The Meaning of Materialism

Keith Ward on Materialism, 14     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13

But this hypothesis begins to touch the raw nerve and the emotional powerhouse of materialism. What really drives much materialist philosophy is rage at the injustice and indifference of the universe. Things happen to people by chance; the innocent suffer and the evil flourish. There is too much suffering and pain in the universe for it to be designed by any half-way benevolent being. Better, then, to postulate unconscious laws operating without benevolent purpose, than to think of there being a great intelligence that has intentionally planned such pain and pointlessness.

Having dismissed the theoretical arguments for materialism, Ward now turns to its real causes and underlying motivation. Theory remains, however, in that Ward focuses here on the argument of materialists against the “great intelligence” based on evil and suffering rather than on the question of the existence of matter as conceived by classical materialism, on which I have focused in my comments. This is partly because materialism for Ward means primarily the rejection of the position that reality is ultimately spiritual, even though that position may also accept that there is such a thing as matter as conceived by classical materialism. The latter position belongs to Ward’s broad category of idealism: any position that accepts the ultimacy of spirit is idealism, regardless of whether or not it accepts non-ultimate classical-materialist matter.

I prefer to define idealism more narrowly, as excluding also non-ultimate classical-materialist matter. I would also make a distinction beteween on the one hand materialism, the affirmation of classical materialist matter and the concomitant rejection of ultimate spiritual reality or even any spiritual reality, and on the other what could perhaps be called “matterism”, the mere affirmation of classical-materialist matter as such or of any matter which shares at least some of the characteristics of classical-materialist matter, regardless of the position with regard to ultimate spirituality.

Of course, “matterism” is not a very felicitous term. First of all, it of course seems to signify precisely the same thing as “materialism”. But what I intend it to mean is simply the affirmation of the existence of matter in any form that is incompatible with the kind of idealism I try to defend – which, I add, does not include the classical idealist concept of matter, which is quite different from the classical materialist one. It would be better to speak of this not as an “ism”, and instead only of materialism as an “ism” that takes such affirmation so far as to assert such matter as the ultimately and perhaps exclusively real, analogously to the moralist who takes morality to the extremes of moralism, for instance.

But it is inconvenient to have to repeat “the affirmation of the existence of matter in any form that is incompatible with the kind of realism I try to defend” each time this is referred to. A separate term signifying this is needed in order to avoid it, as well as avoiding the loose usage of “materialism” about any affirmation of the reality of matter regardless of the larger philosophical context. And it is impossible not least in philosophy to take consistently the position that all “isms” are extreme exaggerations: “ism”-words must be used for all kinds of positions that are not of this kind at all. Thus matterism in itself is not an extreme and unusual position like materialism. It is compatible with Ward’s broadly defined idealism, which is not extreme either. Idealism more narrowly defined may be less common and is certainly viewed as extreme by many who have not studied it deeply yet are certainly not materialists. But positions that from some perspectives appear extreme cannot of course for that reason be rejected in philosophy. This holds for materialism too. Its extremism and unusualness in the perspective of the history of philosophy as well as contemporary philosophy which Ward has discussed is not, as Ward is of course aware, in itself a sufficient argument against it. For these reasons, “matterism” might perhaps be an admissible and useful term in discussions like this one. But other and better suggestions are welcome.

The argument against the “great intelligence”, the being that in view of experienced evil and suffering is perceived as having to be merely “half-way benovolent”, remains, as I said, theoretical. But it is non-theoretical and based on the motives Ward is here beginning to describe and analyse inasmuch as it implies the affirmation of materialism in the sense of the position that what exists instead of that intelligence is matter. Even though the ultimate spiritual reality is rejected on the basis of experienced evil and suffering, it cannot be rejected unless something else takes it metaphysical place, i.e. without something else being made ultimate.

Thus something like classical-materialist matter is commonly brought in despite the weaknesses of the distinct arguments in favour of it as such, probably because the position resulting from the simultaneous rejection of ultimate spirituality and classical-materialist matter would still seem to resemble too much some other kind of idealism. The “unconscious laws” mentioned by Ward must be the laws of classical-materialist matter. But in view of the theoretical difficulties of such materialism, this affirmation cannot be accounted for except by the emotional factors involved, alongside the theoretical argument from evil, in the rejection of ultimate spirituality.

These are entirely serious points. If the universe is morally unjust and indifferent to suffering, that counts strongly against the existence of a just and compassionate God. But perhaps part of the trouble is that we think of a cosmic mind as able and wanting to avoid all suffering, and as immediately and directly rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. For a moment, set such an overtly religious but basically naïve picture to one side, and think just of a consciousness that conceives all possibilities and generates a universe directed to evolving other intelligent information-processing intelligences.

As we have already seen, Ward thinks in terms of Christian or Biblical creation, and we have also seen that although he certainly rejects “matterism” as the affirmation of classical-materialist matter, he  accepts as congruent with his broader idealism (i.e., in his case, the affirmation of God as ultiamte spirituality) some other form of matter more compatible with contemporary physics. Although it is unclear what that matter is, not least as Ward himself, as I have pointed out, adduces arguments which would seem to be in favour of the rejection of any and all matterism, it is necessary to stress that matterism should be defined as including also the affirmation of modified, contemporary versions of matter which still retain some of the metaphysical characteristics of classical-materialist matter that are relevant here.

Because of his acceptance of such non-ultimate and modified matter, Ward speaks of a generation and evolution of “other intelligent information-processing intelligences” which involves and presupposes that alternative matter. This is a very different idealist position from the one I defend. The broader idealism is hampered by the religious image-thinking of exoteric Biblical theology, notwithstanding the expression of the latter in terms of evolution.

But what we are concerned with here is the analysis of materialism, and although the difference has to be pointed out for the sake of clarity, it is less important than the specific arguments Ward presents for the purposes of that particular analysis, arguments which are of importance for idealism in general, including the one I try to defend. My point about materialism and matterism, or the proper meaning of materialism, is a minor one in this connection.

Ward is moving on here to the important analysis of what “really drives” materialism as the affirmation of matter, classical-materialist or modified, as ultimate or even exclusive. And this turns out to be the theoretical arguments for the rejection of spirit or God as ultimate that are not the specific theoretical arguments for materialism themselves, and that, as Ward will show and signals by his use of the words “raw nerve”, “emotional powerhouse”, and “rage”, are almost always combined with distinctly non-theoretical motives.

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All original writing and photography © Jan Olof Bengtsson

"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi