Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Materialism is not, after all, the latest thing

You think materialism is relatively new? I did too, years ago. Then I discovered that, in both East and West, there are very old (thousands of years old) materialist schools of philosophy that sound just like the latest sage in Time Magazine.

While writing about why the Dalai Lama accepts modern science but rejects materialism, I had occasion to read about a genuinely materialist school of philosophy in ancient India (over 2500 years ago).

The Charvaka school that flourished around 600 B.C., and it had nothing to do with claims about discoveries in science.

In The Universe in a Single Atom, the Lama references
... the radical materialist Charvaka (or Carvaka) school's theory of the evolution of the universe through a purposeless, random development of matter, with all mental processes viewed as derivative of complex configurations of material phenomena.

Purposeless? Random? Everything old is new again!

Here is an extract from a later work setting forth the Charvaka philosophy:
In this school the four elements, earth, fire, water and air are the original principles. From these alone, when transformed into the body, intelligence is produced—just as the intoxicating power of some herbs is developed from the mixing of certain ingredients. When the body is destroyed, intelligence at once perishes also. They quote the Vedic text for this:

Springing forth from these elements itself

solid knowledge is destroyed

when they are destroyed—

after death no intelligence remains.

Therefore the soul is only the body distinguished by the attribute of intelligence, since there is no evidence for any self distinct from the body. Therefore the existence of such a separate self cannot be proved, because this school holds that perception is the only source of knowledge and does not allow inference as an alternative source.

The Charvakans were bolder than most modern materialist philosophers because they seemed to think that consciousness ("solid knowledge" in the text above) can actually be produced directly by matter. The modern materialist is content to argue that mind (self) is an illusion generated by the activities of neurons of the brain, but not that it can be produced by mixing elements of matter. So we have learned something or other in the last 2500 years after all.

The Lama is an atheist, but a non-materialist atheist, so he doesn't think that this sort of materialism is compatible with Buddhism. He writes,
This last position is not dissimilar to scientific materialism's belief that mind is reducible to neurological and biochemical reality and these in turn to facts of physics. Buddhism, by contrast, explains the evolution of the cosmos in terms of the principle of dependent origination, in that the origin and existence of everything has to be understood in terms of the complex network of interconnected causes and conditions. This applies to consciousness as well as matter. (pp. 76-77)

The point here is that he thinks that consciousness is real and that it is capable of causing events; it is not an illusion. Here is an old text on Charvaka.

Interestingly, the West also featured some interesting old materialists in Epicurus (341-270 BCE) and Lucretius (99-55 BCE). Outside the hothouse of the academy, it never caught on then and my guess is, it won't now.

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