Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 M - Materialism


Materialism: In philosophy: Thesis to the effect that everything that exists consists of and arises from the properties, states and relations of material things.

There are several varieties, flavors and degrees of materialism. The stronger ones insist - as the definition provided above does, by implication - that there exist no non-material things, such as spirits or souls have often been claimed to be.

An alternative name for materialism, or one version of it, is physicalism, namely as the thesis that everything that exists consists of the states and relations of physical things, as studied by physics.

One important question for materialism and the given definition concerns what material or physical things are. The usual answer appears somewhat circular, although this is not viciously so, with some care: Material things are things which have only physical properties, and these are the properties (and relations and states of things) that physics studies, and that may be experimentally investigated in physical laboratories (and elsewhere in reality).

Examples of physical properties are position (in space and time), mass, electrical charge, velocity, size, shape, rigidity, hardness, temperature and the like. Since physics is open-ended, the list of physical properties is open-ended. The main thing is that this is neither arbitrary nor fictional: To become a real physical property (state, relation, thing) it must be shown to exist experimentally.

And to insist that things are to be explained in terms of experimentally provable properties, states, relations and things is a rather strong but rational demand: It insists on objective, repeatable, checkable, controllable evidence for all manner of hypotheses and theories.

One strength of materialism is that, in the guises of physics, chemistry and modern biology, it has proposed very many very succesful theories for phenomena that did not have good explanations before, and also discovered many things and relations that were hitherto unknown (and certainly not listed in any religious book), and that it has resulted in very many technological advances, that transformed human society and the relations between humans (e.g. by telecommunication and media), and indeed also not only help many more humans to survive than was possible a few centuries ago, but also threaten human survival (because of the dangers of war and to ecology).

An important problem for materialism is that, so far, there is no succesful physical (materialistic) explanation of human experiences, and that it would seem this is impossible or farfetched. The reason for this would be that experiences have many properties that (simple) physical things do not have, such as being annoying, interesting, pleasant or boring, and that physical properties and states have many properties that experiences do not appear to have.

The simplest rational reply to this is to concede the problem, and to insist that the brain is the most complex organ we know of, and that we really know very little of how it works. To this it may be added that this fact does not make the non-material existence of souls or spirits more likely, for while it may be conceded that many aspects of experience have no materialist explanation, it does not follow that they cannot and will not have one as science progresses. (Besides, there are partial physical explanations of some aspects of experience, and fuller explanations of them in psychological terms, that may not yet have been physically explained, but are nevertheless fairly good science.)

Also, those who believe in non-material souls or spirits have the problem that non-material things are very hard to explain, other than as forms of experience, consciousness etc. Those who insist on a materialist explanation do (usually - see Behaviorism) not deny there are experiences of many kinds, but merely insist that if and when these are to be explained, this should happen ultimately in physical terms and by reference to processes in and states of living brains.


See also: Idealism, Naturalism, Qualia


Broad, Edwards

 Original: Nov 4, 2004                                                Last edited: 12 December 2011.   Top