Physicalism, materialism and all that

by Neil Rickert

I have previously posted about why I am not a materialist.  In this post I’ll say a little more on that topic.  This clarification is partly related to my current reading of Dembski’s new book.  Dembski seems to think that materialists are missing something important.  He says, parenthetically, “intelligent design being, frankly, incredible within the materialistic metaphysics that dominates so much of contemporary intellectual life.”  Given that I am not a materialist, it must be something else that leaves me unpersuaded by Dembski’s argument.  However, I presume that Dembski will conclude that I am a materialist in spite of my denial.

For starters, here are two relevant posts by John Wilkins:

John does seem to consider himself a physicalist.

I’m not a physicalist myself, and in that sense I disagree with John.  However in other respects, I mostly agree with those posts.


One of the arguments sometimes given against physicalism, is that mathematics is not physical.  John dismisses that argument on the grounds that mathematical objects are fictions.  I mostly agree, in that I am a fictionalist with respect to mathematics and information.  Yet, while I agree that the nature of mathematics does not refute or argue against physicalism, I still see it as part of why I do not personally embrace physicalism (or materialism or naturalism).  As a mathematician, I don’t see that physicalism has anything to offer me.

While on the topic of mathematics, I will disagree with John where he says:

Mathematics is not a domain, it is a language, and the reason it works is because the bits that seriously do not work are not explored far[*] – not all of it has to work in a physical or natural sense, but much of it has to, or else it becomes a simple game that we would not play so much.

I disagree where John says that mathematics is a language.  I see it as a methodology.

Generally, a physicalist can reasonably say that while mathematics is not itself physical, it supervenes on the physical because mathematics is carried out by physical beings.

Why not physicalism?

The issue for me, is that I do not see any reason to adopt physicalism.  I see physicalism as neither true nor false.  I don’t see that our notions of truth extend far enough for us to be able to say whether physicalism is true.  So physicalism cannot be other than an assumption.  That makes it somewhat like an axiom in mathematics.  In mathematics, I accept the axiom of choice because so much important mathematics depends on it.  I do not accept (nor do I reject) the continuum hypothesis, because I do not know of any sufficiently important consequences.

It’s much the same for physicalism.  It does not seem to have any consequences that are important to me.  If I hear of Rupert Sheldrake, and his morphic resonance, I do not need physicalism to tell me to be skeptical.  The lack of supporting evidence is already sufficient to support those doubts.


5 Comments to “Physicalism, materialism and all that”

  1. Or, you could take the alternative perspective and re-title this post, “Physicalism. Why not?”.


  2. Physicalism and materialism are not generally a priori assumptions, though one could pretend they are. Rather they are working conclusions. Or, if you prefer, working conventions. We see this stuff around us and agree to call it material. Supernaturalists agree, but then claim thete is not material magic sort of things that are not material. And there othets that say there isn’t any material stuff, it’s all a fiction. Materialists are simply waiting for these othets to demonstrate their claims and meanwhile continue with the materialsm working conclusion. Similarly physicalists are merely materialists about the brain-mind, seeing nothing to suggest thete is a non-material mind.

    It’s all rather mundane working conclusions in the end. I’m surprised so many of your posts ate so positively aimed at denying you’re this or that, and that you don’t do metaphysics and so on. I appreciate the difficulty in pinning down philosophical labels that overlap or ate too inclusive. Logical positivism, for example, gets bad press for trying to do too much; empiricism as a totally non-mental notion is fine if you accept that the mental is itself a biological experience.

    Not seeing any useful alternatives or any additions that don’t fit a materialism or physicalism convention, I agree with Keith: why not?


    • Not seeing any useful alternatives or any additions that don’t fit a materialism or physicalism convention,…

      I’ve previously given an alternative, when I posted that I am a behaviorist. I’ll probably expand on that at some future time.

      I often find myself disagreeing with people who say they are materialists. Going by Wittgenstein’s “meaning is use”, there is enough disagreement to indicate that I am not a materialist (or physicalist).

      In any case, my reason for posting was to place myself as aloof to the materialism–anti-materialism wars as I prepare to discuss Dembski’s new anti-materialist book.


  3. Please? We have ice cream. We can even tell you how the ice cream tastes so good, which is more than the other guys can do. We can even explain “tasting good” and most of “tasting good to you”. Just the last little bit of that last little bit gives us any trouble, but it troubles everybody, because it does nothing and therefore has no explanation. So why not? I mean, you don’t need to gird yourself to take on Dembski. That can be done in the nude, metaphysically speaking.


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