Karl Jaspers Forum, Target Article 16, 16 March 1999
IS THERE ANYTHING AT ALL?
Materialism and Idealism in the Philosophy of Consciousness.
by Paul Jones
MATERIALISM AND IDEALISM
by V. V. Raman
CONSISTENCY AND FREEDOM
by Paul Jones
I consider the commentary by V. V. Raman as a good example of
dialectical negation, aimed to development rather than denial.
Prof. Raman's remarks touch important points and there certainly
are many statements that demand more clarification and explication,
and I am grateful to him for that detailed and thoughtful review.
In this response, however, I can only give hints to what should be
done in reviewing the issues related to the opposition of
materialism and idealism in philosophy, and, in particular,
methodology of science. Some special topics (like integrity and
complexity) have been discussed elsewhere (e.g. ) some other
problems are still waiting for proper consideration.
To make things clear from the very beginning, I must stress
once again that my treatment of the problem is based on
a wider view, and I do not belong to neither of the two camps.
However, I insist that one should not mix materialism and
idealism in an eclectic way in any particular research,
just because some things seem to look better one way than
the other. As usual, the opposites have to be carefully
discriminated before they could enter any kind of synthesis.
Here we come to the problem of consistency. V. V. Raman
keenly indicates that some people may intentionally admit
inconsistencies in their thought and action, just because
"inconsistency is quite a pleasant experience", or "it is
enjoyable". Certainly, the capability of mental play and
experiment is one of the most important achievements of
reason, distinguishing a conscious being from the animals.
However, this is not the only, and in no way determinative,
distinction, and it has to be complemented by the capability
of pursuing one's goals despite the natural inaccessibility.
In other words, consciousness implies both the wish and
the will. The latter serves to preserve the integrity of
activity, and, virtually, the integrity of the self. That
is, one has to act consistently to remain a conscious being;
otherwise, any activity is bound to degrade into a kind of
field behavior, requiring no consciousness at all .
This may be illustrated by the well known cases of the
divided identity in psychiatry. Lack of behavioral and
mental integrity is also an essential component of
schizophrenia, paranoia etc. in any case it is
symptomatic of a mental disease .
However, there may be different kinds of integrity,
and some of them may well admit controlled inconsistency,
on the lower levels, to allow more flexibility in
choosing the means of attaining the same conscious goal.
This is reflected in the category "dialectical
contradiction" in dialectical materialism, and the very
opposition of materialism and idealism, or dialectics
and metaphysics may well be dialectical, in the context
of the development of philosophy as a whole; however,
there can be no "pluralistic harmony", as V. V. Raman
calls it, since, as soon as there is a contradiction,
it will objectively lead to the dominance of one of
the opposites in any particular activity.
Dialectical materialism is a philosophy of development
as an objective process. It does not treat the opposites
of a dialectical contradiction as mere "opinions", or
the views of the same thing "from different perspectives"
rather, the presence of the contradiction indicates that
certain economic, spiritual or cultural formations have
not yet developed enough, and the opposites of today are
the raw material for a whole to be built in the future.
There can be no development without dialectical
contradiction however, the forms of the manifestation
of that contradiction may be different in different
societies, being indirectly related to the kind of
the contradiction. The form of the suppression of one
camp by another is characteristic for the class of
societies we know as 'civilization', based on
private appropriation of the public product. In a
higher-level society knowing no property at all,
there will be no economic and social base for any
antagonism, including ideological controversy.
One of the fundamental principles of dialectical
materialism is the directedness of development,
from the lower to higher levels. In other words,
nothing is destined to last forever, and all the
existing things (material or not) are bound to
become obsolete and give way to other, more
developed (in an objective sense) things of
a different kind. In particular, philosophy itself
is objectively developing from the primitive to
higher-level forms, and it is not a mere
juxtaposition of all the philosophies ever
known, but an integral whole of a sort different
from what it were in Antiquity, or in the Middle Ages.
That is, one can definitely assert that
dialectical materialism is a more advanced
form of philosophy than any one of the
previously known forms and that both
materialism and idealism have to become
history, being ousted by with a higher-level
philosophy, with its own forms and trends.
This certainly depends on the ways of the
economic development of the human societies,
and philosophies of different level may co-exist
for quite a while, as long as their economic
roots exist in the same time.
The development of consciousness obeys the same
dialectical laws, and all the forms of human
activity, and specifically the forms of
spirituality like art, science and philosophy,
can be considered as a manifestation of the
current level in the development of consciousness.
This provides a basis for an objective study of
consciousness. However, dialectical materialism
stresses that consciousness cannot be the same
in different epochs; moreover, every act of
cognition moves human consciousness a little
higher, so that it is bound to change in the
course of studying it, which resembles the
situation with quantum mechanics, with an
important difference that there is no
external ('macroscopic') observer for the
humanity, and we have to look at it 'from
In particular, the admissibility of certain forms
of behavior is never absolute, depending on the
general level of cultural development. The ability
to correlate one's behavior with the objectively
progressive norms is one of the fundamental
components of consciousness, along with awareness
and self-determination. In other words, people
admitting acts inferior to the level of spirituality
reached by the humanity demonstrate lack of
consciousness and could not be called conscious
without reservations. This directly applies to
the consistency and orientation of one's philosophy.
Thus, eclecticism is admissible in ideology until
the distinctions between the ideas involved become
clear enough. Well, the statement "2 x 2 = 13" is
much closer to the truth than "2 x 2 = 45", provided one
does not know that 2 x 2 = 4.
In other words, consistency is one of the internal
criteria of truth understood as objective phenomenon
developing in a dialectical way. Consistent thought can
still fall in error but no truth can be inconsistent.
Denying the need of consistency means inability and
refusal to understand anything, and hence imposing
the limits for the growth of one's consciousness.
Of course, inconsistency should not be blamed in itself,
and it may be quite appropriate in many cases, to a
definite limit. In general, since every activity is
hierarchical, it implies specific levels of consistency on
different levels, and it is the topmost level that
determines the overall tendency. For instance, one
cannot arbitrarily decide whether to trust binary logic
or not this is determined by a number of objective
cultural processes. Eventually, inconsistency itself
has to possess internal consistency.
Deliberate deviation from the culturally established
routes in physical or mental activity can be innocent
enough, when it takes the form of a game. That is,
one knows well that the moves made do not mean anything
real, though they may pretend to be for serious.
Thus, a materialist can play idealist reasoning
on certain issues, to probe the possible ways of
extending the current circle of views, or check the
limits of their applicability. However, all that play
gets put aside, as soon as anything practically important
is concerned. One of the manifestations of consciousness
is the ability to discriminate the situations where it
is allowed to play from the situations demanding
seriousness. When philosophers become driven by their
play of ideas, forgetting about the practical needs,
this is a typical case of lacking consciousness.
Talking about consistent idealism, I indicated that it has to
admit the existence of just something to talk about and it
has to be a unique supernatural mind (though one could hardly
characterize it as a mind in this case). "What's wrong with
admitting the existence of only the supreme mind?" V. V. Raman
asks. Well, there is nothing wrong in mere imagination, and
one can create myths and tales of gods and demons, or the
absolute idea, or the world's soul... or anything. The
problems show up when it comes to practical activity
and the everyday necessity of making decisions. Since there
is no supreme mind anywhere at hand, people implicitly
substitute it with their own minds, thus pretending to
be gods in their contacts with the others. Shall I repeat
that this 'upper position' is generally induced in a person
by his or her actual social position? one can hardly imagine
oneself a god being socially deprived; however, there is
an inverse mentality, when the very inferiority becomes an
absolute value, which formally makes it equivalent to a god,
and as misleading. V. V. Raman correctly indicates that
"idealist philosophy has come to the help of many struggling
and suffering people", providing them a kind of narcosis
with declaring anything they experience as mere dream;
is it always moral to make the people drug addicts?
Dialectical materialism says that nothing can be "logically
established", since it in practical activity only that anything
can be proven as 'true' or be rejected for inadequacy.
The demand to logically demonstrate the existence of matter
is essentially idealistic. This is one more paradox of
idealism: being logically inconsistent (and sometimes even
hostile to logic), it demands logic from its opponents.
One should be aware that it is only one component of logic
that is meant in such cases, namely, deductive schemes;
logic is wider than that, encompassing the variety of schemes
that cannot be all reduced to deduction . In the same
way, the demand to "clearly define" what dialectical
materialism (or any other philosophy) is should be considered
a manifestation of the same idealistic tendency to reduce
anything to deductive schemes; in reality, nothing can be
defined in any complete way, since the complete definition
would be equivalent to the very existence of the thing defined,
which is infinitely hierarchical and hence irreducible to any
finite construction. Limiting thinking to the "clearly definable"
only, would violate the universality of human activity and mind,
and hence deny consciousness itself.
"Why cannot consciousness explore the nature of consciousness,
as one would see ones image in a mirror?" The question answers
itself: because there is no mirror. The only way to reflect
anything is to reflect it in something different, and it is only
the reflection of a thing's traces in the world in the same thing
that is the basic mechanism of self-reflection.
Can one study anything "without appealing to dialectical
materialism", or any other philosophy? Yes, if it is explicit
appeal that is meant; no, if the directing role of philosophy
in scientific research is thus denied. Refusing to 'talk
philosophy', one is bound to involve it implicitly, in a
confusing and inconsistent way, which often leads to
methodological problems and inadequate special techniques.
In some cases a wrong methodological orientation may make
hundreds of scientists waste their effort and time in the
attempts to solve a scientific problem either incorrectly
formulated or demanding a quite different means of investigation.
Thus, the idea that that consciousness is not a biological
phenomenon but rather a social (cultural) formation was
introduced in dialectical materialism after a careful analysis
of the previous attempts to comprehend consciousness;
the search for a material substrate of consciousness was an
indispensably materialistic requirement, while the necessity
of finding a substrate of a special kind allowing for the
development of all the features of consciousness, including
its apparent independence of matter, was a part of the
dialectical approach. Human society was found to be the only
possible carrier of consciousness, and individual consciousness
was logically interpreted as a projection of the social processes
onto a biological body in analogy to how a cell regulates
molecular flows, a molecule constraints the motion of the atoms
consisting it, an atom binds the nucleus and electrons etc.
Once the social nature of consciousness is accepted, it becomes
clear that it is no use to seek for consciousness on the
biological level, and no brain function can be said to 'produce'
consciousness. However, the scientists educated in the line of
primitive materialism cannot accept that indication, and their
scientific potential is bound to be wasted in the endless
attempts to reduce consciousness to physiology.
"Does the author imply that a child left in the woods (obtaining
nutritional sustenance in some way) without any human interaction
will grow up to be without any consciousness?"
Yes I do assert that. Human physiology has developed to support
consciousness, but it cannot produce consciousness on itself.
Accordingly, there can be no language in a child deprived of any
communication without the other people. Certainly, some
human features can be developed in an individual grown to some
age but not too old in the wild nature environment; however,
the examples known show that the range of human capabilities
will remain very limited in such people for the rest of their
lives. Consciousness cannot grow outside the society. However,
in interpreting observations and experiments, one should
account for the fact that the individual's social life begins
very early, before the physiological birth, since the woman's
organism is very sensitive to the social environment during
pregnancy, and the very chemistry of fetus development is
dependent on the mother's communication with the people;
on the later stages, a month or two before the birth, a child
can participate in the social life, reacting on outer events
in a relatively independent way.
The assertion that "ALL mental forms are nothing but schemes
of activity provoked by material/economic factors" is one of
the most important achievements of dialectical materialism.
The dialectical side of it is that the influence of economy
on mentality can be indirect, with so many mediating steps
that a spiritual phenomenon may seem to have no economic roots
at all. However, this circumstance is a usual case in many
sciences, which have to extract meaningful results from
experimental data using a number of elaborated techniques
based on a definite theoretical model; one could refer to
the physics of autoionizing states in atoms and ions ,
or to the standard practices of psychoanalysis, for another
example. Still, "the claims of Vedic rishis, [...] of the
Prophet Mohammed, [...] the dedication of Albert Schweitzer
and Mother Teresa, and the creativity of Pushkin and
Tchaikowski, can all be explained [...] in terms of economic
factors". In this quotation from V. V. Raman, I have omitted
Moses and Jesus for the reason of their doubtful existence,
and replaced the words "explained simply" with only "explained",
since the explanation is in no way simple in complex cases.
Basically, one has to consider culture as a hierarchy of all
the products of human activity, and distinguish material
culture (things made and relations established) from spiritual
culture (skills of production acquired = schemes of activity =
mental structures and social climate); further, any element
of culture (either material or spiritual) can be used to
construct another product, which will become a part of culture
through the process of socialization, and hence become able
to generate other products, related to the primary products
in a more indirect way.
But "how does dialectical materialism explain the many random
thoughts that also arise in the human mind?" Well, as most
psychoanalytic therapists would agree, there are no random
thoughts at all. Every thought can be explained, if one had
enough time and patience to trace its origin. Schematically,
one has to consider self-communication as a kind of social
process, governed with the same objective laws. There is no
experience that "is ineffable and cannot be communicated",
since one has at least to communicate it to oneself, to
make it conscious; otherwise, there is nothing more than
mere animal sensation, having nothing to do with human
spirituality. There is no 'esoteric' knowledge, since it
can only be called knowledge after it has been socialized,
and communicated to the society as a whole, to become an
element of the culture.
It should be stressed that the acceptance of the universal
determinism in dialectical materialism denies neither
randomness, nor freedom. The former refers to the level of
physical things and characterizes a particular way of the
representation of the lower levels of hierarchy on a higher
level, when it is only certain average motion that matters,
the rest of the system's behavior remaining 'arbitrary'.
Since the formation of hierarchical structures is an
objective process [6, 7], randomness should not be considered
as mere interpretation or mental construction though such
constructions could be considered as a natural phenomenon
too, being just another case of interlevel relationships.
Freedom is different from arbitrariness in that it refers
to the level of consciousness (social motion), being an
expression of the consistency of an individual activity
with the current level of cultural development. Thus,
one cannot be free if one's actions contradict to the
cultural background, which will result in a kind of
conflict and hence restrict the person's access to cultural
resources. Freedom is the ability to use the possibilities
opened by the culture, and one also cannot be free if
one does not know about the possibilities available or
does not have enough skill in using them. In particular,
a scientist ignorant in philosophy is not free in his or her
studies, being driven by random circumstances rather than
purposefully applying an adequate methodology. The same
limitation of freedom is implied by the inconsistency of
reasoning, save in the case of its conscious imitation (play).
In the end, a few words about 'praxis'. Any philosophy is
nothing but the way to orient people and organize their
activity. Idealism leads to the acts that differ from
those stimulated by materialism; however, in many cases,
this difference is not apparent, referring more to the
spiritual side of activity rather than its material side.
This makes it possible to use 'good' ideas to disguise
'bad' acts (one should remember the dependence of 'the good'
and 'the bad' on the level of cultural development and
As V. V. Raman truly indicates, some ideas of dialectical
materialism may resemble those of Christian theology, Yoga,
various kinds of Humanism etc. No wonder, since dialectical
materialism has grown as a natural continuation of the
general line of the development of philosophy, including
all its positive content. However, there cannot be
mere 'embedding' of an idea from one philosophy in another;
ideas transform in a different context, to become different
from what they were originally. Sometime, this may cause
difficulties and misunderstanding: thus, a few places
in the works by L. Vygotsky are textually close to some
texts by M. Bakhtin, which even caused the claims of
plagiarism however, careful reading will make it clear
that the same words mean quite different things for
a materialist (Vygotsky) and idealist (Bakhtin), and
there are no 'stolen' ideas, despite of all the possible
influence of Bakhtin's works on Vygotsky.
In the same way, the acts motivated by different ideologies
will be different acts, despite of all their apparent
similarity. For instance, a man saving another man for
a reward as compared to a man saving another man for mere desire to
help (which does not exclude being eventually rewarded).
There is a difference in the degree of freedom: the act
motivated at a lower level is less free than the act
following higher-level motivation while the very
hierarchy of motives is objective, corresponding to
the current level of cultural development.
It should be noted that the difference in ideology often
results in the different forms of the 'same' activity,
which may produce different effect in the end. Thus,
a monk working as a nurse in a hospital will perform
basically the same functions as a professional nurse,
but the monk may additionally impose certain ideological
preferences, which may be helpful in curing the disease,
but may also lead to social inadequacy in the future
life of the person. If, instead, there were a nurse with
some experience in materialistically oriented psychotherapy,
the treatment might be much more successful, since the
patient would have been trained to efficiently cope with
the difficult situations in his or her life and work, rather
than vainly hope for help from the sky. Pray and meditation
may help some people to overcome the stress and regain
self-control, to consciously act however, they may be
harmful if exercised with excessive devotion, in an
uncritical way: this is like driving a nail into a
plank with the hammer, and then continuing to knock
at the plank until it splits.
Conscious behavior implies concentration, but not
With idealistically minded people, one should always
distinguish apparent and actual motivation. Since no
idealism can be consistent, the actions of an idealist
are often caused by quite materialistic reasons,
being re-motivated afterwards. On the other hand,
one could recall that materialism does not exclude
moral commitment, dedication to serve the human family,
compassion, caring and other similar qualities, which
have nothing to do with philosophic idealism and religion,
though there have been many attempts to oppose them
to any materialism. Dialectical materialism treats
the sphere of morality as one of the levels of
spirituality in general, corresponding to certain
objective phenomena in economic and cultural development.
Quite often, the materialistic approach to humanism
makes it much more 'humanistic' than any kind of abstract
humanism, and any religion .
To conclude, the problem of consistency and freedom
has to be considered in the context of the objective
development of human culture, and the growth of
social and individual consciousness accompanying it.
One is free to try different ways, and experiment
within the limits of social responsibility. However,
no action is arbitrary on the level of consciousness,
and there always are economic and social grounds for
every subjective phenomenon this does not restrict
one's freedom, which is rather restricted by animal-like
behavior, irresponsibility and inconsistency, lack of
the understanding of objective cultural processes,
and hence inability to use them in one's activity.
References and Notes
P. Ivanov, "Qualitative Complexity" http://unism.pjwb.org/arc/1996cx/cxe.htm
The role of the bridge between the wish and the will is performed by knowledge.
Today, some people argue that there is no such thing as a mental
disease at all, and all the kinds of behavior should be considered
as equally normal I do not share this opinion, being convinced
that the level of cultural development is based on objective
premises, which eventually determine any conceptual distinction.
P.Ivanov, "Hierarchy of Logic" http://unism.pjwb.org/arc/1997hl/hle.htm
A.L.Godunov, P.B.Ivanov, V.A.Schipakov, P.Moretto-Capelle, D.Bordenave-Montesquieu and A.Bordenave-Montesquieu,
"Excitation of autoionizing states of helium by 100-keV proton impact: II. Excitation cross sections and mechanisms of excitation"
J. Phys. B 33, 971-999 (2000)
E.N.Yeliseyev, The structure of the development of complex systems (Leningrad: Nauka, 1983)
B.Drossel, "Simple Model for the Formation of a Complex Organism" Phys. Rev. Lett. 82, 5144 (1999)
P.Ivanov, "Unism and Humanism" http://unism.pjwb.org/arc/1996uh/uhe.htm