Scientific Materialism - the philosophical basis of all our modern physics, chemistry and biology- is generally treated as if it's one monolithic entity rather than a diverse set of approaches and views. In this respect, and because of oversimplification, it becomes a more convenient strawman for religionists of all persuasions to attack.
One reason Materialism gives so much grief to intellectual poseurs is that it is categorizable in so many different ways. Because of the complexity, most simple-minded mentalities just ditch any nuance and opt to portray the cartoon version. The problem is that this choice renders most of what they write irrelevant and insipid, especially when they claim generalities, for example asserting "Materialism commits the identity fallacy by equating mind and brain
". Indeed, such general statements make them look like blinking idiots.
In this blog post I want to clear up some of those misconceptions and also show why one form (Modern or Scientific Materialism) remains the best to economically explain such things as consciousness, and the operation of the brain.
Differentiating Types of Materialism
Perhaps the earliest form of Materialism was Mechanical Materialism or the theory that the world (and universe) consisted entirely of hard, massy material objects, which, when imperceptibly small, were described as "atoms". This set the stage for the "atomistic materialism" promoted by the Greeks, Leucippus and Demokritos, who used it as a basis for the philosophy of Epicureanism
. It may rightly be said, therefore, that this was the precursor of the reductionist/materialist/realist school of thought. This version denies that immaterial or apparently immaterial things (such as minds)
exist or explains them away as being
material things or motions of material things.
It is very ironic (but true) that a Greek Materialist like Demokritos would have serious problems with modern scientific Materialism and its claims for immaterial (but physical
!) fields, atoms and waves! Indeed, more than one observer has indicated these early Materialists would resoundingly deny Modern Materialism!
Wherefore this "Modern Materialism" so unlike its predecessor? The need for it became manifest by the time Ernest Rutherford began his simple atomic experiments, and then Max Planck discovered the quantum (E= hf) ...leading to Erwin Schrodinger's and Werner Heisenberg's depiction of atoms as vibrating wave states of different energy. See, e.g.
This wave emphasis meant that not only did immaterial entities exist, but they could also be quantified and have physical existence.
physics conceived matter as made up of such things as electrons, protons, and mesons, which are very unlike the hard, massy, stonelike particles conjectured in primitive mechanical Materialism. Further distinction between matter and energy was also broken down via Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity which showed that energy has inertia. His most famous equation: E = mc 2
, became the basis of atomic energy via nuclear reactions - both via fission and fusion.
The explosion of the first atomic bomb at Alamagordo, NM, showed in no uncertain terms this new physics wasn't some airy fairy hogwash but as real as a ten million degree fireball that could roast a human body in two nanoseconds, reducing it to a few drops of goo and fried bones. Thus, the connection from the modern physics to a new, more powerful form of modern Materialism, became inevitable.
Later, when further work on the synaptic clefts of the brain showed it to be the scale (~ 300 nm) that Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle could apply, it became feasible to apply modern Materialism to the brain itself. But I am getting a bit ahead of myself!
The point made here is that this newfound Materialism marked the first wholly PHYSICALIST version. This sort of Materialism allowed the concept of a "material thing" to be extended to include all of the elementary particles and other things that are postulated in fundamental physical theory, even continuous fields and points of space-time (see e.g. Richard Penrose's Twistor theory).
Up until the quantum theory, few thinkers had been able to discriminate the physical from the material. Most naturally assumed in simple-minded fashion that if a thing was physical it had to be material. Probably the first hints of this being false occurred in the 1850s with the electricity and magnetism experiments of Michael Faraday, who showed iron filings could be disturbed from a distance by an invisible force. That became known as "magnetism". Later - he placed filings on a card and let an electrical wire go through the card and still found the filings disturbed but now arranging themselves into circular patterns. Thus, he made the connection that a moving electric charge can create a magnetic field which has a similar effect to a magnet! See e.g.
Moving on, one beholds a more refined form of modern Materialism which is usually referred to as Hylozoistic Materialism
. In this paradigm, everything is composed of physical entities (generally) but it introduces special laws applying to complexes of physical entities, such as living cells or brains, that are not reducible to the laws that apply to the fundamental physical entities. (To avoid inconsistency, such a theory may have to allow that the ordinary laws of physics do not wholly apply within such complex entities.) Such a theory, could also be called "emergent Materialism," and these can shade off, however, into theories that one would not wish to call Materialist. These ascribe vital characteristics to all matter, while its counterpart, panpsychism
, attributes a mindlike character to all constituents of material things.
A couple of examples include Rupert Sheldrake's "morphogenetic field" biology, which basically maintains that cells divide and organize based on a supra-physical field that carries some intentionality with it. British researcher Lyall Watson carried this even further in his controversial book, Supernature
In general, however, modern Materialism disavows such "intentionality" as being unnecessary and moreover, harboring an unproven teleology. (All physicalist Materialisms reject teleology - or the imputation of hidden purpose - in any form) Up to now Sheldrake, for all his words, hasn't been able to isolate his "morphogenetic field" and neither has Lyall Watson shown that some "super mind' exists in nature and directs it.
Rather less drastic is epiphenomenal Materialism
, according to which
sensations and thoughts do exist in addition to material-physical processes but are nonetheless wholly dependent on material processes and without causal efficacy of their own. They are related to material things somewhat in the way that a man's shadow is related to the man. In this form, the mind is defined as a kind of immaterial "shadow" of the brain. As we know, if a man is eliminated so also is his shadow, and in like manner, when a brain dies (brain death, no EEG signals) there is no more operative mind. Thus, mind does exist
but is contingent for its existence on the brain. Up to now no one has been able to prove that a human mind yet functions once the brain is deceased.
Less well known, physicalist Materialism groups into deterministic and indeterministic categories. In the former, we find people like Albert Einstein, who refused to accept the brain's thoughts were able to arise other than by predictable, deterministic interactions. However, with the advance of modern quantum theory this simplified view gave way to an indeterministic paradigm. Much of this was championed, for example, by quantum physicists such as Henry Stapp.
Stapp pointedly noted that uncertainty principle limitations applied to calcium ion capture near synapses shows they (calcium, Ca++ ions) must be represented by a probability function.
More specifically, the dimension of the associated calcium ion wavepacket scales many times larger than the calcium ion itself. This nullifies the use of classical trajectories or classical mechanics to trace the path of the ions.
However, no sooner had he explicated this, than a new form of quantum determinism arose from the Stochastic Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics used by David Bohm. This then provided a more refined vehicle for determinism to operate, but this time in a quantum acausal form. Much of this was described in an earlier blog post:
Inteestingly, both indeterministic and deterministic forms were found to be amenable to brain neural net manipulation, posing the possibility of remaking the human brain-mind. See:
Interestingly, in a number of ways acausal determinist quantum theory has fed directly into another offshoot of Materialism known as Central state Materialism
. On account of recent developments in biochemistry and in physiological psychology, the plausibility of Materialism overall has greatly increased. At the same time, there has been a resurgence of interest in the philosophical defense of central-state Materialism. Central-state Materialists have proposed their theories partly because of dissatisfaction with the analytical behaviorism of the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle himself is reluctant to call himself a Materialist, partly because of a dislike of all "isms" and partly because he thinks that the notion of matter has meaning only by contrast with that of mind, which he thinks to be an illegitimate sort of contrast. (In other words, a kind of false choice).
It is now generally accepted that Scientific Materialism as applied to the domain of natural science is in the physicalist form. Hence Materialism as it is understood today embraces all physical fields and interactions, of both matter and energy
. The laws that govern these interactions (e.g,. the 2nd law of thermodynamics) apply without exception to humans as well as inanimate particles/objects. The prediction of the future behavior of all physical interactions is not dependent on the existence of any supernatural agency. Thus, physical laws are complete in the sense of being able to account for all physical phenomena.
Physical scientists then have at hand a modus operandi for understanding the universe which does not entail inclusion of supernatural agents, now regarded as redundant. Not surprisingly, the Materialist is much more likely than the supernaturalist to place a premium on revering the Earth and demanding the rational disposition of its resources. As a Materialist, after all, I can examine the evidence and determine that our planet is possibly
the only inhabited one, at least in our galaxy - if not the cosmos. I can also ascertain that this life is most likely the only one and that I must strive to enhance it in any way possible. I should emphatically not squander what I have now, while awaiting a mythical afterlife.
I refrain from looking to any hypothesized deity for deliverance, or lay blame for human ills on some mythical demonic entity. On the contrary, Man alone is responsible for his actions and is the ultimate master of his fate. As a Materialist I maintain that Man need not suffer extinction as a species if he has the courage and vision to assume control of his destiny through the use of reason.
Stapp, Henry, P.: 1993, Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics
, Springer-Verlag, p. 42.