Living in an immaterial world

We think we live in a world of things: cars, dogs, trees, tables, salt shakers, cardboard boxes, underwear… the list is nearly inexhaustible. Every culture has its own words for each thing, and each thing has many sub-categories, right down to its molecular structure. So complete is the presentation of “thingness” that we call it material reality, leave it at that and move on with our lives.

In most respects, living this way works out; everyone has implicitly accepted our common view of “things.” The things you own belong to you, and others are not allowed to take them without your permission. This is because material things have “value,” both sentimental and financial. Yet, neither sentiment nor finance are material; the entire idea of “value” is itself immaterial, arising in the imaginary and symbolic realm of human thought. In this sense, our deep attachment to things means living in an immaterial world.

This is not to say that things themselves do not exist at all; I am indeed sitting on a chair at a table typing on a keyboard, though all these things depend upon consciousness to discriminate between them and give them names. But for the sake of this column, however, let’s accept that my butt is in a chair, a material reality. The value of my chair is less certain. I could trade it for any other thing, or even burn its wood in the fireplace; in the latter case, I could say my butt is resting on fireplace fuel and be completely accurate. Here we encounter that fuzzy area of value, and how the immaterial imagination is used to determine material reality. Mostly ignored and invisible in the workings of our daily lives, the immaterial world is the actual world in which we live.

Nowhere is this truth more obvious than in the realm of money. Once a physical token used to represent the value of things, money has mostly lost its physical quality, and progressively been reduced to mere digital information within computer mainframes. These immaterial bits of electronic information move between computers and speed around the globe in a swirling cloud of financial data upon which the credit worthiness of nations and individuals depend.

A vast network of accounting and verification methods keep track of what information is associated with what or whom, creating the persistent illusion that money is a material thing. But, it is not. Money, even in purely digital form remains a symbolic token of value only, and is empty of any actual material essence of its own. The great change in human culture is the way money itself is now treated as a thing, as if a part of material reality. The upshot of our vast reliance on this illusion is vulnerability to collapse; like the emperor with no clothes, the value of money exists only in our collective imagination and can disappear without a moment’s notice.

Each of us is born into a preexisting immaterial world of symbolic imagination dependent upon the common cultural beliefs and habits of our particular society. Though highly mutable, we treat this immaterial reality as if it will not suddenly change and are constantly caught short when it does. Ironically, knowing the truth of reality does not excuse us from participation with it, and ultimately, there is no escape from it, save one.