The Vision of Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 2: Materialistic and Humanistic Vision

A living organism is supposed to be fit for survival in accordance with its capacity for adaptation to its environment. But this adjustment that everyone seems to be making in respect of one’s own environment is conditioned, in its nature, by the organism’s vision of life—its understanding of the nature of the environment. The visualisation of the atmosphere of life is the philosophy of life. The history of philosophy has recorded endless varieties of such considerations—visions of life—and this enormous multitude of viewpoints can be attributed only to the manner in which one is able to probe into the structure ’s environment, the world in which one lives.

We have a common view about things, prevalent almost everywhere, which is that our life has to be comfortable. We should have no physical pain, no social harassment and no political insecurity, all which is summed up in the attitude of a physical envisioning of life. A person who is wholly confined to this attitude of a life of continuous comfort and physical satisfaction, who thinks only in terms of property, land and money, or even in terms of social position, who thinks nothing else, whose vision of life is restricted only to this extent and cannot go above, such a person we generally call a materialistic person, identifying the materialistic view with a concept of a comfortable existence, physically and socially. But materialism is not a philosophy of comfortable living; it is a specialised vision of life in itself, and if it brings physical comfort, that is a secondary matter.

The basic issue is the vision, the concept, the notion, and the extent of the characteristic of reality that is seen to be present in that particular envisioning. We are acquainted with the word ‘materialism’. As I mentioned, it should not be identified merely with money, property and land, because materialism is a philosophy. It is a vision of life which holds that what cannot be tangible or sensible, cannot be regarded as knowable. A thing that is entirely unknowable need not be affirmed to really exist, because the existence of a particular object is connected with the extent of the knowledge one may have about that object.

The world exists, an object exists, this exists or that exists. This statement can have a value only to the extent that there is a knowledge connecting it with a perceiving unit, as a totally unknown element cannot become an issue for any kind of consideration. That which is knowable certainly does exist to the extent knowledge permits the evaluation thereof, in that manner. But how do we feel competent to affirm that something can exist if it is not at all known in any way, and cannot be known? The only thing that we can be sure of knowing is what we can see with our eyes, what we can touch, and so on, with the available apparatus of the sense organs.

The senses mentioned come in contact with something which is tangible in a special sense, and in this special sense it is that we consider a tangible or visible thing, a material object. Whatever we see is a concrete substance, whatever we hear is audible in a concrete manner, and so is the case with what we smell, or taste, or touch. A substantiality, a concreteness, or rather a materiality has to be present in anything that our senses can cognise, with which our senses can come in contact. Inasmuch as we have only these faculties of cognition and perception, and there is no possibility of even inferring the presence of any other faculty in us, limited as we are in sense perception only, we are forced to conclude that the sense world is the only world, and to posit the existence of any other material world would be an unwarranted assumption, wholly theoretical and incapable of tenability of any kind.

Now, this vision which considers substantiality as the only reality, materiality as the essence of true existence, has subtle layers of argument and methods of proof in its philosophical repertoire, and with this apparatus the materialistic doctrine attempts to make itself a complete view of life so that nothing else can be said about life in this world. The argument of a section of people that the existence of a material world has to be confirmed by a knowing subject, and matter can be said to be there only as that which is comprehended through a knowing process, thus giving some sort of an independent existence and value to the knowledge of matter, is set aside by the doctrine of materialism with a single stroke by the argument that the knowing process is within the campus of matter itself. The whole astronomical universe is material in its nature, and the process of its being known in some manner is a part and parcel of the operation of the inner constituents of matter itself. As the activity of a large sea in the form of movements through waves, etc. cannot be isolated from the body of the sea itself, any activity, even the activity of knowing, cannot be segregated and considered to be existing outside the purview of this body of the material, physical universe—there ends the matter.

This is an interesting position indeed, most satisfying to common sense, and the materialistic doctrine has reached such heights today that it has changed its designation from being known merely as materialism, and has assumed a new nomenclature—scientific materialism. The word ‘scientific’, the term ‘science’ is so enchanting because of the precision and the indubitably of its procedures that few in the world can escape its clutches. The scientific attitude of materialism is an outcome of developments through history in the direction of the probing into the inner constituents of matter, though originally it was enough for a materialist to accept that any tangible, hard substance like earth, water, fire or air would be just what matter could be.

A large section of thinkers along the lines of materialism were intelligent enough to observe the operations of the inner constituents of matter, because it does not require much time to know that every material body can be reduced to minute inner constituents like particles, and particles can be reduced to finer elements so that they may not be visible at all to the naked eye. They cannot be called sense objects in the ordinary sense of the term, but they do exist as material stuff. Here the scientific character of the material doctrine is hidden in the concept of matter. Originally, we thought that matter is anything that we can touch, taste, smell, etc., but an advance in the concept of the true nature of matter led to finer conclusions, and made materialism an advanced philosophy which was to the satisfaction of almost everybody in the world. Matter need not necessarily be a tangible, hard, concrete thing like stone; the scientific, or rather the philosophical aspect of the concept of matter, lands itself in the position that matter can be anything that is known by a knowing subject. Any known content is matter. Even conceptually known things should be regarded as matter that is not necessarily known only by means of the sense organs. Thus the present day reduction of matter to its finer elements, they say, does not in any way refute the doctrine of materialism.

Recently I had occasion to go through a little pamphlet published by a highly advanced scientific society in which the author says that there is a wrong notion among people that materialism has been exploded by the modern discoveries of higher physics and mathematics, which somehow proclaimed to the world that matter as it is presented to the sense organs does not really exist, which means to say, dangerously, that the world itself perhaps does not exist. This does not follow from even the most advanced form of physical findings, says the author, because even the finest, irreducible form of the material world, even if it be so fine as to be co-extensive and co-eternal with everything else in the world, still it remains something which can be known by a knowing principle. Therefore it stands opposed to knowing it is still an object, and therefore it is matter, nevertheless—so materialism holds up. We cannot overcome materialism, because however fine the world may be to the eye of a modern scientist or physicist, it is nevertheless matter. Even atoms are material, electrons are material, energy is material, electric force is material; there is nothing non-material in any one of these.

But reverting to the question posed earlier as to how matter is known at all to exist in any way, and the ancillary argument of the materialist that even the knowing process is part of the inner activity of the constituents of matter, we feel that this situation requires a further, deeper consideration. The materialistic principle abruptly and unhesitatingly declares that rarified matter, in its finest form, assumes the form of what we call knowing, consciousness, going even to the extent of holding that it is some sort of an exudation of matter. This is the philosophical aspect of materialism, apart from its purely scientific or technological aspect. No doctrine can stand unless it has a philosophy of its own, whatever be its utility from the point of view of its application in daily life. So the materialist has a very strong philosophy which appears to be wholly unshakable—that we, even as observers, knowers, do not stand outside the material world.

This vision is very satisfying to the world of sense satisfaction and physical security. We seem to be happy to know all these things. But, a great ‘but’ seems to be there behind this complacence that materialism seems to be offering us, namely, the status of the knower himself in the world of material perceptions. What is knowledge? And what do we mean by knowing anything at all? It is not enough if we merely make a statement that there is a knowing or a perceiving entity coming in contact with something which we call a material object. That is all right, but what is actually the process that seems to be taking place when something is known by someone?

An intricate action seems to be involved in the act of knowing. Knowledge is a state of awareness, a centre, a person. A subject who can be regarded as an observing location of an awareness of something is an intriguing element indeed, because this awareness of an object, or a material, or an external content, requires the activity of a peculiar thing called consciousness, which is usually, by the materialist, identified with a form of rarified matter. If a capacity to know, an ability to be self-conscious, can be attributed to some form of matter; if matter which is the stuff of the universe can, in its finest forms, assume the state of the light of awareness or consciousness, thus making it possible for someone to know that matter exists; if this could be possible, matter can be self-conscious, because the nature of consciousness is basically self-consciousness. Though consciousness is always a consciousness of something outside, it is prior to this act of the consciousness of something outside—a self-identical awareness of itself. The knowing entity, the subject of knowledge, knows itself to be there. This subject, being consciousness itself, has to be aware of itself. The awareness that consciousness has of itself is different from the consciousness that it has of an object outside. Granting that consciousness has the capacity to know matter as something that has emanated from matter itself, do we not feel compelled to conclude that if this is the fact, the entire world of matter, the universe of material contents hiddenly enshrining in its bosom this potentiality for knowing, would become a total centre of self-awareness? Dangerous conclusion indeed, because this would root out the very basic concept of the materialist that there is anything called matter at all. The abolition of the concept of matter being the ultimate reality arises as a consequence of it being impossible to know the existence of matter without there being consciousness and also without consciousness being self-aware.

What do you call matter if it is self-aware? The characteristic of self-awareness is non-objectivity—one does not know oneself as something other than oneself. The nature of consciousness is so very subtle, so very difficult to grasp, that it eludes the introduction of any element of objectivity into itself. Consciousness cannot be known by anybody else, because to know consciousness there should be another consciousness, and that would land us in a funny situation of there a being a series of consciousness, one being behind the other for the sake of knowing the precedent consciousness. That which knows is self-identical in the sense that it knows itself as nothing other than itself.

The material aspect of the concept of life cannot stand if this position is to be accepted. It is not possible for a confirmed materialist, who holds that the whole universe is matter, to agree that there is any possibility of matter being self-aware. If self-awareness is not to be attributed to matter, matter cannot be known to exist. But to attribute self-awareness to matter is to defeat the very purpose and the aim of the materialist doctrine. It kills itself—it would be a self-defeating doctrine.

Here we have before us the outcome, finally, not only of crass materialism which holds the world to be just a bundle of solid objects, but also of the rarified form of the materialist doctrine, scientific in its nature. The scientific aspect of materialism also cannot stand as long as the nature of matter is not properly defined. There is no use jumping from one concept to another concept of matter, only to escape the difficulties of an earlier conclusion. The bogey of matter being something outside consciousness cannot leave us; it pursues us wherever we go. The outsideness of anything that is material is the special feature of whatever we can call material, and anything that is wholly outside cannot be absorbed or accommodated into a conscious, knowing subject. Therefore there is no chance of the final success of the materialist doctrine, on the one hand due to its inability to explain how matter is known unless there is a knowing subject, and on the other hand its being dangerously near the most unexpected conclusion that matter is potentially consciousness. Neither of these aspects can be accepted by a materialist, but there is no third alternative. Either way we find that there is something more about things than what they seem to be presenting to us on superficial perception.

The difficulties envisaged in the acceptance of a wholly materialist doctrine has pressed itself into the minds of people through human history to such an extent that it has become difficult to cling to it entirely, and man has slowly risen to the acceptance of values which are non-material—such as goodness, affection, a spirit of cooperation, servicefulness, the presence of duty, and a sense of purposefulness in existence, which we cannot deny, but none of which can we attribute to matter. We cannot say that there can be some matter which is good, some matter which is bad, that there can be beautiful matter or ugly matter, cooperative matter or non-cooperative matter, serviceful matter or non-serviceful matter. Anything that we consider as humanly meaningful in our existence does not seem to be a characteristic of matter. Material existence does not seem to be the whole of life, because we see values in life, and today we have risen to the level of the acceptance of there being such things as human values. The adamant affirmation of the crass materialist is slowly giving way to a humanistic consideration of values. We speak of humanity very often these days. We work for the peace of the world, in the sense of the peace of mankind. There is a series of forums we set up for international well-being, all which mean well-being of human beings. Human values are considered as final values. The survival of humanity is the aim of all our pursuits—man is final, the last word in creation. If only something could contribute to the survival of man, that would be taken as the final assessment of the situation, and everything else can be ignored. Anything can be sacrificed for the survival of man, whatever it is. We have no hesitation in accepting this view. If something endangers the life of a human being, even if that also be a kind of living being, like an animal, that would not be our consideration. A human vision of life has taken possession of us to such an extent that we cannot any more accept that there can be anything in this world more than man.

But this so-called humanistic view is as shaky in its foundation as the reasons we saw for the untenability of a finale in the materialistic doctrine. The flaw in materialism is obvious. We can describe and decipher such an obvious flaw in this commonly accepted universally deified vision of man being everything. Man is the centre of all values. Now what do we say to this? Can we say that man is the centre of all values? It is certainly necessary for us to survive, and we have to move earth and heaven to see that we somehow exist in this world—this is to be accepted for obvious reasons. It is not good to invite death and annihilation or the abolition of life. So there is an instinctiveness to see that we survive somehow or other, by hook or by crook, by any means that can be adopted, even by the destruction of others which are not human. But, as we had an occasion to observe previously, even human nature has degrees; perhaps there are categories of human nature. And when we are pressed into a corner, if we hold on to this concept of humanity as the final value, we may not even hesitate to sacrifice lesser humanity for what we consider as a more valuable category of humanity. This possibility is very shocking, surprising and difficult to swallow, but it is something we see before our eyes—human beings being sacrificed legally, officially and necessarily for national welfare or human welfare, you may say, the welfare of all people. The welfare of people may require the sacrifice of people, especially in contingencies like wars where human beings are sacrificed, and no soldier goes to the field of battle with a conviction that all soldiers will be alive and they will return hale and hearty. A spirit of sacrifice of one’s own life is involved in any kind of adventure of this type, but this adventure is embarked upon for the welfare of people. So some people should die for the sake of some other people to be alive.

This takes us to a serious consideration of what human life itself is. Does it mean that fifty percent of people have to die for another fifty percent to be alive? Certainly we say no, that this is not our intention. We want humanity to be alive. The life of humanity is our intention, and not merely the lives of fifty percent of humanity, though mathematically fifty percent of the people may die in a big, tragic war. God forbid that may take place, nevertheless we say it is a worthwhile adventure for the survival of humanity—mankind. Mankind has survived; it has won a victory in war, but it has won the victory through the destruction of fifty percent of its human brethren.

The concept of humanism is full of difficulties to entertain because we do not know what we actually mean by humanity, mankind, for which we are struggling. In everyday life we are guarding ourselves and are ready to fight tooth and nail against people for whose welfare we are girding up our loins day in and day out. Everyone is stirred with the spirit of social service. “I have dedicated myself for the welfare of people.” This spirit is considered as most noble, worthwhile, and nothing can be higher than this spirit of the wish to offer oneself entirely for the welfare of people. Who are the people? The human beings living in the world. And who are we afraid of? Human beings living in the world. Why are we manufacturing ammunition, setting up armies and police and courts of law? Because we are afraid of people. Whom are we serving? People. Who are we afraid of? People. What sort of people are we afraid of? Are we intent upon sacrificing our life for the service of people whom we hate, whom we dread? Or are we serving or intending to serve and sacrifice ourselves for the welfare of those who are not likely to cause us fear? We will not be able to suddenly give an answer to this question, because even those people whom we dread are human beings equally as those others to whom we are affectionate.

Now, when we conceive humanity as an object of deification, finally—humanism as a final philosophy—we will realise that the very definition of mankind or humanity would require a new definition altogether, as we found that the concept of matter requires a new definition. It is not that we are living in a purely material world, and it is also not true that we are living in a purely human world. It is so because our values—ethical, legal, moral, social—do not seem to be confined to individualities which are what we call human beings. A principle of justice, a position that can be taken entirely from a legal point of view, may not consider the value of an individual. If the individual, whatever be that individual, whoever that be, is as sacred, as important, as meaningful as anybody else, there would not be any chance of imprisoning an individual or meting out punishment to an individual for the welfare of people. The welfare of people requires punishment to be meted out to some people. That means to say, the people to whom punishment is meted out are not people. Why? They are certainly people. But the legal procedure, or the social norm, or the moral tradition which requires certain attitudes to a section of people, which cannot be regarded as a universally applicable principle to all beings, takes us beyond the concept of individuality. Perhaps we are thinking of the welfare of people in a sense that is not limited to individual human beings at all, because if humanity, mankind, human nature is to be limited to human individuals, then we cannot have any system of adjudication in a judicial nature, a legal form, much less any kind of meting out of punishment.

There is a value which we entertain in our minds that is superhuman. There is a conceptual entertainment of the meaning of life, rather than a physical or even a humanitarian concept of it, if humanity is to be limited to only a vision of individuals existing isolated from one another. The world of nature has not cared for individuals. History has not paid any special attention to individuals, but it has stood for principles which are more than individual. It has stood for nations and it has stood for the world welfare in a sense totally different from the welfare of individuals. The justice of a cause may require the sacrifice of an individual, not withstanding the fact than the individual is as much a human being as any other human being for whose welfare this attitude is adopted towards a particular individual.

All this takes us into deeper philosophical concepts of justice, legal operation, ethical conduct and moral values. We do not live in a material world. We also do not live in a human world. Because values are not to be identified with matter, they cannot also be identified with any individual human being. They surpass the units of matter, and they seem to be superceding even human beings as individuals. We cannot always find time to think along these lines—in the manner of a generalisation of principles—and we seem to be mixing up the individual with a principle in our daily life, the sin with the sinner as they say, and feel not always competent to distinguish between the embodiment of the principle and the principle itself. A human being enshrines a principle, no doubt, but the human being, as a physical embodiment or a social unit, is not always identified with the principle as such. Sometimes we dislike a person, though that person is a human being. As people devoted to the welfare of human beings, we cannot dislike any human being, nor can we excessively like any human being. But the likes and dislikes arising out of considerations which are either judicial, legal, social, moral, or whatever they be, seem to be justifying our attitude, and this justification can be there only if it is rooted in some vision of life which is not limited to any particular individual, much less to material objects.

The goodness of a person or the badness of a person does not make a person less than human. Our idea of a human being should be clear in our minds first. A bad human being is also a human being; a good human being is also a human being. We make a distinction among human beings, simultaneously with our avowed spirit of surrender to the welfare of people in general. There is a mix-up of values—love and hate come together like two waves dashing one over the other in a sea. Difficulties arise on account of our not being able to extract the principle of life, the spirit of living in general, from the individualities which are human beings.

The philosophy of humanism therefore is full of flaws. It cannot stand finally, as materialism cannot stand. So an overemphasis on what we consider today as the welfare of humanity and the service of people may not be more than a kind of slogan or a shibboleth which assumes a divine character because of a total misconstruction of its true meaning. It cannot stand on its own legs if we probe into the secret of our very thoughts which are associated with the concept of humanity. Humanism is great, life in the physical world is great; but there is something more than life involved in physical matter and life involved in a purely human concept of living, limiting human nature to individual human beings. The idea of humanity is a very intriguing concept and we take everything for granted, as if everything is clear to us and fine, so we can go headlong along the line of the action that we are trying to take for fulfilling our ambition, humanitarian in its nature.

No one can love humanity truly, unless he is superhuman. A person who is only human cannot have a real understanding of what humanity is, because a person who is only human, nothing more, is limited to whatever constitutes human nature; and inasmuch as every human individual is limited to a physical encasement, there is a possibility of a human being becoming selfish and on occasions trying to ignore the existence of other people and limiting oneself to oneself only. The possibility of reverting to one’s own self entirely in a selfish manner, even in the consideration of bodily existence, cannot be completely discarded because every human being is, after all, an isolated entity, one cut off from the other. To take a total view of humanity as a whole, and even to be correctly conscious of the nature of humanity without getting into the muddle of the dichotomy between principles and individuals, one has to be something a little more than human.

A superhuman element seems to be embedded, unconsciously though, in all human considerations, even as there was an unwitting acceptance, forced against one’s own will, of the presence of a peculiar element called self-consciousness, even in the body of matter when we considered materialism. We find that humanity involves something that is more than humanity. The philosophy of materialism and the philosophy of humanism finally fall if they are to consider themselves as self-complete in themselves. If matter is all and nothing more than matter is, if man is all and nothing more than man is, neither humanism can stand, nor materialism can stand.

Considering these problems, being fully aware that there is some basic difficulty in the acceptance of either crass materialism or socialistic humanism, psychologists took a new turn altogether and adumbrated a vision of life which took into consideration the mind of man rather than the individuality of man or his physical environment. This standpoint, which is other than the standpoint of materialism or the viewpoint of pure humanism, is psychological, or perhaps we may say psychoanalytical. These considerations, which have been engaging our attention during these few minutes, land us finally in the presence of something that is called ‘mind’, a thinking process which is other than a body of matter or even a physically conceived human individual.

All values seem to be psychological, mental and inward. Hence all values, though they appear to be physical on the one side and human on the other side, seem to be psychological, essential; and the vision of life presented by psychology and psychoanalysis takes us deeper into the inner contents of human nature, the very perceiving individual, the subject thereof—a point of view we shall try to discuss next.