The New Mindscape
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The New Mindscape

Would you enjoy a materialist dinner?

Don’t fall into the dualist trap.

The New Mindscape #A3–1 and #A3–2

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The dominant Operating System in the world today is based on materialism.

Materialism is a pervasive ideology in modern societies. It’s a belief system that underpins both capitalism and socialism.

Because it’s embedded into the Operating System, it programs many of the choices we make in our lives, both individually and collectively.

There are many refined philosophies of materialism, but, in practice, they boil down to a simple set of beliefs.

The core belief of materialism is that the only true existence is material existence — the only thing that matters is the reality “out there” — not what is in your mind.

Since our mind, our body, and our life are completely dependent on that material reality out there, that’s what our minds should be focused on. Anything else is subjective fantasy.

Subjective fantasy, emotions, feelings, and ideals might make you feel good, but they’re not true.

A few propositions are often derived from this core belief:

1. The only purpose of life is material survival.

2. Since material reality is the only reality, it’s what is most important in the world. Therefore, what we should value the most is the accumulation of material wealth and power.

3. The measure of social progress or development is rising levels of material consumption, production, efficiency, productivity, and profitability.

4. Everything else is secondary and, if necessary, it needs to be sacrificed to the goals of material development.

5. The essence of human beings is material, and the basic human drive is to compete for survival and power. All human relations boil down to competition and struggle.

Crowd cheering a US dollar bill

Associated with materialism is the concept of instrumental rationality. This is a type of rationality that focuses on the most efficient or cost-effective material means to achieve a specific end, but without reflecting on the value of that end.

Industrial efficiency is a product of instrumental rationality. Living beings, whether animals or humans, are turned into instruments for efficient processes of material productivity.

Instrumental rationality focuses human reason on the “how”, which can be materially observed and measured. You don’t ask the question of the ultimate purpose or value of this process, because that’s an immaterial, moral or spiritual question. Those questions have no objective, material answers. Therefore, just focus on the material goal and get it done in the most efficient way possible.

You can visualise instrumental rationality in the film Baraka, which takes the viewer on an imaginative journey, as a way to think about the outer expression of different mindscapes. Baraka is a non-narrative film directed by Ron Fricke in 1992. The film has no plot, no storyline, no actors, no dialogue nor voice-over. The film uses footage of landscapes, religious ceremonies, teeming urban life, and the desolation of war to evoke a reflection on the meaning of life, beauty, nature, humanity, and spirituality.

One of the most memorable scenes in the film shows images of baby chicks being processed on an industrial conveyor belt, sorting out the male chicks for elimination, juxtaposed with images of crowds of harried commuters rushing like a sea of zombies in commuter train stations. As one of my students once commented, “human beings are compared to chickens on a conveyor belt, both of whom carry a confused look upon the future and life itself.” Like the chickens, we are “squashed together but separated.”

Another student wrote: “Especially compared with the newborn chicks moved by the machine, it stimulated me to think of our purpose living in the world. Are we just growing, eating, sleeping, earning money, and playing until we die? Maybe most people haven’t thought of why they are alive, living in the world. But I think all of us have a dream. Although we don’t know what we are living for, I suppose all of us have a dream and a purpose that we are fighting for, that will be the reason that I live.”

This dream is an expression of your spirituality, and it is usually out of such questions that spirituality arises. This dream is a product of your imagination. It’s an object of consciousness that, when you nurture and empower it, gives you the power to strive for something beyond yourself.

At this point in the discussion, somebody always says, yes, but we need material survival! We need to work on our material development! That’s what matters! Let’s deal with that first. Later, we can think about spiritual imaginations and dreams.

An important part of the materialist operating system is its dualism.

First, it makes a dichotomy between the spiritual and the material.

Then, it separates the spiritual out of the material.

Third, it says that the material part is true and important, and the spiritual part is false or unimportant.

Fourth, it designs life so that all procedures are based on the material part: material production, material measurement, material consumption, material wealth. Once all those procedures are efficiently established, you can indulge in spiritual fantasies in your free time, to de-stress yourself.

But can the material and spiritual dimensions be separated in this way?

Once a friend told me, “I’ll deal with material issues first, and spiritual issues later”.

Since he liked cooking good food, I asked him, imagine that you want to host a great banquet for your family and friends, in which everybody is going to enjoy delicious food, and enjoy their company together, and have a wonderful time. Which is the best way to prepare for the banquet?

(1) I need huge amounts of rice, and huge amounts of pork. The more the better. First I’ll buy enormous amounts of rice and pork: mountains of rice and pork. I’ll think about how to cook it later. My friends will be impressed by all the rice and pork. And I’ll make sure there’s more rice and pork at my meal than any other meal they’ve been to.


(2) Let me first imagine how the banquet should go. What kind of environment should it be? What dishes do I want to cook? How do the dishes fit together to combine many delicious flavours? What kinds of dishes do my friends enjoy? What kind of atmosphere do I want to create? How can I make sure that everybody’s going to have a happy time and feel their friendship? Actually, my friends like a modest and intimate meal. So let me see, these are the things I’m going to buy at the supermarket…

In case (2), I first imagine the ideal scenario. Qualities such as “a harmonious combination”, “friendship”, “happiness”, “modest and intimate” are not material. In a pure sense, they are spiritual qualities. So I start with the spiritual imagination, and think about how to convert it into a material reality. But there’s no dichotomy between the spiritual and the material: I don’t only dream about the perfect banquet: I dream it, and then I do what needs to be done to materialize it. I need material ingredients, and I need money to buy them. But the ingredients and the money aren’t the goal of the banquet!

Bowl of noodle soup

In case (1), I first accumulate material goods, and then I will think about how to use them. But all the rice and pork in the world won’t make a good banquet.

Our Operating System focuses on productivity, GDP growth, rankings, and so on… Doesn’t it treat all of us like in case (1)?

How could we treat our lives like in case (2)? How could we treat our society like in case (2)?

This essay and Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Curriculum Course , with the support of the research cluster of the .



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David A. Palmer

I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.