OPAR 1.5: Idealism and Materialism Both Get it Wrong

Leonard Peikoff wraps up the first chapter of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by applying the principles of Objectivist metaphysics to two historically popular yet diametrically opposed views on reality: idealism and materialism. Idealism, promoted by figures such as Plato, Augustine, and Hegel, is the view that reality is driven by some form of consciousness and that the unseen world is higher and more important than the seen world. By contrast, materialism, upheld by philosophers such as Marx and Skinner, is the view that nothing exists beyond the physical world of measurable matter. For the materialist, true reality is physical rather than spiritual, and consciousness is nothing more than matter acting in a scientifically measurable and predictable way. Objectivist metaphysics is neither idealist nor materialist. In Rand’s view, idealism and materialism are both fundamentally flawed positions that reject the basic axioms and therefore oppose reality.

Idealist philosophers hold that the unseen spiritual dimension is the one true reality. By definition, “spiritual” really just means “of or pertaining to consciousness,” and true reality for the idealist is always some form of consciousness—whether that’s the Christian God, Plato’s World of the Forms, or Hegel’s Ideas (OPAR, 32) to name a few examples. Spirit is always the primary metaphysical factor, and the only way to access the spiritual dimension is through some form of thought or belief, which exists in consciousness. Spirit/mind comes first, and out of spirit/mind a physical world emerges. All versions of idealism share the belief in some form of the supernatural, which means “that which is above or beyond nature.” In order to be above or beyond nature, though, an entity would have to be above and beyond the physical world of entities governed by natural law. Since everything that exists in this universe is part of nature, the supernatural realm would have to be a form of existence beyond actual existence. In other words, it would have to be an entity beyond entities and identities and rational metaphysics. Idealism then, according to Rand and Peikoff, rests on a belief in consciousness without existence. This is why, according to Rand and Peikoff, idealism represents a rejection of the basic axioms of philosophy.

Materialism is the polar opposite of idealism. Materialists believe that reality is fundamentally physical in nature and that nothing exists beyond the material world. For the materialist, physical matter is the primary metaphysical factor, and consciousness is just matter organized in an intricate way, operating according to mechanistic laws. Peikoff writes that, “The idealists invented the false alternative of consciousness versus science. The materialists simply take over this false alternative, then promote the other side of it. This amounts to rejecting arbitrarily the possibility of a naturalistic view of consciousness” (33). Where the idealists took consciousness and turned it into a mystical, all-powerful, otherworldly force above and beyond nature, the materialists reject this view and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of taking into account all of the aspects of consciousness—including the aspects that can be known only through direct experience and cannot be seen with a microscope or PET scan—the materialists rationalistically reduce consciousness to nothing or almost nothing.

In varying ways, the materialists claim that consciousness either doesn’t exist, is useless, or is merely a sequence of predictable squirtings and brain processes. All of these reductions leave out the role that empirical observation and focused reasoning play in human consciousness. Some materialists refer to consciousness as a “muddled” notion and claim that the old-fashioned idea of consciousness will eventually fade away entirely and be replaced with more apt neurophysiological terms as science progresses. Other materialists claim that there are no such things as qualia, which are individual instances of subjective conscious experience. Peikoff writes that for the materialist, “Man…is essentially a body without a mind. His conclusions, accordingly, reflect not the objective methodology of reason and logic, but the blind operation of physical factors, such as atomic dances in the cerebrum, glandular squirtings, S-R conditioning, or the tools of production moving in that weird, waltzlike contortion known as the dialectic process” (33). Since materialist philosophers, using a plethora of different approaches, reduce consciousness to blind material processes, materialism essentially wipes consciousness in its full form out of existence, according to Peikoff. In this way, materialists believe in a world of existence without consciousness and like the idealists, reject the basic axioms of philosophy. The materialists apparently do not realize that consciousness is just as fundamental as the thing of which consciousness is conscious: existence.

In spite of the fact that materialists deny the existence of a spiritual world, Peikoff classifies both idealism and materialism as mystical in nature because both schools of thought rest on the idea that knowledge of reality is gained automatically rather than volitionally. For the idealist, knowledge is gained automatically through mental connection with supernatural sources. For the materialist, knowledge is gained automatically through glandular squirtings in the cerebrum, Pavlovian conditioning, or absorption from social environs. In both views, knowledge is not gained through a focused effort on empirical observation and logical reasoning. Rather, knowledge is automatically placed in the mind from some outside source or process.

In addition to being mystical in essence, idealism and materialism also both belong to the ontological category of monism. A monist belief system is one that reduces everything in the universe back to one basic substance or principle, and both idealism and materialism insist that true reality (and man) has only one true essence. For the idealist, reality is essentially made of mind or spirit. For the materialist, reality is made of matter or physical processes. While Objectivism rejects the monism of idealism and materialism, Rand’s philosophy should not therefore be considered dualist. Peikoff writes that, “a philosophy that rejects the monism of idealism and materialism does not thereby become ‘dualist.’ This term is associated with a Platonic or Cartesian metaphysics; it suggests the belief in two realities, in the mind-body opposition, and in the soul’s independence of the body—all of which Ayn Rand denies” (35).

If it is not dualist, then should Objectivism be considered materialist, empiricist, existentialist, or anything else? According to Peikoff, no. Peikoff writes that “all of the conventional positions are fundamentally flawed…In this situation, a new term is required, one which at least has the virtue of not calling up irrelevant associations” (36). Instead of the typical titles, Objectivist metaphysics (and Objectivism in general) can best be summed up as “Objectivist.

Questions and Concerns:

  • I think a deeper dive into materialist philosophy is in order. What do the various materialists have to say for themselves?
  • Has a materialist philosopher ever written a response to Rand’s critique of materialism? If so, how did that person rebut her?
  • Would the average materialist agree with the statement, “consciousness doesn’t exist”? If not, why? How might a materialist explain her position in her own words?

Level of Difficulty: Medium

Mystery Number: 60

Works Cited:

1. Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991). New York: Meridian, 1993.

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