Commonsense regards the world as consisting of two different things, matter and mind. Matter is inert and lifeless. You can push a chair or take it back, remove it from one place to another, divide it into parts or reassemble it as you choose. It offers you no resistance. It has no purpose of its own. Such is the case with all “dead” matter.
But mind or consciousness is something that is vastly different from matter. When matter is conscious in the ordinary sense of the word, it is capable of movement and action, guided or commanded by a purpose and controlled from within. If you want to control the movements of an animal, you have to adopt a very intricate process based on the study of animal behavior in response to external stimuli and even then the success is illusory. The animal has its own ends to follow. Purposive action is therefore considered to be a characteristic of consciousness, a quality which matter does not possess.
In spite of this apparently radical difference between matter and mind, philosophers and scientists, owing perhaps, to an unconscious intuitive conviction that ultimately the Universe must be a single reality, have endeavored to prove the fundamental identity of the two, holding either that mind is really a form of matter or that matter is essentially a manifestation of mind. While the scientists, at least those of the nineteenth century, have generally inclined to the former view, the philosophers have mostly asserted the truth of the latter in one form or the other.
To the scientists of the nineteenth century matter was something permanent and real and according to them, therefore, nothing could be real, the properties of which were like those of matter, i.e., which could not be seen or touched or subjected to experiments in the laboratory like matter. It was only natural therefore that they regarded mind as a property of living matter and disbelieved that anything like a mind could be the cause of the Universe or could have anything to do with the phenomenon of nature. Mind was according to them a characteristic of a peculiar type of matter acquiring by chance a particular chemical composition and subject to particular laws of Physics.
Among the old scientists the genius of Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) came to the conclusion that nature was not without some thing of the attributes of a mind and that there was a creative and directive force operating in the Universe. But philosophy, never content like Science was a sectional and fragmentary view of Reality and to a large extent free from the restrictions of the purely scientific method in its search after truth, always insisted that a coherent and consistent explanation of the Universe so eagerly desired by man was impossible without giving a prominent place to consciousness.
Consciousness in God and Universe is the one great subject of not only the medieval philosophy, the object of which was to rationalize Christian theology but also of the great modern philosophic theories of Descartes, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kant, Spinoza, Hegel, Fichte, Croce and Bergson, in which it is treated under the various titles of God, the Universal Spirit, the Absolute, the Absolute Idea, Mental Activity, World-will, the Eternal Mind, Monads, Self, Elan Vital, etc. the first serious challenge of philosophy to scientific materialism however came from Bishop George Berkeley of England who contended that the material world cannot have an independent existence because we can know it only with the help of our perception which is an experience of the mind. Since the physical world, as we perceive it, has no existence apart from mind what really exists is mind and not the physical world. What we perceive is not matter but certain qualities of color, form, shape, sound, hardness, etc., and in order that these qualities exist as we know them to exist they have to be perceived by the mind. Without mind nothing would exist. The reality of the physical world is, therefore, mind or consciousness. In the light of his theory Berkeley argues the existence of an Eternal Mind as follows:-
“All the choir of heaven and furniture of earth, in a world, all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world have not any substance without the mind…So long as they are not actually perceived by me or do not exist in any mind or that of any other created spirit, they must have either no existence at all or else subsist in the mind of some Eternal Spirit.”
The subjective idealism of Berkeley has been strongly supported in modern times by the school of Neo-Idealism of which the chief exponents are two Italian philosophers, Beneditto Croce and Giovanni Gentile. Both of these philosophers hold that the Universe is nothing but mind or spirit. Their system is not only the most recent but, according to many philosophers, also one of the most original and the most remarkable developments of modern philosophy. It is based on the hypothesis that the experience of our mind is the only reality of which we can be certain. It leads to the logical conclusion that the reality of the Universe, if it is anything which can be known by the human mind must be similar to our own mental experience. As self-consciousness is the clearest and the highest mental experience, the reality of the Universe must be of the type of self-consciousness.
As already mentioned the scientists of the nineteenth century could not accept any ideas of this kind, as they knocked out the very foundation of their physical laws. When the axioms of Newtonian Physics were first questioned by Berkeley, he was met by a scornful decision by the scientists but who could have known that in the controversy whether mind or matter was real; the philosopher was soon to have the better of the scientists and that also through the weapons made accessible by the discoveries of the scientists themselves. Philosophers had always insisted on the Spiritual explanation of the Universe. If their view-point could not receive a general acceptance, it was due mainly to the hinderance of science. But thanks to the “Theory of Relativity,” “the Quantum Theory,” and the discovery of some facts of Biology, that hinderance has now ceased to exist and materialism, the idol of science, has received a shattering blow from science itself.
The discoveries of Physics have reduced matter (once a hard, simple, obvious fact), and along with it energy, motion, space, time and ether, to an absolute nothing. “Modern Matter”, to quote Dr. Joad “is something infinitely attenuated and elusive; it is a hump in space-time, a mush of electricity, a wave of probability undulating into nothingness, frequently it is not matter at all but a projection of the consciousness of its perceiver.”