In the debate between idealism and materialism, the ultimate question is - mind over matter or matter over mind? Materialism, a philosophy based on the idea that everything around us is made up of matter or is totally dependent on matter for survival, is in direct conflict with idealism, a philosophy which proclaims that reality is actually nothing but our ideas, our consciousness, and our mind. Let us delve into the topic further.
According to the idealism, a term coined by Plato, reality is nothing but what our mind tells us. In order to understand the society or the world around us, our consciousness or the spiritual forces are the most essential factors. Whatever we think is the reality, is actually what our mind has made us believe.
According to the materialism, the reality is what we see or observe in the material things around us. In order to understand the world around us, materialism propounds that we need to study and look at the environmental, physical, economical, and historical factors. According to materialists, human consciousness does not exist. Our brain is just flesh in which lots of electrical activity takes place and it is due to these electrical impulses that we are able to understand ourselves and everything else.
Materialism also emphasizes on the importance of worldly possessions and physical beauty, proclaiming that they are the most important things in life. A materialistic person is the one who seeks wealth, is superficial, selfish and status conscious, wants to look good all the time, is manipulative, works for his own benefit and always wants things to go his way. On the other hand an idealist is one who always strives for perfection. He believes that everything and everyone should be "ideal" i.e. perfect and flawless. Idealists are basically non conformists and futurists who want to change the accepted order of things for a more perfect one in the future. Idealists seek intellectual and moral development, rather than gaining material wealth. Materialists want everything now and look for instant gratification while idealists strive to work towards a perfect future.
Difference in Views
According to the philosopher Lucretius, matter, which is made up of atoms, and the empty space, is what the whole universe is made up of. Due the empty space, atoms move about freely in the universe and when atoms collide with each other and come together, they form matter i.e. material objects. Human beings, just like the non living things such as a table or chair, are made up of atoms. When humans die or when these non living things are discarded or burnt in fire, the atoms are not destroyed. They come back into the empty space and again collide and come together to form living things which can think, speak, taste, etc, as well as non living things. Thus, it is the atoms, the matter which forms humans, their consciousness, soul, mind, and thoughts.
As materialism suggests that consciousness and ideas do not exist or even if they do, they are nothing but atoms, then why do different people have different ways of looking at things? A glass half filled with water, may seem half empty to some and half full to others. This shows that perceptions of reality differ from person to person, although we have the same electrical activities going on inside our brains are made up of the same atoms. It is these psychological processes such as our desires, beliefs, intentions, thoughts, feelings and sensory perceptions, that distinguish one person from another. This phenomenon has still not been satisfactorily explained by scientists or proponents of materialism.
If we look at modern science, it is very closely associated with the philosophy of materialism. Most scientists can be considered materialists by profession as they only study about or deal with material things, but personally they may have different beliefs and some of them may actually believe in things like human consciousness, perception, thoughts and other psychological processes.
People who have been debating on this subject, often point out the flaws of materialistic philosophy. They suggest that since atoms and particles do not have any consciousness, then how come they can come together to form human consciousness and soul? Thus, the philosophy of explaining everything in reference to material things or matter, is still highly debated and lot of questions are still left unanswered.