical context, the industrial and scientific revolution probably did require a commitment to materialism.
Prior to the Enlightenment, people did not look very far to explain certain events. If you got sick, it was the will of God or a witch's hex. No further explanation was possible. Only by rejecting any supernatural or nonphysical explanations could the pioneers of modern science pave the way for more realistic answers based on empirical observation. The germ theory of disease, for instance, could not have occurred to anyone until people had ruled out, on principle, any supernatural explanation.
This is not to say that materialism is still necessary for scientific progress. At this point most educated people have left religious mythology and superstition behind. They are capable of a more sophisticated analysis that combines empiricism with mysticism, as illustrated by the physicists who draw parallels between quantum mechanics and ancient mystical traditions. Professional debunkers make a mistake when they assume that the adoption of any supernatural or mystical ideas will necessarily lead us straight back to the Dark Ages. Things are just not that simple.
But the fact that we may be capable of a more eclectic approach today doesn't mean that people in the 18th and 19th centuries, shaking off the shackles of feudalism and religious tyranny, were capable of it. Historically, materialism was a vital and necessary step in the development of modern civilization. We should be grateful to it for giving us a host of conveniences, comforts, life-saving and life-extending technologies that improve our quality of life, expand our intellectual reach, and give us scope for unprecedented discovery and creativity. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and some of those giants were staunch materialists who rejected mystical insights and paranormal claims.
I believe it was Cicero who said that gratitude is the foundation of all other virtues. One of my chief disappointments in modern society is that we often show too little gratitude for the extraordinary resources and lifestyle we have inherited. With little or no effort on our part, we enjoy a standard of living that would have seemed magical to the richest person in the Middle Ages or in Ancient Rome. Even a relatively modern figure like Thomas Jefferson could scarcely have conceived of the wonders that we take for granted in our everyday life. Imagine the reaction of George Washington to the bridge that bears his name, or of Benjamin Franklin to the New York City skyline lit by the electricity he once summoned with his kite!
We live in a time of miracles, which put the seven wonders of the ancient world to shame. And yet all too often we appreciate it only when the power goes out, the phone lines go down, and we can't log on to our favorite websites. What we need, pardon the expression, is more gratitude, and less attitude. And we should give at least two cheers for materialism, which has given us so much, and which we can be so quick to disparage. Modern-day materialists may be on the wrong side of history (I think they are), but their forebears accomplished heroic things, and they deserve our humble thanks.