Why Materialism is False

The biggest roadblock in contemporary Western culture to an acceptance of rebirth is materialism, also known as physicalism. According to materialism, the mind is entirely explainable in terms of physical phenomena. An inevitable consequence of this is that there can be no such thing as rebirth.

Yet the materialist paradigm/worldview is increasingly coming under attack. In recent years a number of philosophers and scientist have been arguing for a revised view of the world that treats mind or consciousness as a fundamental building block of reality. To use an expression coined by the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, I believe we are seeing no less than the beginning of a paradigm shift in science.

A brief review of some of the most illustrious names that have come out against the materialist worldview might be useful. In 2012 the eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel published Mind and Cosmos, a modern trailblazer in this area. Other notable philosophers, such as David Chalmers, have been making similar anti-materialist arguments.

A similar development is seen in science. In 2004, Nature magazine, perhaps the world’s preeminent scientific journal, published an essay titled The Mental Universe by the physicist Richard Conn Henry. More recently the leading neuroscientist Christof Koch has been advocating panpsychism, a philosophical theory that sees consciousness as a fundamental aspect of nature.

But for a truly compelling modern argument against materialism it is perhaps hard to beat the work of the philosopher Bernardo Kastrup. Here is his latest peer-reviewed article. The article is technical and takes a quite a bit of effort to read for a non-specialist. But I think it is well worth the effort.

Kastrup is also a contributor to Scientific American. These articles are much more accessible, written as they are for a popular scientific magazine. Kastrup covers a broad range of topics, from physics to psychology, all of it of high quality. The overarching purpose of his writing is always to defend a non-materialist interpretation of reality. (I should also mention that Kastrup advocates a form of idealism that includes a universal mind. Although I think his arguments against materialism are well-founded, I believe he goes fundamentally wrong when he tries to replace it with a philosophy that seems almost indistinguishable from Advaita Vedanta.)

Are we seeing a scientific paradigm shift happening before our very eyes?


:slight_smile: If so, hooray, though the scientific method, the concept of facts and confirmation via repeatable observation, are useful.

:slight_smile: The placebo effect is long recognized and scientifically confirmed, that some as-yet unobservable “things” (such as beliefs) can have observable effects.

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It’s not a very well-defined question. There is no non-controversial criterion for dividing nature into physical and non-physical compartments. Usually when an argument is labeled an “anti-physicalist” argument, that just means that it is an argument that attempts to show that there is some known phenomenon that cannot be reduced to or accommodated within the framework of existing physical theory. But that doesn’t tell us much about the status of the phenomenon, and how we will understand it’s relationship to physical theory when both the present understanding of the phenomenon and present physical theory have grown - if that ever happens.

The whole business probably doesn’t matter that much to the question of rebirth or other kinds of views of post-mortem existence, since one can sketch out both “physical” and “non-physical” pictures of rebirth, heaven or whatever.

To my mind, all of this lies in the realm of ideology and cognitive acquisitions, not spiritual attainment. The human intellect is a limited tool, and there is no guarantee that we either will or can ever fully understand the fundamental realities of our own existence, or that such a full understanding is in any way important to our liberation. It seems to me we want to break down and eradicate all attachments, cravings and acquitions, including the intellectual ones, rather than build them up.


I guess we’ll know in a few years if this paradigm shift is happening as these things are difficult to predict. Even if so I wonder how it would seep into mainstream culture.

In my experience - in daily life I don’t have much of a Buddhist crowd around - I see a discourse that is quite different from both materialism and rebirth-Buddhism.

What I see is mostly ‘slogan-philosophy’, you know, witty one-liners that sum up all I believe in, and anti-religiosity.

The former is incredibly shallow and shoots in any direction, a little bit spiritual, a little bit scientific, whatever.

The latter is much more dominant as a conceptual meta-structure. The anti-religiosity is not automatically materialistic. It’s more some kind of a ‘leave-me-alone-with-your-nonsense’ attitude. Not believing in the man in the sky, nor in rebirth, yoga-candles, nor in the grand promises of the next product or technology - there is a similar attitude towards any direction that wants to sell me something, club membership, products, ideas.

If anything, science is the decisive force for people, so if science will prove rebirth to be true it will give way to a brutal functional rebirth-materialism “Ok, rebirth exists, so let me tweak my next rebirth in the cheapest, fastest, most effective way” - the birth of a rebirth-hack-industry, the western spin to what existed at the time of the Buddha in ancient India already.


A cool speculation of that is what we find in the dystopian science fiction cyberpunk web television series named Altered Carbon. It is scary to think the possible implications of capital accumulation once unbounded by death! :dizzy_face:


Is that really an inevitable consequence? I’m not sure.

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Perhaps nature should not be divided this way in the first place.

All you need for a scientific revolution is to show that subjective experience is not reducible to physical phenomena.

As far as I am aware, there are no physical pictures of rebirth that bear any resemblance to the Buddhist idea.

If you hold a view that precludes rebirth, then it will definitely hinder your ability to achieve liberation - the liberation the Buddha spoke of, that is.

You need a basic outlook that conforms to some extent to reality to get anywhere in any endeavour in life, including the spiritual life. If you think the pursuit of material things is what life is all about, you won’t even consider developing your mind. If you think morality is just going to limit your search for happiness, your spiritual life will have no proper footing. If you think compassion and peace are useless for your own and others’ betterment, you will not develop the mental qualities required for success in meditation. Let’s not hold our views too strongly, but let’s be clear that views matter.

In fact this is exactly what we see in existing Buddhist societies, and I have no doubt you are right that this is how it would play out in other societies too. But what matters more, I think, is that the idea of rebirth opens up an alternative view of reality that may, at least for some people, lead to a deeper appreciation of true liberation. Society and individuals are hobbled by generally accepted views that are contrary to the nature of reality.

This is certainly the generally accepted position.


But it doesn’t seem to be logically entailed, bhante. I think at least two qualifications would be needed for us to be entitled to say that it’s “inevitable”.

Firstly, though the claim would apply to the dominant modern strain of materialism, it wouldn’t apply to all strains of it. In Stoic physics, for example, it was held that nothing existed but matter, and yet there was also a creator god, Zeus, and an imperishable human soul, both constituted of matter (specifically, the fire element).

Secondly, it would apply only to conceptions of rebirth that required something immaterial to survive death, as with the soul theories of the Hindus and Jains or the mental processes envisaged in Buddhist Abhidharma systems.

Though the Stoics themselves didn’t teach rebirth, one could imagine a Stoic-like system in which rebirth was conceived as a material process, thereby making it no contradiction to be both a physicalist and a believer in rebirth. (And perhaps even a kammassakatāvādin, given that the Jains, for example, had no problem conceiving of karmas being composed of material particles).


This can never be done, since we are unable to predict in advance what the fundamental ontology of physics will contain in the future. No matter what conception of mental phenomena one was, one can’t know ahead of time whether they will or will not be incorporated into future physical theory.

Buddhist rebirth conceptions in the suttas seem quite unspecific: something related in some close way to the being that dies then “descends into a womb.” It seems pointless to get into categorizing metaphysical arguments about whether this thing is “physical” or “mental” or some third category.

We have several sutta passages which indicate directly just how unhelpful these kinds of speculations, and the view-making faculty itself, are for the person aiming at release, and the complete abandonment of the asavas.

"This is how he attends inappropriately: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?’ Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?’


”The Brahman, evaluating, doesn’t enter into a theory, doesn’t follow views, isn’t tied, even to knowledge. And on knowing whatever is conventional, commonplace, he remains equanimous: “That’s what others hold onto.”

“Having untied the knots, here in the world, the sage here in the world doesn’t follow a faction when disputes have arisen. At peace among those not at peace he’s equanimous, doesn’t hold on. “That’s what others hold onto.”

“Giving up old effluents, not forming new, neither pursuing desire nor entrenched in his teachings, he’s totally released from viewpoints, enlightened.”

SNp 4:13

The cognitive drives, the ones hard at work in the practice of philosophy and science, and it the everyday chores of life, which involve strenuous efforts to classify mental conceptions into “true” and “false”, to achieve comforting states of knowledge and understanding, and to form elaborate worldviews of many kinds, and theories about the past and the future, are manifestations of craving and attachment. Ultimately, to achieve the suffering-free state they have to be turned off, just like the I-making and my-making drives.


Certainly, either slogans like those associated with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or slogans like “Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence” with respect to God.

IMO this has its roots in how the Protestant religion used to polemicize against the Catholic religion during their many years of sectarian warfare.

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Scientific knowledge itself may very well end up coming up against the fact we know almost nothing about what the “mind” is, and what “consciousness” is. People are so intoxicated by the knowledge we gain about the physical world they are missing the bigger picture. I am hopeful at least some will realize the limitations of materialism, but it is hard to say. As more discoveries pile up, humanity’s hubris over its’ ability to understand and manipulate the physical world may increase too.


And indeed, we are already seeing some of the major voices in contemporary philosophical panpsychism attempting to reconcile realism about fundamental consciousness and physicalism. One such figure is Galen Strawson.


Panpsychism is a plausible theory of the fundamental nature of reality. It is fully compatible with everything in current physics, and with physicalism. It is an error to think that being physical excludes being mental or experiential. Anyone who endorses the following three views – [i] materialism or physicalism is true, [ii], consciousness is real, [iii] there is no ‘radical emergence’ – should at least endorse ‘micropsychism’ or psychism, the view that [iv] mind or consciousness is a fundamental feature of concrete reality, already present in the most basic forms of concrete reality. And given [v] the interconvertibility (fungibility) of all fundamental forms of physical stuff, panpsychism appears to be the most plausible form of psychism.

And such a view is not prima facie incompatible with rebirth.


I suppose we need to be clear about how we define matter. The stoic conception of matter seems to be broader than the generally accepted modern one, given that it includes a soul, for instance. The modern idea of physical phenomena seems to be something like that which is outside and independent of mental phenomena.

Perhaps, but I think it is more productive to focus on present theories.

Most modern materialist scientists would argue that there can be no rebirth since the mind is a product of the physical body. Since the physical body disintegrates at death, the mind also must come to an end. This, to me, is what is at stake.

Regarding the passage you quote from MN2, this concerns the continuation of a fixed self from life to life. What the passage warns about is indulging the sense of self. Knowing rebirth is not contrary to this. In fact the two often go together.

The Passage from Snp 4.13 concerns how we relate to views, not to views as such. In fact an important point about the noble ones is that they have seen thing according to reality, they are diṭṭhi-patta, “attained to (right) view”. Once you see things right, there is no longer any need to grasp your views; you know what you are talking about and if others disagree, that’s their problem. It is the attachment to views which is problematic, mostly because it leads to suffering. But for anyone who is not yet a stream-enterer some degree of attachment is inevitable. This is just what the sense of self does. So once again, views matter, and the more aligned to reality they are, the better.

In Buddhism too we seek “to achieve comforting states of knowledge and understanding”. This is what the insight into non-self is all about. And to get there you have to start off with an outlook that will push you in the right direction. This is what right view is about.

Yet panpsychism has some serious problems of its own. For instance, how do you explain that conscious particles at the most primitive level combine to form minds on larger scales?


I think the main reason most scientists are likely skeptical of rebirth is because they don’t believe there is much in the way of evidence for it, other than a few anecdotal stories and some personal interpretations people give to some of their mental images. Deciding to classify mental phenomena as composed of something non-physical doesn’t really help the case much, because then one is still left with the absence of any real theory of this alternative “mind-stuff” and how, or whether, it can survive a person’s death. The case for tying our mental life to our organic bodily existence doesn’t really depend on whether the stuff of the mind is itself “bodily” or physical. It depends mainly on the manifestly abundant causal connections between bodily events and mental events. We know mental events of various kinds can be altered, or even eliminated entirely, by damaging various parts of the body. So it is natural to suspect when the body is completely destroyed, they all stop - no matter what they are “made” of.


In relation to modern science, I think it is better to focus on the more basic problem of whether subjective experience is reducible to physical phenomena. If consciousness were to be accepted as a basic aspect of reality, then this would open up all sorts of possibilities, including, potentially, rebirth. For mainstream science I think the time has not yet come to seriously grapple with rebirth.

And, yes, there are clear causal connections between the physical and the mental. Yet how this should be interpreted will depend on what we take to be the basic building blocks of reality.


This just seems like further grounds for not getting entangled in any of these speculative views about the future. If some birth that is going to occur in the future is a rebirth, then it is presumably the birth of something that was born before. If it was not born before, it is not a rebirth. If it is a birth that is in some mysterious and philosophically intricate way connected with the birth of something that was born before, but that isn’t actually identical to the latter birth, then really what’s the big deal. The end of suffering means the end of anxieties about what is going to happen in the future to oneself, to others, or to something vaguely in between. If you can achieve a state in which you stop caring about your current attachments, or possible future states of being, even if the future in question is just tomorrow, then you can stop suffering.

That goes against the plain reading of the passage, which concludes by saying the enlightened person has no views - not that the enlightened person has views that are not held in a clingy sort of way. In my view, the latter reading is a construction of the later tradition, formed by the Buddha’s disciples overseeing the Gotama cultus, who turned the teachings into a religion filled with institutional hierarchies and a large body of authoritative doctrinal statements about all sorts of unimportant cosmic and metaphysical matters, and supposedly constituting “right view”.

My favored interpretation of the historical record at this point is that the Buddha was a muni, a wandering sage who taught practices leading to a suffering-free state he called “nibbana”. That state is only attained by deep seclusion and absorption, culminating in a profound psychic release from all phenomena in the chain of experience. While in that state, no sense of self is present, no cravings or attachments of any kind are present, and all cognitive functions have been suspended so that, cognitively, one is in a state of agnosia - viewlessness or belieflessness. Once one attains that state for the first time, it has a profound transformative affect on one’s remaining life, leading to the elimination of almost all anxiety about whatever is going to happen in the future. Nevertheless, when one emerges from that unbound, nibbanic state, some suffering may and almost certainly will return, and one can only again experience the complete end of suffering by re-entering the fully released state.

I think this spiritual teaching about how to achieve deepest peace and the supreme state attainable in this very life was later transformed into a mixed up soteriological teaching rooted in a lot of conventional religious anxieties and Faustian, megalomanical intellectual cravings - anxieties about heavens, hells, demons, future states of being, punishment for “sins”, etc., and cravings for “higher knowledges” and god-like powers to survey the past and the future and the extent and nature of the cosmos.

Also, the ideal of going forth into a solitary homeless life supported by begging was transformed into the ideal of living in a somewhat cozy and settled monastic community, that is anything but homeless, and is supported by rich benefactors, and the superstitious emotional dependency of a “lay community” on magical monks.

I don’t think so. I think the “insight into not-self” is nothing other than the cessation of the I-making and my-making functions which are fundamental to everyday human life, and can only be suspended with intense effort and long-practice. When these constructive activities are “turned off”, one no longer has a conceit of self or self-view. This is obviously an extremely unusual state for a human being. In that state one is probably not entertaining views at all, or being comforted by having the correct ones.


Thanks for your extensive comments, @DKervick. I am not sure our discussion is going anywhere constructive, and so I will bail out at this point. My best wishes to you and everyone else on D&D.


Thanks for the above, Ven. It speaks to me on so many levels…


Your rhetoric is very powerful, @DKervick. And it also seems to contain a fair bit of vehement categorization of people based on your personal picture of the Buddha and his life.

But, despite the fact that such well-written words pushing some closely-held views can sway minds, it really doesn’t hold up very well under closer scrutiny.

The key problem with the materialistic system which postulates that the mind is the result of matter or physical elements is that it renders the whole of spiritual development pretty much pointless. There is no point in cleansing, taming, developing and purifying the mind. Why do all of that by meditation and introspection when you could go straight to the source, namely the body, and fiddle with it so that ‘enlightenment’ is attained ?

This notion then leads a person directly into the dungeon of substance-abuse and one develops the view: just drink something, or smoke something, or inject something and instantly the mind is elevated to a state where all the problems and divisive views of the world disappear. This, say the priests who live in such smoky dens, is ‘enlightenment’. Of course, this crowd is swelling hugely with the passing of each day. It’s so easy and simple, after all.

I don’t think you would agree with the whole substance abusing scene, your arguments are more intelligent, but they still remain arguments that don’t give any succor to those who seek answers. All this has been discussed to death before, but the main point which bothers me is:

Materialism or any one-life theory hardens a person’s mind. This happens because the state of this world which is filled with helpless creatures being trampled under the heels of the powerful cannot be explained without resorting to verbal sophistry. A good example of this kind of tortured philosophy is the rope/snake construct in Vedanta which asks us to believe that the suffering in the world is not suffering at all. All we have to do is see the rope instead of the snake and then all will be seen as good.

Would you agree with this ? Or would you agree that facing the cruelty and brutality in existence and seeking an explanation is more grounded in reality ?

If we go down the nihilistic road some more, then the question of participation arises. Most lives are lived out in a sorry state of strife and unpleasantness. grinding away in some job, subject to diseases and pain. Some are worse and some are downright brutal - the victims of violent acts. So, the chosen ones who can seek and find enlightenment are few and scattered and they have to be born into bountiful, indolent lives. The rest of the seething mass of beings and creatures who come to be, suffer horribly and then die - well, they just have to accept their fate. Such is the lopsided, chaotic nature of the world, apparently.

The nihilistic or materialistic view doesn’t give rise to any transcendental knowledge or understanding. The explanation for the world is that it’s all just ‘random’ or ‘chaotic’. But that’s just an excuse and it condemns whole species of beings to some miserable fate…


Yes…nihilism is a dreadful abyss.

Sadly, I fell down headfirst into this pit and lost all perspective for sometime. When one has been subject to disease and oppression for almost the entirety of life, an explanation would be sought for birth. And in this fevered state of mind, there would be nobody other than one’s parents to blame. ‘If they had not conceived me, then all this would not have happened at all’ - such views take over the mind. Going all the way with this line of thought leads to nothing but violence…

But materialism is vastly tempered down - it just fails to address fundamental questions about reality. And I think this is what the Ven. was trying to say.

Thanks, you too. :slight_smile: