The Neglected Matter of Reality

In an iconic song of the 1980s, Madonna tells us that “...we are living in a material world and I am a material girl...,” the chorus of the song repeating “...a material, a material, a material, a material world...” The message was loud and clear that we are to accept, nay, celebrate a cheap way of life and rejection of what is sacred about life.

Could it be that the song is not really serious? I don’t think so.

Belief in a material world, as material is typically understood in our society, is at best unfulfilling and apt to be disappointing to the one holding it. Such a mindset is in truth a dismissal of reality that triggers frustration, aggression, and attendant evil side effects. Although the song rightly celebrates the importance of material, it misses a deeper significance of material than what money can buy. It more keenly refers to what the world is made of, matter, the “stuff” of mountains, oceans, butterfly wings, eyes, brains . . .

Whoever has visited the physics of matter is aware of a world as fantastic as Alice’s’ Wonderland. For instance, matter behaves like particles and like waves at the same time. Huh? Shortly after the atom was split – on paper, not at Los Alamos – the word “wavicles” was coined to name this “unity” of two disparate phenomena. As with much else in the study of matter, a gain in progress for physics can be a loss in ability to wrap the mind around the nature of reality.

But an important question remains for humans as humans: what kind of world do we live in? I find it troubling that while physicists have long given up trying to explain this in human terms, many in the mainstream – sociologists and songwriters among them – continue to think of the world in terms of “material” that can be used for practical purposes, with little or no regard for any other significance.

Who among them has asked or wondered how matter gets arranged into hummingbirds, hands, brains, songs, and________(name the object)? Is this an irrelevant question? Or is it one that points to what is missing from any general calculation that omits being human and mortal?

“All forms of life are animated by a power which does not originate within them,” wrote Russell Kirk (Chapter IV of The Conservative Mind).

“A Purpose, a Will, emanates from God; this Will has created our humanity and guides us now in ways beyond our understanding, toward ends which even our reason cannot make out clearly. Providence acts through the instincts and intuitions of our feeble flesh. This being so, the man who takes the materialist, the mechanist, and the Utilitarian for his preceptors in the ends of life is a forlorn fool” – who facilitates rule by demagogues, I would ad

An example from cosmology provides a clue to the problem with a strictly materialist take on the world. Cosmologists have speculated that the universe began as a single point that exploded into galaxy after galaxy of stars. The history of the event has been calculated down to the first fraction of a second in which it occurred. But what happened at the very start? There appears to be no science for actual beginnings and actual endings. Ultimate questions − like the start of the universe, why there is an Earth planet, how come we are on it − are out of the range of science. Are such questions then irrelevant? Have they no bearing on understanding the world we live in?

“Material girls and boys” seem to think so. Specialists in many fields of science, technology, and medicine seem to think so.

Albert Einstein did not think so. “My religion,” he said, “consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.” [Emphases are mine.] Einstein dealt profoundly with matter, yet he was not a materialist. This calculating giant “got” what materialists fail to “get”: awareness of a power beyond the human that universally goes by the name of God.

The mind is important for doing things like school work, inventing tools, planning, organizing, communicating, designing computers and programming them, making models of selected pieces of the world intended to be examined, such as the genetic code or getting a close look at Mars, perhaps for a future voyage. But the human mind, for all its astuteness and inventive ability, has a long history of being used for wanton killing and destruction. It has been used by people like Hitler and Stalin and Mao and countless others for acts of cruelty, mayhem and murder. The mind has been used to poison hearts and trigger vengeance, rebellion, and general misery.

It is plain from the evidence that the materialist mindset is grossly inadequate for contending with evil. Indeed, it doesn’t recognize it. Materialists don’t “get,” for example, that willful killing except in legitimate self-defense is as psychotic a rejection of the value of human life as that of a hardened criminal. The flesh and blood – the “matter” − in which life expresses itself is likewise worthless as trash to a morally deficient mind.   

It does not seem to matter to the materialist that human life may, by whim or “error of calculation,” be rendered worthless and disposable. It is something that apparently does not occur to “material girls and boys” or to wannabe leaders of society who consider human life “insignificant.”

Such lack of care for life itself bursts into the ugliest of realities when individuals and mobs commit acts of cruelty and deadly violence against innocent people, and when babies are slaughtered before they are born, all in the name of justice.

Returning to the question inadequately answered by science and largely ignored or rationalized away by materialists, nihilists, and fellow travelers: What is the world like? Although philosophers often yield more confusion than light on the subject, Plato did provide an extraordinary insight over 2000 years ago.

Picture, he says in the Republic, an underground den where men are all chained so that they cannot turn around to see a large opening behind them, through which they could exit the cave. Behind them, a fire casts their shadows upon a wall in front of them. So accustomed are they to living this way and seeing only shadows of themselves that it is virtually impossible for them to imagine the actual world behind them, including the light that casts the shadows. The world of fields, mountains, sky, sea, sun, and stars outside the hole they’re in is shut off from their sight and from their consciousness. The world they see – a “shadow world” – is for them the real world instead of the actual world.

The significance of this “picture” for us is that where the objects and events we find ourselves enmeshed in are not viewed with a degree of transcendent illumination, we are apt to see and do the wrong things. For in dealing only with the appearance of things instead of with their reality, it is easy to remain stuck in the human tendency for error – sometimes, as with power-obsessed leaders, gravely serious error.

A well-known prayer touching on this weakness in human beings makes the request: “Lord [grant] that where there are shadows – I may bring Thy Light... .”

Transcendent light can be sensed in the feeling of love, the urgency to help someone in distress or need, regardless of skin color or strangeness of speech and dress, the harmony of mind and heart when − suspending the appearance of the things around us and opening up to a wider reality − we meditate or pray.

A word of caution. Transcending light – aka conscience or “light from within” − must not be blocked by an inoperative mind or a hardened heart. An unexercised, drugged or hyped mind, in sync with a cold heart, makes a poor connection with any light of reality. Let no one imagine that “feeling good,” for example, or “letting go” to one’s feelings guarantees a path to self-transcending knowledge. A responsive heart that is linked to a disordered mind succumbs easily to the seductions of the marketplace.

Marketers of ideas as well as goods and services can play people like skilled musicians play their instruments. The result, music to the ears of the players, often turns out to be dissonance for those played upon. Uncritical submission to the market – especially that of education − breeds a society that loses its sense of the divine in human nature, a downgrading of the value of life that generates a public ready to yield to what is deviant and destructive.

The conflicting signals from our imperfect world, the numerous hazards of life, the confusing jumble of pain and joy, are difficult enough for an adult to deal with. Try to imagine what it is like for a budding young girl or boy to make sense of a world where love is absent, common sense is missing, and a politically distorted reality is hammered into them daily in school, media, entertainment, and their means of communication. The consequent loss of mind and soul impairs the innate ability of each child to rise to his or her best self, without which society stagnates and falters.

Movers of society who insist on pushing a version of progress that turns out “material people” instead of real ones have themselves to blame for populating a fake world with fake people, a world where everyone is a loser, including themselves.

Image credit: Needpix

Anthony J. DeBlasi, a lifelong defender of Western culture, is a veteran and a graduate of Brooklyn College.