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I. Introduction - II. The Rise of a Materialistic View of Nature in Greek Thought - III. The Materialistic Roots of Atheism in Ancient Western Thought - IV. Matter in a Created World: the Judaeo-Christian Religious Tradition - V. The Rediscovery of Ancient Atomism in Renaissance Materialism and the Beginning of Modern Science - VI. Cartesian Dualism and the Materialistic View of Res Extensa - VII. The Modern Age and the Materialistic Approach to the Natural Sciences: Materialism vs. Mechanism - VIII. Materialistic Naturalism of the 18th Century - IX. Dialectical Materialism as Scientific Materialism - X. Methodological Reductionism vs. Ontological Materialism in some Contemporary Scientific Views - XI. Matter and Information in an Evolving World: is Evolution understandable within a Materialistic Context? - XII. Non-Materialistic Views of Matter in a Spiritual Context.

I. Introduction

The term “materialism” is relatively recent. We first find it, towards the end of the 17th century, as an entry in Pierre Bayle’s (1647-1706) Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697). However, the philosophical perspective that it embodies is at least two thousand years older and dates back to Greek pre-Socratic thought. Today, as in the past, a reflection on the origins of materialism cannot be separated from an analysis of the meanings we give to terms such as matter, reality, spirit and knowledge. Materialism can be defined —and partly understood— only in relation to the content of these concepts or to our pre-understanding of them. In any case, independently of the philosophical perspective adopted, it is clear that the pre-understanding people commonly have of the concept of matter —and therefore, indirectly, of the concept of materialism—necessarily refers to the realm of empirical experience. Unlike what is not material, we access matter through quantitative measurability, empirical sensibility, and reality’s resistance to the action of the mind that tries to apprehend it. This does not mean that a philosophical concept of matter is unfeasible, but simply that it would be so if we reject any understanding of matter in physical terms.

At least in the Western tradition, the notion of materialism has emerged in opposition to that of spirit, or spiritual, as a reality different from matter. This development has also taken place within a specific gnoseological perspective, whereby all knowable reality coincides with matter, that is, only what falls within the realm of the senses; basically, matter would coincide with all existing things. According to this view (which, in great part, still represents what we commonly mean by the term materialism), only matter exists, thus sensible and empirical measurement is the only criterium of matter’s knowability. Any other reality —however we call it: spirit, mind, emotion, intelligence, love, goal, meaning, moral life— could be interpreted in terms of material entities or of some composition thereof. Therefore, any reality that cannot be referred to a material and sensible knowledge, or recognized in the latter, would be considered as non-existent.

Opposite to materialism stands an ontology that considers entities of a non-material nature as real and existing. A broader gnoseology corresponds to this ontology, which is able to state something about these entities; for example, by abstracting from the sensible in order to get to the non-sensible, using for this purpose a metaphysics based on a “principle of analogy of being” and on a “principle of causality.” Yet, for this approach not to be confused with a vague spiritualism —easy prey of irrationality and esotericism— a non-materialistic view of reality must: a) satisfactorily understand what materialism successfully describes; and b) outline an ontology and gnoseology that respect scientific rationality.

The goal of this contribution is to present some historical data on the origins of materialism in the Western tradition, while also pointing out some elements that call for its contemporary abandonment. As with other entries in this Encyclopedia, I will place this account in the context of scientific rationality and of its influence on culture. An implicit question here arises: why has materialism mainly developed in the Greek-Western world, with key moments in the classical pre-Socratic period and subsequently in the Modern Age? In the philosophical traditions of the Near, Middle and Far East, the materialistic perspective has found no room, while philosophical views based on pantheism have greatly developed. What role did philosophy, science, and also religion play in determining this difference? Though this brief historical analysis does not deal directly with this question, I will offer some indirect answers to it, or at least provide some elements to allow for a correct framing of the issue.

For a more complete historical account, the reader can refer to other valuable analyses: to date, the most complete history of materialism is still that by F.A. Lange, written in 1877 and re-edited in 2000; useful accounts on the nature and history of materialism can also be found in Fabro, 1968; Buckley, 1987; Minois, 1998.

II. The Rise of a Materialistic View of Nature in Greek Thought

According to a now classical opinion —rooted in Plato’s view (428-387)— it was the pre-Socratic physicists such as Thales, Anaximenes, Heraclitus or Empedocles, who set the bases of a materialistic view of nature, through their search for a material element (water, air, fire, etc.) as the principle (Gr. arché) of all things. Yet, it would be more accurate to state that the materialistic interpretation of reality was favored, in particular, by the philosophical current of thought known as “atomism.” Already traceable from the 5th century B.C. in the philosophical school of Abdera —founded by Leucippus— atomism was principally theorized by Democritus (ca. 460-370). It was subsequently reformulated in the Greek-Roman tradition by Epicurus (341-270), and later spread through the works of the Latin poet Lucretius (ca. 98-54). In fact, it was through Lucretius’ six-book poem De rerum naturae —edited by Cicero after the poet’s death— that atomism became known throughout the subsequent centuries, and later re-discovered during the Renaissance (see below, V). Compared with atomism, the lesser materialistic influence of physical philosophers derives from the fact that their view of nature was somehow sacred; divinity permeated all things, even if in an immanent way. Their search for a common arché was, after all, qualitative. It implied neither a reduction of all reality to material elements, nor a global and exhaustive interpretation of phenomena and their dynamics. Conversely, it was atomism to be engaged for the first time in a comprehensive and globalizing interpretation of all reality —including its transformations and differences— which now was framed in exclusively material terms.

Classical atomism, however, cannot be interpreted in light of the modern dialectic between spirit and matter. Atomism did not deny the existence of the spirit and the soul, but understood them as composed of material atoms. The typically material nature of atoms was revealed by the fact that they engendered the diversity of things through exclusively quantitative and spatial criteria —today we would say empirical— within a dynamic framework that we can rightfully define mechanistic. Atoms were conceived as material, indivisible, eternal, incorruptible, infinitely numerous but also invisible, as the innermost components of matter itself. The notion of indivisibility (Gr. a-tomos) is at the very heart of their etymology and gave rise to a term that will subsequently enter modern science, a term that has lasted for almost 2,500 years. Atoms fill the void —which is understood as non-being— while at the same time having a kind of primitive ontological foundation. Particularly in Democritus’ interpretation, atomism tried to reduce qualities to quantitative elements (shape, magnitude and weight; position and order in empty space). For example, we see things as colored not because atoms have the quality of color, but because of the interaction between these and our senses. Only atoms and the void are real, while qualities are pure impressions of the subject. As Democritus stated: “By convention color, by convention sweet, by convention bitter […] but in reality atoms and void” (Diels-Kranz, fr. 125). The human mind, thoughts, and the sphere of moral convictions are nothing but movements and compositions of atoms. It should be noted that there is no Logos that exerts a plan-driven control on atoms. Atoms obey no mind, no intelligence and no spirit, because the mind and spirit are, in turn, made up of atoms. The soul is merely a material principle that governs the movement of living things, but it does not transcend the matter that makes these up.

Today, this understanding is still interesting. Perhaps for the first time, we can find there the affirmation of an implicit continuity between the realms of living and non-living things, between the body and the mind. Because every thing is exclusively made up of atoms, when ideally crossing the threshold that those terms seem to embody we will not find qualitative differences, nor ontological gaps or transcendency whatever. We will only find a different spatial organization of atoms —in terms of both quantity and composition.

The close link between atomism and materialism also emerges in the view of the existence of any finalism in nature (and hence of intentionality that can transcend matter). Contrary to common opinion, atomism did not support a radically accidental view of natural phenomena. The convergence between atomism and the notion of randomness has been indirectly favored by the fact that many atomistic philosophers stressed the “whirl-like” nature of great part of atomic movements, particularly those that engendered macroscopic bodies. In reality, in the classical interpretation of atomism founders, atoms move according to a law of necessity, that is ultimately grounded in their very nature, but which is not associated with a higher finalism. Therefore, we have necessity without finalism. The ways that atoms compose, divide and organize follow what, in the Greek world, we may call fatum, which shall not be translated with the contemporary word “chance.” Other Greek and Latin thinkers shared the idea of a “random fate with no finalism,” for instance within the perspective that attributed to the inevitable forces of love and hatred, affinity or difference, the responsibility for the origin of all things through processes of attraction, repulsion and composition of primary elements. The materialistic aspect of atomism, then, conflicts with the idea of finalism, design and, ultimately, with any claim that realities different from atoms may exist. There is no force higher than atoms, able to regulate their movements and thus guide the history with which they determine the formation of world elements. With the negation of finalism, the world loses its uniqueness: the composition of infinite atoms can engender multiple worlds, a view that was put forward, among others, by Epicurus.

At the heart of classical atomism we find gnoseological perspectives that, in modern terms, we would label as “reductionism” and “mechanism.” Viewing reality as composed of atoms sustains the idea that the knowledge of things is always possible through their decomposition into simpler and simpler elements, up to uncovering the modalities of composition or division of the most basic constituents that are, in turn, atoms. The atomistic dynamics is typically mechanistic, as it understands any movement as the flow and displacement of atoms: there are no elements other than atoms themselves. Once we acknowledge their nature, we can fully understand the logic and the modalities with which motion and other phenomena manifest themselves. We can ultimately summarize the main arguments of classical atomism with the three following claims: a) any qualitative difference is only apparent and can be interpreted in terms of quantitative relationships; b) being is understood as, hence reduced to, its extensive and geometric aspects; c) the only existing causality is that which determines movement and change; it is a necessary and fatalistic causality, which works in the absence of finalism.

Aristotle (384-322) criticized the atomistic position, particularly its exclusion of final causes in the interpretation of the natural world. The random multiplication of atoms could not explain the reality of the world’s uniqueness, a problem for which Aristotle accepted no compromise: for the Stagirite, the properties that atomists attributed to atoms (incorruptibility, eternity, etc.) are qualities of the world as a whole, but not those of its parts. The philosophical role that Aristotle ascribed to matter relates to two main contexts: the composition between matter (Gr. hylé, material causality) and form (Gr. morphé, formal causality), which are found in any entity (cf. Physics, II, 3, 194b); and his idea of Prime Matter (cf. Metaphysics, IX, 7, 1049a). Neither context can generate a materialistic view of reality. In the first case, this is so because it is the form, as that giving being to any thing, which holds the primacy in the hylemorphic composition. In the second case, it is so because Prime Matter, while being a general and extensive philosophical substratum that makes any subsequent formal determination possible, is pure potentiality, with no actuality, hence no perfection.

18th- and 19th-century chemistry, which used the notion of atoms to explain changes in elements and compounds —particularly atomic physics from the 20th century onwards— understands “atoms” as something very different from what Leucippus and Democritus meant by the same term. Nevertheless, many aspects of the old atomistic view still raise some interest today. We cannot deny that ordinary people (and great part of popular imagination) tend to consider atoms and elementary particles as material components, able to explain all the phenomena that are object of sensible knowledge, going as far as attributing to atoms some of the same properties singled out by classical philosophers (eternity, simplicity, incorruptibility, etc.). Scientists are well aware that this transposition in contemporary terms is not possible —think, for example, about the decay of unstable particles, about the very complex quantum phenomenology, or about the interactions among matter, radiation and virtual energy. Yet, scientists as well as ordinary people implicitly continue to draw many elements and views from this classical perspective. For instance, matter and energy are considered as different dimensions of one same material nature; the measurability of physical phenomena, including quantum phenomena —a request that underpins any scientific activity— is based on the idea that reality can be known only thanks to a measurable material substratum. Moreover, the success of the analytic-reductionist method favors in many researchers the idea that in order to know reality we must consider it as a set of material components to be divided up and analyzed.

Abandoning this perspective requires a further abstraction: i.e., recognizing the emergence of properties that cannot be simply deduced from the sum of the properties of the parts; the existence of organizing principles, in both inert matter and in living things, which seem to affect the material structure while remaining independent of it; the existence of basic, elementary properties that characterize what material components can do, but whose ultimate explanation does not depend on matter itself; the presence of information, in addition to matter and energy, in the making of the universe. Such abstraction would also lead to acknowledge the presence, in human beings, of a free and personal behavior that does not depend on matter and transcends it, even if manifested only through material physiological components. Finally, a further philosophical abstraction is necessary in order to recognize the contingency of matter: when we consider matter as eternal and as the ultimate foundation of all reality, we inevitably run into a number of contradictions. We easily realize that whenever this “supplement of abstraction or reflection” is not performed, or it is left implicit, many will continue to think that the success of a scientific knowledge based on empirical measurement supports the idea that materialism interprets quite well the reality in which we move and exist.

III. The Materialistic Roots of Atheism in Ancient Western Thought

We owe to Plato the remark that materialism constitutes the first form of atheism and represents, in some ways, its origin. If matter makes up all reality and the only reality, no room is left for spirituality, intelligibility and divinity. Plato extends his criticism of materialism to pre-Socratic philosophers generally, who posit a material, natural principle at the origin of all things, even if they end up ascribing divine prerogatives to it. For Plato, denying the reality of the intelligible and supra-sensible world means to deny divinity: materialism, therefore, would constitute the most radical negation of God (Gr. theós) and of the divine (Gr. theion) as spiritual realities. In order to get past this materialistic framework, he proposed, as is well-known, the notion of the “second navigation,” through which we can finally access a supra-sensible and intelligible world where ideas, rather than matter, are the core of reality (cf. Phaedo, 79a; 99d). In line with his Socratic education, Plato sees the acknowledgment of the spiritual nature of the human soul and of its transcendence over matter as the major refutation of atheist materialism (cf. Laws, X, 891a-892b).

The link between materialism and atheism becomes stronger in Epicurus’ thought. As atomists argued, the soul is material and dies with the body. Epicurus’ views are ethical and atheistic at once. Precisely because neither a god nor providence exists, human beings must let themselves go to an earthly wisdom, silencing the fear of death through the practice of sensible pleasure. If any gods exist, they are not interested in humans. A higher ethics was argued by another materialistic current, the Stoic school, which especially developed within Roman culture. The materialistic elements in the Stoa are always inserted in, and overcome through, a pantheistic view of reality: the gods are material only because matter is divine. Yet, the notion of divine providence is absent, as it is replaced by that of the ineluctable law (Lat. fatum). Human beings’ happiness rests in complying with this universal law of nature that, ultimately, is the law of matter and does not refer to anything beyond matter. Generally, and from the theoretical point of view, platonic interpretation of materialism as being the main source of atheism is still today totally valid. Indeed, classical and modern atheism have mainly drawn their explanations from, and found their philosophical grounding in, a materialistic understanding of reality.

In order to understand the origins of the dialectic between matter and spirit —still present, today, in many aspects of Western thought— it is important to recall that, in the archaic era, Eastern thought had developed several forms of cosmological-religious dualism. Both the natural world and the moral life of human beings were understood as the result of the dialectical opposition between two eternal co-principles: good and bad, light and darkness, spirit and matter. Already in 4th-century B.C. China, this dualism took a form that presents itself even today: all existing things can be divided into two categories, the yin (corresponding to coldness, withdrawal and the female gender) and the yang (coinciding with warmth, expansion and the male gender). Some centuries later, many elements of this perspective reached the Western thought, especially through the influence of the Persian philosopher Mani (3rd century A.D.), from whom so-called “Manichaeism” originated. Once sympathetic with this current, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) opposed it in many of his works. Manichaeism tried to merge with Christianity, thus engendering many diverse forms of gnosis. Several Fathers of the Church, such as Tertullian (160-215 ca.) and above all Irenaeus of Lyon (130-200 ca.), strongly opposed the Manichaean gnoses, underlining the positive value of matter and of the flesh (we should recall that, in the biblical-theological context, the concept of “flesh” indicates the frailty, mortality and weakness of the material dimension of living entities). An exception in this sense was represented by Origen (ca. 185-253), for whom the material world did not derive from God’s free decision, but came about as a punishment for the sin of spiritual creatures.

A seed of the dualist dialectic was already present in Plato’s attempt to move beyond materialism through the superiority of ideas. Plato’s anthropology is an outcome of this: the body, material and corruptible, is like the prison of the soul, which is immortal, good and spiritual. Claiming an original relationship between the two eternal co-principles of good and bad —as Manichaeism and, before it, archaic dualism had done— could have the advantage of better explaining the presence of evil in the world; however, it resulted in a weakening of the responsibility and freedom of human action. Human beings could easily justify their bad conduct by acknowledging they were dominated by harmful forces. Once translated into the moral sphere, the dualist or Manichaean scheme can easily influence the relationship between virtue and sin, God and the world, dragging the relationship between spirit and matter into this same logic. As is known, the creation principle affirmed by the Judaeo-Christian Revelation was sufficiently clear: God is the creator of everything and there are no co-principles next to Him. Yet, because of the influence of Manichaean dualism, the danger that the “world” and “matter” ended up on the side of evil rather than on the side of good represented much more than a potential risk for Christianity. Also due to the different meanings that the term “world” takes on in the New Testament (cf. Jn 3:16-17; Jn 16:33; 1Jn 2:15; 1Cor 5:10; 1Cor 11:32; Gal 4:3, etc.), the idea that matter and the material world were an obstacle in the spiritual path towards God became profoundly rooted in many contexts of the Western world and, to some extent, this prejudice has survived until today.

For this reason it is necessary to delve deeper into the meaning and value of matter in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Further on in this essay, I will deal with the question of whether we can also speak of a Christian, rather than atheistic, materialism.

IV. Matter in a Created World: the Judaeo-Christian Religious Tradition

The biblical doctrine of creation clearly states that God is the only creator and that all that He creates comes to existence out of nothing. Therefore, there is no pre-existing matter as a co-principle of creation. If some expressions in the first chapter of the Genesis seem to point to a progressive ordering of the various elements starting from original chaos (cf. Gn 1:2; 1:4), this interpretation does not hold in light of the whole context of the Scripture. The holy text underlines God’s satisfaction before the result of the created world in all its wonderful and diverse components —we may even say enthusiasm, as suggested by the book of Proverbs when it speaks of Wisdom that creates (cf. Prv 8:30-31). God’s judgment on the created material world is that “he saw how good it was” (cf. Gn 1:4; 1:10; etc.; Heb. tôb), “very good” when referred to the whole of creation at whose apex are human beings (cf. Gn 1:31). Already in the 2nd century B.C, the first Greek translation of the Jewish Scripture chose to interpret this adjective as “nice” or “beautiful” (Gr. kalós), in addition to good. Matter is good and beautiful, even if the world created by God is made not only of matter. According to the biblical text there exist creatures of an exclusively spiritual nature that do not depend on matter, i.e., angels; human beings somehow participate in God’s spirituality, thus becoming “living beings” thanks to the gift of His spirit (cf. Gn 2:7).

The goodness of the material world can also be inferred from the fact that nature can lead to God, allowing human beings to recognize the marks of its Creator (cf. Wis 13:1-9) in it. The material world is like a reflection of God, a book written by His finger whose dignity is not lesser than that of the sacred books that the Holy Spirit has inspired throughout the history of the Jewish people. Certainly, the greatest demonstration of the value and dignity of matter in the Christian universe is the fact that God Himself is believed to have become a man in Jesus Christ, God’s Word Incarnate (Jn 1:14). The uncreated person of the God Son —coeternal and co-substantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the mystery of the one and only God— takes on a human nature by being born by a woman, yet without losing His divine nature. Precisely this birth as an individual of the human biological species, in a given place and at a given time, reveals the capacity of the material world to be summarized, summed up in Jesus Christ (cf. Eph 1:9-10; Col 1:15-17). Along the Christian religious tradition, the union without confusion of the human and divine natures of the Incarnate Word will be able to engender a specific logic, called lex incarnationis, where matter has a precise role. This role is expressed through the liturgical rituals where sacraments are administered, which use material elements in order to signify and realize a spiritual sanctification: water in baptism, bread and wine in the Eucharist, oil in Confirmation and in the anointing of the sick.

Throughout the centuries, the official teachings of the Church have set forth the doctrine of the original goodness of matter and of any created nature, doing their utmost for matter not to be reductively associated with the idea of materialism, from which it should be appropriately distinguished. According to the Third Synod III of Toledo (589) “From His goodness God created all creatures, good in themselves” (DH 470); and according to the Council of Florence (1442): “When He wished, out of His goodness made all creatures, spiritual as well as corporal; good indeed, since they were made by the highest good, but changeable, since they were made from nothing” (DH 1333). These teachings have also kept matter distinct from spirit, while avoiding dualism (cf. Fides et ratio, n. 80). Matter’s absorption of the qualities of the spirit or, conversely, the spiritualization of matter up to the latter’s disappearance, have led to various forms of materialistic monism or pantheism. In times closer to us, the First Vatican Council (1870) has stated that anyone “should be ashamed to affirm that nothing exists except matter” (DH 3022). In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950) Pius XII condemns “dialectical materialism” as a philosophical perspective that teaches that everything derives from matter through a necessary and immanent evolutionary development, thus denying any role for a Creator God (cf. DH 3877). In his encyclical Dominum et vivificantem (1986) John Paul II defines materialism —in both its theoretical formulations and in its practical forms— as the most serious and dramatic resistance to the action of the Spirit in history and in hearts, rife with negative consequences for human beings’ real progress and their transcendent dignity. In his words: “Unfortunately, the resistance to the Holy Spirit which St. Paul emphasizes in the interior and subjective dimension as tension, struggle and rebellion taking place in the human heart, finds in every period of history and especially in the modern era its external dimension, which takes concrete form as the content of culture and civilization, as a philosophical system, an ideology, a program for action and for the shaping of human behavior. It reaches its clearest expression in materialism, both in its theoretical form: as a system of thought, and in its practical form: as a method of interpreting and evaluating facts, and likewise as a program of corresponding behavior. The system which has developed most and carried to its extreme practical consequences this form of thought, ideology and praxis, is dialectical and historical materialism, which is still recognized as the essential core of Marxism” (n. 56).

Ultimately, starting from the first teachings of the Church, we are warned not to believe that everything in the world is matter, which allows acknowledging the works of the Spirit. Even if these works are obviously achieved through the visibility and sensibility of matter, their origin, and hence their ontology, transcends matter. Finally, it is worth noting the opinion of Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), who argued that matter’s goodness could also be inferred from its eternal duration. While created, matter will last forever, because God, who gave it being because of His goodness, reasonably does not annihilate it, but lets it be transformed (cf. Summa theologiae, I, q. 65, a. 1, ad 1um. On the goodness of material bodies, see the texts he presents in q. 65, aa. 1 and 2). Incidentally, we should point out that the philosophical-theological perspective whereby a created matter has eternal duration (unlike the idea of an uncreated matter as principle of being) is wholly compatible with the empirical observation of modern science that matter and energy are conserved: nihil ex nihilo, that is, matter only transforms itself. Stating that matter as a whole can be created ex nihilo does not embody a contradiction, because the Agent Creator is not material and creation is not transformation.

V. The Rediscovery of Ancient Atomism in Renaissance Materialism and the Beginning of Modern Science

Generally speaking, the Renaissance was not a materialistic age. The critique of Aristotelian thought made by many Renaissance authors, and the skepticism of some of them towards revealed religion (Christianity, in particular) never resulted in a negation of spiritual realities. While taking the world of the Classic age as a reference —a world that was mostly pagan— Renaissance humanism did not necessarily lead to atheism, as shown by countless examples of Renaissance religious culture. Interest in testing developed, along with the search for universal and concealed natural laws, albeit without the support of a not yet established rigorous scientific method. Materialism and atheism, present in some authors of this age, were not explicitly inserted in a program for the emancipation of science: this will begin to happen only during the second half of the 18th century, and then in a systematic way in the 19th century. The forms of materialism of the 15th and 16th centuries, certainly present in authors such as Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525), Cesare Cremonini (1550-1631) or Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), rather were forms of pantheism or, more precisely, of panpsychism, as occurs in Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639) and Bernardino Telesio (1509-1588). A more in-depth discussion must be devoted here to Giordano Bruno, Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) and, above all, René Descartes (1596-1650).

The fundamental element allowing us to speak of a “Renaissance materialism” is the re-discovery and spread of Lucretius’ De rerum natura, which contained Epicurus’ doctrine that had inherited Leucippus’ and Democritus’ atomism. Lucretius’ poem, lost during the Middle Ages, was found by Poggio Bracciolini at the beginning of the 15th century. Besides the atomistic doctrine, Lucretius’ work supported a naturalistic and hedonistic ethics, which the most liberal Renaissance currents of thought, and later some Modern ones, immediately saw as conflicting with the ethics revealed in the Scriptures. In Renaissance atomism, Democritus’ atoms —entities whose characteristics were perhaps more philosophical than physical— gradually lose the form of physical corpuscles (Lat. corpuscula). Naturalists’ observations certainly could not see atoms, but began to imagine them and look for indirect evidence of their existence. Based on atoms, many Renaissance authors tried to explain sensations and sensible knowledge, as well as the activities of the sensitive soul (that the Aristotelian view kept distinct from the rational soul).

Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno derived from Lucretius (an author whom he cites and closely copies in many of his works) the atomistic doctrine of the “infinite worlds,” originally advanced by Epicurus. Bruno reformulated the idea of a plurality of worlds in his work De l'infinito universo et mondi (1584) where, in light of his Copernicanism, he posited that every fixed star was a sun surrounded by planets. As we know, this view was to greatly influence subsequent popular literature, before its experimental counterpart emerged in 20th century astronomy. Bruno’s materialism is especially reflected in his “active” conception of matter, which he saw in opposition to the Aristotelian scheme where activity is linked to form and passivity to matter. Bruno is fascinated by the fact that matter contains in itself the potential to produce and develop new forms, and ended up arguing that matter is the real essence of things, as all forms are produced from it. Yet, we could criticize the incorrect understanding that Bruno had of the original Aristotelian notion of the hylemorphic composition of matter and form. When speaking of matter, Bruno unconsciously talks of it as it were informed matter, in the Aristotelian sense. And Aristotle had already argued as well that form is educed, that is, almost “extracted” from matter, albeit it is up to form to determine the new material entity. Thomas Aquinas understood this Aristotelian perspective and referred to it in some of his works (cf. De Spiritualibus creaturis, a. 2, ad 9um; De Potentia q. 3, a. 8, ad 11um).

The case of Pierre Gassendi is interesting, a Catholic priest who tried to combine Epicurus’ atomistic doctrine with his faith in the God Creator. For this author, the movement of atoms would not be original and eternal; atoms would receive their first impetus from God, as God is the Primary and the Final Cause of all things. In the book of Genesis, God arranged for the earth and water to produce plants and animals, and He did so by creating a limited number of atoms. Unlike those discussed in classical atomism, Gassendi’s atoms seem to resemble secondary causes, as seeds able to engender all things. While still escaping empirical observation, the quantitative relationships between corpuscles can produce all qualitative phenomena, in both the physical and biological realms, in both the micro- and the macro-cosmos. With Gassendi, the theory of atoms-corpuscles becomes a mechanistic physical theory. In this sense, Gassendi and Descartes seem complementary: Descartes’ mechanism derives from his mathematical perspective; Gassendi’s is the outcome of his physical perspective. Gassendi’s materialism, however, was moderate: he never denied the role of the God Creator, beyond matter and as the Cause of matter; and he never interpreted the manifestations of the rational soul, spiritual and immortal (such as self-awareness, freedom, and moral life), in terms of atomistic theory. His atomism was limited to the manifestations of the sensible soul that, he believed, derived from the material body. Gassendi was ultimately aware that through atomistic materialism he could explain nature but not psychology…

VI. Cartesian Dualism and the Materialistic View of the Res Extensa

René Descartes’ original philosophical program cannot be considered materialistic. Yet, his thought undoubtedly constitutes one of the most important roots of materialism in the Western tradition. As we know, his philosophical work was mainly addressed to finding a method that could guide the human intellect with the highest possible degree of certainty. This led him both to formulate a precise metaphysical dualism between spirit and matter, and to adopt the mathematical and geometrical method as a universal method of reasoning, a powerful language to interpret—but also to manipulate—reality. In Cartesian dualism, spirit and matter represent two irreducible worlds: that of thought and freedom on the one side, and that of extension and determinism on the other. His system of thought is idealist —the origin of all knowledge is posited in the idea of the Self that asks questions, hence affirms its own being, and then proceeds to intellectual reasoning: cogito ergo sum. Nevertheless, precisely this dualism between matter (res extensa) and thought (res cogitans) allowed centering the effective apparatus of mathematics on matter, thus favoring the subsequent affirmation of a deterministic and mechanistic materialism. The reach of this operation is quite broad, because the res extensa is understood quite generally: material bodies, but also the human body and anything that can be mathematically and geometrically measured.

Descartes sees in matter nothing but geometric and mechanical laws. Pantheism and hylozoism (the archaic idea that matter had a certain life) are overcome in his clear dualism. The French philosopher does not negate the spirit, but he does not attribute it any role in the origin, organization and planning of the world. Final causes are removed and all can now be explained by means of efficient causes and mechanical interactions. The laws of nature are no longer the properties of essences, formal specificities inherent in the nature of entities, but merely constant relationships between quantities or relations among them. While having the advantage of determining more precisely the domain of empirical analysis, this perspective has the disadvantage of not questioning the deepest causes of reality. With the passing of time, the natural sciences lose touch with their foundation, whose nature was philosophical rather than empirical. It was gradually forgotten that geometric and mathematical mechanism were a simple mathematical reduction of reality, and such a reduction ended up by presenting itself as an exhaustive and self-referential knowledge of the world.

Descartes’ mechanistic materialism will have important influence also in biology and anthropology (medicine was indeed one of the French philosopher’s main areas of interest). He finds several automatic processes in vital phenomena; instincts and the manifestations of sensible life are seen as mechanical systems. Human beings are, therefore, the most perfect machine. Descartes will point out that a dead human corpse is such not only because the soul has left the body, but also because the corporeal machine has broken down and is destroyed. This understanding will feed French Enlightenment and 18th-century medicine, which incessantly tries to relate all illnesses —both physical and mental— to changes and transformations in material elements. As it can be easily noted, this perspective is still present today. It dovetails into psychological materialism and materialistic monism, which wholly reduces the mind to the body, and thought to the brain. The Cartesian framework underpins many ways in which medical problems are still posed today by some neo-materialistic currents. For instance, consider the attempt to link the individuality and truth of the human being to quantitative aspects, such as the number of an embryo’s days of life, or the number of organs that can be transplanted without determining the loss of the subject’s unity. These approaches are clearly limited. They lose sight of the unity of human beings, a unity that is actualized precisely from the moment we use the adjective “human” in order to denote an individual of a specific biological species: human beings.

Human beings do not only have a “human matter,” but also a human form, one that the philosophical tradition has called the soul. Moreover, the correct observation that both psychological life (thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc.) and illnesses manifest themselves, as an effect, through material, physical and biological processes, does not entail the statement that the cause of psychological life or of illnesses is only matter, rather than something else too, which can transcend it. Empirical observation does not have the methodological capacity to deny that kinds of non-material causes exist and that they transcend the realm of observable empirical effects. Finally, Cartesian dualism leads to an extrinsic view of the human soul. Precisely because the spirit belongs to a sphere distinct from, and incommunicable with matter, it resembles a kind of “tenant that inhabits the body,” a view very different from the original Aristotelian-Thomistic idea of the soul as the “substantial form of the body.”

The materialistic and mechanistic output of the mathematization of the res extensa performed by Descartes can motivate the question of what was Galileo Galilei’s (1564-1642) role on the issue of materialism, since the Italian scientist, like the French philosopher, highlighted the use of mathematics as the universal language to understand the physical world. Moreover, Galileo also argued for the need to bracket qualities and the reflection on essences, centering scientific research on quantitative analysis, solidly grounded on experiments and their reproducibility. Yet, bracketing qualities —as Galileo did— is not the typical program of materialism that, instead, is concerned with reducing them, that is, interpreting qualities in terms of quantities. Therefore, Galileo’s role in the development of materialism was quite different. The Italian scientist was, above all, a Platonist. Mathematics, for him, is an “ideal” —and therefore “true”— language, whose goal is not to transform the world, nor to possess the laws of matter in order to manipulate it at one’s will, but rather to read the world in order to interpret its phenomena. In Galileo, mathematization is limited to a specific and necessary methodological goal, while in Descartes it has the value of a general and all-encompassing philosophical principle, albeit restricted to the res extensa. Certainly, by discarding the discussion on qualities, Galileo favored the affirmation of scientific reductionism, which remains a necessary and powerful method, provided we do not forget that qualities and essences exist, but have been temporarily bracketed.

The new ideas on the effectiveness of the mathematization of nature, and on the materialistic perspective that underpinned it, went through important developments in English empiricism. Particularly with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) empiricism adopts a markedly materialistic philosophical perspective. For Hobbes, bodies in motion are the object of philosophy as a whole: elementary, compound or entire social bodies. These are the bases of a sociology grounded on the mechanistic study of individuals, which can set freedom and the realm of emotions aside and whose relevance is limited to quantitative and measurable aspects. Again in the English tradition, we should note the peculiar position of Anglican bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753). Aware of the easy identification between materialism and atheism, and having an apologetic goal in mind, Berkeley criticized the excessive relevance that his contemporaries —both philosophers and scientists— attributed to matter. Reaffirming the gnoseological and ontological primacy of the spirit over matter, he tried to stress the intelligibility of matter, no longer its substantiality, as the condition for its real knowability: the well-known aphorism esse est percipi means, after all, that for Berkeley “the material world is an intelligible world.”

VII. The Modern Age and the Materialistic Approach to the Natural Sciences: Materialism vs. Mechanism

In order to understand the relationship between mechanism, materialism and atheism, it is useful to summarize the events that took place, between the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, concerning the debate on the laws of nature. The idea that the universe was governed by laws and that these could be attributed to the presence of a Legislator —therefore to a certain image of God— was a very ancient notion that, in different forms, had permeated the classical and medieval ages. Starting from the Modern Age, the birth of scientific language allows these laws to be expressed, for the first time, in mathematical form. Before the development of a “mathematization of nature,” the recognition of natural laws was entrusted to the simple inductive observation of a “principle of lawfulness” or “principle of uniformity:” natural phenomena always display a lawful and regular behavior because, in identical situations, they always behave in the same way. Once physical phenomena are represented in mathematical form, and therefore also become predictable, the laws of nature are understood as “deterministic” laws. Throughout the 17th and great part of the 18th centuries, the determinism of laws reinforces the idea that these are the effect of an intelligent Creator. The observation of the harmony and order in the world will be a privileged theme in the apologetic works of several scientists (who, in this period, were still called natural philosophers). References to the divine order as recognized in nature also appear in the form of sapiential reflections in their scientific works. It is a broad literary production, authored not only by clergymen or apologists interested in the natural sciences —such as William Paley— but sometimes also by professional scientists, such as Robert Boyle (1627-1691) or William Derham (1657-1735). In an intellectual climate that acknowledges the existence of stable and deterministic laws, the qualities of the latter resemble those of the Creator (immutability, eternity, providence) and their affirmation de facto coincides with the affirmation of God. Even when not explicitly declared, the conviction that God is the guarantor of the Laws of Nature pervades the 17th century view of science, as we can also see in Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

The development of scientific knowledge gradually led to the affirmation of “naturalism.” Nature is no longer necessarily seen as created, to the point that the adjective “natural” starts to denote something opposed to divinity or, in any case, in contrast with something that requires the intervention or even just the presence of a Creator. To refer to the action of a Creator one speaks of “supernatural” realities: what is natural, does not need God… The mechanism and determinism of natural laws, which start being called “scientific laws” (forgetting that only scientific laws imply a mathematization, not natural laws) leads first to the affirmation of the full autonomy of nature, and immediately after of its independence from God. In a material universe, where everything takes place in a natural and predictable way, and where all questions seem solvable in empirical terms, we cannot see what place could be assigned to God. But the important philosophical shift is the following: once it is argued that God no longer belongs to the statements of science, He will end up not belonging to any context whose object is nature (cf. Buckley, 1987). The double action of methodological and materialistic reductionism, now that it is forgotten that they both embody a reduction of reality —because reality is neither only mathematics nor only matter— set the basis of what, during the 19th century, will start to be called “scientific atheism.”

How was it possible that the laws of nature shifted from being an argument in favor of a Creator God to being one sufficient to overthrow Him? I believe this occurred because the principle of lawfulness —hence the reference to an Author of the laws— has been incorrectly equated with determinism. Once the philosophical transition took place from a view of nature as wholly dependent on its Creator (one typical of the Ancient and Middle Ages but also of early Renaissance) to one where nature is autonomous and independent, the presumed determinism of laws, previously used as a proof of God’s existence, can now be used to demonstrate that this “hypothesis” is no longer necessary. Between the 18th and 19th centuries, mechanism produces a further source of confusion, with important consequences in the 20th century: when the principle of causality is no longer understood in its correct metaphysical context, mechanism incorrectly identifies the causality principle with the deterministic principle. As a consequence, the abandonment of mechanism and determinism —a typical result of 20th century epistemology— has often been used as further proof of the irrelevance of the idea of a provident Creator, source of rationality and intelligibility. A nature whose phenomena are unpredictable, indeterminate and complex; a nature creatively able to have order emerging from disorder is seen, by some authors, as a nature that has finally freed itself from the burden of a Creator who generated eternal, deterministic and immutable laws (see the argument underlying Ilya Prigogine’s proposal for a New Alliance, at least as exposed in the “Conclusion” of his Order out of Chaos [London: Flamingo, 1988], pp. 291-313).

Some clarifications and specifications are therefore necessary (for a more extended account, see the article Laws of Nature, in this Encyclopedia, and bibliography therein). First of all, we should make a distinction between the principle of lawfulness or uniformity (and, as a consequence, the reference to a possible Legislator and Creator) and a deterministic view of nature. The two things do not coincide. To acknowledge a “principle of lawfulness” as the necessary basis for scientific knowledge to advance, there is no need to endorse a rigid deterministic principle. According to the latter, once we know the state of a system and the laws that describe the changing of its physical-mathematical parameters and variables in space and time, it would still be possible to know deterministically its configuration at any moment of the past or future. The lawfulness principle does not spring from a deterministic view of nature, but from the idea of an existing reality faithful to itself, that is lawful (that a believing scientist could think related to the character of nature of being created). The lawfulness principle should also be distinguished from the causality principle. According to the latter, any finite and contingent entity (everything occurring at the level of being) and any change (everything at the level of becoming) always have a cause. The causality principle has metaphysical relevance, and is much more general than the lawfulness principle, whose origin is instead inductive. The validity of the causality principle does not depend on any judgment on the immutability of the laws of nature, nor on the possibility to precisely predict all effects starting from the knowledge of their causes. The lawfulness or uniformity principle relates to the nature of things. Its validity is not compromised by the mathematical unpredictability of complex phenomena or by the indeterminacy of the quantitative-measurable aspects of quantum phenomena; nor does it depend on the different philosophical answers that we can give to the problem of induction. The lawfulness principle simply states that there are natural, stable and intelligible properties on which science bases itself in order to be able to progress in its knowledge; there must exist regular properties and behaviors whose ultimate meaning is givenness, that is received by science as given.

VIII. Materialistic Naturalism of the 18th Century

18th-century Enlightenment —a philosophical and cultural, rather than scientific, movement— inherits the renewed interest the Renaissance had for the study of nature and man. It adds to it the celebration of an almost ideological faith in Reason —on the wave of the successes of science— together with a strong criticism of revealed religions, considered as the repository of an obsolete view of the world. The Enlightenment, particularly the French strand, will easily combine materialism and deism, because the image of God formulated in its deism is often a reflection of human Reason. To this Reason a universal reach is attributed, a reach which would guarantee the authority of national States established on it and, more generally, a kind of authority over humankind, thus copying —but actually replacing— the universal relevance formerly held by religion.

We can already find an anticipation of 19th-century materialism in deist John Toland (1670-1722), particularly in his work Motion Essential to Matter, which was presented as an Appendix to the Letters to Serena (1704), addressed to Sophie-Charlotte, Queen of Prussia. In line with the mechanistic perspective on the human body set in motion by Descartes, the Enlightenment first theorizes an animal-machine and then, with Julien de La Mettrie (1709-1751), an Homme-machine (1748), whose physical and psychological life is reduced to pure physiological mechanisms. Starting from the mid-18th century, some French Enlightenment scholars who develop mechanistic and materialistic perspectives in nature are worthy of mention here. In his work, L’interpretation de la nature (1744), Denis Diderot (1713-1784) defines life as the result of the combination of material elements. In Le vrai sense du système de la nature (1774), Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771) takes up Epicurean ethics, from which he derives the “principle of public health.” In Système de la nature (1770), Paul Heinrich Dietrich von Holbach (1723-1789) states that anything that does not belong to material phenomena should be considered as pure imagination. Less known, but also important, was the work De la Nature by Jean-Baptiste Robinet (1735-1820), which was published in Amsterdam in 1761. Here the author outlines the idea of a progressive evolution of nature, as a sequence of increasingly complex and sophisticated mechanisms; at the apex we find human beings, whose mental faculties and freedom are, however, nothing but the result of mechanical processes which developed in time. In these works we can still find references to God, but these could be equally attributed to Nature (seen as the cause, origin, and place of return of all things). Nature, now indicated with a capital N, ends up taking on God’s role. The grounds of that philosophical perspective on nature that will mature in the 19th century and that will combine, in an explicit and well-established way, naturalism and materialism, are by now ready.

We use the term “naturalistic materialism” to denote a German-born movement that variously feeds on three elements: a) the historicist idea inherited from German Hegelian philosophy, whose triumphalistic conclusions, however, are not shared; b) the anticipation and later the acceptance of Darwinism as a specific proposal for the interpretation of human beings’ place in nature and in the animal world; c) the conviction that the natural sciences have important philosophical consequences, so that scientists should be elevated to the role of philosophical guides of society (cf. Negri, 1976). We are faced here with the first example of an explicit and tight connection between materialism and modern science, even if denoting naturalistic materialism as “scientific” does not seem adequate. We are indeed not dealing here with a scientific foundation of materialism, but with an application of the materialistic philosophical perspective to the sciences. A strong anti-spiritualistic perspective pervades this movement, whose underpinning is sought for in the results of sciences. The different relationships they have with the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) forces us to keep naturalistic materialism and dialectical materialism separately. Supporters of dialectical materialism saw in History the imperative of a dialectical procedure of progress and transformation of human society; while naturalists simply learnt from history the lesson about the fragility of the human phenomenon, its inevitable immersion within the flow of natural processes. Yet, while criticizing naturalists for not yielding more fruit from Hegel’s philosophy, Engels’ Dialectics of Nature —and Marxism more generally— will praise them for offering a fundamental contribution to the introduction of atheism in German philosophy. Because of the great influence of their works, we have to refer here briefly to Jakob Moleschott (1822-1893), Ludwig Büchner (1824-1899) and Ernst H. Häckel (1834-1919). Other authors, however — including K. Vogt, H. Czolbe and T. Huxley— should be considered in line with this movement.

In Der Kreislauf des Lebens (1852) —The Circuit of Life— Moleschott focuses on the material, organic exchanges between nature and human beings. The latter are integral to matter and entirely depend on it. The matter in our bodies is never immobile and it stands in a relation of continuous interaction and exchange with the surrounding environment. From this environment, we draw all that is necessary: without phosphorous there are no thoughts and without blood there are no emotions. It is in a review of this work by Moleschott that Ludwig Feuerbach (1829-1880) will make his famous remark, often cited as one of the great aphorisms of modern materialism: “man is what he eats.” Moleschott’s materialism is a feeling of dependence from matter and a submission to the needs of nature, not a haughty positioning of human beings above history. Staying within a deterministic and mechanistic view, human beings let nature determine them: they are inevitably inserted in the cycle of life. Therefore, in order to study human beings, it is necessary to study the world, because we need the world in order to make human beings. Anthropology thus becomes cosmology, anticipating of almost 150 years some of the reflections that emerged at the end of the 20th century with the formulation of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Moleschott also advances a peculiar idea of the “unity of knowledge,” as he believes that naturalistic materialism is able to combine the sciences of nature and those of the spirit, with the implicit reduction of the latter to the former.

We can find similar ideas in Büchner’s Kraft und Stoff (1855) —Force and Matter. Human beings’ total dependence on matter, even as relates to the sphere of sensitivity, knowledge and feelings, is employed here to negate the immortality of the soul (and its very existence). The endpoint is the negation of human freedom itself because —argues Büchner— if human beings are the work of nature, not only their being, but their actions, thoughts, feelings and will, are all subjected to the laws of the material universe. A few years before the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), Büchner could already state, in Force and Matter: “It is thus impossible for any one that does not want to put their opinion above facts, to deny the insensible transition that, through several intermediate stages, reunites animal and Man, both for the intellectual and for the bodily qualities. All the known distinctions that took the side of a rigorous separation have only a purely relative value.”

Profoundly influenced by Charles Darwin’s work, Ernst Häckel sets out to outline a full family tree of humankind, whose roots would go back to the beginning of life. This intention is reflected in the subtitle of his work, Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (1866): “General outlines of the science of organic forms, mechanistically grounded on the descent theory reformed by Charles Darwin.” The desire to produce a “life tree” that should be complete in each of its branches, however, led Häckel to introduce some fictitious forms, filling in the gaps with imaginary animals that had never existed, almost yielding to the drive of the German Romantic philosophy of his time. Among the missing pieces, he assumes the existence of living beings simpler than cells, made of a vital substance different from the nucleus and the protoplasm, thus presenting one of the first examples of a biological view that could not resist the temptation to also codify the shift from inert matter to living matter. Author of two other well-known works —Natural History of Creation (1867) and Antropogenie (1874)— Häckel engaged in a great activity of science popularization, which outlined a positivistic view of scientific research. The latter would be tasked with freeing humankind from the beliefs and superstitions of religion, and the scientist would be charged with the role of moral guidance of society. Even for this author, we are dealing with a materialism that intends to negate the life of the spirit on scientific grounds, with a monism that takes on pantheistic notes: “We therefore, cannot accept the common distinction between nature and spirit. Wherever in nature there is spirit and a spirit outside nature, we do not know it. Therefore, even the common distinction between science of nature and science of the spirit is unacceptable. Any science, as such, is at once a science of nature and a science of the spirit; this is a firm principle of our monism that we, as relates to religion, can also call pantheism. Human beings are not above nature, but rather within nature.” (Anthropogenie, Lecture XXX).

Inserted in a Darwinian perspective, the theories of naturalistic materialism were also shared by German philosopher and theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) who, however, derived some theological implications from them. The acceptance of the Hegelian dialectical system in theology led him, with time, to reduce religion to myth, and to interpret Jesus’ life in a mythological perspective, as in his work Das Leben Jesu (1835). Shifting from idealism to materialism, in his mature work Der alte und der neue Glaube (1872) —The Old and the New Faith— he uses the knowledge acquired by the biological sciences to rebut the main Holy Scripture teachings on the creation of human beings, on the original state of grace and on original sin, without performing the necessary exegesis that these biblical teachings would have required. Anticipating the arguments of dialectical materialism, he conceives matter as the only cosmic, eternal, time- and space-infinite reality that is subjected to continuing transformations in the form of birth and decay and is always able to draw energy from its own ashes.

Beyond the many critical observations that naturalistic materialism could be object of —a movement in which a positivistic ideological element can be easily recognized— it is worth noting that the materialism of these authors still seems to derive from Descartes’ dualism. As the spirit is posited as something extrinsic to matter —like in Descartes— its negation is deduced from the fact that matter alone can be experienced. An important consequence of this negation is the progressive reduction of human life to simple animal life, immersed in nature but unable to transcend it through culture and progress. The negation of human freedom is the extreme, somehow necessary, consequence of this perspective.

The relevance of 19th century naturalistic materialism is very surprising, as many of the theses set forth by these authors are also present in some of 21st century scientific culture. Think, for example, of the monist interpretation of the relationship between the mind and the brain; of the strong emphasis on the harmony between human beings and nature (today we would say human beings and the universe) that, however, ends up reducing the former to the latter; of those contemporary movements that try to interpret human feelings —particularly altruism— in Darwinian terms, as an attitude functional to the better preservation of the species; of the idea that scientists are ultimately the real philosophers that should be entrusted with the fate of society, as the only ones truly able to understand the world’s workings, as reflected in the recent proposal of a “Third Culture” (see, for example, the works edited by John Brockman, The Third Culture. Beyond the Scientific Revolution, 1995 and New Humanists. Science at the Edge, 2003); think, finally, of social neo-Darwinism and of the consequent theoretical negation of human freedom that is supposed to rest on scientific grounds (see, for instance, Peter Singer, A Darwinian Left. Politics, Evolution, Cooperation, 1999).

IX. Dialectical Materialism as Scientific Materialism

The 19th century witnesses the progressive affirmation of several strands of materialism in the form of philosophical systems engaged in a programmatic atheism, such as Positivism, Marxism and Nihilism. These systems will enter the 20th century with varying strength, and it remains difficult to assess their actual capacity to regain life and nourishment after periods of seeming weakness. For most of these systems, materialism is not a goal to be attained, but a shared cultural climate, to which no new foundational elements are added. With the exception of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer —who worked in a philosophical context that feeds on sciences— authors such as Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and later Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Michel Foucault —just to name a few— were not trying to formulate a materialistic or atheistic view of nature, but intended to deal with human problems, trying to solve them through the negation of God. Their atheism becomes the necessary condition to affirm the human at the expense of the divine (triumphalistic atheism), or just to understand the human condition in its precariousness, with no illusions or false hopes (pessimistic atheism). In this essay I will not analyze the thought of these authors; thus we intend to deal in primis with materialism and atheism, but privileging an interdisciplinary approach in dialogue with the natural sciences (for those authors, refer to the article Atheism in this Encyclopedia). Nevertheless, “dialectical materialism” deserves here a special attention; unlike other 19th century philosophical systems, this one formulates a careful materialistic view of nature, in which Hegel’s dialectic (thesis/antithesis/synthesis) is taken as the “engine” that explains matter’s progress and justifies its capacity to produce qualitative change.

Dialectical materialism —that, in some contexts, was also called “scientific materialism,” or also “science of the general laws of nature, society and thought”— attempts to apply historical materialism to the history of nature. The dialectical laws formulated by Marxism to explain the development of the history of human society are now used to interpret the evolution of matter and life. In this context the Dialectics of Nature emerges, the title of a writing that Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) worked on from 1873 to 1885 (it was published after his death in 1925, in the Soviet Union). In addition to Engels, among the main theoreticians of this current of thought we find Nikolaj Lenin (1870-1924). Dialectical materialism defines itself as “scientific” both because it intends to base itself on the results of science —particularly the evolutionary view of nature and the (presumed) negation of any reality that cannot be recognized as object of empirical investigation— and because the dialectical laws it intends to apply to the interpretation of nature are considered “scientific” —rigorous, experimentable and reliable.

Compared to 18th- and 19th-century materialism, dialectical materialism wants to move beyond mechanism. Motion, which represents a universal law of matter, is not understood as mere mechanical displacement, but as transformation, as dialectical development, as the tension of opposite poles that is resolved in a higher synthesis. According to Lenin, at the centre of dialectical materialism the concept of “matter” becomes more philosophical and less physical. In this way matter can be presented with the attributes of eternity, infinity, inexhaustible energy, etc. Yet, in that same period, the early decades of the 20th century, nuclear and quantum physics had revealed that matter’s properties were hardly compatible with those required by dialectical materialism. However, it should be remembered that dialectical materialism understands space, time and energy as “forms of existence of matter” that, together with its eternal motion, embody one only material reality. Dialectical materialism also wants to distance itself from earlier psychical monism, as this latter acknowledges the value of consciousness, thought and will. But its difference with the former is only apparent because, even if these human activities are considered non-material, they are qualified as products, functions or properties of matter —that is, of the brain.

Engels formulates the “three laws of materialistic dialectic.” The first, called the “law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes,” posits that the progressive quantitative changes that take place during the process of matter’s and nature’s evolution attain a critical threshold and engender a qualitative shift in which the subject itself changes: something new, belonging to a higher order, is thus created. This law would explain the emergence of life from inorganic matter, the birth of human consciousness from animal sensibility, and so on. Looking closely, it is not an apology of quality over quantity, but another monist view where all refers to matter and where the latter, ultimately, can always be apprehended quantitatively. The goal of the “law of the unity and conflict of opposites” is to state that the origins of motion are not in mechanical interactions, but in the dialectic intrinsic to any thing, which proceeds thanks to a struggle of extremes. This law was thought to avoid that, linking motion to mechanical causes, this could have raised the need for a “First-Mover,” thus opening a path to metaphysics. (In reality this fear was based on a misunderstanding, as Aristotle conceives causality as a philosophical, not physical, passage from potentiality to actuality). Finally, the “law of the negation of the negation” indicates that dialectical progress does not occur through annihilation, but through continuous negations that are placed at increasingly higher levels, in which the subject keeps its identity, but it is understood in a higher synthesis. Historical-dialectical evolution, then, is likened to a progressing spiral rather than to a simple straight line.

We can easily argue that dialectical materialism is a philosophical and not a scientific perspective. Both the notion of matter that underpins it, and the general law that the history of nature proceeds through the resolution of dialectical oppositions, are philosophical. Also the criticisms addressed to dialectical materialism, thus, can be philosophical, and they are similar to those addressed to materialism in general. If materialism wants to allow matter to be the ultimate source from which everything derives and to which everything returns, then it is asked to defend this standpoint within a proper philosophical context; otherwise, materialism would easily present itself as an ideological position. Now, the properties attributed to matter by dialectical materialism clash with the problem of matter’s contingency, to which materialism is still asked to provide a philosophical solution. Moreover, to affirm that any progress takes place in matter and through material processes is not sufficient to state that all causes of historical-natural progress are material ones. Finally, materialism and dialectics are in some ways incompatible between themselves. The former reduces everything to the realm of quantity and empirical analysis; the latter, instead, refers to the realm of the spirit (where its original, Hegelian positioning was), because it intends to express a general law on matter, but not in matter —unless the dialectic of opposites is naively reduced to something resembling the interaction of opposite-sign electric charges or to other types of interaction in the physical realm. In sum, dialectical materialism intends to replace Hegelian’s idea with the notion of matter, but with no success. In this way, it conceals a new idealism under the guise of materialism.

X. Methodological Reductionism vs. Ontological Materialism in some Contemporary Scientific Views

Generally speaking, contemporary science does not profess a materialistic creed. As from the last decades of the 20th century, we rather witness scientists’ reflections pointing to the insufficiency of matter to explain the structure and evolution of the universe and of life in it; for instance, when speaking about —inherently non-material— concepts such as “form,” “information,” “plan” or even “mind.” By way of example, we can quote an observation by Freeman Dyson: “Being a scientist, trained in the habits of thought and language of the twentieth century rather than the eighteenth, I do not claim that the architecture of the universe proves the existence of God. I claim only that the architecture of the universe is consistent with the hypothesis that mind plays an essential role in its functioning.” (Disturbing the Universe [New York - London: Harper & Row, 1979], p. 251). It is worth noting that, already in the 1930’s, Sir James Jeans observed that “To-day there is a wide measure of agreement, which on the physical side of science approaches almost to unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.  Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter; we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter - not of course our individual minds, but the mind in which the atoms out of which our individual minds have grown exist as thoughts.” (The Mysterious Universe [New York - Cambridge: Macmillan - Cambridge Univ. Press, 1932], p. 186).

Some factors seem to have weakened materialism in science: the abandonment of 18th- and 19th-century mechanism; the impracticability of the early 20th century neo-Positivist program for a self-referential logic (and then of a self-referential science); the progressive awareness that dialectical materialism was placed in a philosophical rather than a scientific domain. To this we should add today’s spiritualistic revival (including the birth of a new dialogue between sciences and theology) that concerns scientists more than science, which often emerged as a reaction to a rationalistic and impersonal view of the scientific enterprise. On the other hand, we also find authors that believe in the possibility to propose philosophical materialism as the only valid ontology for sciences (cf. M. Bunge, Scientific Materialism, 1981). Yet, if we specifically asked whether science is, today, an explicit medium to convey and spread materialism, we should probably give a negative answer. The pluralism of today’s views of science prevents us from describing the influence of science on culture as deriving from one only philosophical perspective, even the materialistic one. This state of things does not mean that there are no connections between contemporary science and materialism. There are indeed some views —implicit in the scientist’s work and more explicit in scientific popularization— that can be indirectly related to some of the ideas we outlined in the preceding brief historical analysis of materialism.

First, we should recall that methodological reductionism, which is a legitimate and powerful approach in many fields of the natural sciences, can sometimes result in ontological reductionism, where matter is taken as the only existing reality (see the article on Reductionism, in this Encyclopedia; for a general account on reductionism in science, see also E. Agazzi (ed.), The Problem of Reductionism in Science [Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991]). This usually occurs according to three different levels of reductionism: a) “constitutive reductionism,” according to which when a complex system is broken down into its elements, the resulting parts are only those that coincide with the constitutive elements we would expect to find; b) “conceptual or epistemological reductionism,” which argues that the concepts we can apply to the whole can be entirely expressed in terms of concepts applied to the parts; c) “causal reductionism,” according to which the causes acting on the whole simply produce the sum of the effects of the individual causes acting on the parts (or conversely, the effects caused by the whole are the sum of the effects caused by the parts). When these three statements are made simultaneously, the ontology of reality is totally determined by, and understood on the basis of, the structure and the properties of its fundamental components. Particles physics, then, becomes the most important branch of learning. The remainder of physics, chemistry, biology, as well as anthropology and psychology, all should derive from our knowledge on the elementary components of matter.

Examples of how one can reach such forms of ontological reductionism —that is, of materialism— can be found, today, in those fields of scientific popularization that speak of the “search for the origins.” The study of the physical and biological origins of the universe, life and human beings, carried out in quantitative and empirical terms, is considered by these materialistic views as sufficient to understand the whole being of the universe, life or human beings. It is a program that, for example, is well summarized in the view of nature successfully spread by Carl Sagan (1934-1996), for whom the material world is “all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” (Cosmos [New York: Ballantine Books, 1993], p. 4).

A second aspect relates to the contemporary merging of the opposition matter/spirit within the debate between chance and finalism. A cosmic or biological evolution entirely entrusted to chance brings up the image of a world where all depends only and exclusively on matter; conversely, the idea that finalism and a plan exist leads more easily to think of a mind or a scheme that transcends matter. We should recall, however, that the opposition between chance and finalism is placed at the philosophical, not at the empirical, level. For this reason, even if the debate arises within the natural sciences (where finalism can be understood only as order, consistency or functional coordination), it cannot be correctly set out unless we move from the empirical to a metaphysical analysis, the only one where concepts such as finalism, intentionality or plan have any meaning. When a ‘plan-less’ and totally chance-based (philosophical) view of the world and life is brought forward by scientific popularization, it is almost always combined with some form of nihilism, in which, however, the sometimes tragic dignity of the scientist that poses questions becomes manifest. In this sense, Monod and Weinberg’s well-known quotes are self-explanatory: “Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty has been written down. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.” (J. Monod, Chance and Necessity [London: Fontana, 1972], p. 167). “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless […]. But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. […] The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” (S. Weinberg, The First Three Minutes [New York: Basic Books, 1977], pp. 154-155). Yet, precisely when they discover themselves able to judge, observe, perhaps contemplate the evolution of the universe in search of a meaning for their existence, scientists present themselves as unaware subjects of a non-materialistic reflection.

A particular case in the debate between chance and finalism is represented by the different solutions proposed to explain the anthropic conditions of the universe, debate known by the name of Anthropic Principle.” We could consider materialistic those solutions that interpret the progressive formation of physical and chemical conditions adequate for life, and of hospitable environments, as the result of a wholly necessary and inevitable general cosmic law that is inscribed in matter. The universe could not avoid engendering life, and intelligent life, as this process is inherent in (that is, immanent to) its material structure. A second solution, that resorting to a many-worlds model, strictly speaking does not endorse a materialistic view, but simply tries to justify why our universe was statistically possible. Both the idea of one universe with internal anthropic conditions, and the idea of infinite universes in only one of which life has become possible can be linked, theoretically, to the presence of a plan or, in any case, of a Creator that transcends matter. To the contrary, positing a cosmic law immanent to matter that necessarily leads to life —as the materialistic interpretations of the Strong Anthropic Principle seem to do— does not look compatible with a theist interpretation, as this philosophical perspective endows matter with philosophical attributes that are characteristic of a Creator. Concerning the role that the laws of nature could play in the contemporary debate for or against materialism, the reflections made above in chapter VII remain valid, relating to the shift in the views of nature (and of its relationship with God) that took place between the beginning of the 17th and the end of the 18th century.

The assessment of the presence (or absence) of a materialistic stance in the view that describes the gradual and continuous passage from inert matter to life, that is, to living matter, is a more delicate question. Arguing that the substantial form of a living entity (understood in an Aristotelian sense) —that is, the coordination principle that gives unity to the living subject, thus making it an individual rather than a sum of parts— totally derives from matter, can be plainly qualified as a materialistic position. To the contrary, we cannot consider a materialist an observer that, at the empirical level, notes that the passage from matter to life is only performed through material agents. Stating that the “new form” manifests itself in matter and starting from matter —as such an observer would probably do— does not equate stating that the new form integrally and only depends on matter (materialistic position). The question of the description of the shift from the non-living to the living state is philosophical, much prior to being a problem with religious overtones. We are dealing here with the contrast between two philosophical views of life: one that understands life as wholly dependent on matter; the other, that considers it able to transcend it, at the sensible level first, then at the mental one. From the point of view of the Judaeo-Christian Revelation, life is intended as a participation in God’s being, in that God is the Living, hence a participation more perfect than to share being as such. In the case of human beings, this participation is believed to be marked in our being image and likeness to God, which characterizes human beings as personal beings, the same way that God is personal. Therefore, matter, biological life and human life, all depend on God, but in different ways. The ways that life and human life depend on God entails a major Creator’s involvement, a special gift to creatures, at a level higher than the only participation in being. This involvement and gift is greater for human life, because what God communicates to a creature is not only being or life, but personal life. The degree to which this involvement and this gift can be perceived and recognized at the various stages of cosmic and biological evolution depends on the philosophical categories we use when approaching events: mere empirical observation, phenomenology, metaphysics and conscious self-reflection.

Finally, materialism can appear in the scientific context relating to the different understandings one has of the relationship between the body and the mind, an issue that today draws increasing attention not only from scientists but also philosophers. The different positions on this subject can be generally summarized into three: a materialistic monism; a neo-Cartesian dualism; and a dual interpretation inspired by the Aristotelian composition matter-form. Following the pioneering works of John B. Watson (1878-1958) and Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976), some authors uphold a “reductionist materialism” and deny the reality of the mind, such as Helmuth Feigl. According to an “emergentist materialism,” other authors recognize the emergence of the mind, together with the conscious self, but this is equated with cerebral matter, such as in Mario Bunge, Jean-Pierre Changeux or Edoardo Boncinelli. Contrary to these positions, John C. Eccles (1903-1997) has claimed the irreducibility of the mind to matter, thus grounding what we may call a dualistic perspective, as it understands the mind and the body as two different substantial elements (cf. K.R. Popper, J.C. Eccles, The Self and Its Brain. An Argument for Interactionism, 1977; J.C. Eccles, D. Robinson, The Wonder of Being Human, 1984). Here it is stated that it is the self that owns the brain, and not the reverse. In this stance we should include authors such as A. Green, R. Penrose and R. Sperry. In order to explain the relationship between these two components, these authors use a language and metaphors that are in line with Plato’s and Descartes’ perspectives. A third position, called dual (instead of dualistic), understands the mind and the self as associated with an immaterial soul, as the substantial form of the material body. The Self is philosophically located in the soul and it is the subject of human consciousness. In this way, it is stated that the soul, in principle, can also exist without the body, and therefore also post-mortem, as it does not totally depend on matter. We mainly owe this conception to Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), who takes up and develops Aristotle’s arguments.

XI. Matter and Information in an Evolving World: is Evolution understandable within a Materialistic Context?

What has been stated so far should also be sufficient to clarify the relationship between evolution and materialism. The two terms should not be equated to each other, as the former denotes one or more scientific theories, while the latter denotes a philosophical position. Evolution converges with materialism only when it adds to it the philosophical negation of agents different from matter as those responsible for the development, diversification and growing complexity of the universe and life. In this case it is more appropriate to speak of “evolutionism” rather than of evolution. In biology, all the mechanisms invoked to justify the variety and transformation of the different forms of life —natural selection, adaptation to the environment, morphological adaptation to predation, random modifications of the genetic heritage and the hereditary transmission of these modifications, intrinsic development of the potentialities of functional organs, and so on— are not, as such, materialistic.

As a consequence, we better understand why evolution and creation are not opposed. In popular imagery, this opposition emerges because, when we speak of creation, we immediately think of a Creator, while when we speak of evolution we think of something that develops on its own. But the contrast is only apparent. In order to develop and evolve, the world must exist and, therefore, it must be created. Creation is at the basis of history and, therefore, it is also at the basis of evolution.

Sometimes, the passage from a simple scientific understanding to a materialistic philosophical conception of evolution takes place implicitly, through the attribution of a philosophical, and no longer scientific, connotation to the term “chance.” Random genetic mutations or other unpredictable phenomena do not coincide with chance in the philosophical sense (absence of finalism), but with an indeterminacy at the empirical level (absence of knowability). An example of chance in philosophy is the case invoked by Democritus and atomists to show that in the world there are no finalism, no plan and no God. Sometimes, in the context of scientific popularization, the term “chance” is used in a sense close to the philosophical one, for instance in the statement that the Darwinian mechanisms of biological evolution (where the random variations of the genetic inheritance constitute, together with the survival of the fittest, one of the two pillars of natural selection) have shaken and replaced the old harmonic and finalistic view of Nature, characteristic of the preceding centuries. Darwinism (or neo-Darwinism), then, is considered incompatible with the existence of any finalism, and thus understood as an openly materialistic position. A proper specification of the meaning of the terms we use is thus necessary in order to avoid confusion and possible conflicts.

At the philosophical level an important question remains open. Is it possible to perform a philosophical reflection on evolution, that is, a reflection on what it really is and what it means, while remaining in a materialistic philosophical framework? We believe this is not possible without running into some contradictions. An evolving universe manifests itself as one in which, next to matter, a positive quantity of information must also exist. Certainly such information has its physical grounding in matter, but it cannot be identified with matter. It is up to the philosophy of nature, and secondly to epistemology, to indicate at which ontological level this information should be placed, but it is clear that it exists. We can recognize the presence of information by observing, for example: that there are stable properties and lawful behaviors in the fundamental components of matter; that these properties reflect a kind of unity and universality for individuals belonging to the same set or population; that there are laws of nature, of which our formal scientific laws constitute a non-random approximation. Finally, relevant information is that derived from the existence of a time arrow, as indicated by the evolution of thermodynamic systems. Biological or cosmic evolution does not move forward according to a continuous shuffling of the cards, but rather along a direction that denotes growth, functional and morphological enrichment and a rise towards progressive complexity that reaches its apex in thought and conscious life. A world where an arrow of time does not exist, where time is an eternal return, a world where any positive quantity of information that history may have produced is reset by a new time cycle, cannot be an evolving world. The information contained in evolution manifests itself in matter and belongs to matter, but it does not originate from matter. (Despite of all its limits, we can use the useful, albeit foregone, metaphor of the software that operates in the hardware, but does not originate from it). This entails that, in addition to matter, evolution needs to presume the existence of a component that transcends it and whose nature is non-material. It is then up to metaphysics, ontology and perhaps natural theology to establish which reality or subject can be associated with this non-material component (idea, mind, spirit, plan, Creator) and in which philosophical context this seems more consistent or convincing (pantheism, deism, theism). The philosophy of nature, on its part, simply notes this need and points out that an exhaustive understanding of evolution and of its meaning is not possible within a materialistic framework.

XII. Non-Materialistic Views of Matter in a Spiritual Context

The preceding reflection leads us to the last chapter of this historical-philosophical excursus. The attempt to find an explanation of history —including the history of the cosmic and biological universe— in a non-materialistic framework, entails the possibility of non-materialistic perspectives on matter. Stated otherwise, to explain history in a non-materialistic framework asks for the meaning of matter, if any, in a spiritual context. I am not referring here to “spiritualistic” views of matter as represented, in the past, by hylozoism, vitalism, or even pantheism. Rather, I am referring to the possibility of attributing to matter its own ontological value, its own autonomy and meaning, but in a philosophical context where the spirit is primary. Thinking in these terms represents a radical overcoming of the Platonic position, where affirming the spirit meant undervaluing matter. As we can easily understand, such a philosophical perspective becomes possible within the Judaeo-Christian tradition that, as previously shown, conceives matter as ontologically good, because it is created.

During the 20th century, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) —anthropologist, mystic thinker and Jesuit priest— was one of the major proponents of such a view of matter. For Teilhard, matter (that he will almost always spell with a capital M) does not hide the spirit but, in some sense, reveals it, and so leads to God. Matter and spirit are two forces that do not push in opposite directions, but both walk on the same path of biological and cosmic evolution. Within a great ascending vision, he underlines that matter is the necessary preparation for consciousness, for the life of the spirit. “Even if it is the Spirit that constantly carries matter along and supports it in the ascent towards consciousness, it is matter, in return, that enables Spirit to subsist by constantly providing it with a point upon which to act, and supplying it with nourishment. As we said before, the Spirit that sustains everything, itself has no reason for its being and consistence, does not ‘hold together’, except by ‘causing to hold together’.” (Mon Univers, March 25, 1924, in Science and Christ [London: Collins, 1965], p. 50). As a consequence, when scientific analysis goes deeper and deeper into the discovery of the inmost parts of matter, it does not move away from the work of the spirit. Discovering ever tighter connections with matter, when searching for the origins of the universe or when studying the evolutionary development of life, does not mean to move away from the influence and acknowledgment of the spirit. “Those thinkers are absolutely mistaken, therefore, who imagine they can prove man’s nature to be purely material simply by uncovering ever deeper and more numerous roots of his being in the earth. Far from annihilating spirit, they merely show how it mingles with and acts upon the world of matter like a leaven. Let us not play their game by supposing as they do that for a being to come from heaven we must know nothing of the earthly conditions of his origin.” (L’Apparition de l’Homme, in Hymn to the Universe [London: Collins, 1965], p. 78).

There is a profound connection between human beings and matter. Unlike 19th-century naturalistic materialism, Teilhard understands this affinity in non-materialistic terms, because his interpretation of matter is non-materialistic. When acknowledging their association with matter, human beings are not displaced, neither are they abandoned to fate, or deprived of all hopes regarding their destiny. To the contrary, they discover themselves as part of God’s plan for matter, to which they belong as also material beings. This view leads Teilhard de Chardin to write a Hymn to Matter (1919), where he states, among others: “Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever new-born; you, who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of truth […]. Blessed be you, mortal matter: you who one day will undergo the process of dissolution within us and will thereby take us forcibly into the very heart of that which exists. Without you, without your onslaughts, without your uprooting of us, we should remain all our lives inert, stagnant, puerile, ignorant both of ourselves and of God. You who batter us and then dress our wounds, you who resist us and yield to us, you who wreck and build, you who shackle and liberate, the sap of our souls, the hand of God, the flesh of Christ: it is you, matter, that I bless.” (in Hymn to the Universe, pp. 68-69).

The relevance given to matter leads Teilhard de Chardin to reassess earthly realities in a spiritual framework. He supports the idea of sanctifying human work in a Christian view, not only because it is work combined with prayer, but also because it is work engaged in transforming the earth, thus cooperating to the great cosmic flow with which the universe tends towards its Omega point, understood as the fullness of Christ in all things. In virtue of creation first, and then in virtue of the Word made flesh, matter is no longer profane. Seeking God in prayer does not mean to escape the world, but to plunge into the world and into matter (cf. Le Milieu divin, 1927).

Teilhard de Chardin’s thought is difficult to understand, also because of the different kinds of language he uses (mystic, scientific, philosophical and theological). It also contains elements that raise doubts and that could engender misunderstandings, if assessed from a strictly theological point of view. Yet, the French Jesuit had the great merit of being able to read the biological and cosmic evolution in a Christian perspective, recognizing its finalism directed at human beings and Christ, the Word Incarnate. Moreover, within this finalism, he also successfully re-interpreted suffering, the fight for survival and the toil that evolution necessarily entails, thus providing, for the first time, the path for a Christian understanding of an evolving world, after the criticisms to religion that the diffusion of Darwinism had raised.

Starting from the Second Vatican Council, some precise teachings on the positive value of material realities and of matter itself have been formulated, reaffirming nonetheless the ontological superiority of what belongs to the realm of the spirit. As the constitution Gaudium et spes states, “though made of body and soul, man is one. Through his bodily composition he gathers to himself the elements of the material world; thus they reach their crown through him, and through him raise their voice in free praise of the Creator.” (n. 14).  In the same document the legitimate autonomy of earthly, material realities and the positive value of science and technology are also reaffirmed. In particular, technology rightfully belongs to the human task of transforming the earth, thus allowing us to participate in the headship and recapitulation that Christ performs on the whole of creation (cf. Gaudium et spes, nn. 36, 57 and 38). A few years later, John Paul II will explicitly state that “matter is ennobled through human work” (Laborem Exercens, n. 9), thus recalling that a Christian interpretation of work, different from that made by historical materialism, is possible. Work contributes to our dignity and not our humiliation, because it entails a subjective dimension (a value immanent to the subject that carries it out), not only an objective one (the value of the external output) (cf. ibidem, nn. 7 and 13). In more general and even more solemn terms, the human task of transforming the earth participates in God’s plan over creation, over the history of the world and of humankind (cf. ibidem, n. 25). On the delicate issue of how human work must always respect the environment and how the divine mandate to transform and master the earth (cf. Gn 1,28) does not entail a tyrannical rule on nature that legitimizes any manipulation, the teaching of the Church has given some important clarifications (cf. John Paul II, Discourse to the Members of the United Nations Center for the Environment, Nairobi, August 18, 1985; Letter Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation, December 8, 1989; Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, March 12, 1999. See also the article Ecology in this Encyclopedia, and references therein).

There is, therefore, room for a philosophical-religious view of matter that does not necessarily translate into materialism. And there is also room for a “theology of matter” (cf. M.-D. Chenu, Théologie de la matière. Civilisation technique et spiritualité chrétienne, 1967). Even further, any reflection on matter, on human work and on the material transformation of earthly realities that remains open to the dimensions of the spirit can find a place in a “Christian materialism.” We find this expression in the spiritual teachings of Josemaría Escrivá (1902-1975). Guided by the intuition of the lex incarnationis —the law that stems from the logic of the Incarnated Word, indicating that humanity and materiality are not absorbed by divinity and spirituality, but leave unaltered their nature and value— this author has called for a “materialization of spiritual life,” whereby God and spiritual realities are sought for through the daily encounter with material and earthly realities. In his own words: “I often said to the university students and workers who were with me in the Thirties that they had to know how to materialize their spiritual life. I wanted to keep them from the temptation, so common then and now, of living a kind of double life. On one side, an interior life, a life of relation with God; and on the other, a separate and distinct professional, social and family life, full of small earthly realities. No! We cannot lead a double life. We cannot be like schizophrenics, if we want to be Christians. There is just one life, made of flesh and spirit. And it is this life which has to become, in both soul and body, holy and filled with God. We discover the invisible God in the most visible and material things.” (J. Escrivá, Homily Passionately Loving the World, October 8, 1967, in Conversations with Monsignor Escrivá de Balaguer [Sidney: Little Hills, 1993], n. 114). The possibility of abandoning atheistic materialism in favor of a materialism that is able to recognize the goodness of matter and the role of material things in the Creator’s plans is, in believing thought, a perspective that we can now consider acquired. “Authentic Christianity, which professes the resurrection of all flesh, has always quite logically opposed dis-incarnation, without fear of being judged materialistic. We can, therefore, rightfully speak of a Christian materialism, which is boldly opposed to that materialism which is blind to the spirit” (ibidem, n. 115).

Documents of the Catholic Church related to the subject: 

F. ADLER, Ernst Machs Überwindung des mechanischen Materialismus (Wien: Wiener Volksbuchhandlung I. Brand, 1918); P. BAYLE, Dictionaire historique et critique, 2 vols. (Rotterdam: Reinier Leers, 1695-97); M. BUBER, Eclipse of God (Atlantic Highlands - NJ: Humanities Press, 1979); S. BUDD, Varieties of Unbelief. Atheists and Agnostics in English Society, 1850-1960 (London: Heinemann, 1977); M. BUNGE, Scientific Materialism (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1981); M.J. BUCKLEY, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1987); H. DE LUBAC, The Drama of Atheist Humanism (1944) (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995); A. DRACHMANN, Atheism in Pagan Antiquity (1922) (Chicago: Ares Press, 1977); C. FABRO, God in Exile: Modern Atheism. A Study of the Internal Dynamic of Modern Atheism, from its Roots in the Cartesian “cogito” to the Present Day (Westminster - MD: Newman Press, 1968); E. GILSON, God and Philosophy (1941) (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1955); E. HUSSERL, Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1954) (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1970); L. KOLAKOWSKI, Religion: If there is no God...  On God, the Devil, Sin and other Worries of the so-called Philosophy of Religion (New York - Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982); F.A. LANGE, The History of Materialism, and Criticism of its Present Importance (1877, 19027), intr. by Bertrand Russell (London: Routledge, 2000); H. LEY, Studien zur Geschichte des Materialismus im Mittelalter (Berlin: Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1957); H. LEY, Geschichte der Aufklärung und des Atheismus, 5 vols. (Berlin: VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1966-1989); E. MCMULLIN (ed.), The Concept of Matter (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1964); G. MINOIS, Histoire de l'athéisme. Les incroyants dans le monde occidental des origines à nos jours (Paris: A. Fayard, 1998); A. NEGRI, Il materialismo naturalistico dell’Ottocento, in “Grande Antologia Filosofica” (Milan: Marzorati, 1976), vol. XXIV, 1-166; R.H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979); R.H. POPKIN, C.B. SCHMITT (eds.), Scepticism from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1987); R.H. POPKIN, The History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle (Oxford - New York: Oxford Univ. Press,  2002); M. ROSSI, Alle fonti del deismo e del materialismo moderno (Firenze: La nuova Italia, 1942); G. STEIN, God pro and con. A Bibliography of Atheism (New York: Garland, 1990); M. WINIARCZYK, Bibliographie zum antiken Atheismus (Bonn: R. Habelt, 1994).