Philosophical Materialism

Richard C. Vitzhum

Richard C. Vi[This essay is from a lecture given to the Atheist Students Association at the University of Maryland, College Park, on November 14, 1996.]

Materialism is the oldest philosophical tradition in Western civilization. Originated by a series of pre-Socratic Greek philosophers in the 6th and 5th centuries before the Christian era, it reached its full classical form in the atomism of Democritus and Epicurus in the 4th century BCE. Epicurus argued that ultimate reality consisted of invisible and indivisible bits of free-falling matter called atoms randomly colliding in the void. It was on this atomic hypothesis that the Roman poet Lucretius wrote the first masterpiece of materialist literature around 50 BCE, the 7400-line philosophical poem De Rerum Natura, or, as it's usually translated, The Nature of Things.

Already in Lucretius' great poem we can see one of the hallmarks that distinguishes materialism from every other comprehensive philosophy produced by European civilization before the 20th century: its insistence on direct observation of nature and on explaining everything that happens in the world in terms of the laws of nature. In other words, from the beginning materialists have always based their theory on the best scientific evidence at hand, rather than on some putative "first philosophy" waiting to be discovered through abstract philosophical reasoning.

The tendency is clear in the second masterpiece of materialist literature, Baron Paul d'Holbach's anonymously published La Systeme de la Nature (The System of Nature), which appeared in France in 1770 and was promptly condemned by Louis 16th's government. This meant that the official state hangman was authorized to ferret out every copy of the book and have it literally cut to pieces on a beheading block. D'Holbach bases his mechanical determinism on Newtonian physics and Lockeian psychology, arguing that every event in nature, including all human thought and moral action, is the result of an inexorable chain of causation rooted in the flux of atomic motion. Like Lucretius, he insists there is no reality other than matter moving in space, as Newton theorized in his laws of motion and gravity. D'Holbach also attributes all thought to images impressed on the mind's tabula rasa, or blank slate, in wholly mechanical fashion according to these same laws of motion, as Locke had argued.

So too with the third pre-20th-century masterpiece of materialist literature, Ludwig Buechner's 1884 edition of Kraft und Stoff, translated Force and Matter, one of the most widely read and influential German books of the 19th century. Himself trained as a scientist, Buechner, like Lucretius and d'Holbach, saturated Force and Matter with the best science of his day, including cutting-edge theories and discoveries in physics, chemistry, geology, and biology, which of course incorporated Darwin's recently published theory of evolution.

Yet neither Lucretius, d'Holbach, nor Buechner claimed that materialist philosophy was an empirical science. They all realized it rested on assumptions that were ultimately metascientific, though never metaphysical in the Aristotelian sense. That is, the assumptions of materialism reached beyondempirical science, though never beyond physical reality. These metascientific assumptions were, first of all, that material or natural reality formed an unbroken material continuum that was eternal and infinite[1]. Nature had no beginning or end. It was an eternal, self-generating and self-sustaining material fact without any sort of barrier or limit zoning it off from a nonmaterial, non-physical, or supernatural type of being. The only foundational being there was, was material being, and some kind of natural substance underlay all visible phenomena. Lucretius called this endless fact of material being the "All," and with d'Holbach and Buechner concluded it lacked any plan or purpose and consisted of blindly opposing forces locked in an ultimately self-canceling, cosmic equipoise or gridlock.

Of course these assumptions implied, secondly, the lack of any governance or management of the universe by any sort of transcendental intelligence. From the start, materialism has been implicitly atheistic, though its atheistic implications were not fully spelled out before d'Holbach did so in hisSystem. Materialism has always viewed atheism merely as a necessary consequence of its premises, not as a philosophically important end in itself. Supernatural gods, spiritual deities, or immaterial moralizers could obviously not be taken seriously, or for that matter even imagined to exist, in the materialist hypothesis.

Thirdly and last, materialism has always assumed that life is wholly the product of natural processes. All human thought and feeling emerges from the nonliving, inorganic matrix of physical nature and ends at death. Lucretius believed that thoughts and feelings were literally made up of a film of very fine atoms that peeled away from objects and recombined in the brain. D'Holbach believed that thoughts and feelings were the end product of chains of physical causation rooted in atomic motion. Buechner believed that thoughts and feelings were electrical impulses somehow shaped by the human nervous system into coherent patterns. Moreover, though it's not widely known, Lucretius and d'Holbach both theorized that organic life evolved from inorganic matter, though it was not until Buechner's championing of Darwinian theory that materialism could justify the theory scientifically.

So materialism has always inferred its theories from the best empirical evidence at hand and has as a result always had its metascientific hypotheses scientifically confirmed, because the basic assumption of valid science has also always been that nature is governed by coherent, discoverable physical laws. Indeed, the triumphs of science in the 20th century have been so stunning that today a majority of professional philosophers, at least in the English-speaking world, identify themselves as materialists of one kind or another[2]. Because these contemporary materialists disagree on some issues, I'd like to introduce you to modern materialism this evening by explaining some of its main concepts and controversies.

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