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.

The first objection asks you to consider a world in which explanation has reached the end. We have discovered the means by which matter and ideas are related and there are scientists who are capable of looking at different molecular structures and telling us which idea they represent. So imagine now that you are watching a film. A scientist has access to your brain and is able to monitor the molecular changes occurring in your brain. He can see your brain states changing and because he is a highly skilled and knowledgeable scientist he can work out which film you are watching and even whether you are enjoying the film or not.

The gap between matter and mind states, even on this intimate level is still too broad for us to claim that the gap has been closed. Even a scientist seeing such molecular detail is only seeing an arrangement of atoms and molecules. You watching the film on the other hand are experiencing a range of emotions and feelings which are nothing like the molecules that the scientist is observing. The experience and the physical arrangement of molecules are two completely different things. No amount of knowledge of molecular arrangement is ever going to make experience reducible to matter.

The second objection to a theory of materialism as monism is to consider our knowledge and what knowledge is. Imagine that there are two people with two conflicting ideas. The two ideas contradict each other so only one person or one idea can be true, the other must be false.

In a materialist philosophy we can state that each of these two ideas is reducible to a physical system of matter. Each idea represents a specific arrangement of molecules, one idea is true and the other is false. But what can it possibly mean to claim that a physical arrangement of molecules is false? An arrangement of molecules is a factual arrangement of molecules; it is a fact and cannot be false.

On a materialist conception of the world all ideas become reducible to molecular arrangements. Any molecular arrangement is a real part of the world and to call it false seems rather odd.

When discussing materialism and monism it is taken for granted that the two go together and are true. Monism is probably true and materialism is not. Materialism, as I have stated, has long since been discarded. Materialism was dropped by scientists because it could not fit the scientific facts. I shall deal with the shortcomings of its replacement theory, physicalism, in a later post.