December 2007


Materialism and Physicalism

The heyday of materialism was the 19th century, when it seemed to be clear that in time the universe and everything in it would be explained by one thing, the material. Materialism was the world view that the only truly existing entity was matter. All other things (particularly thinking) could be explained by recourse to material explanation. Matter thought to be tiny hard balls of solidity or extension in three dimensions. The ontology of the world, i.e.: what exists? was answered by using just one word – matter.

This was the culmination of a couple of centuries of wrangling over the Cartesian mind/body problem. It was agreed that logically, only one thing can actually exist, matter won the argument over mind and philosophical materialism reigned supreme until the advent of quantum mechanics. Then materialism failed.

Quantum mechanics and subsequent physics cannot be explained with such a simplistic account of the world. A new ontology evolved which is now used as the fundamental basis for all that exists. The new ontology includes such ephemeral entities as fields, quantum particles and spacetime points. These are the new entities that physicists see as being the fundamentals of existence. For the casual observer there was no major paradigm shift. Matter could not explain everything but the new physical entities being described could. Overnight the average materialist became a physicalist and basically assumed that it was more or less the same. But a close attention to the detail and we can see that it is not.

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Materialism Philosophy

Materialism philosophy comes in too different brands. There is metaphysical materialism which is concerned with the nature of things that exist. There is also political materialism which is concerned with human behaviour and social organisation. This article is concerned only with the former type of philosophical materialism.

In recent decades there has been a massive growth in popular science books written by eminent scientists with the non-science specialist in mind. Some of the best known of these have been extremely careless in their philosophical presentations. Materialism is presented by some, as fact, when it is not fact. Indeed, it is false and has been discarded as a philosophical position by scientists approximately a hundred years ago.

The main proponent of a materialist philosophy in recent years has been Richard Dawkins. I can well understand him taking on the unscientific groups who seek to undermine rational understanding but to do so by presenting science wrapped in a materialist philosophy is to my mind a grave mistake. Quite simply materialism as a philosophy is dead and has been dead for a century.

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Materialism and Monism

From a purely rational perspective it seems that we are forced to accept that there is only one thing that exists in the universe. What it is we should consider that thing to be is a very difficult problem to present a conclusion to. Materialism and monism are presented together as the roots of all explanation, but can materialism and monism stand up to scrutiny? In short, monism can but materialism cannot.

About a hundred years ago materialism was discarded as a philosophical theory, not that many scientists or philosophers seem too keen to point that fact out. The philosophical materialism of the nineteenth century was replaced by the new idea of physicalism. They seem very similar and are expected to perform the same task in understanding the world we inhabit, but physicalism does not play the same role that materialism once did. I shall make a post to explain this more clearly later. For now we shall look at the shortcomings of materialism of itself.

Remember that materialism states that all that exists is matter, extended in three dimensions and all that exists can be explained by a reduction to that three dimensional matter. I shall discuss two different objections. The first takes a little consideration but the second, in my opinion, is a fatal blow to materialist philosophy.

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Materialism Definition

The modern scientific notion of materialism was founded in the ideas of Descartes in the early years of the seventeenth century. Any discussion of philosophical materialism usually has Descartes materialism definition in mind. To recap, Descartes was distinguishing between two types of things which he assumed exists; mind and matter. Descartes concept of mind does not concern us here, but he spoke of ideas and sensations. His notion of what constituted matter was more clearly defined by Descartes, he suggested that matter had extension in three dimensions.

Now as science and knowledge developed this simple definition remained with some qualification. Some spoke of hardness as well as extension, whilst later the idea of little balls became popular as an atomic theory evolved. The common factor in all of these suggestions was that matter was basic in the scheme of things and all other phenomena (which usually meant mind) were reducible to this one truly existing stuff: matter.

Though the definition of materialism had grown out of the ideas of Descartes, he himself did not propose a materialist explanation of existence. Descartes had postulated a dualist account. Matter existed and mental phenomena existed. Neither was reducible to the other, both were mutually independent existing things which somewhat mysteriously managed to co-exist with a large degree of mutual cooperation. As they were considered to be separate they could never interact, yet minds and matter did seem to interact. Dualism became instantly questionable as soon as Descartes suggested it, and little has changed to make us think otherwise. On purely rational grounds it seems that dualist accounts of reality cannot be possible.

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A Definition of Monism

Metaphysical monism is an ancient problem which still continues to this day, at least for some. A definition of monism can be framed quite succinctly; monism states that there is just one kind of thing that exists in the universe, everything is thus reducible to this one thing.

The earliest form of this problem was in ancient Greece. The Greeks had a scientific belief that the world was made up of earth, fire, air and water. What they attempted to understand was whether these four constituents of the universe were ultimate, or was there something more fundamental that underpinned or gave rise to them. They were asking, β€œIs the world made up of earth, fire, air and water or is the world made up of just one thing that can appear as earth, fire, air and water.”

From our modern post scientific perspective such a view can seem rather primitive. We know for example that the four primitive substances of the ancient Greeks are all reducible to molecules and atoms. We can continue the reduction to protons and neutrons and still further to quarks, or at least to quarks and electrons. The problem has been solved then, or at least the problem as the Greeks saw it has been solved. The debate concerning monism is still alive for some, though in a different format.

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