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In the present day there is no kind of anti-theism, no kind of atheism, so prevalent and so formidable as materialism. Wherever we find just now an anti-theistic or atheistic system popular, we may be certain that it is either a form of materialism or that it has originated in materialism, and draws from it its life and support. It is necessary for us, therefore, to turn our attention to materialism, the chief and central source of contemporary antitheistic speculations. I shall treat of it at some length, owing to its importance, but I shall treat of it only in so far as it is anti-theistic. It has other aspects and relations, but these I do not require to consider. With much that has sometimes been included in materialism, I have fortunately here no concern.
Materialists have not unfrequently sought to
represent the history of physical science and speculation as inseparable from, if not identical with, the history of materialism. Their right to do so is, of course, denied by all their opponents. Spiritualists of every class maintain that nothing accomplished by physical science has carried us by a single step nearer materialism. All consistent theists believe that the progress of physical science has been a continuous illustration of the power, wisdom, and goodness of God. Materialism cannot be allowed, therefore, quietly and illogically to take for granted that the interests of physical science are specially bound up with its own. At the same time it may be acknowledged, and I desire to acknowledge it cordially, that materialism and materialistic theories have largely contributed to the advancement of physical science, and have indirectly profited even mental science. It would be altogether unjust to regard them as merely hurtful or merely useless. They have suggested and stimulated the most varied researches. It is no accidental circumstance that they have abounded during every age in which physical science has been prosecuted with vigour and success. Wherever physical science is generally enterprising it must also be often audacious. If it were never unreasonably hopeful and ambitious, its achievements would be comparatively few and mean. The material universe can be under-estimated as well as over-estimated, and the exaggerations even of materialism are needful to secure its being estimated aright. It was Coleridge, I think, who, when asked what could be the use of the stars if not inhabited, replied that it might be to show that dirt was cheap. The theologians, the metaphysicians, the moral philosophers, and large classes of religionists have always been prone to regard matter as merely “dirt,” and to forget that it is the wonderful work and glorious manifestation of God; and so long as this error is committed, the opposite error may serve a providential purpose. Ignorance of physical nature, or injustice to it, is fatal even to philosophy and theology. There was very little materialism during the middle ages; but at that time, also, physical science languished and died, and the philosophical theology which prevailed dogmatised, in consequence, so confidently and foolishly on the origin and nature of the universe and its relations to the Creator, that the grandest truths were discredited by being associated with the most ridiculous blunders.
There is a prevalent notion that materialism is at least a very definite theory which, whether true or false, cannot be mistaken for any other. In reality it is a general term which has many and discordant applications, and which comprehends a crowd of heterogeneous theories. There are sys
tems which may with equal right be designated materialistic or pantheistic, and even materialistic or idealistic. The only kind of system of which history supplies no record is one which would answer truly to the name of materialism. The name would naturally denote a theory which explains the universe by what is known as matter, or by matter as known through ordinary observation or scientific investigation. There neither is, however, nor ever has been, any such theory. It is a universal characteristic of materialism that it supposes matter to be more than it is known to be; that it imaginatively exalts and glorifies matter beyond what sense or science warrants. It always attributes to matter eternity and self-existence; sometimes it supposes it to be likewise essentially active; sometimes it endows it with life, with sensation, with volition, with intelligence. Systems which agree in verbally representing matter as the foundation and explanation of the universe, differ enormously as to what matter is, but they all, without exception, ascribe to matter properties of which experience teaches us nothing.
It is perhaps impossible to fix precisely where the history of materialism begins. To say that it is “as old but not older than philosophy,” is to say nothing, unless you say how old philosophy is. But philosophy existed in union with religion long before it existed in a state of independence, and, for anything we know to the contrary, may be as old as human reason itself. Notwithstanding the prevalence of the contrary opinion, there is evidence that even the lowest forms of religion have originated in a speculative impulse. They are not mere embodiments of the feelings of fear, or love, or dependence, but consist in great part of rude speculations, strange fancies, as to the making and the meaning of nature and of man. The ruder tribes of men seem unable to conceive either of mere matter or mere spirit; they spiritualise matter and materialise spirit; souls and gods are supposed by them to be material beings, and material things to have souls and divine powers; they cannot think of matter and spirit as separate existences. Fetichism, animism, animal-worship, nature-worship, have all their root in this mental incapacity. All these forms of religion may with almost as much propriety be called materialistic as the professedly materialistic theories of the recent speculators who, in the name of science, ascribe life and sense and other potencies even to the ultimate elements of matter. The feeble power of abstraction which characterises uncultured man has always made him, to a considerable extent, a materialist. He has been unable to think of mind and matter apart; of a body without spirit or spirit without body; of nature without God or God without nature. Man