Autism spectrum/A few impertinent questions/What would define economic theories as materialistic or non-materialistic?

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Question 26

My secret fantasy had always been to travel around the world in a sailboat. Personal accounts by such sailors were my favorite reading, and I also escaped into my own imaginary adventures. A picture of my boat, cut from a sailing magazine, made my journey over the oceans seem real and exciting. Actually, sitting alone in a sailboat day after day would probably be uncomfortable and boring as hell, but physical discomfort is easily endured in a fantasy. I found books in the library describing the places I imagined visiting. I planned meals in detail, and imagined sitting out on deck eating them. Making lists of provisions, and plotting my course between exotic islands created compelling make-believe.

Ike and I once took the children and some of their friends for a two-week houseboat vacation on Lake Shasta. “Let’s pretend we are sailing around the world instead of around a lake,” I suggested. The houseboat rental company sent us a big map of the lake. I traced it, renaming campsites Patagonia, Ceylon and Zanzibar. Warnings of fantastic dangers, such as pirates, head-hunters, wars and mythical beasts covered my map. I tacked it up on the bulkhead of the houseboat, and all of us except Tony amused ourselves by pretending we were visiting such exotic places, instead of Eel River Camp or Pine Flat. The houseboat broke down in "Bora Bora". The children paddled their inner tubes to "Australia" for help, evading "Fiji cannibals" along the way. When the vacation was over I suggested we leave our map on the boat for someone else to enjoy. The children were at an age where they didn't appreciate being considered different. Perhaps having Tony for a brother bothered them a little, after all. Embarrassed that someone outside the family might learn about Mother's extravagant imagination, they indignantly took down my map.

However that was ten years ago, and Guy and Sherry were no longer embarrassed by my imagination. They expressed interested approval when I announced I was leaving to travel around the world. (By more conventional means than by sailboat, I hastened to add.) Tony's destructiveness had convinced me of the unimportance of possessions, and I didn't have much of value. Giving up my apartment, I stored a couple of boxes of personal belongings in a friend's basement. By not paying rent at home, living in foreign countries shouldn't be more expensive than living in California. My Army pension could go directly to my checking account, and an American Express card allowed me to obtain cash in most countries of the world.

I had already discovered lone travelers do face one danger: a debilitating feeling of isolation. Always self-sufficient, my need for a certain amount of social interaction had surprised me. A few years earlier, during my first trip to Europe (while Tony was at summer camp), I'd found I wasn't having as much fun as I had expected. Here I was doing what I'd always dreamed of, traveling the world, but instead of having fun, I was miserable. Physically, I was fine. I felt no pain anywhere. I just seemed incapable of enjoying myself. I took a day cruise in the Balearic Islands. The other tourists on the boat were French, Spanish and Italian. I was aware of people glancing uncertainly at me, the only person not speaking to anyone. Probably no one knew which language to use. Ordinarily I'd have been delighted to attempt all three, but in my despondent perversity I refused to utter a word. I had become so isolated that I spurned friendly overtures. I could understand feeling miserable in response to a tragic event, but there was no reason for the distress I was feeling. I must be suffering from -- well -- from depression! Naturally cheerful, I'd always considered myself immune from that strange malady, but this must be what it felt like, I decided. I aborted my vacation and bought a plane ticket back to California.

At home in familiar surroundings, I tried to understand what had happened to me. I had always thought of myself as self-reliant. I would never have guessed that isolation from friends and family could cause such a devastating feeling. It was true that I had blithely sailed off to Alaska when I was in my early twenties. But I had apparently changed since then. Thirty years of family life must have left me with a need for intimacy and a lack of practice approaching strangers. I decided I'd have to learn how to initiate conversation if I wanted to travel. I determinedly tried another trip. I'd probably never be talented at sophisticated, cocktail-party chatter, but I did force myself to learn to approach strangers and to interact on a personal level. The solution seemed to be trying for meaningful conversation, rather than attempting to indulge in social talk. I also discovered that inviting someone to express their opinion always seems to produce an enthusiastic response. "What do you consider the most serious problem in your country?" or "How do you view your society as differing from American society?" were questions I learned to ask in order to get the ball rolling. Once on a cruise in the South Pacific, my dinner companions announced on the first evening, "We don't discuss religion, politics or anything controversial. If there were nothing controversial about a topic, I wondered what there would there be to discuss? I suspected I would be unable to contribute much to the dinner conversation on that cruise, and I'd have to get my social interaction from other people on the ship. I don't scoff at people with the ability to indulge in chit-chat. I truly enjoy and envy people who come up with entertaining comments about nothing important. Many people don't just come up with one amusing remark, but are able to think of one after another for hours upon end. I struggle to participate, but social chatter is just not one of my skills. Clever retorts always come to my mind a week later. However by the time I started around the world, I'd discovered that most travelers are quite willing to engage in all sorts of dialogue, and don’t fear controversies - so long as you make it clear that you sincerely respect their right to disagree. One wouldn't think of starting a philosophical discussion with someone in the supermarket, check-out line at home, but for some reason such conversations seem unremarkable with people you'll probably never see again.

I couldn't deny a feeling of apprehension as I boarded that first plane for Hong Kong, but this was to be the great adventure of my life, and my excitement outweighed any trepidations. At my first stop, Hong Kong, I spent one night in an expensive, first class hotel. Such hotels always have available rooms, I'd discovered, but price is not the only reason to avoid them. Guests in first class accommodations are less likely to talk to strangers. Conversations with people traveling on-the-cheap come easier. Many such travelers are young and curious. Those older travelers staying in third class hotels often seem to retain some of that youthful curiosity and openness. The next day I rented a room at the Kowloon YMCA, across the street from the Star Ferry. There I found adventurous, approachable people from all over the world. Evenings we drank tea in the “tea garden” on the roof and watched the lights of Hong Kong across Victoria Harbor. Sailboats, fishing boats, freighters, barges, junks, san pans, ferries and hydrofoils scurried about, miraculously avoiding collisions.

A local tour seemed a prudent way for a lone woman to experience local night life, and Hong-Kong-by-Night included dinner at a floating restaurant and a nightclub performance of Chinese opera. My companions were French and Portuguese tourists, and I practiced talking French with them. When struggling with a foreign language, comprehension is all anyone expects, and what you say doesn't have to be clever or entertaining. The Chinese tour guide spoke only English, with a very proper British accent. He explained that most residents of Hong Kong were proud to be British colonials, with no desire for independence. New construction was everywhere, and our guide expressed a veritable reverence for private enterprise. China was scheduled to regain the colony in 1997, when a ninety-nine-year lease with England would expire. "Private enterprise has spent millions in Hong Kong, and China wouldn't dare retake it," the guide assured us. He was also confident China would not develop tourist facilities for many years. "How could they accomplish such a thing without free-market capitalism?"

Traveling the world (photo)[1]

I had become hard of hearing and used a hearing device to carry on a conversation. It also helped my social interaction. Few people could ignore a hard-of-hearing lady pointing a microphone at them.

  • -*-*

One day I boarded a municipal bus for the northern mainland area of Hong Kong. We passed through towns, their narrow streets lined with tall apartment buildings. People seemed to all do their laundry on the same day. Clothes dryers were not yet common, and long poles stuck out from each window, filling the sky with drying clothes. Hundreds of identically dressed children were on their way to school. Their uniform included a gleaming white shirt, a necktie and a jacket with a school emblem on the pocket. They looked very British. I enjoyed the temples and other sights, but was also eager for something more than the usual tourist experience. At lunch time I got off the bus to look for a real Chinese restaurant, one where only Chinese ate. The restaurant I chose was enormous and full of noisy patrons. A waiter, threading a way through the tightly packed chairs and big round tables, found a place for me at a table with seven other people. The appearance of a Western woman caused them to stop talking for about three minutes. Then they resumed their noisy babble. The waiter didn't speak English, so I pointed to something on the menu. My food, when it arrived, looked strange and wasn't very tasteful. The din of Chinese voices rang in my ears. Across the table a woman was holding a baby with Dienstag, German for Tuesday, embroidered on its bib. The baby was chewing on a big gray chicken claw. As the only Westerner in the room, I must have looked conspicuous, but the Chinese were too polite to stare. They continued laughing, talking and eating. I began to experience an unpleasant sensation of feeling invisible in that huge room of noisy Chinese. I waved for the waiter and gave him some money. Dumping the change in my purse, I left.

I got on the bus to return to Kowloon. A good-looking, blond young man sat down next to me. He wore a coat and tie, and his hair was short and neatly combed. It had been years since I'd noticed an American kid looking so well-groomed. He must be a British resident, I speculated.

Then a warning bell went off in my head. I was feeling hesitant about initiating conversation with the boy. My experience in the restaurant had caused feelings of isolation, feelings I knew could grow. I realized I'd better start talking to someone soon, or my adventure might fail before I got much further. There were other vacant seats on the bus, and the boy wouldn’t have sat down next to me if he wasn’t willing to talk, I told myself.

"Are you visiting Hong Kong or are you a resident?" I finally made myself ask.

"A little of both," he answered with an American, Western drawl. He explained he was a Mormon missionary from Utah.

"Have you made many converts?"

"None," he replied with a laugh. "Some of these people are Buddhists and some practice a form of ancestor worship. Actually, most people in Hong Kong seem to worship money," he added wryly.

"I've noticed their reverence for laissez faire economics," I agreed with amusement.

Like most of the young people I met, he appeared eager for conversation and explained that most Mormon boys traditionally spend a year on a mission, often in a foreign country. After learning the language, he had spent his time visiting Chinese families to explain his religion. Most had listened with polite interest, and he became fluent in Chinese. Now it was almost time for the young missionary to return to the States.

"And then what are your plans?" I asked.

"I love living here," he said, "and would like to come back. Chinese is a difficult language, but I speak it quite well now. Maybe I'll go back to college and get a degree in business administration. I might get a job with some American company doing business here."

He was a delightful, intelligent young man, and I agreed he probably could. I doubt he realized one might claim he was "going native". He was apparently converting to "private enterprise", something he regarded as the religion of the people he'd been trying to proselytize.

  • -*-*

Freud, Marx and Darwin are sometimes cited as the materialists of the 20th century. I understand why trying to reduce human consciousness to Freud's ids, egos and superegos might be considered materialistic. Darwin's "random-mutation-and-natural-selection" is the only explanation of evolution I'd heard that eliminates all possibility of purposeful organization. But I am unsure what would so define an economic system. I read one book claiming any economic system based upon eternal growth is materialistic. Certainly a system requiring an ever increasing population to consume more, and more, and more, requiring more and more goods and services seems unrealistic, especially when we should be hoping that the populations of this earth would stabilize. Nevertheless Laissez Faire economics, with its emphasis upon self-interest, seems just as materialistic as either communism or socialism. Surely any attempt to reduce human behavior to mathematical formulas is a materialistic effort. Like other scientists, economists haven’t yet figured out that a process involving free-will can never be so simple. Anything in which creative human consciousness is involved will always produce unpredictable surprises.


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The original images may be found on this pdf copy of the book.

Current page: What would define economic theories as materialistic or non-materialistic?

  1. Wouldn’t volition be an essential aspect of creativity?
  2. Could an inherently creative universe, a living universe, ever be defined by mathematical formulas?
  3. How did the laws of nature originate?
  4. Are some scientific concepts too sacred to be debated?
  5. Are intelligence and creativity two separate and distinct processes?
  6. Are psychoanalytic theories profound? Or just convoluted?
  7. If purposeful creativity exists as an aspect of reality, why should we assume it is a process unique to human consciousness?
  8. Can the value of scientific knowledge ever justify enrolling people in research projects without their knowledge or consent?
  9. Exactly what technical knowledge enables psychiatrists to manipulate ids, egos and psyches?
  10. Should "normal" be equated with average?
  11. What technical knowledge enables psychologists to declare people emotionally abnormal?
  12. Are psychologists able to scientifically measure parental love? Or its lack?
  13. Is the universe, including life, an automatic, mechanical process, driven by nothing but the laws of physics and chemistry (the materialist position)? Or do other forces play a role, such as mind, consciousness, judgment and volition - most of which we presently have only have limited understanding?
  14. Should doctors and scientists refrain from expressing skepticism about theories of colleagues in other fields?
  15. Do people generally choose the challenges which force them to grow?
  16. How can we claim to scientifically manipulate thoughts and emotions if we don't even understand how such elusive phenomena relate to physical reality?
  17. What is faith? If belief that God organized the universe is a matter of faith, why isn't the materialist belief that the universe came together by some accidental, mechanical process also a matter of faith? (Or, the Buddhist belief in self-organization.)
  18. Are living creatures constantly evolving as they strive to grow and adapt? Or must evolutionary adaptations passively wait around for a random mutation to accidentally pop up in someone's genome?
  19. Should we have official committees to define scientific knowledge? Or is an ever-changing, constantly-challenged, general consensus our best way to keep our understanding of reality vibrant?
  20. Could lying on a couch and obsessing over a traumatic childhood ever be therapeutic?
  21. Would it even be possible to conduct a scientific study to determine whether psychological treatments are effective?
  22. What is racism?
  23. Does free-will exist?
  24. Would obsessing over a traumatic event ever cure any mental illness?
  25. Could a creative intelligence be an innate aspect of all Nature?
  26. What would define economic theories as materialistic or non-materialistic?
  27. Is intolerance often the result of personal insecurity?
  28. Consciousness and free-will may be defining characteristics of all life, but do we have much understanding of what they actually are?
  29. Can we do other people's growing for them?
  30. Are Western democracies civilization’s ultimate achievement?
  31. Which would produce the most psychologically stunted individuals? Being emotionally challenged? Or never encountering any challenges?
  32. Could the purpose of life be to participate in the growth of the universe?
  33. Can science investigate and attempt to describe a non-materialistic version of the universe?
Current page: What would define economic theories as materialistic or non-materialistic?
  1. The photos used by Berthajane can be found by linking a copy on the pdf file. Click "photo" to reach the appropriate page.