Materialism is the philosophical outlook that holds that matter is the fundamental substance of nature, and that all things, including mental states and consciousness, are a consequence of material interactions. Materialism is in direct contrast to idealism, which asserts ideas prevail over matter. Materialism has proven to be, through the instruments of science, the correct philosophical outlook.
The main principles of materialism can be formulated as such:
- The world is by its very nature material; everything which exists comes into being on the basis of material causes, arises and develops in accordance with the laws of motion of matter.
- Matter is objective reality existing outside and independent of the mind; everything mental or spiritual is a product of material processes.
- The world and its laws are knowable, and while much in the material world may not be known there is no unknowable sphere of reality which lies outside the material world.
Early materialist philosophy was developed independently in ancient India and Greece between 600–200 BCE. Early Indian materialism was expressed mainly through opposition to other schools of thought, such as Buddhism, Jainism and Vedic philosophies. Ajita Kesakambali, a contemporary of Buddha, is considered to be one of the first Indian materialist philosophers.
Both the early Indian and Greek materialists considered that four elements constituted the whole world, and that matter was primary, with consciousness merely a consequence of matter. Some of these early materialist philosophers also advocated that everything was made of tiny particles considered to be indivisible, and they were called "atomists."
Historical materialism, later developed by Karl Marx, is a conception of history that draws inspiration from materialism. It further explains scientific socialism, which is a method of achieving a communist society though the basis of altering the material conditions of society.
Materialism is the scientific outlook on the world because of its basis in science. As idealism, its contradiction, was born out of human ignorance (early human beings seeing phenomena without being able to explain them), materialism dispelled these myths with concrete, objective facts. We now know that volcanoes erupt because a layer of magma traps gases that form underneath, until the pressure builds up enough that the magma is pushed out violently. Yet in animist religions (which formed the basis of all religions), volcanoes are inhabited by spirits which explain why they sometimes erupt. Interestingly, Ancient Greeks and later the Romans theorized that volcano eruptions were the result of a physical or chemical process.
It is perhaps easier to understand materialism by understanding idealism. Idealists claim that matter is the result of our ideas, our senses... ultimately, our limited subjective experience of the world. A colour-blind person may say tree leaves are pink (tritanotopia type), yet the leaf has an objective, inherent colour outside of what we perceive it to be. We know that the person who sees tree leaves as pink is not merely experiencing the world their way, but lacks a certain cone in the eye that leads to colour vision deficiency.
Ultimately, materialism answers the question: Where do our ideas come from? Our ideas, as was refined by Marx, come from the material conditions that we live in. For example, while he is generally credited as inventing scientific socialism (though the term was coined by Engels), if Marx hadn't existed then another philosopher would have noticed the contradictions of capitalism and sought to understand the underlying mechanisms -- but only after having lived them. In the same way, it would be ludicrous to ask an Ancient Greek philosopher to imagine capitalism and then ask them to theorise socialism from there.
But how is it possible to have ideas in the first place, even if they are born out of our material reality? We can rephrase this as another question: where does our consciousness come from? Idealists used to say (until science proved them wrong) that consciousness comes from the soul, an immaterial object that exists in our body. Yet we know, through scientific experiments, that consciousness is the result of interactions in the brain.
Contradiction to idealism
Today, materialism and idealism live side-by-side in most of the world. However, there remain many contradictions between the two as they are fundamentally opposed.
Belief in the supernatural, for example, is a form of idealism. Ghosts have never been able to be studied scientifically (there is at most circumstantial evidence that often does not hold up to scrutiny) -- if ghosts existed, then there would have to be something in our body that allowed it to remain in the material reality after death (likely the soul), and science has never been able to find that object. The supernatural is an interesting example because many self-proclaimed ghost hunters now use scientific tools to try and prove their theories. This is in effect the merging of both materialism and idealism together, both of which are contradictory (and has not made them any closer to proving the existence of ghosts or the supernatural).
There is a third outlook that these people often take, which is agnosticism. Agnosticism is the belief that it is impossible to say whether idealism or materialism is the right outlook, and as such they either do not commit to one, or merge both in some way. Agnostics however are ultimately materialists, as they concede that matter is objective, not subjective, and exists in some way regardless of our personal experiences.
Idealism is ultimately in the service of capitalism and the bourgeoisie. Keeping idealism alive and thriving allows the bourgeoisie to justify imperialism by focusing not on material improvements (solving poverty, providing cheap housing, feeding populations, providing healthcare...) but rather pushing for nebulous, ill-defined ideas (freedom, the economy, a worldwide enemy...) -- with the implicit belief that by improving on these ideas will somehow improve material conditions (when we now understand that improving material conditions will improve the ideas).
- “The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of more recent philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being.
The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other [...] comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism.”
Friedrich Engels (1886). Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy: 'Materialism'.
- “Idealism is the way of interpreting things which regards the spiritual as prior to the material, whereas materialism regards the material as prior. Idealism supposes that everything material is dependent on and determined by something spiritual, whereas materialism recognizes that everything spiritual is dependent on and determined by something material. And this difference manifests itself both in general philosophical conceptions of the world as a whole, and in conceptions of particular things and events.”
Maurice Cornforth (1971). Materialism and the dialectical method (p. 20). New York: International Publishers.
- Maurice Cornforth (1971). Materialism and the dialectical method (pp. 24-25). New York: International Publishers.
- Benimadhab Barua (1921). A history of pre-Buddhistic Indian philosophy: 'Ajita Kesakambali' (pp. 287-296).
- “Unlike the other schools of Indian philosophy, the Carvakas resemble the early materialist tradition of philosophy in ancient Greece. Both the Pre-Socratic philosophers and the Carvakas started from the premise of four elements as constituting the whole world. Matter to them was primary; consciousness could not exist without a material substratum. The presence of God or gods was irrelevant to them. They intended to view the world in terms of nature in its various manifestations.”
Ramkrishna Bhattacharya (2010). Lokayata Darsana and a Comparative Study with Greek Materialism. Materialism and Immaterialism in India and the West: Varying Vistas. New Delhi: Cārvāka 4 India.
- “The earlier materialists, too, sought for this. Behind all the changing appearances they looked for something which never changes. But while idealists looked for the eternal and change· less in the realm of spirit, these materialists looked for it in the material world itself. And they found it in the ultimate material particle-the eternal and indestructible atom.
For such materialists, then, all changes were produced by the movement and interaction of unchanging atoms.
This is a very ancient theory, put forward over two thousand years ago in Greece, and earlier still in India.”
Maurice Cornforth (1971). Materialism and the dialectical method (p. 30). New York: International Publishers.