Idealism vs. Materialism


Idealism* (1): a theory that ultimate reality lies in a realm transcending phenomena.

(2) : a theory that the essential nature of reality lies in consciousness or reason.

Materialism* (1): theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter

(2) : a doctrine that the only or the highest values or objectives lie in material well-being and in the furtherance of material progress

(3) : a preoccupation with or stress upon material rather than intellectual or spiritual things.

*Definitons from the Merriam Webster (WWWebster) On-Line Dictionary


I guess more than anything, I am hoping that folks will come away from my site as idealists in the philosophical sense. If you are a materialist, I hope to open your mind to at least the possibility that you are wrong. If you are not sure, I hope that I will help you to come around to the idealist camp.If you haven't got a clue, I hope you'll start to get one.

I believe that philosophical materialism (definition 1 above) is mistaken and leads to, at best, the position stated as definition 2, underlined above, or, at worst, to the condition stated as definition 3, also underlined above. Both of these I see as detrimental to morality, society, and the human spirit.

The Heart of the Materialist Argument: Logical Positivism

The heart of the materialist argument seems to be its epistemology: logical positivism. According to this theory, the meaning of any statement is dependent on its verifiability. Furthermore, it must be inter subjectively verifiable. That means it must be verifiable by more than one observer. For instance, if  I say there is a cheese in the refrigerator, that statement is meaningless, unless other observers can go and see that the cheese is indeed  there. So, I guess I had better prove the cheese is there next time before I eat. I wouldn't want to eat imaginary cheese.

There are two ways in which a statement can be verified: The first method of verification is empirical; that is, through the senses. The second is logical; that is, starting from verifiable premises, one can proceed to logically induce, or deduce meaningful statements. (note 1)

According to those who hold to the logical positivist position, only statements about material objects can be verified, and therefore only material things can meaningfully be said to exist. Furthermore, metaphysical speculations are meaningless banter and not a proper subject for rational minds to entertain.

Actually, I have no problem with scientific theory and logical positivism when it is applied to discovering truths about the material world. I would even stand by logical positivism, if it were considered a theory of knowledge, rather than a theory of meaning.

Knowledge vs. Belief

Let me make a distinction between, knowledge and belief. I would like to define knowledge, as that which can be verified according to the logical positivist position. Belief on the other hand consists of  what we hold to be true, proven or not. Physics, or more accurately science, is the accumulation of knowledge  and is limited to the study of material things. Metaphysics, on the other hand, is speculative, and deals with matters (no pun intended) of belief. Both are necessary in order for humans to have a comprehensive world view (note2).

In fact, epistemology, including logical positivism belongs to the realm of metaphysics, and is an area of belief rather than knowledge. Positivism states that the meaning of any statement is dependent on its inter subjective verifiability and that only statements about material things are verifiable. There are some serious flaws in this line of reasoning.

The Problems with Logical Positivism

First of all, it is a statement about meaning; however, before it can be accepted as meaningful by its own definition, it would have to be verified that meaning is a material thing. If anyone can do that, hats off to them. Secondly is the problem of inter subjectivity. Most people are willing to accept, as a matter of common sense, that other minds besides their own exist, but it cannot, I believe, meet the positivist criteria of verifiability. So, this definition of meaning is by its own definition meaningless.

Even if the two points were granted the positivists, their argument would remain a case of circular reasoning. That is, they define meaning, and then dismiss as meaningless anything which falls outside the definition.

Nice try; it's a useful theory for scientific advancement, but it must be considered part of a belief system, and should not be considered a proof that only material things exist or to discourage metaphysical speculation.

The Case for Idealism as a Rational Belief System

The reader might assume that at this point, thinking that I have (in my own mind at least) overturned the main proof offered by the materialist camp for their point of view, that I might offer a proof for the idealist point of view. However, as I stated before, I believe that these arguments fall into the category of metaphysics, a system of belief rather than knowledge, precisely because they defy empirical or logical proof. I should think that, if either belief had ever been proven, that great minds would have come to some agreement on the issue long ago.

Nevertheless, let me present some arguments to justify idealism as a rational belief system, rather than sheer nonsense as materialist would have you believe.

Rene Descartes in trying to establish a new indubitable philosophy (an endeavor in which he obviously failed miserably) as his first principle, postulated what he called the indubidatum: I think, therefore I am. Despite all the abuse this position has taken down through time, and the fact that, as I said, it is the first postulate of a miserably flawed philosophy, I still think there is some virtue in it.

How can one doubt the existence of one's own consciousness?

Of course this proves nothing of the nature of consciousness. It does not prove that consciousness can exist apart from matter, or anything else. However it does prove, to me at least, that consciousness exists. Obviously, I assume that other conscious beings exist also, or I wouldn't be writing this. However, the only thing that my experience proves beyond a shadow of a doubt is that at least now, at the time I am writing this, I exist as a conscious being. I certainly believe that matter exists, but I don't know it as surely as I do the existence of consciousness.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking doesn't lead much further than that.(note3) So lets look at it from another angle.

One supposed proof of the idealist position goes something like this: Nothing has ever been known to exist that was not an object of consciousness; therefore, material things are dependent on consciousness for their existence, which is to say consciousness is primary to matter. This might seem like a good argument on the surface, but it depends on the assumption that there is no other type of existence than the existence as an object of consciousness, which is not proven. (note4)

Now let's engage in a little thought experiment:

Suppose for a moment that matter is not dependent on consciousness for existence and a universe existed somewhere which never had or will have any conscious beings in it. Although indeed it existed, would it not be just as if it didn't. With no conscious beings in it, it would be a universe without value or meaning. Quality, value, meaning are certainly all dependent on consciousness.

Now, I want you to ask yourself: Can you believe that consciousness, which is the one thing that makes for a valuable and meaningful universe, is just an epiphenomenon of senseless material existence-- a cosmic accident? Or, does it make more sense to assume that mind is an integral, if not the primary part of reality? No proof, but food for thought.

We know that human beings have only been around for a couple of million years or so, other sentient animals for a bit longer, but science tells us that for a long time the universe existed with no life in it. Consciousness as we know it certainly appears to have evolved out of the material world, and this appears to be a very strong argument in favor of materialism. However, it can not be denied that the potential for consciousness must have existed within the material stuff of the universe from its inception.

Now, to me, potential has more the aspect of an idea than a material thing. Ideas are the product of mind. Therefore, it seems to me that the laws of nature, that allowed for conscious beings to evolve out of material, are themselves the product of mind. So, I believe that either mind and matter are inseparable, or more likely the material world is the product of an overmind, or universal consciousness. Either way, I'm an Idealist.

Another possible indication of the existence of a universal consciousness is psychic phenomenon. Certainly the very validity of psychic experience is controversial-- much could be misinterpreted coincidence, and some has been proven to be the product of charlatanism. However, if there exists a universal consciousness, of which each individual's consciousness is a part, it would go a long way towards explaining a lot of psychic phenomenon. For example thoughts could conceivably flow through the overmind from one individual to another, thus telepathy; or information from another time or space (note) could be accessed, explaining clairvoyance and precognition.

Notice, I am not claiming to have proven anything here. I believe these issues defy rational proof.
They fall into the arena of metaphysics, and are, by my own definition matters of belief not knowledge. But I hardly think that the question is meaningless and not worthy of attempting to provide an answer even if no certain answer is possible.

In fact, I believe that mystical experience can prove, at least on an individual basis, that a universal consciousness actually exists. However, unless one has experienced it for oneself then it must remain an article of faith.

Idealism, gives us hope, and hope helps keep love alive; Love gives a basis for ethics and just society. A faith in idealism might prompt one towards spiritual practices; these practices might then lead to enlightenment and personal proof that indeed idealism is truth. I hope that you will at least keep an open mind on the issue.

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