by Chris Tong, Ph.D.
The simplest form of materialism says reality is exclusively that which appears to the five material senses. The basic methodology by which materialism justifies itself is that of naive realism: “what you see [or hear, or smell, or taste, or touch] is what you get [or all that is real].”
There is only the reality of direct perception, supplemented by the reality that is directly and “naturally” inferable (common-sensical) on the basis of such perception:
Thus, when the doorbell rings, it is “natural” or a matter of “common sense” to infer that, above and beyond the mere sensory impression of the sound itself, (a) that sound I hear is, in fact, the doorbell ringing; and even (b) there is a person (or someone or something) on the other side of the door. And thus, naive realism includes the “someone” or “something” inferred to be on the other side of the door in reality.
Simple materialism frequently pits itself against exoteric religion, declaring that, because they can’t be perceived with the senses, there is no God or greater Spiritual Reality. Because there is no Greater Reality (and an associated imperative to right living and a higher moral order), a common conclusion is to live on the basis of “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die.”
If materialism were simply a helpful viewpoint for explaining a portion of reality that would be one thing. But materialism in practice also presumes itself to be a complete philosophy capable of accounting for everything; thus, it functions as a reductionistic methodology for understanding reality, presuming that whatever is currently inexplicable in material terms will someday be completely understood in and “reduced” to material terms. Just as there is no God, there is no thing that is “inherently unknowable”, only that which is currently (and temporarily) unknown. (We examine this reductionistic methodology in greater detail a little later.)
As a formally organized Western philosophy, materialism can be traced back at least as far as the philosopher, Thales of Miletus (c. 580 BC). Aristotle wrote that Thales was the first to suggest a single material substratum for the entire universe (water). But Thales’ philosophical significance lies not in his choice of water as the essential substance, but rather in his attempt to reductionistically explain all of reality in terms of water (a visible material), rather than in terms of the caprices of (anthropomorphic and invisible) gods.
While the East traditionally has been non-materialistic in its outlook, one Indian school — the Carvaka school of Materialists — did flourish from around the 6th century BC until medieval times.
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