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.

Problems of this nature tend to invite much discussion and suggestions for their resolution. Many ideas were put forward to explain reality and mans place in the universe. Spinoza proposed that minds and matter were two aspects of the one thing, the one thing being God. Over time I shall look at this more closely. Malbranche put forward the idea that there are two existing things, mind and matter and that it is God who is active in correlating the two. When you hit the note on a piano for example, God simultaneously creates the idea of a sound in your mind. God truly was everywhere at all times for Malbranche.

Other attempts at resolving issues of mind and matter tended to remove one or the other from the equation. Berkeley for example decided that only minds existed and that matter was no more than an idea in the minds of man. This is an economic universe. It is through having ideas of whiteness and solidity that when combined give us an idea of a white wall. There is no white wall, just an idea of a white wall which is a result of our combined senses and mental images. Those ideas and mental images are derived from God.

However the most prevalent idea was that the only existing entity is matter. Descartes definition that matter is extension in three dimensions and the added notions of hardness and solidity provided the basic philosophical underpinning of scientific study through most of the last 300 hundred years. The general consensus is that matter exists and all else that exists is as a result of complex arrangements of matter. Therefore mental phenomena, ideas and emotions, are no more than a result of groups of atoms in specific arrays.

For many this concept of the human mind is taken for granted. Our scientific accounts of reality begin with the big bang and suggest that over time the matter created from nothing in the first few moments of time have evolved into complex arrangements. The matter came first and all has arisen from that matter. Life evolved in a series of tiny steps until now. On the surface that is a compelling narrative, but we donít have to dig too deeply to discover that such a simple explanation has many problems.

In this series of posts I shall attempt to elucidate those problems and show how the materialism definition is actually a false assumption of the nature of the universe. I shall further point out that materialism has been a discarded idea for about a century and that its replacement theory, that of physicalism is no contender for the explanation of life and the universe. That scientists and philosophers still present materialism as a fait accompli is both misleading and disingenuous.