A Materialist View of Reality

A recent publication of Leviathan, a long work by the seventeenth century English thinker Thomas Hobbes, shows him arguing for the position that the only reality is material or corporeal, human beings, and apparently even God, being no more than physical entities. He was the heir to a distinguished philosophical tradition already expressed by the Greek Democritus, according to whom atoms, indivisible units with size and shape, that floated around in a void and kept knocking into each other, were the only things to exist; his view found beautiful poetic expression in the De rerum natura of the Roman author Lucretius. Hobbes’ view of the deity, in which he seems to have retained some shaky belief, oddly anticipated that of the Mormons, for whom God is not merely a physical being of flesh and bones who used to live on the earth, but has a wife; some believe that the couple have made their home on the planet, or star, Kolob.

The materialistic approach of Hobbes and Democritus is not the only possible way of thinking about reality. Most people regard the non-material aspects of their lives as being the most important, and those for whom they are labour under burdens such as ill health. Beyond this, the idea that thoughts and attitudes shape the world in which we live isn’t hard to accept. It is surely a matter of experience that a loving disposition creates a different reality, say a different kind of home, than another one does. Perhaps we can go further. ‘[T]here is no greater force within the creation than the free will of beings endowed with self-consciousness and spiritual intellect; and so the misuse of this free will can have altogether terrifying consequences.’ (Kallistos Ware)


  • John,

    Maybe you or one of your learned friends could help with a question. Way back in high-school, I remember being presented with two opposing scientific/philosophical approaches to matter. One described dividing material objects until you reached an indivisible level. i.e. Democritus’ Atoms (as your posting highlights), the other believed that matter could be divided into infinitely smaller and smaller pieces. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the proponent of the second approach – was it the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno?

    My science teacher, who presented this material, highlighted that Democritus approach won out (in the end) and set us on the path to “Enlightenment”. Unfortunately, we never did touch on the non-tangible reality that your posting describes – I suppose my teacher was limited in regards to how far he could explore philosophy in a science class. If someone could confirm that Zeno was the first to propose the notion of infinite divisions, it would solve a decades old mental lapse, that has continued to drive me crazy! 🙂

    Any help would be appreciated,
    Regards Vasilios.

  • Perhaps some learned reader will be able to solve this irritating mystery.

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