Problems with a Materialistic Philosophy

By Rudra Shivananda

It is sad that the prevalent philosophy among the majority of humanity is one of materialism in some form or the other. Even among those who profess spirituality, there is in reality a desire for some subtle form of material gratification. There is actually a profound danger in the material view of the meaning of life that is quickly causing a degeneration of the value of an individual to society.

What do I mean by a materialistic philosophy?

It is easy to understand the traditional material philosophy which reasonably maintains that all that exists is apprehended by the five senses and their instrumental extensions – it is all matter and there is no proof for anything that is non-material. It finds support in science and in fact science now assumes that the universe is only matter and no longer even tries to look on any alternative view except to suppress it with orthodoxy. We are also familiar with political systems based on material philosophy such as communism and how they have affected human freedom and creativity.

What may not be so apparent is the religious materialism that underlies much of the major religious institutions in the world. Even though they are based on the philosophy that there is more to humanity than the physical body and that life extends beyond death in some form or other, in practice they emphasis material success and elevate the rich and powerful beyond the holy. Religious institutions are based on materialism even though their raison-d’etre is the spiritual welfare of its members. Many crimes against humanity have been perpetrated by these religious institutions through directly instigating wars and mass persecutions or indirectly by propaganda programming of its members.

Most insidious is the often neglected spiritual materialism which poisons the efforts of many sincere spiritual seekers. This is very common in India as well where spiritual techniques have been subordinated for the gratification of material needs, whether possessions, wealth, relationships, job advancement or better health. This is not to say that one cannot be spiritual and can still satisfy material needs, it is the danger of spending spiritual energy and efforts to acquire material gains that is to be avoided. I shall go more in depth on this subject in the future. It is easy to consider a prime example – the perversion of yoga postures and the very name of yoga for the purpose of fitness and figure in “yoga studios” throughout the world. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against exercising and keeping fit and admire the teachers who help in this manner, but what I object to is the hijacking of yoga postures solely for this purpose and forgetting about the true purpose of these postures as a base for yoga meditation.

Actually I’m only mentioning these other types of materialism because it would be unfair for you to think that the problem is only with scientific materialism. We need to uncover the undermining of individual freedom that is being caused by the scientific philosophy because it is this that has more open as well as hidden and subconscious influence these days then religious or spiritual materialism.

flight sky earth space

Let us consider what popular science is understood to tell us – human beings are just the result of a series of accidental and random joining of proteins evolving over a period of time through natural selection on an insignificant dust-ball in a non-remarkable solar-system within a mediocre galaxy, one among countless billions of them. Everything concerning a human being can be understood by knowing about the material interaction of some form or other – no non-material mind or soul exists. When an individual human dies, that is the total end of that individual’s existence – there is nothing beyond death.

Since the general population has a great faith in the conclusions of science in terms of physics and cosmos, biology and medicine, chemistry, engineering and even the pseudo-science of psychology – we are so in awe of the technology that has produced so much improvement in the well-being and lifestyle of humanity that we would accept what science is saying about the metaphysical subjects such as soul and re-incarnation that it has not made any serious attempt to penetrate or understand better.

Serious thinkers who accept scientific materialism have grappled with the dilemma of motivating humanity towards a set of non-spiritually induced ethical behavior. How do you get people to behave well towards each other if there are no consequences in the afterlife or in a future life? Focus is then on the betterment of humanity – in scientific materialism, the individual is insignificant, only the perpetuation and betterment of humanity is important. This means that the individual should be sacrificed for the well-being of the many. This kind of thinking is being used to justify all sorts of laws and regulations which take away individual dignity and freedom.

In scientific materialism there is no necessity for individual evolution, no transcending of individual limitations, no Self-realization or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Such efforts would be meaningless. There is no respect for the individual apart from his or her contribution to humanity.

True spirituality actually looks at things from the opposite side – humanity exists for the sake of the individual – this is because every person is potentially divine and can attain to higher consciousness. For spirituality, every individual is precious as each one is a receptacle of the spirit – each body is the temple of the divine, capable of evolving to unimaginable heights beyond the dreams of science, philosophy or religion.

It is important in this time to re-affirm the importance of the individual, not to the detriment of everyone, but with a balance of fundamental rights and not let fear-mongers justify the throttling of freedom in a country that has prided itself on being the country of the free.

We respect the province of science but it should also know its limits and not be used to justify a materialistic philosophy. It is important to realize that science has not proven the non-existence of a spiritual reality but merely limited itself to the material world and can neither affirm nor deny the spiritual. There is no conflict between real science and real spirituality just as there is no conflict between physics and biology as long as each recognizes its scope and limitations.

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