Is Materialism False?

Updated on October 14, 2019
John Paul Quester profile image

A mostly retired academic, with a background in psychology and philosophy.

'Nothing exists but atoms and empty space.'            Democritus (460-370 BC).
'Nothing exists but atoms and empty space.' Democritus (460-370 BC). | Source

In a previous article ('Materialism is the Dominant View. Why?'), I outlined various factors that collectively may account for the position of relative prominence currently held in the West by a materialistic view of reality - in essence, the claim that all that exists is physical in nature.

Particular attention was paid to the relationship between materialism and the sciences, most notably physics. It was argued that whereas materialism seemed to provide a viable philosophical foundation to classical physics, the 'new' physics, especially quantum mechanics (QM), was confronted with a critical issue: the relationship between physical reality and its observer, including its consciousness (e.g., Rosenblum and Kutter, 2008; Strapp, 2011).The latter had been successfully expunged from the precincts of classical physics; its reappearance presented a novel challenge: to physics itself and to the materialistic ontology deemed to underlie it.

This challenge is in fact just one aspect, however important, of the mind-body problem, that has bedeviled Western philosophy for centuries, indeed millennia.

Most philosophers of mind agree that whether materialism can account satisfactorily for this relationship - and most especially for conscious mentation: sensations and perceptions, feelings, thoughts, will - shall determine the ultimate success or failure of this position, its truth or falsity.

This question is grappled with in the remainder of this article.

Materialism and the Mind-Body Problem

Several versions of materialism have been proposed, but they can all be seen as variants of Identity Theory: according to which mental properties are ultimately identical to physical properties however the latter are characterized (see Koons and Beagle, 2010, for a detailed presentation of classical, behaviorist, functionalist, and others versions of identity theory).

An oft-quoted statement by the co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, Francis Crick (1955), captures the gist of the materialistic approach to the mind-body problem: '“You”, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.'

More radically still, so called eliminative materialism denies altogether the very existence of conscious experience in any form.

Conceptual Challenges to Materialism

Materialistic versions of the mind-body problem which ultimately identify the mind with the brain suffer from profound conceptual difficulties, discussed in rigorous detail in a recent collection of essays (Koons and Bealer, 2010). Interestingly, this work shows that the majority of leading philosophers of mind are either non materialist or regard materialism as eminently problematic.

One of the most intuitive ways of illustrating the problems of a materialistic account of mental phenomena is via 'knowledge arguments', according to which fundamental aspects of consciousness cannot be deduced from the knowledge of physical facts alone: which proves the falsity of materialism.

This kind of argument is well illustrated by Frank Jackson's (1982) example. Mary is a neuroscientist with a thorough knowledge of the physical processes enabling us to visually perceive the world. She knows all the physical properties of the light; how the information it carries is encoded by retinal cells as a pattern of electrical signals transmitted via the optic nerve to several visual centres in the brain; and how this information is processed therein. She knows that specific wavelengths of light are associated with the perception of specific colours. Unfortunately Mary is colour blind (alternatively, she has been raised in, and has never left, an achromatic environment). Thus, despite her knowledge of the physical and neural processes leading ordinary people to perceive, say, the redness of an object, she cannot envisage what seeing red is actually like. If she were to leave her achromatic environment, or reacquire the ability to see colour, she would apprehend something about colour perception that all her knowledge was unable to provide. If so, then materialism is false.

There are several other related arguments, including so called 'explanatory arguments' and 'conceivability arguments' which are discussed elsewhere (e.g., Chalmers, 2010).

The Human Brain
The Human Brain

Empirical Challenges to Materialism

Materialism's problems are not just conceptual.

Crick (1994) regarded the statement previously quoted as an 'astonishing hypothesis', which as such requires empirical corroboration. But the latter has remained elusive. Despite advances in understanding the workings of the brain, the question of how the unexceptional physical-chemical processes occurring within this organ can give rise to conscious mentation remains clothed in mystery (see e.g., Blakemore, 2006).

This does not prevent materialistic thinkers from claiming that this mystery will eventually be solved: a 'promissory materialism', as Karl Popper defined it. A negative stance is taken instead by several eminent philosophers and scientists - dubbed by Owen Flanaghan the 'New Mysterians' - who argue that this enigma - along with a few others - will never be untangled because it exceeds our cognitive abilities (see 'Is Human Understanding Fundamentally Limited?').

As also noted in a previous article ('What on Earth Happened to the Soul?'), serious challenges to this still dominant view also arise from a variety of empirical findings.

If mind is ultimately identical to matter, and to the brain specifically, it should at least be demonstrable that this organ can implement what the mind does. Yet, for instance, , computer scientist Simon Berkovich, and neurobiologist Herms Romjinhave contend that the brain lacks the 'storage capacity' to hold a lifelong accumulation of memories, thoughts and emotions (see Van Lommel, 2006). If so, 'where' are they?

Disconcerting anomalies call into question the most basic view of the brain's role in our mental life. An article on 'Science' mischievously titled 'Is the Brain Really Necessary?' (1980) reported the case of a math university student with an IQ of 126 (well above the average population IQ of 100) that, as shown by brain scans, lacked nearly 95% of brain tissue, most of his skull being filled with excess cerebrospinal fluid. His cortex - deemed to mediate all the higher mental functions in humans - was scarcely more than 1 mm thick vs. the 4.5 cm of the average brain. This is not an isolated case; nearly half of the people who suffer to various degrees a similarly induced loss of brain tissue have IQs higher than 100.

Famously, T. H. Huxley proposed that just as the working engine of a locomotive can produce a steam whistle, but the latter has no causal effect on the engine itself, mental events are caused by neural processes, but have no causal power to affect them. Yet, plenty of evidence shows that 'thoughts, beliefs, and emotions influence what is happening in our bodies and play a key role in our well being' (Beauregard, 2012). Studies have shown that a person can ameliorate his cognitive performance by modulating the brain's electrical activity via neurofeedback. Meditation can enhance the function of brain structures associated with emotions. Mental training can change the brain's physical structure. Hypnosis - now attributed mostly to the subject's own mental processes - is frequently employed to control pain due to surgery, migraines and some chronic forms of pain; even to facilitate the repair of bone fractures.

If, as suggested by most versions of materialism, mind is a passive byproduct of brain activity; illusory; even non existent: how can it be made to account for findings such as these? What kind of whistle is it?

Ascent of the Blessed, by Hieronymus Bosch (1505-1515)
Ascent of the Blessed, by Hieronymus Bosch (1505-1515)

Non-Ordinary Experiences

Fundamental empirical challenges to the notion of consciousness as bound to, and strictly localized in, the brain arise from research on extrasensory perception (telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis). This is, admittedly, a controversial area of study. But the offhand dismissal of thousands of increasingly sophisticated laboratory studies is most often based either on utter ignorance of this literature, or on pseudo-skeptical prejudice, than on a fair assessment of the data.

Alan Turing (the great mathematician and father of modern computing), candidly exposed the heart of the matter: 'These disturbing phenomena seem to deny all our usual scientific ideas. How we should like to discredit them! Unfortunately, the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming. It is very difficult to rearrange one's ideas so as to fit these new facts in.' (1950). What was true nearly 70 years ago is truer today, as shown by reviews of the recent research (e.g., Kelly, 2007; Radin, 1997, 2006).

Empirical investigations on the near-death experience (NDE) similarly raise fundamental questions about the absolute dependency of consciousness on a working brain. Bruce Greyson, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Virginia, and the key figure on NDE research, addressed all the objections customarily raised against a non physicalistic view of this phenomenon. People declared clinically dead experienced while in this state 'feelings of peace and joy; a sense of being out of one's physical body and watching events from an out of body perspective; a cessation of pain; seeing an unusual bright light.... encountering other beings, often deceased people....; experience a full life review; seeing some other realm.. sensing a barrier or border beyond which the person cannot go; and returning to the physical body, often reluctantly.' (Greyson, 2011).

A materialistic account of these experiences, based upon 'production theory', which maintains that the brain generates the mind, demands that their inner validity be discounted by variously attributing them to psychopathology, personality traits of the experiencers, alteration in the blood gases, neurotoxic metabolic reactions, abnormal alteration in brain activity, or other physiological processes.

As Greyson points out, these hypotheses each account at best for a subset of the elements of this experience. The decisive argument against their validity is that NDEs are associated with high levels of mental clarity, vivid sensory imagery, sharp memories, a feeling of utter reality, all occurring under physiological conditions that should render them impossible.

Another baffling phenomenon is 'terminal lucidity', the medically unexplained return of mental clarity and unimpaired memory shortly before death in some patients suffering for years from degenerative dementia, or chronic schizophrenia (Nahm and Greyson, 2009).

Equally interesting is the variety of end-of- life experiences reported by dying patients, relatives, and caretakers in hospitals and hospices (see 'What Happens at the Hour of Death?').

Whereas all these phenomena are very difficult - perhaps impossible - to account for in terms of a production model of the mind-brain relationship, they are more easily accommodated by 'transmission models', according to which the brain acts as a medium which transmits, filters and reduces an independently existing consciousness (see 'Is a Non-Materialistic View of the Nature of Mind Defensible?').

Alfred North Whitehead (1936)
Alfred North Whitehead (1936) | Source

Alternatives to Materialism

If materialism is false, what other views should be considered?

As noted, one historically influential alternative is dualism, especially as articulated by Rene' Descartes, which cleaves reality into two irreducible substances, one material and one mental. Dualism is regarded by materialists as fatally flawed due to the difficulty of explaining how radically different substances could possibly interact. In a previous article ('What on Earth Happened to the Soul?') I addressed this and other objections to substance dualism, arguing that none of them constitutes a decisive refutation of this position, which therefore remains a viable option, though shared at present by a minority of thinkers.

In a recent work, Jeffrey Kripal (2019) presents other views of the mind-body problem which are being granted modestly increasing attention in the contemporary debate. None of them is fundamentally new, though often argued for in novel ways. They include the following:

1. Panpsychism, which posits that everything in nature is in various degrees minded. The vexatious question of how mind can possibly emerge from matter is answered by claiming that it is there from the very beginning, including in subatomic particles. Panpsychism sports its own brand of reductionism, since it postulates the existence of elementary 'bits' of mind from which more complex form of mentation and consciousness arise by aggregation, in a way that however remains unexplained, and constitutes a major problem for this view.

As Kripal (2019) points out, this idea that everything in nature is also minded ‘is probably the oldest human philosophy on the planet in its better known label as animism, that everything is ensouled, a view held by most indigenous cultures throughout the world.' An important philosophical thinker whose position can be regarded as panpsychistic is Alfred North Whitehead (see Skrbina, 2007, for a thorough review of this ontology).

2. Dual aspect monism. Here, neither mind nor matter are ultimate and fundamental. They are both aspects or attributes of a tertium quid, a unitary ground of being which is fundamentally unknowable. Our sense of being embodied minds is our way of experiencing these two attributes of a mysterious reality which is fundamentally one, as are we. This view has been variously articulated by prominent philosophers including Spinoza, Fechner, Schopenhauer, James, Russel and more recently Chalmers and Goff among others; psychiatrist Carl Jung, and scientists Wolfgang Pauli, David Bohm, Bernard d' Espagnat.

3. Cosmopsychism can be seen as a non religious variant of cosmotheism, the age old view that the universe itself is divine. Cosmopsychism sees the world inhabited by a Mind or Consciousness - of which humans are finite aspects or elements - which unlike the God of monotheistic religions may not possess attributes such as omnipotence, omniscience, or goodness. For instance, one contemporary representative of this position, Philip Goff (2017), argues that this Mind might include elements of irrationality or even madness, for all we know.

4. Idealism - As also noted by Kripal (2019), cosmopsychism comes very close to idealism. The strict opposite of materialism, it posits that at its core reality is mental, and matter a derivative manifestation of mind. This position, which also characterizes much Indian thought, was upheld by some of the most influential Western philosophers (including Plato, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hegel, Kant), but suffered a decline in influence with the rise of materialism in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In our time, the more original formulations of this view originate perhaps from the scientific and technological side. Federico Faggin, the physicist and coinventor of the microprocessor, proposed a version of an idealistic view in part as a result of a mystical experience. He considers it possible to eventually articulate a view of consciousness's primacy amenable to mathematical and scientific treatment (should we call this 'promissory idealism'?). An original take on the idealistic perspective is being elaborated by AI researcher Bernardo Kastrup (e.g., 2011, 2019).


This article attempted to gauge materialism's ability to provide a satisfactory account of origin and nature of mind and consciousness. Some readers may share the author's view that materialism largely fails in this regard, for reasons both theoretical and empirical. This, along with the considerations offered in the related article ('Materialism is the Dominant View. Why?') suggests more generally that materialism does not deserve its exalted position in the current intellectual scene as the dominant metaphysical view of reality. Far from it.

A secondary purpose of this work was to briefly outline a number of alternative views currently enjoying renewed attention. Although deserved, this interest should not blind us to the fact that these views are also beset by problems, and may in the end fare no better than materialism.

As noted in the related article, one recurring refrain within the debate on contemporary physics is the 'shocking strangeness' of QM and related theories. Some physicists have predicted that the next revolution in physical thinking will open up vistas that may be 'stranger' yet. In light of this, it seems likely that the appropriate philosophical foundations of these as yet unimaginable views of the physical world will prove similarly remote from all of the ontologies currently debated. And able perhaps to finally provide a viable solution to that hardest of problems: the presence of conscious mentation in the cosmos.


Beauregard, M. (2012). Brain Wars. Harper Collins Publishers.

Blakemore, S. (2006). Conversations on Consciousness. Oxford University Press.

Crick, F. (1994) The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. Scribner Books Co.

Chalmers, D. (2010) The Character of Consciousness. Oxford University Press.

Goff, P. (2017). Consciousness and Fundamental Reality. Oxford University Press.

Greyson, B. (2011). Cosmological implications of near-death experiences. Journal of Cosmology, vol. 14.

Jackson, F. (19821). Epiphenomenal qualia. The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 127. pp. 127-136.

Kastrup, B. (2011). Dreamed up Reality. Hunt Publishing.

Kastrup, B. (2019). The Idea of the World. John Hunt Publishing.

Kelly, E. F. et al. (2007). Irreducible Mind: Towards a Psychology for the 21th Century. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Koons, R. C., and Bealer, G. (2010). The Waning of Materialism. Oxford Scholarship Online.

Kripal, J. (2019). The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge. Bellevue Literary Press.

Lewin, R. (1980). Is Your Brain Really Necessary? Science (210), 1232-1234.

Nahm, N, & Greyson, B. (2009). Terminal lucidity in patients with chronic schizophrenia and dementia: A survey of the literature. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders, (197), 942-944.

Radin, D. (1997). The Conscious Universe. Harper Collins.

Radin, D. (2006). Entangled Minds. Paraview Pocket Books.

Rosenblum B., and Kutter F. (2008). The Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness. Oxford Univesity Press.

Skrbina, D. (2007). Panpsychism in the West. MIT Press.

Strapp, H. (2011). Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer. Springer-Verlag.

Turing, M. A. (1950). Computing machinery and intelligence. Mind (59), 443-460.

Van Lommel, P. (2006). Near death experience, consciosuness and the brain. World Futures, (62), 134–151.

© 2019 John Paul Quester


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      2 months ago

      Keep up the good work.

      Here’s something I’ve noticed for years. ’Skeptic'/hard materialists are usually the ones who say "don't believe everything you see, hear, and read, especially on the internet, boys and girls. Even if it does seem true. Use critical thinking skills, don't be naive/gullible, always remain skeptical, and question everything. Because some things are too good to be true." Usually from hard skeptics like Thomas Kida, John Loftus and their books, and Sharon Hill.

      And yet they seem to believe everything they see, hear, and read on the internet in a quick heartbeat without a second thought, when something seems to debunk paranormal and support reductionist materialism.

      So much for 'critical thinking, remaining skeptical, and questioning everything'.

      I think the appropriate thing for them to say is "remain skeptical and question everything as long as you don't question materialism. Anything that contradicts materialism is pseudoscience and should not be taken seriously."

      Also, why is it perfectly fine to write and sell books that support materialism, but when someone writes or sells books regarding OBE/NDEs, astral realms, immaterial reality, and evidence against materialism, that person is just trying to extract money and tricking “poor naive/gullible, poorly educated, and desperate” people?

      Even a few atheists say that hard reductionist materialism is ridiculous. So crying and calling post materialism a ‘smokescreen for woo, harmful superstitions, and bringing us back into the dark ages’ is not going to cut it anymore.


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