Hungarian Conservative

The Three Phases of Materialism

A dialectic materialism class at the Victor Babeş (today Babeş-Bolyai) University in Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár) in 1951.
A dialectic materialism class at the Victor Babeş (today Babeş-Bolyai) University in Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár), Romania in 1951.
Wikimedia Commons
‘When Marx explained the philosophical foundations of dialectical materialism, he first of all referred to the “development of the natural sciences”, just as the representatives of today's New Atheist movements like to claim that “science has surpassed God” when explaining their theories.’

In the contemporary world, materialism is not at all the worldview that is mandatory to embrace, and taught in schools, as it was during the period of ideological Marxism. (At least in Central and Eastern Europe.) It is, however, quite thought-provoking that so many in today’s world still claim to be materialists, or behave and speak as materialists—regardless of whether they are aware of what materialism actually means. Materialism is a problem not only because it is actually the basis of many systems of arguments that challenge and weaken the traditional worldview important to conservatives—which is based above all on religion—but also because it permeates everything in today’s world in an almost totalitarian way. This all-pervasive nature of materialism is sometimes immediately noticeable, but is often hidden and disguised.

Materialism is not only about challenging, ridiculing, or ‘destroying’ religion, but also about the emergence of ‘practical materialism.’ In general, the overriding effort to acquire material goods, the primary importance attributed to technology and production, generally to the economy, and the incessant preoccupation with these fields, and, in parallel, the relegation of all spiritual areas to the background are also a kind of materialism. Although practical materialism is only indirectly related to philosophical or ideological materialism as an expressed and professed worldview, it is nevertheless related to it. Materialism also cannot be equated with atheism, although an indirect connection always exists between the two.

It is not only popular authors who deliberately aim to destroy the Christian worldview who represent various forms of materialism, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, (figures of the so-called New Atheism[1]) but also various non-theoretical formulations of it. And this kind of materialism is a much more widespread phenomenon. We can also talk about materialism in the sense of an attitude towards life, which, on the one hand, is connected with with consumerism, and on the other hand, with technocracy, i.e. precisely with those phenomena that can be held responsible for the ecological crisis in the most concrete sense, and for a lot of other menacing developments that are threatening humanity today.

Both consumerism and technocracy are typical of today’s world and both are sharply opposed to conservative values.

The so-called ‘consumer mentality’ is intimately connected with materialism, as is the conception of ‘man as consumer’ or man as homo economicus. Based on materialism, it is not really possible to imagine any other morality than the ‘survival of the fittest’, because the idea of ​​human dignity becomes completely illusory if we start from the assumption that man does not have a soul. Why should life be respected if it is only a higher level of organization of matter? What is the point of any respect at all, if everything is ‘mere matter’, every consciousness is provisional, and there is nothing of higher value in the world than ‘matter’? This view is echoed in the ever worsening relationship between the materialistic man and the natural environment. Extreme capitalism is just as unthinkable without materialism as communism. The influence of materialism is therefore not limited to actual philosophical materialists at all.

Above all, the credibility of materialism in the eyes of the masses is supported by the fact that its representatives often identify it with ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ views, while simply glossing over the ideological and philosophical presuppositions of materialism.[2] The claim of a correspondence between ‘materialism’ and ‘science’ is a sheer fallacy. This is an illusion that immediately dissipates after a closer examination. Although the way in which the mass media often discuss and portray the significance and results of ‘modern science’—as if they were expressly refutations of the various claims of religion—undoubtedly further feeds the illusion that the ‘scientific’  and ‘materialist’ approaches are synonymous.[3]

Those who believe this propaganda usually do not investigate further; they rather they blend into the general climate where atheistic and materialist books, theories, lifestyles and mentality are a huge success, and those who are not materialists are expected to emancipate themselves, as they are ‘not modern enough’ and are ‘unable to keep up with the science.’ Materialism as a philosophical theory can be approached in many ways, but its essence is that it denies the existence of non-material realities and

it tries to reduce everything to something perceptible and tangible.

The existence of atoms were already believed to be the ultimate proof of this like this in the case of ancient Greek materialists, such as Democritus. But since the theories of modern quantum physics have relativized the concept of atom, and since the concept of ‘matter’ itself has become quite vague, the new materialists now refer to their worldview as ‘supervenience physicalism’ and ‘emergentism‘, rather than the phenomena of nature that can be grasped by the senses. However, the main claim does not change. Whether it is old or new materialism, the point of the theory is that there is no such thing as truly supernatural—that is, incorruptible, immortal and eternal—but only incessant creation and destruction.

According to this view, the material world is its own cause, using the concept originally applied to God by scholastic philosophy: causa Sui. Although philosophical materialism and ‘everyday’ materialism, which is materialistic simply because it is unable to abstract from what materialism formulated on a philosophical level, speaking about the ‘representation of physical reality in the mind’[4], cannot be equated, yet it can be stated that the two phenomena still originate from the same mental tendency.

This tendency can be traced back, above all, to the fact that humans tend to give physical perception such primacy that precedes thinking of the ‘nature’ of the perceived reality. Therefore, the modern-day proposal of materialism is not primarily related to the rather abstract idea of ‘matter’, but rather to this tendency of the mind,

which can be described as an ‘excessive’ trust in knowledge through the senses.

If we look at the modern history of ideas, this view first appeared in empiricism. 

The first historical period of materialism can be traced back to the age of the foundation of the modern ideal of knowledge, that is, the second half of the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century. The modern ideal of knowledge is expressed both in the Cartesian cogito and in Francis Bacon’s dislike of idols: so-called empiricism and rationalism. However, from the point of view of the result, what is important is not whether there is a starting point that can be linked to specific persons, but rather, that in this period in intellectual history, the material dimension of existence was given more and more weight, which the science and philosophies of previous ages undoubtedly ‘neglected.’

Above all, rationalism was expressed in the philosophy of Bacon, Hobbes and Locke in the 16th and 17th centuries, and these symbolic names best capture the change in thinking that founded the creation and approach of modern science. In essence, they are already modern thinkers, since they did not look for the first principle of the world, understood in the spiritual sense, the place of man in the world, or world harmony understood in the sense of the spiritual arkhé, but they considered the material appearance of the world as primary.

Bacon declared in his Novum Organum

‘[T]he works that have already been achieved owe more to chance and experiment than to disciplined sciences; for the sciences we have now are merely pretty arrangements of things already discovered, not ways of making discoveries or pointers to new achievements.[…]Just as the sciences that we now have are useless for devising new inventions, the logic that we now have is useless for discovering new sciences.’[5]

Then, Bacon comes to the assumption that philosophy and the sciences have not served the ‘progress’ of humanity until then—and he immediately concludes that a new ‘method’ must be constructed. In the case of this early rationalism, the primary issue was not the denial of God, or the denial of all kind of transcendental reality, but rather

the separation of God from the world, and the denial of a spiritual principle that completely permeates the world.

Descartes and Bacon—as the first modern rationalists—were also no atheists; in fact, both were reputed to be ‘deeply religious’ persons who at the same time prepared the ‘autonomous’ view of the cosmos: what can be called the ideological basis of later deism and then, atheism. However, the idea of ​​mechanism is already apparent in their oeuvre, and this is where the later doctrine comes according to which God plans and ‘adjusts’ the universe in the same way that mechanical machines, such as clocks, are planned and adjusted. If we articulate the possibility of this ‘autonomous cosmos’ as scientific rationalism, then, in the sense of ‘Enlightened’ deism, it can also be said: things do not participate in the Being, but exist by themselves.[6] And if that is the case, knowledge really doesn’t need a metaphysical background either. Since this belief prevailed among the intellectuals from the 18th century onwards, nature was left to Descartes’ ‘mechanism’, and in the following centuries, its study became entirely the task of an empiricist-materialist natural science.

This actually pre-materialist, empiricist and rationalist ‘scientific’ phase was the first and most important foundation of materialism, followed by the other two phases: the ‘ideological’ and then the ‘practical.’ If this basis had not existed, if ideological materialism had not been able to refer to ‘science’, then its claims would never have been taken seriously.

When Marx explained the philosophical foundations of dialectical materialism, he first of all referred to the ‘development of the natural sciences’,

just as the representatives of today’s New Atheist movements like to claim that ‘science has surpassed God’ when explaining their theories. However, the reason for contemporary materialism is undoubtedly not to be found in ‘newer scientific discoveries.’ Rather, it follows from an ideology according to which the authority of natural science, which is based on materialistic foundations, is practically absolute, even though science has long since surpassed the ‘paradigm’ of materialism.[7]

The deeper source of materialism is a form of an ideological worldview that is not interested in some enrichment of human experience, but in an exclusion. Because the primacy given to physical perception displaces all other possible interpretations, since only what can be ‘measured’ is considered real.

As Francis Bacon declared nearly five centuries ago:

‘The human intellect is inherently prone to make abstractions, and it feigns an unchanging essence for things that are in flux. But better than abstracting from nature is dissecting it; which is what Democritus and his followers did, getting deeper into nature than anyone since. What we should be attending to is matter, its microstructures and changes of microstructure, and actus purus, and the laws of action or motion. ·The alternative to studying matter is to study forms, but· forms are fabrications of the human mind, unless you want to call the laws of action forms.’[8]

To what extent Bacon’s above statement can be considered one of the ‘fabrications of the human mind’ can, of course, also be questioned. By ‘dissecting’ nature, it is indeed possible to get to a more precise knowledge of its material substance, to the construction of machines that supposedly ‘make life easier’; but is it all worth it if, in the meantime, the human experience is impoverished, and nature is also trammelled by material goals? Or, as the Gospel says: ‘What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?’[9]

[1]  The New Atheists are authors of early twenty-first century books promoting atheism. See the definition of ‘New Atheism’ in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

[2] ‘The New Atheists make substantial use of the natural sciences in both their criticisms of theistic belief and in their proposed explanations of its origin and evolution…They believe empirical science is the only (or at least the best) basis for genuine knowledge of the world, and they insist that a belief can be epistemically justified only if it is based on adequate evidence.’ Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[3] The physicist and philosopher of science, Benedictine monk Szaniszló Jáki said in a 1996 interview: ‘During my investigations, I realized that the problems between science and religion, between science and worldview, are not fundamentally scientific in nature, but rather questions of cultural history…For example, all quantitative concepts basically assume the existence of reality, which is obviously not a quantifiable concept! Those who are impressed by the effectiveness of quantitative predictions completely lose their sense of non-quantitative concepts. So you can’t negotiate with them about the countless and really deep features of reality. We cannot prove to a blind person that colours exist! And if someone has no sense of ontology and epistemology, then the exchange of ideas stops, since they do not speak the same language in the discussion.’ Re-published by the website of the Central Research Institute for Physics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, of the original interview in Issue 8 (1996) of the popular science magazine A Természet Világa., accessed 20 Oct. 2023.

[4] Mostly in accordance with the philosophy of mind: ‘representational realism’.

[5] Francis Bacon, The New Organon: or True Directions Concerning the Interpretation of Nature, in Some Texts from Early Modern Philosophy,, accessed 20 Oct. 2023, 4.

[6] One of the fundamental teachings of medieval scholasticism was that beings ‘participate’ in the Being (God), which must be imagined as their existence, although  their ‘own existence’ also means a quality of being that is the ‘self-communication’ of the absolute, of the Divine Being. As the theologian Étienne Gilson writes: ‘If God is Being, He is not only total being: totum esse, but, as we have seen, He is more especially true being: verum esse, and that means that everything else is only partial being, hardly deserves the name of being at all. And thus all that seems to us most obviously real, the world of extension and change around us, is banished at one stroke into the penumbra of mere appearance, relegated to the inferior status of a quasi-unreality…None of the things we know directly possesses all the characters of being…The Christian philosophers gathered from the Bible the identity of essence and existence in God; and then could hardly fail to see that such identity exists nowhere save in God. (The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940, 63, 67.

[7] According to one of the main claims of the most famous book of Thomas Kuhn, it is impossible to compare successive paradigms due to the ‘change of meaning’ of the concepts in the theories. (Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, University of Chicago, 1970, 43-52.

[8] Bacon, The New Organon, 7.

[9] Mark 8:36. 

‘When Marx explained the philosophical foundations of dialectical materialism, he first of all referred to the “development of the natural sciences”, just as the representatives of today's New Atheist movements like to claim that “science has surpassed God” when explaining their theories.’