The Windowless Room

Peter Corney points out the cramped and impoverished world that the modern materialist lives in. Peter writes, speaks, mentors and consults on leadership for various organisations

Materialism as a philosophy or world view is now the dominant framework of the Western mind, the lens through which most people view and understand reality. Materialism is the idea that the only reality is a material or physical one, there is nothing beyond the physical, no supernatural or spiritual, nothing that transcends the material: only particles, spaces and energy. At the biological level everything is explicable by the process of natural selection and the physical neurological activity of the brain.

One of the wonders of the times in which we live is that every day, it seems, we are discovering more and more of how all this material world works. We sit fascinated as the Professor Brian Coxes of this world explain it all to us via brilliant BBC documentaries and expand our minds and knowledge. We gasp amazed as some new and marvellous medical breakthrough is announced on the news.

But at another level our understanding is impoverished, limited and entirely enclosed in this immanent world of the material. It’s as if, with the threat of rain, the roof of the Tennis Centre has slowly closed to the heavens as the game proceeded and we didn’t notice. Now we are shut off from the transcendent and enclosed in this immanent mental framework. Indeed if you listen carefully, that is the view of reality that the charming and erudite Professor Cox assumes. Charles Taylor in his writing on secularism claims that this closure to the transcendent is what is at the heart of contemporary secularism.

To change the metaphor, it’s as if we are locked in a windowless room which is brilliantly lit by the scientific method that enables us to see and explain more and more of our physical world but is paradoxically a profoundly reductionist space. It reduces and limits all explanations and descriptions to the material and physical. It has no windows onto wider and bigger explanations of reality. It provides no answers to our deepest and most important questions, like what the meaning and purpose of our lives is, how to understand right and wrong, the nature of justice, beauty, love, shame, guilt, honour, duty, evil and good, why we desire social and personal accountability. The list of enduring human questions it fails to deal with goes on!

The present prosperity of consumer Western culture and the distractions created by our technological mastery temporarily shield us from these deeper questions but they cannot be repressed for ever. The present crisis in the mental health of our young people—one in four in Australia are suffering some serious mental health issue—is a warning sign. The list of global problems grows daily and our present politics seems unable to solve them. It may be that the other wisdom that modernity has put aside for too long may be sought again. Let’s hope and pray that it may be so!