Materialism and the Void - the Emptiness at the Heart of Modern Culture

Our culture provides such extraordinary opportunities for rich and interesting lives that it is hard to understand how we mostly end up doing so poorly. Our problem is not opportunity, it is execution. And when it comes to building a good life, not just giving us the tools for it, our culture often works against us. Some of this is distraction. Some is choice overload. But the biggest obstacle to good transformative decision-making lives at the very heart of our culture. It lacks a specific name, but I’ll call it the void.

To make meaningful self-altering decisions, we must believe that some lives are better worth living than others and some ways of being better than others. We all do believe this. But modern Western culture gives us no useful way to express these preferences. It is not just or even simply that our lives lack meaning. It is that we lack a language to express or think about meaning with conviction. This is a thoroughly unique predicament. It is a void at the very center of our lives.

In the pre-Christian Greco-Roman world, virtue ethics provided a reasonable approximation of self-altering decisions that captured the basic role of personal change in life. But virtue ethics is out-of-fashion – probably even more in regular life than in philosophical circles. It is quite impossible in normal life to unironically talk about virtues. Individual virtues still command a certain second-hand respect. Kindness and courage get a nod as “good” things, but the very idea that we have or should cultivate a set of virtue dispositions is just not part of the current conversation. Nobody aspires to be virtuous. It is almost ludicrous to say the words – like a modern woman aspiring to be virginal.

Nor did the ancients struggle so much with what kind of life was worth living. Philosophers certainly debated the issue, but the broad culture was solidly committed to a life of honor, piety, ambition, and public and martial achievement.

Christian ethics (and equivalent religious traditions) also provide a model of character development and a standard for a good life. Most religious models don’t fit as well as virtue ethics[1] with a modern cognitive version of self-altering decisions but, psychologically, religious beliefs provided at least a target for character and personal change and a vocabulary for thinking about value and meaning. They also provided a clear definition of what made a good life. And quite a bit of guidance (more than most of us want) about how to live it.

Weakness of will, sin, saintliness, godliness, piety, humility – the Christian had a way to think about what kind of life and what kind of preferences were good. That way of thinking too, has become passé. One occasionally meets people who take seriously the idea of becoming better Christians. But if Christianity is not completely spent, it lacks cultural push. Most of us simply cannot take the Christian model of the soul and redemption seriously. It’s incompatibility with materialism (in the physical sense) means it lives uncomfortably within any scientific worldview. Its psychology is difficult to square with modern theories of psychology or neuroscience. It seems to have little of interest to say about the problems of modern life and, worst of all, its virtues are not ones we genuinely admire and its values not ones we truly hold.

Nor do modern philosophical or psychological theories provide us aid or comfort. Neither of the dominant modern traditions of philosophy (Utilitarian and Kantian) have much to say about transformative choice. They both work to provide a purely rationalistic justification of an abstract ethical framework. Both claim that ANY rational actor must accept their (very different) framework. Each works from a view of human rationality as fixed, open to all, unchanging, and unchanged by experience. Each demands a static view of human character that is not only cognitively false but wildly out whack with actual experience.

Have you ever, in your life, heard anyone say that they acted to maximize the total sum of human happiness? Or that their decision was such that it could be universalized to any other rational agent? That would be weird. Nor do those ways of thinking capture anything interesting about the world, the decisions we make, or the way we craft a life. Utilitarian and Kantian ethics don’t make the slightest bit of sense in a world where we must choose experiences that will change us.

It is true that both the Utilitarian and the Kantian have something to say about what makes a good life. But that something is so barren and inhuman that it might as well be silence.

Psychology has even less to say on either subject. It’s position as a quasi-scientific discipline ensures that it can take no position about meaning or value. So crippled is psychology from a normative perspective that it has been difficult for psychology to even establish that fundamental breakages in human cognition (like schizophrenia) are bad. Nor has psychology been much interested in helping people navigate transformative experiences since it has been more concerned with diseased states than normal choice.

That’s the catalog of plausible candidates. There’s nothing else. We have no way to think or talk about what kind of person to be or what is a good life.

And that’s the void.

People in modern society are not equipped to think intelligibly about transformative choice or even understand that such choices exist. They have no intellectual framework – shared or internal – from which to think cogently about how to live. They can only talk about delayed gratification, “investing in yourself” and other self-help platitudes that live comfortably in the preference-optimization world everyone takes for granted. Lacking the words or concepts to think intelligibly about what’s valuable, it’s hardly surprising that people can’t make good transformative decisions. How can you pick a direction when you don’t have a destination?

In our world, an individual must construct the entire edifice of ethical thought on their own. It’s a daunting task.


It is the void that makes materialists (in the non-scientific sense) of us all. No person of substance or sense believes that the way to a good life is through the incessant accumulation of stuff. But almost as foolish is the notion that satisfying your preferences (and having good things) is somehow bad. There have been plenty of philosophers who have tried to talk us out of the idea that having good things is a reasonable part of a good life. But very few of us have ever been convinced. We all have preferences to optimize – there are always things we like. There’s no reason to believe that satisfying those preferences is a bad thing.

Given the void, preference optimization is all that’s left. And if that’s all that’s left, that’s what we do.

Our culture makes a life of material accumulation incredibly easy to fall into. In every other time in history, for most social roles, the amount of stuff one could accumulate was limited. Except for the wealthiest few, the horizons of wealth were narrow enough that the accumulation of material goods just wasn’t an interesting option for a life. In our world. the quantity and quality of material goods routinely available is enough to fill lifetimes. We can be gourmands. We can be technophiles. We can fashion new bodies for ourselves (along with all the equipment and advice to make it convenient). Almost no matter what our preferences are, we have a dizzying array of ways to satisfy them.

It doesn’t matter how intellectual, aesthetic or pure your interests are.

As an amateur astronomer, it’s hard not to look wistfully at a Meade 14” Schmidt Cassegrainian with its massive fork drive and auto-find capabilities and not wish for a domed observatory and a flat piece of land near my house to park it in. There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with the people who build and sell such a beautiful instrument. To have built something so perfect, so precise and so satisfying is a worthy achievement. A mere seven grand buys a telescope that cycles through stunning views of the Messier Catalog, holds the entire NGC in its database, and can support legitimate amateur research – hunting for comets, exoplanet signatures, near earth asteroids and solar activities. It’s a machine that opens new avenues of reflection and discovery for the owner.

Everywhere you look it’s the same story.

Take that same seven grand and use it to wheel out a Trek Supercaliber into the open spaces north of San Francisco. It’s 21 pounds (not much to drag up a hill) with a full rear suspension and it looks like a racehorse with its head lowered, stretching eagerly to the finish line. It’s the sort of bike a teenage engineer might pin-up over their bed, and it can deliver an exhilarating rush of adrenaline.

Want to go a little faster over those same hills? It’s a bigger investment, but why not drive an all-electric Porsche Taycan and park your spine deep into a lovely black leather seat, accelerate from 0-60 in about 3 curve-hugging seconds, and experience a form of perfect man-machine blending.

Out there where the hills roll down toward the Pacific Ocean, you can park that Porsche at a world-renowned artisanal cheese factory and enjoy a bottle of exquisite Sonoma wine, a fresh baguette, and a selection of world-class cheeses. As you munch, you’ll probably pull out an elegant, little silver box capable of connecting you – face to face – with anyone around the world even as you look out over rugged Inverness Bay. If you’re chatting with your daughter and can’t remember who wrote a screenplay or debating the best way to translate Eudaimonia, you can access zettabytes of data from every content creator around the world and every book, song, or movie currently published and millions more that just happen to be available.

You can read Plato’s Republic for free and even have your pick of translations, so you can see what Bloom or Jowett thought was best. And should you drink and eat too much, when you get home, you can stream a class by the legendary John Searle on your Airpods while you run on an incline treadmill watching a lovely young fitness instructor guide you through the upper pools trail of Zion National Park.

Our material stuff is so awesome it’s hard not to get swept away, and I’m not sure I would believe anyone who didn’t feel that way. And if I believed them, I’d think less of them. An inability to appreciate great engineering, incredible technology, access to profound information, and the enjoyment of fine food and wine is no virtue. It’s a failure of imagination and humanity.

Having so much incredible stuff for almost any conceivable taste makes it ridiculously easy to spend a life this way. And a lot of people do. But admitting it’s nice isn’t the same as thinking it’s all there is to life or believing that a life spent in pursuit of nice stuff is the best you can do.

Materialism and the Void

                “They worship everything and value nothing” Sebastian – La La Land

Every culture has plenty of people whose horizons will never grow beyond “I want, I want”. People for whom having a Porsche, tight abs, or easy sex is pretty much all they need or want in life. Our culture breeds a bumper crop of such folk. Not only because our toys are so good, but because even the people who should and in many respects do know better are unable to set a better example. Many people search restlessly for something more. Many – perhaps most – will never use philosophy to find what that is. But they might well follow the lead of serious people who did. Every culture relies on a small stratum of people to be great at certain things: war, art, commerce, politics. Most cultures rely on a small stratum of people to help set a standard for what kind of life is worth living. We have lost that stratum because those people don’t have anything to say either.

So yes, materialism is the great problem of our culture. But to believe that the problem is too much stuff misses the essential point. People are base materialists because they have no better way to be and because our intellectual culture lacks a compelling way to talk about anything except preference optimization. Most serious people aren’t happy about it. They don’t really think that acquiring things (stuff, fame, power, etc.) is all we should be thinking about. But they can’t take any of the ideas available to them seriously. They are embarrassed to talk about their lives in any way except from the standpoint of success, money, fame and the other accoutrements of preference satisfaction.

Our culture has stripped away every conceivable measure of personhood that isn’t written on the bottom line. We put no stock in piety. Saintliness is absurd. Honor is positively a dirty word. Virtues are laughable. It is almost preposterous to describe a man as having integrity. And why not? A preference optimizer is just a bag of wants. Undifferentiated and uninteresting.

When outcomes are all we’re thinking about for ourselves, outcomes will be all we think about in others. Judging people by anything other than outcomes is passé. We may disagree about what outcomes matter. To some, the passionate espousal of a political cause is the essential virtue. To others fame is the golden elixir. Wealth. Power. Even charitable giving. What we admire is the thing, not the person. Unfortunately, for people living in a world of transformative experience, you cannot become a thing.

There will always be plenty of things to fight over, compete for and yearn after. There are always things to worship, even if they are not sold in stores. Getting rid of all the stuff or taxing the almighty dollar at 99% won’t help solve the problem or fill the void. People are as greedy for Twitter followers and Facebook likes as they are dollars. When it comes to wealth, Japan is one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. It also happens to be one of the most hierarchical. Unless and until people believe that life involves something more than preference optimization, nothing will change.

It is here that a theory of transformative experience, rationality and experience can make a difference. It can provide an intellectual framework in which it is respectable, given everything we know about the world and cognitive science, to think about what makes a life valuable. Indeed, it suggests that we cannot be even approximately rational unless we are willing to talk and think in those terms. Transformative choices cannot be made intelligible without thinking seriously about who we admire and why. They force us to think about what to value and what kind of life to live. The best antidote to materialism is not religion or politics or morality. It’s understanding the nature of the fundamental choices at the heart of a life.

[1] Though Confucianism is probably closer to Aristotelian virtue ethics than to any theology