Saturday, August 19, 2006

Why I am a materialist - JBS Haldane

JBS Haldane, 1940:

Mankind is up against a very difficult situation. We have dealt with a great mass of problems in the past by scientific thinking--that is to say, materialistic thinking. We try to solve our political problems by appeal to eternal values. But if we start thinking materialistically about these 'eternal values' we find that they are social phenomena which have come into being in the last few thousand years, because men gave up hunting and took to husbandry, agriculture, and handicraft. So society became a great deal more complicated, and 'eternal values' are part of the apparatus by which it has been kept going. In particular they are very useful to those who are in comfortable situations at present, and would like the present state of things, with a few minor modifications, to be eternal.

Materialistic thinking in the past has been revolutionary in its effects. It has built up natural science and undermined religion. The same process is going on today. We have to realize that our current ideas about society are mostly very like our ancestors' ideas about the universe four hundred years ago--irrational traditions which stifle progress in the interests of a small minority. These ideas are being transformed by materialistic thinking about history as our ancestors' ideas were transformed by materialistic thinking about nature. The consequence will no doubt be revolutionary, as it was in the past. This would perhaps be deplorable if our society were working well. But it is working very badly. So we are probably going to have an uncomfortable time in the immediate future, whatever happens. And as I want a rational society to come out of our present troubles I am not only a materialist myself, but I do what I can to make other people materialists.

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