Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Materialism, Materialism

When people use the word "materialism" they usually have one of two definitions in mind. Philosophically speaking, materialism is the belief that everything that exists is either composed of matter or dependent upon it for its existence. "Naturalism" is an equivalent term. Atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins notes in his book The God Delusion that philosophers use "naturalist" as the opposite of "supernaturalist" and approvingly cites the following description of naturalistic philosophy offered by Julian Baggini in Atheism: A Very Short Introduction:
What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff comes minds, beauty, emotions, moral values - in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life (13,14).
Dawkins goes on to elaborate on the implications of this philosophy for our attempt to make sense of human cognition and affect:
Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain. An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles - except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don't yet understand it and embrace it within the natural (14).
According to this perspective human beings are essentially physiological machines whose thoughts and behaviors are reducible to biochemical and electrical impulses. We are identical with our bodies. Consequently, if anything is wrong with us it must be biological for that is all we are. Imago Dei is a useless concept for making sense of ourselves. The images critical for interpreting our condition and what ails us are MRI's and PET scans.

"Materialism" is also used to refer to an approach to life that places premium value on the acquisition of material goods for the purpose of enhancing comfort, status, and/or pleasure. Gary DeLashmutt and Dennis McCallum define materialism as "...a subtle and sophisticated worldview that defines identity, fulfillment, significance, and security in terms of economics" (129). Obviously, one who is materialistic in this sense of the word may or may not be a materialist in the previously described sense. Both kinds of materialism are dehumanizing and destructive.

Because of my interest in counseling issues, I frequently consider how they converge in the pharmaceutical industry especially in that subset that manufactures psychoactive drugs. A naturalistic worldview prevails in contemporary approaches to enhancing mental health. It is a foregone conclusion that problems such as depression and social anxiety are the results of imbalanced brain chemicals despite the fact that there is a marked disparity between the evidence and claims made by the makers of the antidepressants marketed as treatments. This is where the second sense of materialism comes in. The drug companies have a vested interest in promoting and protecting a materialistic (the first sense) view of human nature to successfully market their products. Unfortunately, ample evidence exists to demonstrate that financial gain is often a greater priority for pharmaceutical companies than public health (see, for example, the following articles chronicling Eli Lilly's attempt to suppress links between its top-selling drug, Zyprexa, and diabetes: Eli Lilly Said to Play Down Risk of Top Pill, Playing Down the Risks of a Drug, Lilly Settles With 18,000 Over Zyprexa).

Despite the advances made in Christian worldview studies, it's frustrating that more is not being done in the area of mental health. I was heartened, therefore, when in a recent FRC briefing, Discovery Institute senior fellow Dr. John West made the connection between the materialist mindset and the treatment of children diagnosed with ADHD. While affirming that drugs might be a necessary part of treatment in some cases, he noted that the rush to administer them is an outworking of materialistic assumptions that may prove detrimental and unnecessary.

As we contend against the dehumanizing and culturally destructive consequences of naturalism with respect to such things as ethics, are we turning a blind eye to how we may have imbibed the very same philosophy in the garb of medical science?


sushil yadav said...
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sonelephant said...

Dear Keith
Like you, I am a Christian and I certainly appreciate your take on materialism. I totally agree that atheism is just another side of the same coin as materialist consumerism. However, I am a psychiatrist and so I also value the immense benefit of medication for patients who suffer from mental illnesses, including depression. Unfortunately you are creating a false dichotomy here between Christianity and having spiritual values, and the use of psychotropic medication - which is a serious error. I assume you have not worked with the mentally ill. It is dangerous to use a Christian argument, indiscriminately against medical treatments, which are offered to people with a degree of suffering that you may never know. It is a Christian act to heal the sick and we are fortunate in the West to have access to effective medical care. While I also share your concern about materialist ambitions in the medical profession, I find it unfortunate that people speak in ignorance about these matters. Sonia