Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Materialism Versus Idealism

  1. Apr 14, 2003 #1
    Since many of the discussions on this forum are essentially about these two distinct world views, here is an abstract from these opposing philosophies.

    Materialism Versus Idealism

    From the earliest Greek philosophy of which European philosophy is but a continuation, the philosopher has had to contend with the question: How is reality known? The answer given contains two principal viewpoints, the materialist and the idealist. The materialist method stands at one pole: the idealist at the other.
    The distinctive features enabling us to recognise a materialist thinker can be summarised as follows:

    1. The basic proposition of materialism refers to the nature of reality regardless of the existence of mankind. It states that matter is first in order. When the earth was still a flaming sphere, resembling the sun today, long before it cooled there was no life on its surface, no thinking creature of any kind. First we had matter incapable of thought, out of which developed thinking matter, men.

    2. The second aspect of materialism covers the relations between matter and mind. If, what we have said 1, is the case - and we know it is from natural science - mind does not appear until we already have matter organised in a certain manner. Man's brain, a part of man's organism, thinks. And man's organism is matter organised in a highly intricate form.

    3. It is clear from the above why matter may exist without mind, while mind may not exist without matter. Matter existed before the appearance of any kind of mind on the earth's surface. Matter existed before the appearance of a thinking human. In other words, matter exists objectively, independently of mind. Mind is a special property of matter organised in a special manner.

    What are the distinctive features of idealism?

    1. The basic element of reality to the idealist is mind or spirit. Everything else comes from mind or spirit and depends upon its operations.

    2. Mind or spirit exists before and apart from matter. Spirit is the abiding reality; matter no more than a passing phase or illusion.

    3. Mind or spirit is identical with or emanates from the divine, or, at least leaves open the possibility of supernatural existence, power and interference.

    From this it can be seen that idealism is a diluted form of the religious conception according to which a divine mysterious power is placed above nature, the human consciousness being considered a tiny spark emanating from this divine power, and man himself a creature chosen by God. The number of absurdities associated with idealism; such views as deny the external world, i.e., the existence of things objectively, independent of the human consciousness, will be brought to the notice of students later in this course: it will be seen that the extreme and most consistent form of idealism leads to the height of absurdity in the so called solipsism (Latin solus, "alone", "only; ipse, "self"). In a word, nothing exists outside myself, there is only my ego, my consciousness, my mental existence; there is no external world apart from me; it is simply a creature of my mind. For I am aware of only my internal life, from which I have no means of escaping.
    Thus, it must be noted that the basic propositions of these two types of thought are absolutely opposed to each other. One must be right the other wrong. Whoever maintains consistently the position of one is inescapably led to conclusions exactly contrary to the other.

    Other points of view

    We see that materialism and idealism are the two main tendencies in the field of philosophy, but there are other viewpoints as also combinations of ideas and methods which occupy a position between these extremes. For example, agnostics, who cannot decide whether an external reality actually exists apart from ourselves and whether it is possible to know it. They remain suspended between materialism and idealism.

    In close association with the agnostics is the theory of knowledge devised by the German philosopher Kant. He taught that "things-in-themselves" existed as objective realities. This was in accord with materialism. But he then stated that mankind could never know them; all we could know were phenomena or "things-as-they-appeared-to-us". This placed Kant back among the idealists.

    Many pragmatists refuse to take a firm stand on whether or not nature exists independently of human experience. They are not sure whether experience necessarily arises Out of nature and after it, or whether nature emerges from experience. Although pragmatists claim to have overcome the opposition between materialist and idealist standpoints, they actually dodge the decisive issues between them in the theory of knowledge.

    All these types of thinking are confused and inconsistent in respect to fundamental problems. They usually end up in alignment with idealism.

    [to be continued]
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2003
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 14, 2003 #2

    Tom Mattson

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    What I cannot understand is how idealism has survived the advent of modern cognitive science, in which our understanding of the mind in terms of the brain has advanced in leaps and bounds. Why is this "all is in the mind" thing still considered philosophy? Or is it considered philosophy (IOW, does it get published in journals)?
  4. Apr 14, 2003 #3
    Good question!

    Why is there still religion??
  5. Apr 14, 2003 #4
    Materialism Versus Idealism [part 2]


    The Milesian contributions to materialism

    The setting aside of religious attitudes and ideas by the Milesian school (about 585 B.C.) laid the foundations for materialist philosophy. The Iliad and Odyssey attributed to Homer and completed about 550 B.C. held a place in Greek education and imagination comparable to that of the Bible in the Western world. In the opening scene of the Iliad, Homer tells how the Greeks camped before Troy for ten years, have been struck by a plague. Instead of searching for natural causes for this epidemic Homer attributed it to the anger of the Gods for some unknown offense. The story goes that the Greek general, Agamemnon, had seized the daughter of a local caretaker of Apollo's shrine. Apollo had answered the prayers of his priest for revenge by bringing the plague upon the camp. Acting upon this, the Greek generals forced Agamenmon to give up his concubine. This appeased Apollo who lifted the plague.

    The Milesians delivered a mortal blow to this mythological outlook by disposing of all gods. They went back to the beginning of all things and asked:

    what created the world and how was it done? These original materialists offered a coherent account, crude and inadequate as it was, of the creation of the world and of mankind without bringing in the gods or magical forces of any kind. The quality of this achievement can be gauged by noting that, during the same period, Judaism was emerging in Palestine, the religion of Zoraster in Persia, Buddhism in India and Taoism and Confucianism in China. While countries were producing new religions the Milesians were breaking with the religious outlook altogether.

    Origin of the laws of dialectics

    The Milesians regarded the universe as composed of four major elements: earth, air, fire and mist. All the rest, the heavenly bodies, the world, plants, animals and man, were in one way or another derived from the interactions of these elements. However, they offered no explanation of why things had to change or why they could not remain as they are. The first answers to this problem are found in the writings of an aristocrat, Heraclitus of Ephesus.

    Heraclitus (500 B.C.) was designated by Hegel to be the originator of the laws of dialectics. The old Greek philosophers, said Engels, were all natural-born dialectic in their thinking. They looked upon phenomena as in constant change and in perpetual motion, noted their interconnections, oppositions and contradictions as well as their transitions into something other than their original state. Heraclitus was the first theoretical analyser of the general process of change. He singled out fire as the first principle, the ultimate substance of things, from which all others are produced. the following text from Heraclitus was preserved by Clement of Alexandria:

    "This world, which is the same for all things, was made by no god or man. It has always been, it is, and will be an ever-living fire, kindling with measure and being quenched with measure."

    As an illustration of dialectical thought is his doctrine that "everything flows." He gave picturesque examples of the universality of change. The sun is not only new every day but always continuously new. We cannot step twice into the same river for its waters are ever-flowing, everchanging. All objects are and are not; they are never the same but always changing into something else. By this reasoning Heraclitus dissolved all fixed states of being into the process of perpetual becoming in which every object enters existence, stays for a while and then passes away. He endeavoured to explain why not even the most stable and solid substances could remain unaltered or at rest. Everything is composed of opposites, he said, which are always in a state of tension. Any given form of matter is the result of the balance of opposing forces within it. This balance, however, is constantly being upset by the movement, the interaction, the contention of its warring opposites. All things are involved in a dual movement; one emanates from the oscillations generated by the interactions of the opposites within itself; the other from the movement of the whole either toward or away from its source. And one of these antagonistic forces is gaining on the other all the time until in the end it proves triumphant.

    Pairs of opposites must be considered as internally unified, Heraclitus taught. Disease makes health pleasant; hunger brings satisfaction. He cited the screw and its movement to illustrate this unity of opposition. The screw engages in two opposite forms of movement at one and the same time: straight and crooked. The spiral motion characteristic of its function has a contradictory nature; it goes both around and up, rotating on the same plane and on a different one at the same time.

    The law of the identity or interpenetration of opposites as a primary feature of all things and as the explanation for their becoming and change we owe to Heraclitus. With its aid he was able to give a theoretical explanation both for the harmony and for the disruption of things, for their intimate interconnection and transition from one into the other.

    "The fairest harmony is born of things different, and discord is what produces all things." Even the most harmonious and integrated unit cannot as such indefinitely because of the incessant movement of its opposites, the unbalancing of its contending inner forces. "Strife is the father of all things, the king of all things, and has made gods and men, free men and slaves."

    The vestiges of all beliefs to be found in the Milesian thinkers signify only that they could not go farther than the scientific knowledge and social framework of their epoch. It would have been unhistorical, unrealistic and unreasonable to have done more.

    They stand at the entry of philosophic enquiry. It evolved something new which went beyond the ideas of its predecessors and thereby promoted the progress of human thought.

    The Atomists

    The Atomists were the second outstanding school of materialist philosophy in Greece. They carried forward the Milesian investigations of nature and speculation about its processes. The real founders of this school were Leucippus (about 500 B.C. and Democritus about 460 B.C.). They conceived that matter is divided into small particles with empty space between them. They taught that everything consists of atoms and vacuum. Atoms are hard and have form and size; they are invisible, have no colour, taste or smell, since these are secondary or subjective properties, and they are in ceaseless motion.

    Leucippus and Democritus postulated two kinds of ultimate existence. The full and the empty, the something and the nothing, the atom and the void. One was equivalent to being; the other to not-being. Thus, in opposition to the Eleatic School (founded about 540 B.C.) who concluded that all things were essentially fixed and motionless and that change was an illusion of the senses.

    Aristotle's successor as head of the Academy in Athens, Theophrastus, wrote of Leucippus: "He assumed innumerable and ever-moving elements, namely, the atoms. And he made their forms infinite in number, since there is no reason why they should be one kind rather than another, and because he saw there was unceasing becoming and change in things. He held, further, that what is is no more real than what is not, and both are alike causes of the things that come into being: for he laid down that the substance of the atoms was compact and full, and he called them what is, while they moved in the void which he called what is not, but affirmed to be just as real as what is."

    By their specific union of what is with what is not, the Atomists reconciled the contradictory positions of Heraclitus that everything flowed and of the Eleatric School that nothing changed. The coupling of the atoms with the void explained both PERMANENCE and change, motion and rest, identity and difference. Neither changed in themselves but their incessant interactions gave rise to all the changes, combinations and differences of things in the universe.

    It is important to note the Atomizes conception of the world, for the void was no less essential to their theories than the atom. The notion of the void made motion theoretically explicable as well as sensibly apparent. The void in which the atoms moved and had their being was like nature, but it was completely featureless and wholly penetrable. The void was as passive and permeable as the atoms were restless and self-enclosed.

    The Atomists had many incorrect notions about the universe. They believed that larger bodies fall faster in empty space than smaller ones. Another of their beliefs was that the fundamental physical elements were unchangeable and alike in substance. This has been disproved by modern science.

    Dalton's experiments showed that the atoms of the elements were not alike; each had its characteristic weight. it has been demonstrated in our century that even the weight of atoms of the same elements is variable (isotopes). We now know that instead of being incapable of alteration and division, atoms are highly mutable, fissionable and fusionable. Moreover, atoms can act and react upon one another not simply by mechanical pressure and collision but also in electrical and other ways.

    However, these developments do not invalidate the importance of the Atomists' discoveries. They presented an accurate a picture of the inner constitution of the natural world and the modes of its operation and evolution as was possible with the available information, techniques and ideas

    In his book on the electron published in 1917, the American physicist and Nobel prize winner Millikan asserted: "These principles with a few modifications and omissions might almost pass muster today."

    [to be continued]
  6. Apr 14, 2003 #5
    Materialism Versus Idealism [part 3]


    Idealism of Plato and Aristotle

    Most of the Atomists' writings have been lost: nevertheless the scope of interests and investigations which inspired and supported these ideas can be judged from a list of their treatises compiled by scholars in Alexandria. It covers such subjects as ethics; natural science (cosmology, astronomy, psychology and sense perception); logic (problems and criticisms of past theories); mathematics (geometry and numbers); music (Rhythm and Harmony, poetry and phraseology); technical works on medicine, agriculture, drawing and painting etc..). Although they were more correct than their rivals and attracted allegiance from some of the finest minds, they were not a popular or dominant school of thought.

    The reason for this is to be sought in the economics of the day. The teachings of Plato (427 B.C.) and Aristotle (384 B.C.) that of Idealism, reflected the conditions of the slave system. It was the ideological expression of the slaveholding aristocracy in its defensive battle for supremacy against the democratic tendencies emanating from the mercantile and plebeian forces in the Greek city-states. Idealism responded to the historical predicament in which the Greek propertied classes of money-lending landowners and slave holders found themselves towards the close of the 5th Century. For decades the Greek city-states had been wracked by class distinctions in which now the oligarchy and now democracy had the upper hand.

    After imperialist expansion brought affluence and then disaster to the city, Athenian mercantile and maritime democracy came close to a dead end. It could neither help Athens gain its former greatness nor go further in changing its constitution because of the irremediable antagonism between the freeman and the slave. This period witnessed the twilight of the first experiment in democratic government.

    The idealists defended the oligarchic reaction against democratic forces. In his Dialogues, Plato takes up certain questions and lets discussion in an imaginary conversation play round them, showing their bearings and their implications, putting tentative solutions of them in the mouth of someone. There is no doubt that the Dialogues give us most of the leading ideas of his system of thought. Mystical craving was the deepest motive in Plato's philosophy. The thing which drove him to look for stable intellectual concepts was the need of the soul to find something stable on which it could rest in the midst of a world of change and passing away.

    Plato felt the horror of change, especially with regard to the desire to know. We could not really know things that were always changing and becoming something else, like the objects of our sense experience. They slipped away in the midst of our attempt to grasp them. He sought to oppose change with geometry, where we could acquire knowledge about the properties of figures which was absolutely stable, firm, and quite independent of the imperfections of any figure we might draw. The circle of which geometry spoke, when it said such and such things were true of the circle, was not any such visible circle - for no visible circle was an absolutely perfect circle - it was the ideal circle. And yet the ideal circle did not belong to a world of merely human imagination. For the things which geometry said were true of the "the circle" really were true, whether men apprehended them or not.

    The word Plato applied to this perfect circle which was not to be seen anywhere in our world, and to other similar entities was "idea" which meant "shape" or "figure". But the word was also used in the sense of "sort" or "kind". In this sense the ideal circle stood for a whole class of things, circles. All the visible specimens of the class were imperfect approximations more or less to the class type, the perfect circle, which was unseen. If in geometry there was a possibility of stable knowledge in spite of the variability of things seen and handled, it seemed to Plato that, by laying hold of the idea, real knowledge in other fields could be gained in the same way. There must be an "idea" of men, to which all men in our world approximated more or less nearly. There must be an "idea" of justice to which our conception of justice approximated. Here we must understand the "idea" not only as existing in the mind but to mean for Plato that which had real existence apart from the human mind.

    One of the major tasks of the idealists was to rehabilitate the religious outlook which for many reasons had fallen into disrepute. The clash of moral standards attending the Civil war as well as the city-states and unsettled and old views of the universe along with the positions of the ruling classes. The growing disbelief in the ancient creeds and rituals had to be countered by the reinforcement
    of religion. The idealist philosophers undertook this by their own methods. For them was the special task of renovating religion for the educated aristocrats.
    The idealist revisions of the nature of the gods arose from political calculations as much as from theoretical considerations. Religion was an indispensable instrument in the technique of aristocratic rule. The value of religion as a social cement and an instrument of class domination was clearly recognised, candidly discussed and openly acknowledged by the idealists. Plato coupled with his immortality of the soul that according as men lived righteously or unrighteously, purely or sensually, they would be happy or miserable in the world beyond death. He opposed democracy, for him it meant the things he hated -agitation ,disorder, noisy ignorance, indefinite variability. His ideal was a state remote from the demoralising influences of commerce, in which an established order worked generation after generation, in which the citizens were distributed in fixed classes and an aristocracy of the wisest ruled -all clear, clean and beautiful and restfully changeless.

    In The Republic, Plato disclosed how conscious the Athenian Oligarchs were of the usefulness of religious doctrines in maintaining class rule by advocating the "noble lie". After having divided the inhabitants of his ideal state into the three categories of Rulers, Auxiliaries and producers, he discussed the means where this social hierarchy could be perpetuated and the decisions of the Rulers enforced. Plato asked:"How can we contrive one of those expedient falsehoods we were speaking of just now, one noble falsehood which we may persuade the whole community, including the rulers, themselves, if possible to accept?"
    He answered that it would be best to present the formation of the class -divided society into an old Phoenician story; that is, invest its origins with an aura of antiquity to place it beyond immediate investigation and easy checkup. Then he goes on to say: We shall tell them that all of you are brothers; but, when God was fashioning those of you who are fit to rule, he mixed in some gold, so these are the most valuable; and he put silver in the Auxiliaries, and iron and bronze in the farmers and the craftmen. Since you are all akin, your children will mostly be like their parents, but occasionally a golden parent may have a silver child or a silver parent a golden child, and so on; and therefore the first and foremost task that God has laid upon the rulers is, of all their functions as guardians, to pay the most careful attention to the mixture of metals in the souls of children, so that, if one of their own children is born with an alloy of iron or bronze, they must not give way to pity but cast it out among the craftsmen and farmers, thus assigning it to the station appropriate to its nature; and conversely, if one of these should produce a child with silver or gold in it, they must promote him to the Guardian or Auxilliaries, according to his value, in the belief that it has been foretold that, if ever the state should fall into the keeping of a bronze and iron guardian, it will be ruined. That is the story. Can you suggest any device by which we can get them to believe it?"

    Not the first generation, but perhaps their sons and descendants and eventually the whole posterity," came the reply.

    In this passage the connection between religious fables and the techniques of class domination is exposed to full view. To justify the caste system of Plato's Republic, the citizens are to be duped into believing the noble lie that God created social distinctions. Plato was not the only one, then or since, to point out the political value of the noble lie in upholding social inequality.

    [to be continued]
  7. Apr 14, 2003 #6
    Materialism Versus Idealism [part 4]



    Aristotle gave theology its name and regarded it as the highest of the sciences. In his system of ideas the divine is the immortal, the unchangeable, the ultimate source of motion which is itself unmoved and unmovable.

    In his book on Metaphysics Aristotle argues that there must be an eternal substance which causes eternal circular motion and to be everlasting this substance must be inmaterial. There must be something which moves the starry heavens without itself being moved. This unmoved mover is God who directly sets the stars in motion by inspiring love and desire in their souls. All other things derive their movements from the same prime mover. This prime mover is knowledge which has only itself for its object. God's sole activity is that of knowing.

    With regard to astronomy and physics Aristotle marks a step back from Plato. Plato had taught that the earth moved, and that it was not the centre of the universe. Aristotle had the earth once more unmoving at the centre of the universe. This scheme remained dominant, with certain modifications right up to the Middle Ages. Thus Aristotle's false theories became the great hindrance to any advance in astronomical science till the days of Copernicus.

    Christian theology plundered Plato and Aristotle and is deeply indebted to them. No small measure of their prestige and sustained influence as a philosophical tendency is due to their theological and teleological doctrines which have proved to be enormously helpful to ideologists of the upper classes since.
  8. Apr 14, 2003 #7
    You could ask the same thing about why Freudian psychology is still called a science. Bottom line is, both are compatable with Christianity and the Aristotelian logic that both Christianity and modern science are so well integrated with. Sometimes change is not easy and today people still clutch medieval concepts, both within and outside of academia.
  9. Apr 14, 2003 #8

    Les Sleeth

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Is this your own ideas you are posting, or are you quoting someone else? In either case, the definition of idealism you are proposing goes beyond anything I've heard. In particular to infer this concept, ". . . it can be seen that idealism is a diluted form of the religious conception according to which a divine mysterious power is placed above nature, the human consciousness being considered a tiny spark emanating from this divine power, and man himself a creature chosen by God."

    Idealism was first formalized by Berkeley in his Three Dialogues. Then,as now, idealism is the belief that reality is to be found in the contents of our own minds. It does not necessarily apply to those who believe humans are a divine spark of God.

    A bit antropomorphic, don't you think? True, matter preceded the emergence of mind here on Earth. What you assume is that consciousness requires biology to evolve. While it is preposterous to materialists that consciousness might have evolved sans material, or that possibly some consciousness might have evolved for zillions of eons before participating in creation, materialists don't have the slightest problem imagining universes that inflate or bubble for eternity. Why is that? Why is it that matter must come first? I'd think you would prefer the truth over insisting creation has to work a certain way.

    Also, at this site I've only really seen one true idealist, but I think there are other non-materialists here who merely suspect there is "something more" to creation than matter and mechanics. To allow the possibility of something more, including God, and to admit the realities of the external material world is not idealism.
  10. Apr 14, 2003 #9
    Which came first? The essence or the form? Doesn't form accrete itself around the essence? If so, then there must have been a "essential universe" before a material one.
  11. Apr 14, 2003 #10


    User Avatar

    I'd say the essence is derived from the form. Ie. The essence is the form.

    So the chicken and the egg came into place simultaneously.
  12. Apr 14, 2003 #11
    So you're saying the cause came about at the same time as the effect? The one has to proceed from the other doesn't it?
  13. Apr 14, 2003 #12

    Les Sleeth

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Hmmmmmm . . . . does that really make sense? Even in the case of the "chicken or the egg" the answer to this popular conundrum becomes obvious with a little realistic thinking. The egg precedes the development of the chicken in a single chicken's life. And then trace evolution backward to see very first proto-chicken . . . . and that is a single cell, just as an egg is.

    Essence and form as equal doesn't make sense because you can obliterate the form and still have the essence, but the opposite isn't true.
  14. Apr 14, 2003 #13


    User Avatar

    Can you realistically? I am saying that once you lose the form, the essence loses significance.
  15. Apr 14, 2003 #14
    You can remove the essence (life) from a human being, and you would still have a form, albeit a "dead form." The question is, where does the essence go almost immediately upon death? Whereas you could "cremate" the corpse later on, but that would be comparable to burning a piece of "dead wood."
  16. Apr 14, 2003 #15
    Philosophy is an evolving practise, like science. It constantly surveys new ideas, and new ways of dealing with things.
    It is also true that philosophy is 'fashionable'. If you read any history of philosophy books, you'll see that certain ages have been labelled by a specific approach used by the majority of philosophers, at that given time. A generalisation of the type of philosophy occuring at that time.
    This is the 21st century and materialistic thinking is rife. It's the present-fashion. It's been like this for a good couple of centuries.
    But there is no reason to believe that this fashion will not change, just because it is popular now.
  17. Apr 14, 2003 #16


    User Avatar

    Anyway, it's just a crazy idea I have. I might change my mind.

    Iacchus: A dead person is not same in form to a live one. The reactions just don't happen. There is no such thing as removing life from a person while leaving the body in exactly the same situation. And vice versa.
    The essence is not destroyed but changed, and the form is also not destroyed, but crucially changed.
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2003
  18. Apr 14, 2003 #17
    What do we mean by "life-form?" If not "the essence" (life) by which the form is derived?
  19. Apr 14, 2003 #18
    What's the difference? Except for the fact that there's something "very essential" missing.
  20. Apr 14, 2003 #19


    User Avatar

    We mean the essence AND the form.

    Like different reactions within all their cells, an excess of calcium in the bloodstream, certain parts switched to self destruct mode, lack of breathing, end of coherent synapse signals in brain, end of blood current...

    Death is a very physical affair.
  21. Apr 14, 2003 #20


    User Avatar

    Maybe we should start a new topic to discuss this essence and form stuff.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?

Similar Discussions: Materialism Versus Idealism
  1. Idealism (Replies: 6)

  2. The Ideal Drug (Replies: 27)