In history the first sceptical school of thought arose near the end of the 7th century BC. Its protagonists were Thales (622-560 BC); Heraclitus (530-470 BC), and his near contemporary, Democritus. One of the most renowned of them all was Epicurus in the middle of the 4th century BC.
Yet even these thinkers cannot be ascribed with totally materialist views. In his History of Philosophy, a learned scientist writes that Thales held that material changes are the result of spiritual impulse; that Democritus was no materialist but convinced of the existence of spirit.
It was in the 17th century after Christ that materialism began to make progress among thinkers. Even so, there are contradictory verdicts. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance, is by some writers called a materialist and by others a God-fearing man. It is true that he criticised the Church. Perhaps it is because of that that his adversaries accused him of "materialism".
The Egyptian writer, Farid Wajdi, in his book, Da'iratu'l-Ma'arif, writes that Rousseau said:
"As I observe events which show natural forces at work, and scrutinise the way in which one cause influences another, one result reacts with transforming power upon another, it grows increasingly clear to me that the Prime Cause must be beneficent and benevolent. I have become convinced that His Will set existence in motion, and raised life out of dead things. You ask me where He is. I reply, 'In the firmament which He set revolving, in the stars which shed their light on us, in me, in that lamb grazing, that bird flying, that stone lying on the ground, that tree's leaf blown hither and thither by the wind - everywhere in everything.' (Do these ideas not spring from reason? Whence the orderliness we observe? Blind chance? An accidental agglomeration? Let others do as they will. For myself, I cannot observe this sovereign orderliness without inferring that a Supreme Wisdom ordained it. How could dead matter produce life? How could blind accident create these smoothly- functioning, co-ordinated phenomena? How could a brainless wonder create what is intelligent and intelligible?)"
God and the Reasoning of the Experimental Science
Modern man tends to take refuge in the reasoning of the experimental sciences without stopping to consider its limits and boundaries. This attitude of mind is one of the most misleading and most destructive when God is brought into consideration. The more the human mind works on a particular subject and the stronger it grows in the mastery of that subject, the more it tends to neglect other subjects and drop them from its purview. Thus men tend to regard divine matters as secondary, and outside the scope of the researches of science. The tendency is to use the same spectacles to look at every type of phenomenon, however diverse. Since the specialists of the experimental sciences devote the entire force of their thought to their own particular subject, all other interests remain foreign to them. It is this lack of acquaintance with and distance from the intangible which prevents them from conceiving anything beyond the natural world where they can make tests and experiments, always with material elements. Their tools are the weights and measures of materials. So they accept only those forms of human knowledge which admit of quantification. The sciences, devoted to describing and explaining factual occurrences, research into the relations within the phenomenal world from the infinitely large to the infinitesimal. But the relation between God and that world is outside their range. Measures of the physical cannot be asked to yield information about the metaphysical. God cannot be put on a microscopic slide for laboratory observation! The Creator of the material universe, of the space-time continuum, transcends matter, space, and time. Measures of the tangible He cannot be reduced to.
We know that a relation exists between the taking of a certain drug and an alteration of metabolism or of health. Ask a doctor how the drug works and he'll answer in terms suited to your degree of knowledge, rather than in obscure technical terms. To say "God is the answer" to a particular medical problem is not a scientific answer, but a layman's. Medical problems require medical answers. Each science must use its own technical terms in its own universe of discourse. Divinity has its own universe of discourse and its own terminology. Specialists confine themselves to one science. The independence of such sectional scientific studies from the more all-embracing study of the idea of God has left in the subconscious of many a scepticism about the Divine because they do not recognise that their work has deliberately confined itself to a small portion of reality, and to that alone.
Further, all experimental sciences lead to material results, which can be put to work for daily life. These seem real and immediate to the people who use them. Those people therefore are hesitant and sceptical about larger ideas whose relevance to day-to-day details is not so immediately obvious. Each science has set up an impregnable confining wall round its territory. Its effectiveness within those walls naturally increases our confidence and reliance on its work. Our world-outlook tends to take colour from the attitudes of mind which the sciences have injected into our consciousness and unconsciousness, to their own advantage, and so to the diminution of other influences.
Unless a man is possessed of a firm and stable faith he remains a stranger to the ways of those who know God. His scepticism grows. He regards as acceptable whatever in life coincides with scientific thought and reading. He discounts anything that his sciences do not prove – or even try to prove – for him. The basis of religious thinking is thus left untilled and untended. He considers undeserving of attention any problem which cannot be taken in isolation from all religion, be judged by its outward appearance, and proved by experiment. Having grown used to scientific language, with its formulae and equations, he regards religious matters as lightweight and commonplace.