The dictum of Democritus and M16

M16: Inside the Eagle Nebula

‘Certainly Democritus said that though the mind thought ill of the senses because in themselves they did not reflect reality, yet it took its evidence from them…(the dictum of Democritus was) that phenomena are a window on the unseen. Through them, if we do not stop there, we can become aware of the nature of the invisible realities.

A man that looks on glasse

On it may stay his eye,

Or if he pleaseth, through it passe

And then the heav’n espie’

(George Herbert)

W.K.C.Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, 464.

The expunged two thousand year history of Indian materialism

The facade of Lomas Rishi cave, Barabar Hills, Bihar

The facade of Lomas Rishi cave, Barabar Hills, Bihar

Nothing could better exemplify pure cant and the results of hatred than that those who themselves have developed intricate religious systems and argue or have argued for the use of intellect and the  focus of philosophic and spiritual concern on self and fellows, should succeed in expunging from the face of this earth, other than in their own polemics against them, every trace of two systems of belief, both existing almost concurrently, that lasted for two thousand years. As the Dvaita Vedantist Madhvacharya (1238-1317 CE) wrote: ‘The efforts of Carvaka are indeed hard to be eradicated’.1

The core of this hatred towards the Ajivikas and the Carvakas or Lokayatas2 was the determinism3 of the former and, particularly, the materialism of the latter. In raising the subject of materialism one is discussing a subject no less emotive now than it was in India in the lengthy period under review. The creative bile of the fifteenth centuryCE Jaina Gunaratna regarding the Carvakas4 is echoed in the much more recent words of Rhys Davids who argued that ‘Lokayata’ and ‘Lokayatika’ were pegs on which certain writers hung views they attributed to their adversaries, giving them an odious name, that such a philosophy hardly existed, like European materialists – although ‘one or two may be discovered by careful search …’5

On the other hand, and about the same Lokayatas, another wrote ‘They exhorted all people to cast off all their shackles which had bound them for ages and to march shoulder to shoulder towards freedom.’ One can almost hear the cry ringing through the villages ‘Lokayatikas of the world unite!’ Yet theirs was the one philosophy that did utterly reject not only ‘another world’ but the ‘buffoons, knaves and demons’6 who made a living advocating it. Clearly, words and views concerning the Ajivikas and Carvakas must be treated with the utmost circumspection. Nevertheless, what comes through in the writing of those who hated them or were opposed to them are somewhat more than bare outlines of two most important philosophies – particularly the Carvakas who were astonishingly bold and different to all the other schools.

My definition of ‘materialism’ is simple – it is a system of belief holding that that which is independent of consciousness and thought – matter – is primary and that consciousness and thought are secondary to and derivative from it. The world comes first and exists independently of us. We as products of it reflect it in our consciousness and thought. Shastri wrote that materialists in India did not attempt to lay down a system of philosophy but only to refute the foolish orthodoxy of other schools.7 The evidence argues clearly against this, both with regard to the materialist Carvakas and the religious Ajivikas, whose philosophy had elements strongly recognising the primacy of the world.

Basham wrote that not only did the Ajivikas have a canon of sacred texts in which their doctrines were codified, they had a fully developed system of belief and their own philosophers and logicians. At the core of their beliefs was niyati – the universality of which controlled all phenomena and actions and which made effort futile.8 The Ajivika universe in which time was infinite had finite contents, was highly complex, ordered and material,9 and within which samsara (like a ball of string unravelling)10 and karma (which for Gosala was effectively replaced by niyati and was without moral force) functioned.11 Chance (sangati), nature (bhava) and causality were illusory modifications of niyati – niyati was manifest through them. The Ajivika nirvana did not entirely transcend the world. Basham wrote that the atomist Pakudha Kaccayana and the amoralist Purana Kassapa were, with Gosala, among the founders of the Ajivikas and that when the King in the Milinda Panha asked Purana ‘Who rules the world?’ he replied ‘The earth rules the world’.12

The Jaina version of the Ajivika canon, given in the Bhagavati Sutra, in addition to two Maggas,13 include an eightfold Mahanimitta14 which clearly shows the importance they placed on the recognition and consideration of the world. This is again clear in the four key elements of the Ajivika faith.15 The four material elements had characteristic properties and tendencies: earth (hard with a downward tendency), water (cold with a similar tendency), fire (burns, moves upwards), air (motion in a horizontal direction). These elements16 and the atom of life17 (different to the material elements) were held together by wind or air, they were united by ‘eternal action’ (most probably a synonym for niyati. These theories, along with a theistic bent, were developed in the Dravidian south, after the decline of the Ajivikas in Magadha, from the end of the Mauryan period.

Although Madhvacharya begins his study of sixteen schools with the Carvakas – that school furthest from his beliefs – ‘the crest gem of the atheists’18 come through wonderfully as cocky, with a belief in themselves, humorous, determined, contemptuous of religious and philosophic fraud, straightforward and materialist. They have been referred to as sceptical, empiricist, positivist and pragmatic. As with the Ajivikas, what has been written about them – both anti- and pro- should be carefully considered. Although I have only found some internet references linking them to atomic theory I consider them materialist, not because of what they rejected (everything otherworldly)19 but because of what they asserted – which in effect amounts to the primacy of matter, and because of their consistency in doing so.

They held that the world and all in it are real, that everything is comprised of the four elements – earth, air, fire and water; that as alcohol is made from mixing certain elements, everything is constituted of those four, as is the body with its intelligence. When the elements separate, the body dies and intelligence ceases with it – our only ‘liberation’ is the dissolution of our bodies after death.20 ‘Soul’ or ‘self’ are only the body.21 Their assertions that consciousness is a material construct and that consciousness, sensation and perception are dependent on the body were both utterly logical and, in understanding the relationship between the body and the world, immensely sophisticated.

The fundamental principle for the Carvaka is nature (svabhava). It comprises the four elements behaving according to their own principle, combining and dissolving.

Fire is hot, water cold,

refreshingly cool is the breeze of morning;

By whom came this variety?

They were born of their own nature.22

Svabhavavada denies the existence of over-all purpose in the universe23 but does not contradict purposive activity on the part of humans. As the protagonist in the Samannaphala Sutta sought the fruits of a homeless life, the Carvakas condemned asceticism and argued that the fruits to be found in this life lie in how we live it – with our thought oriented to a material world and to do the best for ourselves and  live life to the fullest.24

I strongly suspect that the repeated attempts by their opponents to argue that the Carvakas rejected inference were another distortion,25 that their objections against inference were to show that not certainty (Truth) but only a practical probability (truth) can be established, that their fundamental objection to inference was that it be used to establish the existence of fate, the soul, another world and God/s, that their objection was not to reason as a tool. Likewise their rejection of testimony was with regard to testimony that relates to the unverifiable, particularly the religious. Still, the replies of their opponents to the arguments they attributed to the Carvakas on inference and testimony are often significant explorations of those concepts.

In his book The Notion of Ditthi in Theravada Buddhism – The point of view, Fuller gives an account of the various views that are stated to be wrong-views in the four primary Buddhist Nikayas. He writes that for Buddhism, our actions produce consequences – the view of ‘nihilism’ (attributed to the Lokayatas/Carvakas) is sometimes used to explain attachment (to sensuality, to view, to precepts and vows and to the theory of the self). ‘To deny that actions have consequences is … in a certain way, an expression of greed, hatred and delusion.’26 He wrote that K.N.Jayatilleke holds that ‘nihilism’ is based on the notion that ‘perception’ alone is the only valid means of knowledge and that since this is so, ‘higher perception’ is denied. Since, according to the ‘nihilist’ view the person is composed of the ‘four great elements’, there is no self and morality has no value. He cites Tucci who holds that the essential part of the view of ‘nihilism’ is the phrase ‘no fruit or result of good and bad actions’, and that this is in fact the central idea of Indian Materialism. The view of ‘nihilism’ denies the possibility of transformation and is a view that produces an unwholesome course of action and it is a wrong-view.27

I have several disagreements with the Buddhist positions, some already discussed. For the Lokayatas/Carvakas there is a self – it is the living body, and only the living body. The Lokayatas/Carvakas did have an ethic – not only to make the best of this one life we have but, by implication from their sharp and mocking criticisms of those who exploit religion, to do so honestly. A comparison could be made with Aristotle’s ethics on this point – although they are ultimately directed towards the perfection of the self of a self-focused man, and to a contemplative life. The central idea of ‘Indian Materialism’ is not the phrase ‘no fruit or result of good and bad actions’, nor the rejection of god/gods, of an afterlife, samsara and karma but the affirmation that matter (represented by svabhavavada and the four elements) is primary and the recognition of the consequences of that. The only possibility of transformation denied by the Lokayatas/Carvakas was that in ‘another’ world. And it is for this (essentially, their materialism) that they earned the hatred of the Buddhists and of those who advocated karma.

The Ajivikas were religious ascetics, the Carvakas/Lokayatas were materialist hedonists, similar to the Greek Epicureans. Both sects (as the Buddhists and Jainas) had arisen at a time of great intellectual ferment. Although the Ajivika doctrine of niyati was developed into a Parmenidean-like notion of ‘unchanging permanence’ by the southern Ajivikas and incorporated with theistic elements that facilitated their eventual absorption into Jainism, niyati was the taking of rta to its conclusion – the recognition of order in the universe. Basham wrote that by so doing, Gosala anticipated by over two thousand years the world view of the nineteenth century physicist.’28 The Ajivika canon and their belief in the four primary elements embodied their recognition of a material universe. Their theorising on the atom in that universe was brilliant, but they still were a religion – a sect for whom earthly forces assumed unearthly forms. The Brhaspatyas/Lokayatas/Carvakas were unique amongst all the schools.

If beings in heaven are gratified by our offering the Sraddha here,

Then why not give the food down below to those who are standing

on the housetop?29

Earth, air, fire and water are the original principles.

From these alone, when transformed into the body, intelligence is produced.

When these are destroyed, intelligence ceases also.30



1. Madhava Acharya, The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy, trans., E.B.Cowell and A.E.Gough, Trubner, London, 1882, p. 2 Basham wrote of the intense odium theologicum felt by the Buddhists and Jainas towards the Ajivikas. A.L.Basham, History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas, A Vanished Indian Religion, Luzac and Co., Ltd., London 1951, p. 38 The mutilation of the inscriptions of Asoka and his grandson Dasaratha on the Barabar and Nagarjuni caves which were given to the Ajivikas by the Mauryan king Asoka, and the omission of his grandson’s name from the king-lists both of the Buddhists and the Jainas suggests that their patronage of the Ajivikas was strongly disapproved of by both other sects. The inscriptions were mutilated in such a way that indicates that the original inhabitants of the caves were evicted in favour of their religious opponents. Basham wrote ‘The selective nature of most of these defacements indicates that they were carried out by the religious rivals of the Ajivikas, who made use of the caves after them, and did not wish to be reminded of the former occupants.’ A.L.Basham op. cit., p. 156. ‘Salting the earth’ – which Carthage was supposed to have experienced at the hands of the Romans, is another example of ‘erasing’ one’s opponents. I am now thinking again about the writing of Democritus who wrote as much and as widely as Aristotle…

2. As with so much to do with these two sects, even who founded them and their names present problems. Of the Ajivikas, Basham, citing the Bhagavati Sutra wrote that there were Ajivikas before Makkhali Gosala, Basham op. cit., p. 27. Again ‘There are arguments to prove that (the Ajivikas) originally had nothing to do with Gosala. Ajivika was the name of a much older sect and Gosala’s father Mankhali also belonged to it.’ Sharma, Brij Narain, Social Life in Northern India AD 600-1000, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1966, p. 215. Another has argued that even the name, consistent with the supposed humble origins of Gosala, was given to them by their enemies: ‘The name Ajivikas was given to the sect by their opponents. The word ajivika is derived from ajiva, meaning one who observes the mode of living appropriate to his class.’ Of the Carvakas/Lokayatas my view is that their school originated with Brhaspati who wrote a Bhraspati Sutra and his school then became known as either the Lokayatas (‘worldly ones’) or Carvakas (‘fond of debate’). Other possibilities are that one was a sub-sect of the other or that Carvaka was the follower of Brhaspati. The meaning of the names might be a clue to any possible temporal order. Basham and Fuller use ‘Lokayata’ and ‘Carvaka’ interchangeably, Bronkhorst gives a number of versions as interchangeable.

3. ‘Fatalism’ has a certain relevance here – Basham recounts that Gosala, having experienced ‘repeated failures in all his ventures’ bought two bulls with the remainder of his resources. These were both killed by a camel. He thereupon ‘uttered a long chant on the power of destiny, and the advisability of desirelessness and inactivity.’ He ‘cast off all desires and attained immortality.’ Basham op. cit., p. 38

4. ‘They take spiritous drinks and meat and also copulate with those unfit to be sexually approached (agamya) like the mother, etc. Every year, on a particular day, they assemble and copulate randomly with women. They do not consider dharma to be anything different from kama. Their names are Carvaka, Lokayata, etc.’ From Gunaratna’s Commentary on Haribhadra in Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya Ed., Carvaka/Lokayata, An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, New Delhi, 1994, p. 267a. Such charges were made over and again against both the Ajivikas and the Carvakas by their opponents – to extend the metaphor, ‘eat, drink and be merry’ is the standard fare.

5. Rhys Davids, ibid., p. 371

6. The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy, op. cit., p. 10

7. D.R.Shastri, A Short History of Indian Materialism, Sensationalism and Hedonism, (1930) in Carvaka/Lokayata, An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies op. cit., p. 399

8. Basham stated that the Ajivikas did recognise free will in ‘everyday’ life. History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas, A Vanished Indian Religion op. cit., p. 230 Bronkhorst provided an expansion on this by stating that the Ajivikas held that bodies act according to their own natures, that although the real self does not act, that ‘activity belongs to the material world, which includes body and mind.’ Johannes Bronkhorst, Greater Magadha, Studies in the Culture of Early India, Brill, Leiden, 2007, p. 47 This could offer a connection between life under niyati and svabhavavada.

9. Basham op. cit., p. 258

10. Samannaphala Sutta in The Long Discourses of the Buddha: a Translation of the Digha Nikaya, Trans., Maurice Walshe, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1995, p. 95

11. Bronkhorst argues that the Jainas and the Ajivikas ‘interpreted the doctrine of karma in the same way, believing that bodily and mental movements were responsible for rebirth. But whereas the Jainas believed that motionlessness might destroy past karma, the Ajivikas did not accept this.’ Greater Magadha, Studies in the Culture of Early India, op. cit., p. 45

12. Basham succinctly stated the core reason for the loathing of the Ajivikas: ‘The fatalism of Makkhali entails the antinomianism of Purana. Since there is no possibility of modifying one’s destiny by good works, self-control, or asceticism, all such activity is wasted.’ Their opponents then accused them of luxury and licentiousness. This charge can be countered in different ways: Basham repeatedly pointed to the severe asceticism and self-mortification of the Ajivikas, that references to this are in Chinese and Japanese Buddhist literature. Basham op. cit., p. 112 Again, regarding Jaina hypocrisy on their charge of the Ajivikas’ non-celibacy he wrote ‘It is clear that many ancient Indian ascetics, including the proto-Jainas who followed Parsva, took no vows of chastity. … Their own religious literature shows that the Jaina monks themselves were not always as strict in the maintenance of chastity as the founder of their order might have desired, and that occasional lapses were often looked upon as mere peccadilloes.’ Basham op. cit., p. 126 That the Ajivikas survived for so long in the face of such intense hostility is testament to their sincere austerities and moral discipline. ‘Ajivikas generally pursued their religious quest by the traditional Indian paths of pain, fasting, and gentleness.’ Basham ibid. He wrote that their community was drawn from all sections of society, that women were inducted into their sect, they had educated members, they did not encourage caste distinctions, their monks were active in everyday life, that not only had they enjoyed the support of the kings of Magadha and got their greatest support from industrial and mercantile classes, in later centuries the Dravidian Ajivikas were supported by ‘men of substance’ Basham op. cit., p. 134. Because the Carvakas denied another world and denied karma they were hated by all the other sects. Johannes Bronkhorst, op. cit., pp. 364-365

13. Religious song and ritual dance.

14. ‘Of the Divine’, ‘of portents’, ‘of the sky’, ‘of the earth’, ‘of the body’, ‘of sound’, ‘of characteristics’, ‘of indications’

15. The atomic structure of the universe, the Lord, the Elements, their modifications. The divine Markali delivered these scriptures.

16. Later additions to these elemental categories were ‘joy’, ‘sorrow’ (dukkha) and ‘life’ (jiva). Basham wrote ‘These elemental theories seem gradually to have gained in importance at the expense of the doctrine of niyati, which … plays a lesser part in the Tamil than in the Pali and Prakrit texts.’ Basham op. cit., p. 263 The atoms are neither destroyed nor created, cannot penetrate one another and will not split, multiply, nor expand. The atoms in Manimekalai do move and combine, at least on the lower level of truth. They may come together densely or loosely. In Manimekalai and Civanana-cittiyar atoms combine in fixed ratios. Single atoms can only be detected by a divine eye, but large aggregations can be seen when they form objects. The Ajivika atomic theory was most probably derived from Pakudha Kaccayana and was possibly the first in the world (Basham op. cit., p. 3). The Buddhists, Jainas and Vaisesikas also had atomic theories, again most probably derived from Pakudha and therefore from the Ajivikas (Basham, op. cit., p. 269)

17. Basham wrote that throughout their history, the Ajivikas maintained the material nature of the soul. Basham op. cit., p. 269. He attributed the origins of the Ajivika doctrine of the atomic nature of the soul to animism whereby the life of man was viewed as a solid substance. Basham op. cit., p. 284 For the Jainas, the soul is not material but both dharma and karma are atomic.

18. The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy op. cit., p. 2

19. ‘The Carvakas’ denial of another world is enough for those who hold that ethics must be rooted in it to pronounce that the Carvaka had no ethics.’ Materialism in Indian Thought op. cit., p. 55 ‘Rejecting sacrifices on the basis of their involving bloodshed and obscene rites, the Carvakas are little expected to preach adultery, stealing and the like (crimes) which they are represented to do.’ Ibid., p. 59 The parallels between the charge against the Carvakas by their opponents (including the proponents of caste) that they were (at the least) pleasure seeking egoistic hedonists and that against the atomist Epicureans by their rivals the Stoics and Christians (who shared a belief in ‘Providence’) is noteworthy. The damage done to the philosophy of Epicureanism persists to this day, encapsulated in ‘epicure’. The arguments of Epicurus against a fear of death are also echoed in words attributed to the Carvakas: ‘While life is yours, live joyously/None can escape Death’s searching eye/When once this frame of ours they burn/How shall it e’er again return?’ In The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy op. cit., p. 2 Jaina morality is expressed negatively (non-stealing, non-killing) and the Jainas believe in mortification as a positive element of right conduct. Compare with the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha and the tortured death of Christ which point to salvation through the recognition of suffering as being at the heart of life.

20. ‘Fools and wise, at the breaking-up of the body, are destroyed and perish, they do not exist after death’ attributed to the materialist and possible forerunner of the Carvakas Ajita Kesakambali. In Samannaphala Sutta op. cit. p. 96 ‘The Carvaka view on the soul or consciousness especially that of its discontinuity at death … met with severe criticism from the Buddhists who sought to maintain that there is an eternal flow of momentary conscious states’ The Buddhists argued that ‘the Carvaka cannot assert that the self (soul) dies at the dissolution of the body because in so doing he contradicts his epistemological position that nothing is to be accepted as true that is not given in perception. Nobody can report his own (absolute) death unless we hold belief in some sort of survival.’ Kewal Krishan Mittal, Materialism in Indian Thought, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 1974, p. 48

21. In his Sariraka-bhasya (commentary on the Brahma-sutra) Sankara wrote ‘Here now, some materialists (Lokayatika), who see the Self in the body only, are of the opinion that a Self separate from the body does not exist; assume that consciousness, although not observed in earth and the other external elements – either single or combined – may yet appear in them when transformed into the shape of a body, so that consciousness springs from them … and that man is only a body qualified by consciousness. … in the same way as we admit the existence of that perceptive consciousness which has the material elements and their products for its objects, we also must admit the separateness of that consciousness from the elements. And, as consciousness constitutes the character of our Self, the Self must be distinct from the body. … consciousness is permanent … the body may be used (by the Self) as a mere auxiliary.’ In Carvaka/Lokayata, An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies op. cit., pp. 237-240

22. Sarvadarshansamgraha, quoted at:

23. For the Carvakas svabhavavada was the chance flow of nature, the coming into being and passing away of its formations. Nyaya-Vaisesika thinkers rejected the view of the Carvakas as ‘chance theory.’ Materialism in Indian Thought op. cit., p. 52

24. In his book, Mittal made excellent points regarding the Jainas – that there is very little in common between Carvaka and Jaina thought. He argues that the Jainas are not intentionally materialist. On the contrary, they are opposed to materialism. According to them, matter and the material are responsible for human bondage. The goal of human endeavour is to achieve kaivalya of the jiva from pudgala (matter). Further, one is to mortify the flesh and undergo austerities to achieve this end. Subduing and even destroying the instincts is recommended. Matter binds and degrades the jiva, the real self of humans – it is chaff to be sifted from the grain. Materialism in Indian Thought op. cit., p. 103 The Carvarkas, through Madhvacharya, would reply ‘The kernels of the paddy, rich with finest white grains/What man, seeking his own true interest/would fling them away/because of a covering of husk and dust? Sarvadarshansamgraha, quoted at: op. cit.  

25. ‘The Carvakas do not admit any pramana (validity) except perception. According to them, that which is not perceived cannot be admitted as existent; its non-apprehension proves its non-existence. … the Carvaka assertion that whatever is not perceived is proved to be non-existent leads to sheer absurdities. One leaving one’s home does not perceive his relations, and therefore should believe in the non-existence of these relations and even of his home itself. There will be no point for such a man to return home.’ Gautama’s Nyayasutra with Vatsyayana’s Commentary/Elucidation in Carvaka/Lokayata, An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies, op. cit., pp. 79-80

26. Paul Fuller, The Notion of Ditthi in Theravada Buddhism – The point of view, RoutledgeCurzon, London, 2005, p. 17

27. The Notion of Ditthi in Theravada Buddhism – The point of view, op. cit., pp. 14-18

28. History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas, A Vanished Indian Religion op. cit., p. 285

29. The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy op. cit., p. 10

30. Ibid. p. 2


Basham A.L., History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas, A Vanished Indian Religion, Luzac and Co., Ltd., London 1951

Bronkhorst, Johannes, Greater Magadha, Studies in the Culture of Early India, Brill, Leiden, 2007

Chakraborti, Haripada, Asceticism in Ancient India, S.K. Bhattacharya, Calcutta, 1973

Chakrabarti, Kisor Kumar, Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind, The Nyaya Dualist Tradition, State University of New York Press, 1999

Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad ed., Carvaka/Lokayata, An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, New Delhi, 1994

Fuller, Paul, The Notion of Ditthi in Theravada Buddhism – The point of view, RoutledgeCurzon, London, 2005

Acharya, Madhava The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy, trans., E.B.Cowell and A.E.Gough, Trubner, London, 1882

Mittal, Kewal Krishan, Materialism in Indian Thought, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 1974

Organ, Troy Wilson, The Hindu Quest for the Perfection of Man, Ohio University, 1970

Sharma, Brij Narain, Social Life in Northern India AD 600-1000, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1966

Internet resources (accessed 26.10.10)



Encyclopaedia Britannica/Charvaka

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy/Lokayata/Carvaka


Ian Whicher on Yoga and freedom

Lenin: the recent revolution in natural science, and philosophical idealism – part twelve


*   *   *

The Essence and Significance of “Physical” Idealism

The reactionary attempts are engendered by the very progress of science. The great successes achieved by natural science, the approach to elements of matter so homogeneous and simple that their laws of motion can be treated mathematically, caused the mathematicians to overlook matter. “Matter disappears”, only equations remain. At a new stage of development and apparently in a new manner, we get the old Kantian idea: reason prescribes laws to nature. Hermann Cohen, who, as we have seen, rejoices over the idealist spirit of the new physics, goes so far as to advocate the introduction of higher mathematics in the schools – in order to imbue high-school students with the spirit of idealism, which is being driven out by our materialistic age (F. A. Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus, 5. Auflage, 1896, Bd. II, S. xlix). This, of course, is the ridiculous dream of a reactionary and, in fact, there is and can be nothing here but a temporary infatuation with idealism on the part of a small number of specialists. But what is highly characteristic is the way the drowning man clutches at a straw, the subtle means whereby representatives of the educated bourgeoisie artificially attempt to preserve, or to find a place for, the fideism which is engendered among the masses of the people by their ignorance and their downtrodden condition, and by the senseless barbarity of capitalist contradictions.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 287-288




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Across open country, philosophical idealism gallops free and wild, the wind blowing in its mane:

‘When we look at reality through the equations of physics, we find that they describe patterns and regularities. But to me, mathematics is more than a window on the outside world: in this book, I’m going to argue that our physical world not only is described by mathematics, but that it is mathematics: a mathematical structure, to be precise.’ p. 6

‘If my life as a physicist has taught me anything at all, it’s that Plato was right: modern physics has made abundantly clear that the ultimate nature of reality isn’t what it seems.’ p. 8


If or when our species becomes extinct, we will take, other than the physical records of them, every fact and mathematical equation with us. The universe will continue, sans facts, sans equations and, contrary to the words of the dishonest mystic and concealed priest Wittgenstein (Heraclitus without the Heraclitus), it will do so as a totality of material, non-mathematical things.

Part twelve/to be continued…


Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

Image sources: 1st/2nd/3rd/4th/5th/6th/7th/8th

Lenin: the recent revolution in natural science, and philosophical idealism – part eleven

Herman Matzen, ‘Angel of Death Victorious’ (‘Haserot Angel’), bronze, 1924. Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio

Herman Matzen, ‘Angel of Death Victorious’ (‘Haserot Angel’), bronze, 1924. Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio

 Is Motion Without Matter Conceivable? (continued)

Matter has disappeared, they tell us, wishing from this to draw epistemological conclusions. But has thought remained? – we ask. If not, if with the disappearance of matter thought has also disappeared, if with the disappearance of the brain and nervous system ideas and sensations, too, have disappeared – then it follows that everything has disappeared, and your argument as a sample of “thought” (or lack of thought) has disappeared. But if thought has remained – if it is assumed that with the disappearance of matter, thought (idea, sensation, etc.) does not disappear, then you have surreptitiously gone over to the standpoint of philosophical idealism. And this always happens with people who wish, for the sake of “economy”, to conceive of motion without matter, for tacitly, by the very fact that they continue their argument, they are acknowledging the existence of thought after the disappearance of matter. This means that a very simple, or a very complex philosophical idealism is taken as a basis; a very simple one, if it is a case of frank solipsism (I exist, and the world is only my sensation): a very complex one, if instead of the thought, ideas and sensations of a living person, a dead abstraction is taken, that is, nobody’s thought, nobody’s idea, nobody’s sensation, but thought in general (the Absolute Idea, the Universal Will, etc.), sensation as an indeterminate “element”, the “psychical”, which is substituted for the whole of physical nature, etc., etc. Thousands of shades of varieties of philosophical idealism are possible and it is always possible to create a thousand and first shade; and to the author of this thousand and first little system (empirio-monism, for example) what distinguishes it from the rest may appear important. From the standpoint of materialism, however, these distinctions are absolutely unessential. What is essential is the point of departure. What is essential is that the attempt to think of motion without matter smuggles in thought divorced from matter – and that is philosophical idealism.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 248-249


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Consider the unceasing motion in the works above – in their sub-atomic structure and in their decay.

Chernyshevsky wrote in ‘The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality’ that a beautiful object is that which reminds us of life, and it is the material motion – ‘ageing’ – of these works that most makes them beautiful, reminding us of the impermanence and brevity of life, of its worth in this world and of its passing, in objective reality.


Part eleven/to be continued…

Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

Image sources: first/second/third/fourth

Lenin: the recent revolution in natural science, and philosophical idealism – part ten

Is Motion Without Matter Conceivable?

The fact that philosophical idealism is attempting to make use of the new physics, or that idealist conclusions are being drawn from the latter, is due not to the discovery of new kinds of substance and force, of matter and motion, but to the fact that an attempt is being made to conceive motion without matter. …let us examine Dietzgen’s own statements on the question under consideration. He says: “They [the idealists] want to have the general without the particular, mind without matter, force without substance, science without experience or material, the absolute without the relative” (Das Wesen der menschlichen Kopfarbeit, 1903, S. 108). …“The antithesis between force and matter is as old as the antithesis between idealism and materialism” (111). “Of course, there is no force without matter, no matter without force; forceless matter and matterless force are absurdities. If idealist natural scientists believe in the immaterial existence of forces, then on this point they are not natural scientists…but seers of ghosts” (114). …

 Let us imagine a consistent idealist who holds, let us say, that the entire world is his sensation, his idea, etc. (if we take “nobody’s” sensation or idea, this changes only the variety of philosophical idealism but not its essence). The idealist would not even think of denying that the world is motion, i.e., the motion of his thoughts, ideas, sensations. The question as to what moves, the idealist will reject and regard as absurd: what is taking place is a change of his sensations, ideas come and go, and nothing more. Outside him there is nothing. “It moves” – and that is all. It is impossible to conceive a more “economical” way of thinking. And no proofs, syllogisms, or definitions are capable of refuting the solipsist if he consistently adheres to his view.

The fundamental distinction between the materialist and the adherent of idealist philosophy consists in the fact that the materialist regards sensation, perception, idea, and the mind of man generally, as an image of objective reality. The world is the movement of this objective reality reflected by our consciousness. To the movement of ideas, perceptions, etc., there corresponds the movement of matter outside me. The concept matter expresses nothing more than the objective reality which is given us in sensation. Therefore, to divorce motion from matter is equivalent to divorcing thought from objective reality, or to divorcing my sensations from the external world – in a word, it is to go over to idealism. The trick which is usually performed in denying matter, in assuming motion without matter, consists in ignoring the relation of matter to thought. The question is presented as though this relation did not exist, but in reality it is introduced surreptitiously; at the beginning of the argument it remains unexpressed, but subsequently crops up more or less imperceptibly.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 246-248

The world is matter in motion: Voyager 1 approaching Jupiter, 1979

Jupiter’s storms modelled on a soap bubble

Part ten/to be continued…


Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

Lenin: the recent revolution in natural science, and philosophical idealism – part nine

Spin up of a super-massive black hole

Spin up of a super-massive black hole

“Matter has disappeared” (continued)

…the new physics wavers unconsciously and instinctively between dialectical materialism, which remains unknown to the bourgeois scientists, and “phenomenalism”, with its inevitable subjectivist (and, subsequently, directly fideist) deductions.

…however much both Rey and the physicists of whom he speaks abjure materialism, it is nevertheless beyond question that mechanics was a copy of real motions of moderate velocity, while the new physics is a copy of real motions of enormous velocity. The recognition of theory as a copy, as an approximate copy of objective reality, is materialism. When Rey says that among modern physicists there “is a reaction against the conceptualist [Machist] and energeticist school”, and when he includes the physicists of the electron theory among the representatives of this reaction (46), we could desire no better corroboration of the fact that the struggle is essentially between the materialist and the idealist tendencies. But we must not forget that, apart from the general prejudices against materialism common to all educated philistines, the most outstanding theoreticians are handicapped by a complete ignorance of dialectics.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 243-246


Part nine/to be continued…

Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

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Hypatia of Alexandria and NASA

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in 'Agora'

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in ‘Agora’

The NASA website, appropriately and to their credit, has a page on the Neoplatonist Hypatia.

The text states:

‘Sixteen hundred years ago, Hypatia became one of the world’s leading scholars in mathematics and astronomy. Hypatia’s legendary knowledge, modesty, and public speaking ability flourished during the era of the Great Library of Alexandria. Hypatia is credited with contributions to geometry and astrometry, and she is thought instrumental in the development of the sky-measuring astrolabe. “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all,” Hypatia is credited with saying. “To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.'”

If only the scientists at NASA were to study and understand Hypatia’s philosophy and developments on it by others, particularly Hegel and then Marx and Engels, who stood it on its feet in a material world, they would have the epistemology that best reflects the world, can best organise what science is telling them about the world’s profoundly poetic and contradictory nature and can best guide their quest for knowledge.

Both the acquisition and organisation of knowledge require an epistemology. For more than one hundred years in particular, since the development of dialectical materialism by Marx and Engels and the rise of a new science, the dominant bourgeois philosophy (neither dialectical nor materialist) has been an impediment to science.

While science (our drive to know and shape the world) pushes ever further past that ideological constraint, it lacks the epistemology necessary to guide its research and fully enable the understanding of its discoveries (see my post ‘Aristotle and Nicholas of Cusa: to be and/or not to be, that is the question’).

Developments on dialectical materialism are the way forward.

Lunar surface, oblique view across Moltke and Rima Hypatia. 24.2° E, 0.6° N. 80mm. Apollo 10, 1969

Lunar surface, oblique view across Moltke and Rima Hypatia. 24.2° E, 0.6° N. 80mm. Apollo 10, 1969


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Lenin: the recent revolution in natural science, and philosophical idealism – part seven


“Matter has disappeared” (continued)

But dialectical materialism insists on the approximate, relative character of every scientific theory of the structure of matter and its properties; it insists on the absence of absolute boundaries in nature, on the transformation of moving matter from one state into another, that from our point of view is apparently irreconcilable with it, and so forth. However bizarre from the standpoint of “common sense” the transformation of imponderable ether into ponderable matter and vice versa may appear, however “strange” may seem the absence of any other kind of mass in the electron save electromagnetic mass, however extraordinary may be the fact that the mechanical laws of motion are confined only to a single sphere of natural phenomena and are subordinated to the more profound laws of electromagnetic phenomena, and so forth – all this is but another corroboration of dialectical materialism. It is mainly because the physicists did not know dialectics that the new physics strayed into idealism. They combated metaphysical (in Engels’ and not the positivist, i.e., Humean, sense of the word) materialism and its one-sided “mechanism”, and in so doing threw out the baby with the bath-water. Denying the immutability of the elements and of the properties of matter known hitherto, they ended by denying matter, i.e., the objective reality of the physical world. Denying the absolute character of some of the most important and basic laws, they ended  by denying all objective law in nature and by declaring that a law of nature is a mere convention, “a limitation of expectation”, “a logical necessity”, and so forth. Insisting on the approximate and relative character of our knowledge, they ended by denying the object independent of the mind, reflected approximately-correctly and relatively-truthfully by the mind. And so on, and so forth, without end.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 242-243


Part seven/to be continued…

Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

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The number of senses, free will, and productive reality

A good article on how we relate with and know the world – with (again) a useful lead-in by SelfAwarePatterns.


Christian Jarrett has an interesting article at BBC Future on the number of senses that we have.

The principle of five basic human senses is often traced back to Aristotle’s De Anima (On the Soul), in which he devotes a separate chapter to vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Today, the five senses are considered such an elementary truth that it is sometimes used as a point of consensus before writers embark on more mysterious or contentious topics. “What do we actually mean by reality?” asked the author of a recent article in New Scientist magazine. “A straightforward answer is that it means everything that appears to our five senses.”

If only it were that simple. Simply defining what we mean by a “sense” leads you down a slippery slope into philosophy. One, somewhat vague, definition might argue that a human sense is simply a unique way for the…

View original post 763 more words

Lenin: the recent revolution in natural science, and philosophical idealism – part six

Four billion BCE: Battered Earth

Four billion BCE: Battered Earth

“Matter has disappeared” (continued)

The error of Machism in general, as of the Machist new physics, is that it ignores this basis of philosophical materialism and the distinction between metaphysical materialism and dialectical materialism. The recognition of immutable elements, “of the immutable essence of things”, and so forth, is not materialism, but metaphysical, i.e., anti-dialectical, materialism. That is why J. Dietzgen emphasised that the “subject-matter of science is endless”, that not only the infinite, but the “smallest atom” is immeasurable, unknowable to the end, inexhaustible, “for nature in all her parts has no beginning and no end” (Kleinere philosophische Schriften, S. 229-30). That is why Engels gave the example of the discovery of alizarin in coal tar and criticised mechanical materialism. In order to present the question in the only correct way, that is, from the dialectical materialist standpoint, we must ask: Do electrons, ether and so on exist as objective realities outside the human mind or not? The scientists will also have to answer this question unhesitatingly; and they do invariably answer it in the affirmative, just as they unhesitatingly recognise that nature existed prior to man and prior to organic matter. Thus, the question is decided in favour of materialism, for the concept matter, as we already stated, epistemologically implies nothing but objective reality existing independently of the human mind and reflected by it.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 241-242

From the smallest (known) to the largest (known)


Part six/to be continued…

Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

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