Materialism is a plurimillenary philosophical view which posits physical entities and their interactions as the sole constituents of reality. As such, it purports to account for mind, consciousness, and will in terms of purely physical processes.
Materialism retains at present a measure of prominence among philosophers, scientists, and secularized segments of public opinion. This essay—and the successive one, Is Materialism False?—seek to provide some indication as to whether this preeminence is culturally, theoretically, and empirically warranted.
On the Appeal of Materialism
What makes materialism such a seemingly persuasive belief in our time?
Having lived under its spell for decades, I can point to a number of reasons for its appeal, at least for some people.
"The ancient covenant is in pieces," wrote biochemist Jacques Monod (1974). "Man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance." In a similar vein, physicist Steven Weinberg (1993) opined that "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." Within the neural and cognitive sciences, the view that humans are no other than meaty robots, our minds but fleshy computers, and free will and consciousness mere illusions, obtain wide currency.
From the psychological standpoint, the appeal of such dismal views may derive, for some people at least, from feeling that their adoption requires a sort of intellectual ‘machismo’ that only those can own up to who have rejected ancient consolatory fables about a meaningful universe and the cosmic dignity of humankind.
Materialism makes no room for a God. This is seen by many as one of its benefits, for it encourages the rejection of the various religions’ influence on cultural and social life. This influence is always perceived in an eminently negative way, and as the source of unnecessary conflicts and hatreds.
While the intolerant, even murderous side of some forms of religious fundamentalism is all too real, many materialists seem singularly blind to the fact that the two arenas of mass murders on the grandest scale in the 20th century: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union of the Stalin era, were explicitly secular and anti-religious in their outlook (dialectical materialism was the official doctrine of the Soviet state). Cambodia under the brutal Khmer Rouge adopted atheism as the official state position. North Korea and China, hardly paragons of unfettered liberalism, are officially atheist states.
Materialists see themselves as the steadfast bearers of rationalism and enlightenment against the return of outdated and rationally indefensible worldviews and practices. Ironically, irrational beliefs and excesses at times gushed from this very spring, such as the atheistic movement which after the First French Republic characterized the Cult of Reason in revolutionary France. And Adorno and Horkheimer in their influential work (e.g., 1947/1977) sought to demonstrate that the ‘instrumental’ rationality which characterizes the modern history of the West, the very essence of the Enlightenment, played a fundamental part in the advent of ideological and political totalitarianism in the 20th century.
Materialism finds a natural if ultimately deceiving support in the fabric of ordinary life, a major source of its appeal, at least for some. It requires no effort to ‘believe’ in matter: to the sturdy solidity of our surroundings, to the physicality of our bodies. Whatever else there may be, matter is the omnipresent determinant of our reality as we experience it. As a philosopher—G. W. F. Hegel, as I recall—observed, when sitting in his study a rigorous thinker could well conclude that the only certainty is the existence of his own mind, whereas that of other minds and of physical reality itself is entirely doubtful. Yet, despite the compelling logic of his arguments, he would still choose every time to leave his apartment through the door rather than through its windows... The physicality of the world has its own unmistakable ways of persuading us of its reality.
Agreed: the materiality of the world has to be fully acknowledged. Yet, its understanding requires bypassing the picture of reality constructed by our senses. We are told that physical objects are at some level constituted by atoms. Since atoms are 99.99 per cent empty space, the sturdy solidity of the objects of our tactile perception obfuscates their unsubstantiality. Realities other than those manufactured by our perceptual apparatus must account for this attribute of our objects of experience (the electromagnetic repulsion of electrons, as I understand it). Our senses therefore cannot be trusted as guideposts to physical reality, and this weakens materialism's implicit appeal to common sense.
Last but by no means least, materialism is seen as providing a natural philosophical foundation to the scientific edifice. Hence, being on the side of materialism means being on the side of science and of its achievements. Technology, the applied arm of science, with its extraordinary power to transform the world and empower human activity seems to prove beyond reasonable doubt at least on pragmatic grounds that science and materialism are "it," whether we like it or not. This points deserves closer examination in the next section.
Materialism and Science
As just noted, much of materialism's prestige derives from the presupposition that it provides the most appropriate philosophical underpinnings for the sciences and their technology. This is in itself questionable. However, even if we were to accept this claim, much of materialism's viability would still depend on the extent to which we can regard the sciences as our ultimate authority on what constitutes reality: on the claim, made on their behalf, that they come closest to objective truth within the realm of human knowledge.
Research in the history and philosophy of science over the past several decades has done much to shed light on the complex nature of the modern scientific enterprise which came into being as a result of a conceptual, methodological, and empirical revolution, its inception marked by Copernicus’s work (De Revolutionibus, 1543), and its completion by Newton’s Principia (1687).
The natural world whose inner functioning the new way of knowing sought to unveil was a drastically simplified caricature of the real thing. This should not be forgotten in deciding whether to grant supreme authority to scientific knowledge as demanded by materialism.
Galileo’s contribution is particularly relevant in this context. He promoted the study of natural phenomena based upon systematic experimentation; no less importantly, he advocated the formulation of the laws governing these phenomena in mathematical terms. The Book of Nature, he argued, is written in mathematical and geometrical characters, and cannot be understood in any other way. But nature thus characterized was stripped to its bare bones. For Galileo, any "corporeal substance" was defined entirely by attributes such as its size, shape, location in space and time, whether at motion or at rest, whether it was one or many. It is this sort of properties, and only these, that lend themselves to a mathematical, scientific description. Instead, Galileo noted that any such substances or instance should be "white or red, bitter or sweet, noisy or silent, and of sweet or foul odor... my mind does not feel compelled to bring in as necessary accompaniments..... I think that tastes, odors, and colors... reside only in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed all these qualities would be wiped away and eliminated" (Galileo, 1632; see also Goff, 2017). In other words, those basic constituents of our conscious experience, and of consciousness itself, are not part of the objective world.
Another key figure of the period, Descartes, similarly attributed strictly physical properties to the natural world (res extensa), and confined mental phenomena to the soul, an immaterial substance (res cogitans) entirely other than and external to the physical world though capable of interacting with it. (see also What on Earth Happened to the Soul? and Is a non-Materialistic View of the Nature of Mind Defensible?).
One of the most important consequences of this approach was the de facto disappearance of the observer from the characterization of physical reality. The world existed objectively, independently of the observer and of his conscious experiences, and an impersonal mathematical language, the very one embedded in the book of nature, was all it took to account for it, along with systematic observation and experimentation.
The confinement of all consciousness-related phenomena to an observer who was then promptly removed from the scene and exiled to a remote metaphysical domain, was a price well worth paying to enable the spectacular advance in knowledge that culminated in the grand achievements of classical physics.
But as they say, the repressed has a way of returning, and with a vengeance. And so the role of the knower, of the conscious observer who created the physicalistic representation of the world by removing itself from it came back to haunt science in the least expected place: physics itself.
Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness
Quantum mechanics (QM) is by universal acknowledgement the most empirically successful theory in the history of this discipline. It constitutes the basis of physics and to the extent that—as affirmed by reductionistic materialism—the other natural sciences are ultimately reducible to physics, it provides the foundations to the whole scientific edifice. Moreover, as noted by physicists Rosenblum and Kutter (2008), a full one third of the world economy depends upon technological discoveries made possible by QM, including the transistor, the laser, and magnetic resonance imaging.
Whereas the empirical and technological viability of QM is indisputable, nearly a century after its mature formulation in the 1920s no consensus exists about its ontological underpinning: that is, about the nature of the reality to which this theory points: with varying degrees of support, 14 different interpretations of this theory’s physical meaning are currently proposed.
The core issue concerns the role of the observer in the phenomena addressed by the theory. Key experiments seem to demonstrate that the procedures of observation and measurement of the various properties of the physical world at the atomic and subatomic level bring into being the very properties being observed. There is no reality independent of the observation of it.
The concept of observation, or measurement, in QM is complex. Whereas it always encompasses the operations of a measuring instrument, it may or may not explicitly include the role of the observer's consciousness. Yet, as Rosenblum and Kutter point out (2008), "There is no way to interpret the theory without encountering consciousness." However, they add, "Most interpretations accept the encounter but offer a rationale for avoiding the relationship." Whether or not these strategies are defensible is part of the grand debate about QM.
In his influential treatise (1932), mathematician John von Neumann, showed that no physical apparatus—such as a Geiger counter—acting as a measuring-observing device could induce the so called wave function of an isolated quantum system to "collapse." This function is understood as describing the various probabilities of finding a quantum object such as an atom in specific regions of space at a particular time when observed. Note that the object is not assumed to be there before it is found. The 'collapse' of the wave function refers to actually finding an object at a specific location as a result of an observation. It is the very act of observation that causes it to be there. Prior to it only possibilities exist.
Von Neumann demonstrated that no physical system subjected as such to the rules of QM and interacting with a quantum object could induce such a collapse. As noted by Esfeld (1999), the theoretical implications of this demonstration were pursued first by London and Bauer (1939), and more recently by Nobel physicist Wigner (1961, 1964). He argued that only the observer's consciousness could induce the collapse of the wave function. Consciousness can do so precisely because, though eminently real, it is not in itself a physical system. This suggests that consciousness cannot possibly be reduced to brain activity, for the latter, as a physical object, would also be subjected to the rules of QM. It should be noted that in his later years Wigner came to question this view, which he ultimately rejected out of concern for the supposedly solipsistic consequences of this interpretation.
These views are by no means the only ones which assign a central role to consciousness. Neither should it be forgotten that several other influential interpretations have been proposed which seek to account for the collapse of the wave function without invoking a role for consciousness in the process (see Rosenblum and Kutter, 2008).
In assessing all the various interpretations of QM, philosopher of science David Chalmers (1996), concluded that they all are "to some extent crazy." Nearly a century after the mature formulation of QM, the puzzlement about its physical meaning remains intact. As one of its founding fathers, Niels Bohr noted, "Anyone who is not shocked by QM does not understand it."
In sum, the most mature of sciences: physics, hosts at its core a theory which, far from reaffirming the robust materialism that was implied by classical physics, is deeply entangled with conceptual conundrums which question the very existence of an objective reality, and brings the issue of consciousness to the forefront of the debate. It is also essential to realize that, although QM was initially formulated to account for physical phenomena in the atomic and subatomic realms, the theory is deemed in principle to apply to all of physics, and indeed to the whole of reality.
A pivotal physicist, John Bell, argued (see Rosenblum and Kutter, 2008) that QM will eventually lead us beyond itself. He also wondered whether along the way we would encounter 'an unmovable finger obstinately pointing outside the subject, to the mind of the observer, to the Hindu scriptures, to God, or even only gravitation? Would that not be very, very interesting?'
Another leading physicist, John Wheeler, came similarly to expect that "somewhere something incredible is waiting to happen."
Thus, despite its materialistic leanings, contemporary physics could not avoid encountering the observer and its consciousness, entities which it had successfully expunged from its horizons in the Newtonian era. This fact threatens the hitherto unproblematic nexus between materialism and the sciences.
Materialists have traditionally sought to tame mind and consciousness by reducing them to the physical processes taking place within the central nervous system. But, as noted, if Wigner's original views are correct, consciousness is non physical and cannot possibly be identified with its supposed material embodiment, the brain. This suggests that materialism is false. What prevents us from arriving at this conclusion with assurance is that, as noted, views alternative to Wigner's are not lacking, though all problematic.
But the broader question of the ability of materialism to provide a satisfactory account of the mind-body relationship is absolutely central to establishing whether this ontology should be accepted as our best bet concerning the ultimate nature of reality.
This question cannot be addressed in this already overlong article. It will be pondered in an article entitled Is Materialism False?
Adorno, T. W., and Horkeimer, M. (1947/1997). Dialectic of Enlightenment. Verso Publishing.
Chalmers, D. (1996). The Conscious Mind. Oxford Univerity Press.
Crick, F. (1955). The Astonishing Hypothesis: the Scientific Search for the Soul. Scribner Books Co.
Esfeld, M. (1999). Wigner's view of Physical Reality. Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics. 30B, pp. 145-154. Elsevier Sciences.
Galileo, G. (1623/1957). The Assayer, 1, in S. Drake (Ed.) Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. Anchor Books.
Goff, P. (2017). Consciousness and Fundamental Reality. Oxford University Press.
Monod, J. (1974) Chance and Necessity. Harper Collins.
Rosenblum, B., and Kutter, F. (2008). The Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness. Oxford Univesity Press.
Von Neumann, J. (1932/1996). Mathematical Foundations of Quantum mechanics. Princeton University Press.
Weinberg, S. (1993). The First Three Minutes. Basic Books.
© 2019 John Paul Quester
Kesther on July 25, 2019:
I meant to say former materialists, not atheists. Sorry.
Kesther on July 24, 2019:
Hard “skeptic”/materialists saying that “people disagree with or dislike the reductionist physicalist view because of blind faith, want to believe they’re special and feel better about themselves, cognitive illusion, superstitions, wanting to believe in an afterlife, fear of oblivion at death, and people wanting a reward or meaning for their suffering, poor health, or injuries”, is not going to cut it anymore. There are too many former skeptics and former atheists now.
Someone, somewhere, called that “a network of neurons. A network that is being re-linked into a different structure for purposes of causal relationship modeling.” Which I think is interesting.
I accidentally deleted the rest of the quote, but if I find it again, I’ll send it. It’s an interesting comment. I’m probably misreading it, but I think that needs to happen to a few more people.
Bottom line is, science seems to be turning it’s attention away from the hard materialist view, and leaning more towards panpsychism. Which I think is a great start.
Even Sam and Annaka Harris have stepped away from materialism and now see it as a ridiculous view. I wonder how secularists will react to that, since they’ve been saying that “secularist naturalism is on the rise, and replacing supernaturalism” ( like William Zingrone, who insults and calls every single religion and spiritual beliefs ‘arrogant’ in his book and blog, and that people who disagree with Dawkins, are afraid of the harsh “truth” or think he’s too harsh ). Either they’ll gladly accept that they’ve moved on ( which I doubt ), or they’ll start ranting and complaining about how they’ve “moved away from science and reality, now they’re accepting woo woo and comforting fantasies, and arrogant superstitious beliefs”. Moving away from materialism is not moving away from science, or ‘anti-science. It also has nothing to do with promoting christianity or other religions ( christianity makes me cringe ).
Many of us are not trying to completely convince skeptics/materialists, we’re just trying to shake them up a bit, get them to look beyond the materialist view for at least a minute, and stop throwing the words “woo, pseudoscience, bull, special snowflake beliefs, and delusional childish fantasies” at anything that involves a reality beyond the physical.
While I do agree with John Loftus that having some doubt, critical thinking, and healthy skepticism is the correct or ‘adult’ attitude everyone should have, it’s not ‘adult’ to deny, dismiss, and attack everything so vehemently just because someone disagrees, or something doesn’t fit one’s worldview. Proponents and materialists. No one is immune, and no one has the answers.
Post materialism is not as fear-driven or blind faith-based as we thought.
Kam on May 29, 2019:
Btw, someone even asked him to take a look at Eben Alexander’s work, since the user’s been asking to see some evidence of a world beyond the physical, and guess what his response was:
“I don't know enough about him to give my opinion of him as a person, but the fact that despite the "evidence" he has given for an afterlife is not accepted by the rest of the scientific community is a big red flag on his works.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at that one. One of the reasons why “the rest of the scientific community has not accepted it” is mainly because they don’t want to accept it.
Eben is not the only one with the evidence, many others are. And NDE/OBEs aren’t the only pieces of evidence out there. They’re not accepted by “mainstream science” because it only takes one piece of evidence of a world beyond the physical, to completely crumble the materialistic worldview.
Sure, I understand that nobody likes having there cherished beliefs challenged, that goes for both materialists and believers. No one is immune. But many ‘skeptics’ and materialists act like they’re immune to it all and only “uneducated gullible believers” behave that way.
No doubt I’ll probably be called an ‘egomaniac woo believer in Chopra’ for saying this,( I’ve been attacked by atheists again and again similar to the ones on Reddit. I’m used to it now ) but I think the definition of skepticism, rationality, critical thinking, science, reality/truth, and questioning everything, has definitely been hi jacked.
Contrary to what the Reddit user’s saying, there have been some peer reviewed, scientifically researched evidence. It’s not all wishful thinking and delusions.
Also we’re not “afraid of materialism”. It’s not that we don’t want to accept materialism, we just can’t, because of the evidence against it.