There’s a war going on. It’s been going on for a couple of thousand years. It’s happening right now. It’s on TV, in the news and in books and movies. It’s on the Internet and on billboards but it isn’t an obvious war. It’s subtle. There are no bombs as a rule.
Like The Troggs said, “It’s written on the wind. It’s everywhere I go” (“Love Is All Around”), but it isn’t love that’s all around: it’s thought.
From thought love flows or shuts off (“Real Love Is a Choice”). You can’t see thought of course—it’s more or less invisible, ergo: “spiritual”—but you can see evidence of thought (or lack thereof) in brain scans, behaviour and city planning.
The philosopher Michel Onfray—resident hedonist, atheist, and anarchist—says that it’s a war between materialists and idealists (source). It’s a war that focuses on the big question: “What is reality?”
How you answer determines how you relate to the world.
Imagine holding a spoon. You see it. You feel its weight and cool metal in your hand. These perceptions happen within your brain where data from sensory organs comes together and forms an “image” of the spoon in your brain, but apart from your perceptions and awareness of the spoon, is there really something outside and separate from your mind? Do you regard the spoon as real or not?
Materialism says yes.
Idealism says no.
Which one are you?
To a materialist everything is matter because everything, including mental activity and consciousness, is physical. It’s matter acting upon matter. Reality is independent of perceptions.
As the philosopher Alexander Spirkin (1918-2004) put it in “Matter as the Substance of Everything That Exists”, “Consciousness belongs not to any transcendental world but to the material world.”
The word “materialist” also refers to someone who displays conspicuous consumption of material goods or who pursues wealth and luxury.
Now, the opposite of materialism (everything is “matter”) is idealism. To an idealist everything is mental (not matter) and therefore immaterial because the mind, as in, thoughts and ideas, make reality for you (source).
In the movie The Matrix, a boy bends a spoon without touching it and says, “There is no spoon.” To an idealist this means that you can’t manipulate reality, you can only manipulate yourself. Only when you change yourself can you change reality.
Idealists can be dualists or nondualists. Dualists (“being two”) think the world is made of divisions—good/bad, here/there, self/other, past/future; whereas, nondualists (“not two”) think these divisions don’t exist and that we don’t really experience them at all because everything is interconnected and not separated.
Nondualists in Eastern and Western traditions say that a dual, divided experience leaves us feeling finite and vulnerable because we think we’re separate from everything else but if we really understand the nondual unbroken-experience, feelings of separation and suffering end completely (Science & Nonduality).
Idealism says, “I am Consciousness. All objects of my awareness are really Awareness in disguise” (source). If idealism had a theme song, it would be “Life Is But a Dream” with the Harptones, “Spirit In the Sky” with Norman Greenbaum, or “Hurdy Gurdy Man” with Donovan.
The word “idealist” also describes a person with high ideals or qualities of perfection and excellence.
In this war the lines are drawn in phrases of persuasion. When Onfray says, “Religion is like magic. It’s all about tricks,” he expresses a materialist’s position. When British physicist James Jeans (1877-1946) says, “the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine,” he expresses an idealist’s position. But why must we choose between one or the other? Why not be both together?
Whether materialist or idealist, we each live in our own little bubble of awareness. The bubble is our self—a universe of one. Some bubble-people float alone. Some bubble-people stick together like suds. Inside our bubbles we think we’re awake and aware of our surroundings. Consciousness seems to come from the operations of our brain but consciousness is tricky that way.
It’s like there’s a locked box inside our head and the key to open it is inside! Thinking about thought is like that. As the Platters said, “Only you can make this world seem right” (“Only You”). The best we can do is to make educated guesses about what others are thinking (source).
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote, “There are no facts, only interpretation” (source) meaning, truth and reality are concoctions of someone interpreting reality and therefore creating it. It’s an idea verified by science. In “What hallucination reveals about our mind” neurologist Oliver Sacks said that we see with the brain but the brain can be fooled by hallucinations that mimic perceptions.
In “Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality”, neuroscientist Anil Seth said, “What we consciously see is based on the brain’s best guess of what’s out there. Our experienced world comes from the inside out, not just the outside in.”
Materialism’s determination that everything is “matter” goes with a materialistic desire to buy and idealism’s realization that reality is mental goes with caring more for ideals of excellence and goodness than for anything purchased.
In the article “If You Shop on Thanksgiving, You Are Part of the Problem” Matt Walsh writes of the materialist’s credo for happiness: “Everybody buy. It doesn’t matter what you buy. Just buy. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have money. Just buy.”
To which George Monbiot adds, “The more we consume, the less we feel. The richer we are and the more we consume, the more self-centred and careless of the lives of others we appear to become” (“Why we couldn’t care less about the natural world”).
A materialistic bid for happiness confirms research that shows, “Those who pursue wealth and material possessions tend to be less satisfied and experience fewer positive emotions each day… Life satisfaction—surprise, surprise—is correlated with having less materialistic values” (“The Psychology Of Materialism, And Why It’s Making You Unhappy”).
Psychologist Felicitas Heyne writes, “If you are an Idealist, life represents one continuous search for a deeper meaning: Who am I? Where am I going? What is my destiny? This already describes the most important pillar of your personal concept of happiness: The meaning of life!” (“How Idealists can find Meaning in their Lives”).
To be awake means to be fully conscious in the present moment. To be “unconscious” is to be not conscious. It is to be “without awareness, or cognition
In the film, You, the Living, a psychiatrist delivers a bleak assessment of the human condition: “People demand to be happy at the same time as they are egocentric, selfish and ungenerous. I’d like to be honest and say they are quite simply mean, most of them. I’ve stopped trying to make a mean person happy. I just prescribe pills, the stronger the better.”
So, is the answer in a pill?
When Bob Dylan said, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,” he said a slurring mouthful (“Blowing In The Wind”).
As an idealist, you interpret the world as if it were a person and then, as a materialist, you enjoy it. Two sides. Same coin.
Contentment is simply seeing and enjoying what is seen and enjoyed simply.
In a state of satisfaction with absolute acceptance of yourself and your situation, perfect gratitude hits you with perfect ease and contentment.
And there you are.