Of spider’s web and Bertrand Russell’s materialism – By Prof. Afis Oladosu


Bertrand Russell

One subject which operates at the core of human inquiry is the appropriation of meaning of our existence. Since the primordial period, humanity has always yearned to know the reason for the existence of the cosmos and the ultimate end of life. As it was before, so it is today. Nowadays, humanity seeks to know the philosophy which undergirds the modern life we now live in?

The discerning minds among us would like to appropriate the knowledge which nests beneath the home we live in, the food we eat, the cloth we wear and the road we travel on? People of understanding in our milieu would like to know why it feels as if our days have become shorter, and why our aspirations are usually longer than our life span.
When carefully contemplated, the suggestion becomes tempting that the reason our life experiences disharmony inheres in the Russellian logic: the triumph of materialism over spiritualism. Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher, mathematician and thinker once said that “Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.”

Russell’s philosophy is materialist in tenor and scope. He is one of those philosophers who recognize the importance of knowledge in human existence. He knows the human nature is imbued with the potential to know; he holds the belief in the capacity of humankind to derive meaning from the universe without the prompting and intervention of the divine. Russell, the materialist, always wanted to appropriate the meaning of life; he believed he could do that without seeking a recourse to the opinion of the owner of life!

But, ironically we all share the materialist vision in varying degrees. Consider your dwelling, your apartment, and you would appreciate the extent to which your life is meaningful or meaningless. Our homes nowadays look like prisons on the outside and are stuffed with what we can do without in the inside. We erect fences round our houses on the assumption that it could protect us; that it could deter the brigand from desecrating the sanctity of our dwelling.

But we often fail to realize that the higher the wall around the palace the more it attracts the enemy outside. In other words, walls are signifiers: they call attention to the existence of the treasured, the valued, the sacred. Once a particular space is forbidden, the urge to desecrate it is enarmoured.

Visit any Muslim family, particularly the “educated” ones, and you would come across assorted rooms, furniture of different kinds, a big television- they call it Plasma TV, satellite television decoders, music players, exquisite rug, etc.

Sometimes when I contemplate these items, I always wonder how and why we spend our life time gathering what would not last; why and how we spend our fortune on materials and items which benefits us only for a while; why and how we spend our money on items which, unless caution and care are our watchwords, have potentials to harm us.
Brethren, only recently, I learnt that most chairs in our offices and homes are injurious to our health, that long exposure to television programmes not only damage our eyes but negatively impacts our intellection. But we live in an age where our children are exposed to drama and soap operas on the cable networks everyday of the week. When it is time for ‘Ishai prayer every Thursday night, our children rush to watch “the super story”!

Look at our roads. The wider the road the more modern the city becomes. The wide road network has become a necessity because, unlike before, humans now ride in big and wide cars. In the 17th century, wide roads in European cities were called in Latin via militares, meaning military roads. They functioned in making populated areas more easily accessible to government forces and thereby facilitate suppression and control of the ordinary masses.

Wide roads in our world today do the above and more. They make tiny roads appear abnormal and ugly. Wide roads equally promote individualism and negate communalism. When everybody rides their cars, little chance is left for communality. Nowadays we get to the other only through the windscreen of our cars.

Let us return to the materialist philosophy. It is hinged on the assumption that the centre of the universe exists within it, not beyond it; that our world is immanent, not transcendent, that the universe is independent, not contingent. Materialist philosophers hold that either God has nothing to do with humanity and the universe or He exists as, wal ‘iyadhbiLLAH, an invalid, completely unable to intervene in currents in the cosmos. The materialist, therefore, pooh-poohs the idea of the existence of a nexus between the creator and the created. He would say: “we exist by ourselves and for ourselves”; “nothing would happen to us after death”.

One immediate result of the materialist view of life is the ascension of the notion or philosophy of humanism. This references the thought that humankind is the centre of the universe; that matter is the ultimate; that humankind is the god of the phenomena. The world is me and mine only.

The materialist philosophy of life equally works on the notion that nothing in the universe is unknown, and therefore, unknowable- that which is unknown today will eventually be known through the accumulation of data. The materialist yearning for knowledge is foregrounded by the need to possess complete knowledge of reality which will, in turn, lead to a full control of reality. This philosophy operates and drives the exploration of space by the powers of today. The West desires to know in order that it may desanctify, possess and control the world; in order that it may instrumentalize and utilitarianize it; in order that the cosmos may assist the West in its effort to maximize production and, ultimately, consumption.

But the above is antedated by one other notion: that existence, be it the animate or the inanimate, is material and is therefore perceptible to human senses. In other words, the materialist philosophy is hinged on the assumption that anything that cannot be perceived by the sensory organ is an illusion, a phantom.
Thus, materialism holds that reality could be ratiocinated and subjected to an order, a symmetry. The materialist epistemology and pedagogy is evident in the fields of science and technology where the atom and the particle have ultimately become bigger than the Divine; it is axiomatic in the social sciences where figure and numbers have become more important than the human soul.
When carefully contemplated, however, you would discover that all terrestrial empires are all destined for ruin; the castles we are building are as strong as the spider’s web.
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-Nigeria Guardian

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