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philosophical materialism (physicalism)

Philosophical materialism (physicalism) is the metaphysical view that there is only one substance in the universe and that substance is physical or material. Materialists believe that spiritual substance does not exist. Paranormal, supernatural, or occult phenomena are either delusions or reducible to natural forces.

Materialists are not necessarily atheists, nor do they deny the reality of morality or such things as love or justice, beauty or goodness.

[new] With the rise of modern physics, chemistry, and evolutionary biology, ideas that were once common among philosophers regarding substances have little meaning. What was meant by 'matter' just a few centuries ago bears no resemblance to concepts like 'mass' and 'energy.' The quanta of quantum mechanics bear no resemblance to the corpuscles of 17th century materialists like Thomas Hobbes. Evolutionary biology has proved especially troublesome for traditional dualists who believe in souls or minds that exist independently of bodies. From a scientific standpoint, the human brain has evolved through natural processes and given rise to consciousness and self-consciousness by mechanisms that are not fully understood (to put it mildly). The same kinds of evolutionary processes were at work in the development of the brains of all species with brains. To save the day for souls, some theologians--those who don't deny evolution altogether--posit a god who directly creates souls in humans. It seems more likely that consciousness evolved without any intervention from supernatural beings, just as all other features of plants and animals have evolved.

It's true that dualism provided an explanation for mood, thought, and behavioral disorders in terms of evil spirits, but explanations in terms of brain, hormonal, or neurotransmitter disorders are much more plausible. The methods of dealing with evil spirits such as exorcism or trepanation seem crude, cruel, and barbaric when compared to drug and cognitive-behavioral therapies aimed at affecting neurochemistry or neural networks.

Since the expressions 'materialism' and 'non-material substance' have little meaning in today's scientific lexicon, it might be more useful to speak of a naturalistic versus a supernaturalistic viewpoint. There seems to be little explanatory power in speaking of consciousness or the mind as 'immaterial' or as a different kind of substance than the brain. We may not fully understand how the brain gives rise to consciousness and self-awareness, but positing an invisible pilot in the head that is the dumping ground for all the neural activity that goes on during sensation adds nothing of value to the conversation. Vocal enemies of 'materialism', such as Charles Tart and Jeffrey Schwartz, focus their rants on the denial of immaterial beings that (they believe) has led to the decline of morality they see all around them. Their concern is typical of those who decry materialism: they mourn the loss of focus on the supernatural. Unfortunately for these enemies of 'materialism,' there is no compelling evidence that supers (those with a supernatualistic viewpoint) are any more moral than brights (those with a naturalistic viewpoint). [/new]

See also Baron d' Holbach, brights, and naturalism.

further reading

books and articles

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Darwin's dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life (New York : Simon & Schuster, 1995).

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Elbow room : the varieties of free will worth wanting (Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1984).

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Kinds of minds: toward an understanding of consciousness (New York, N.Y. : Basic Books, 1996).

Kurtz, Paul. Philosophical Essays in Pragmatic Naturalism (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990).

Moser, Paul K. and J.D. Trout. Contemporary Materialism : A Reader (Routledge, 1995).

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House, 1995).

Schwartz, Jeffrey M., M.D. and Sharon Begley.2002. The Mind and The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. Harper Perennial.

Vitzthum, Richard C. Materialism: An Affirmative History and Definition (Prometheus, 1995).


Philosophical Materialism by Richard C. Vitzthum

Epicurus and Donald Davidson in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Last updated 20-Dec-2013

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