On Materialism, Purpose, and Discernment

(Essay) Self-Synchronization

To be materialistic is to focus on material things, while the optimal way humans relate to things is as if those things are ‘invisible’, per se. According to Heidegger, a doorknob is ‘invisible’ to us until it breaks, for until then we use it to open a door without thinking about it. It’s only when the doorknob doesn’t work that we stop and notice it. Similar should be our engagement with all things in the world: to exist in this way is to avoid materialism. This isn’t to imply that material items are only valuable to the degree they have utility; rather, by claiming things should be ‘invisible’, this means things should be ‘synchronized’ with the whole of one’s life, as a gear is ‘invisible’ when synchronized with the whole of a working machine. One can notice a gear as one can notice a nice rug, and this is not problematic as long as this act of acknowledgment doesn’t infringe upon the synchronization or operation of the whole. However, when the machine doesn’t work, so the synchronization stops and the gear becomes ‘visible’ in the sense that it ‘stands out’ as a thing independent of the other things with which it works in relation. Likewise, material things become ‘visible’ to a person when that person’s life ceases to be unified into a synchronized whole, a unification which only ‘purpose’ can bring about. Considering this, one is materialistic to the degree that his or her relation to material things results in the de-synchronization of that individual’s whole life, which occurs when things detract from that person’s realization of his or her purpose. Without purpose, materialism is unavoidable.

I

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A doorknob is not literally invisible, but it is usually phenomenologically ‘invisible’ to humans as they go about their everyday lives. The same can be said about most things. This doesn’t mean people aren’t thankful for doorknobs or that they don’t notice that a particular doorknob is particularly unique, but that most things in life only stand out to people when those things grab their focus. It is when a doorknob breaks that humans tend to focus on it: we don’t tend to do so beforehand. That said, when a doorknob isn’t part of a door, we notice it, but when a doorknob is part of a door, it’s only when it fails to do what we suppose it do that it stands out to us. When a doorknob that isn’t part of some synchronized whole comes before our vision however, it is necessarily ‘visible’ to us, as material things are necessarily ‘visible’ when one lacks purpose.

‘Materialism’ is a mode of engagement with material things. It’s not so much ‘what’ or ‘how many’ things people engage with that is the problem, but the way in which they engage with those things. To be materialistic is be constantly and consciously aware of the fact that you have hands, per se. Hands are important, and to not spend all one’s time talking or thinking about hands doesn’t mean the person wouldn’t mind if they were chopped off. One’s thankfulness for hands is embodied through that’s person use of them, as one’s appreciation of material goods is enacted through that person’s use of them ‘toward’ his or her purpose. This isn’t to say one can never say ‘I’m glad I have hands’, but that one shouldn’t spend all his or her time absorbed in the fact that he or she is glad for them: such a person is like the centipede that ends up paralyzed upon trying to figure out how he uses all his legs simultaneously.

A person can most certainly say ‘I love my new rug’, but a person should check his or her motives if every time someone comes by the person talks about the rug. Likewise, a person should check his or her motivations when that person thinks ‘I have a better rug’ or even ‘I have a good rug’ versus ‘I like my rug’ or ‘I am grateful for my rug’: materialism easily slips in through hierarchical thinking (which one must always be weary of). This isn’t to say there isn’t such a thing as ‘better’ rugs, or that one can never assess that his or her material things are better than others ‘in fact’, only that conscious or continuous hieratical thought can lead to pride. Furthermore, one can only assess something as ‘better’ if there is a standard by which to compare the thing to, and only one with purpose has such a standard. The one with purpose is the one who is equipped to avoid materialism, as such a person has a standard by which to determine what constitutes ‘better’ by assessing what does or doesn’t help achieve his or her purpose. Without purpose, one cannot determine how and in what way something is better than by materialistic, subjective, individual, and ultimately arbitrary standards. Since purpose is individual, so too is what constitutes ‘better’: it can only be said what is ‘better’ ‘to me’, never ‘for all’, and only ‘to most’ when there is an agreed upon standard to which ‘most’ assent.

II

When it comes to purchasing goods, for example, a person should decide to make the purchase which, upon making, the purchased good will become ‘invisible’ to the purchaser (though a purchaser can only make this hypothesis, and so estimate what will or will not synchronize with it, to the degree he or she is familiar with his or her purpose). Consequently, in being ‘invisible’, the good will not be a focus of the purchaser or de-synchronize the purchaser’s life. If a person buys an expensive rug and, consequently, won’t think about wanting a nicer rug, the person should buy the more expensive rug. If, however, a person will over-think about how nice his or her rug is, the person should buy the cheaper one. Whichever item will not de-synchronize the person is the item which that person should purchase; whether or not a purchase should be made in the first place is up to the purchaser.

The one who lives in the cheapest house is not necessarily the least materialistic if that person thinks about being un-materialistic: thriftiness can de-synchronize as can wealth. If one tries to buy the cheaper coffee and is consequently unhappy about the coffee he or she is drinking, it would have been better for that person to have spent more and purchased the finer coffee. Only a given person can know which purchases will be ‘invisible’ to that person, and so only that person can ultimately make such decisions for his or her self.

To live free of materialism is to live in relation to all material goods as incarnations of your reason for living. These goods are ‘invisible’ because they are in the right order (or ‘synchronized’ with one’s purpose) and do not impede it, as a doorknob that works doesn’t get in the way of a person’s objective to open a door. When material goods are ‘visible’ and overly capture the gaze or focus of an observer, they can distract that observer from his or her reason for living. Consequently, like a doorknob that doesn’t work, the person is ‘broken’, as are all people that live in relation to material goods in such a way that disorients them from why they are alive.

That said, the one who has defined his or her purpose as ‘being a rug-maker’ is not materialistic to focus on rugs, while the one who has a different purpose (such as being a writer) is materialistic to focus on rugs. Someone without a purpose cannot be said to fall victim to such ‘distraction’ — having no purpose to be distracted relative to — and yet that person is necessarily materialistic, for there are only material goods to be ‘toward’ (it’s the worst kind of materialism arguably, for the materialism itself is ‘invisible’, lacking reference points). Still, only a given person can assess when he or she has become materialistic: no one else can judge.

A person can have multiples purposes (such as ‘loving others’, ‘being a businessman’, and ‘loving art’), and while one decision may not be ‘toward’ one of these purposes, it may be ‘toward’ the other. As only a given person can access whether a given purpose is valid and know what diverts from it, only a given person can know when he or she is living ‘purposefully’ and so ‘non-materialistically’: the complexity for making that assessment is far too great for anyone other than the person in question.

The standard by which a person should make decisions is relative to that person’s purpose. Without purpose, one can only make decisions via preferences, instincts, etc., but without purpose for these preferences, instincts, etc., to be ‘toward’, preferences must more so arise out of material and subjective reality, and so be more materialistic. Yes, purpose can emerge in response to materiality, but is more so ‘over’ materiality, unifying it, then simply ‘at’ it and a single part. In being more materialistic, preferences must be a contingent and temporary standard for decision making, but this standard is ultimately arbitrary and conditional: it cannot, objectively, be called a standard. This isn’t to say that it is wrong to have preferences, but that preferences that aren’t grounded in purpose are arbitrary (which has existential effects on the chooser, even though ‘arbitrary’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘insignificant’ or ‘irrelevant’). They are subjective and unreliable, and though they can be used for making decisions, they cannot be said to be used for ‘reliable’ or ‘meaningful’ discernment.

One should work the job, for example, that will be ‘invisible’ to that person and that won’t get in the way of that person’s purpose (unless that job is that person’s purpose). When it comes to the question of where a person should live, what a person should buy, etc., the standard of judgment is the same: ‘what decision will not infringe upon my purpose?’, meaning ‘what decision will best result in material reality embodying or ‘pointing toward’ my purpose?’. If buying a television will result in a person having a way to relax which will help that person recharge but won’t at the same time make the person’s spouse feel neglected, the person should buy a television. If living in New York will result in a person being unable to focus on his or her artistic passion, the person should live elsewhere. Only the person making the decision can know.

III

A person’s purpose is a person’s reason for being alive, and a person can have many of them. One could call daily or micro-purposes ‘goals’ or ‘tasks’, while one’s overarching reason for living is their purpose (from this point on, the paper will hold this distinction). One’s purpose might be ‘to be a writer’ and goals within this purpose may entail ‘reading a book’ or ‘going to a coffee house’. At the same time, this person could also have the purpose of ‘being a mother’ and within this category have goals like ‘taking children to school’ or ‘making children feel loved’. Only that person can know.

A person can have goals without purpose: one can have the goal of ‘reading a book today’ but no purpose to which the goal is ‘toward’. Goals without purpose are like preferences without purpose: they must arise more so out of material reality (and so be materialistic). In being materialistic, such goals are ultimately contingent, temporary, arbitrary, and ultimately fail to unify life into a synchronized whole. Purpose though unifies goals into something beyond themselves and does so into (and until) death.

Though Heidegger is right that death unifies life into a whole of ‘life’ conceptually, without purpose, this unification is ultimately empty and arbitrary. Such a life is like preferences without purpose: it must be materialistic. Life requires purpose to synchronize, and though death can unify life into a whole, it cannot alone orientate us ‘toward’ what we should do with that whole. Death only makes us aware that we have something that we can do something with, while purpose makes us aware of what to do. An awareness of death without an awareness of purpose makes us aware that we have something we fail to use: it may make our anxiety worse. To never think of life as a whole may be better than to do so without a purpose (which makes that whole substantive).

Often, a person starts with a general purpose (like ‘being a good doctor’), which then is narrowed into something more specific and particular (like ‘being a good neuroscientist in Philadelphia’). As one’s purpose is honed and refined, so too is one’s discernment and so more clearly can a person distinguish when he or she is being wise or materialistic. Like a child who lacks full facilities, a person who lacks purpose can only be held but so responsible for being materialistic before he or she has (more) fully realized his or her purpose. However, a person is in control of whether he or she at least pursues having a general purpose out from which a particular purpose can be found, and to the degree a person consciously chooses not to do so is the degree to which that person is responsible for being materialistic (to allude to thought expounded on in “On Responsibility” by O.G. Rose). However, only a given person can know for his or her self the degree to which he or she is responsible: no one else can judge.

All that said, as self-consciousness can infringe upon one’s harmony of self by causing anxiety, being overly aware of the importance of purpose can result in a person failing to live purposefully and can ‘break’ and de-synchronize a person just as much as can materialism. Likewise, as discussed in “Paradoxes of Awareness” by O.G. Rose, if one is overly aware of how decisions facilitate purpose, that person will be like the centipede that is immobilized because it wonders too much about how it manages to simultaneously use all its legs. To have purpose is to risk making this mistake, and only a given person can know if he or she is maintaining the proper balance. However, to not have purpose is to necessarily be materialistic and de-synchronized: the risk must be taken.

Being overly ‘purpose aware’ is an unavoidable risk. Yet, even if this mistake is made, so long as a person doesn’t give up, the person will never fail. A person never fails until he or she quits, for until then, the person continues to unify all experiences ‘toward’ the same purpose. The person hence continues to be a ‘working machine’, per se. Until a person ‘breaks down’, a person doesn’t fail, for there is no standard against which a person can be said to fail other than against the purpose that person has discovered and/or created. Until a person gives up that purpose, it cannot meaningfully be said that the person has given up success. Success is still possible, for success is still being worked toward.

IV

Purpose unifies. In being transcendent of material reality, it can unify materials into ‘something beyond’ themselves. As the whole of a machine, in being transcendent of its parts, can unify its parts, so purpose, in being transcendent of material things, can unify them within a given person. Furthermore, as parts of a machine cannot work together and so become ‘invisible’ without a whole, so material goods cannot become ‘invisible’ without a purpose. As the whole of a machine, in being transcendent of its parts, can unify them, so purpose, in being transcendent of material things, can unify them within a given person. Furthermore, as parts of a machine cannot work together and so become ‘invisible’ without a whole, so material goods cannot become ‘invisible’ without a purpose.

This paper is not a supporter of Utilitarianism (as popularly understood): perhaps a person can impose upon his or herself a sort of ‘Purpose Utilitarianism’, but what constitutes that cannot be boiled down to what is commonly considered ‘useful’ or ‘practical’. A purpose of life is to love it, and ‘loving life’ entails, for most, appreciating beauty, seeking truth for truth’s sake, and embracing goodness as an end in itself. The one who fails to visit art galleries is then, relative to life as many value it, failing to be practical, though the businessman may consider exploring art ‘impractical’. Furthermore, for the homemaker, the beauty of a rug is as vital to the rug’s utility as is how effectively it covers the floor, for the beauty of the rug functions to create a homely and welcoming environment (which is the ‘end’ for which the rug was purchased). Considering all this, what is ‘practical’ and ‘useful’ is relative, and an artist can, in a sense, be a ‘Utilitarian’ for visiting art galleries just as much as the businessman can be a ‘Utilitarian’ for learning accounting.

As this paper isn’t Utilitarian, it isn’t Gnostic either. Material reality is valuable in and of itself, not simply to the degree that people have purpose. The world matters whether or not people realize it, and the value of the world isn’t at the mercy of people’s capacity to purpose it. However, whether or not the world matters to a given person is dependent on that person. Though the world itself matters (for there would be no life without it), without purpose, a person doesn’t have the eyes to see that value or a keystone with which to translate it into something comprehensible. To say ‘people give the world purpose’ is to say ‘people give their world purpose’, and their world lies over the world like a painting brushed harmoniously over another. Things in the world to the purposeful become symbols that ‘point to’ purpose, multiplying the innate value of material reality. Considering this, to be materialistic, in failing to realize the full potentiality of materiality, is to focus on material things at their expense.

V

Purpose is a person’s standard of decision making, and before it, all things will be ‘invisible’. The one who isn’t materialistic isn’t the one with the least things or the one who disregards all expensive things, but the one who uses and engages with things in synchronization, in the same way one engages with a doorknob that works. Without purpose though, life fails to be a meaningful whole of ‘life’, and the world is a collection of fragments, of un-unified things. Materialism hence becomes unavoidable, the synchronization of phenomena impossible, and all decision making rendered aimless.

In breaking down the synchronization of life, a person breaks down the wholeness of ‘life’ into ‘visible’ fragments. Consequently, lacking purpose, the observer relates to material thing arbitrarily, as material things relate to one another arbitrarily relative to that observer. Ironically, it is hence the materialistic person who, in causing this de-synchronization, fails to make the most of their material reality. Like a person abstracted by digitization, in failing to have purpose, a person abstracts his or her self from full physicality and full embodiment. In this sense, the materialistic person isn’t materialistic at all, but anti-materialistic.

As one sees the sunrise looking out over the mountains on the horizon, so one looks ‘toward’ their purpose over material things, and as one without purpose must look upon the things of life, without the sun, one must look out upon the things below the horizon. As the sun illuminates the world, so purpose illuminates, and though the world still exists when the sun sets, it cannot be seen, as one cannot fully see the world and its meaning without realizing a purpose for their self. And as the sun unifies what is under its light into day, so purpose unifies the things of life into a synchronized whole. Without purpose, we are all unavoidably stuck in materialism, as without the sun we are unavoidably stuck in darkness.

Purpose illuminates our lives.

Purpose unifies us together.

~

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