On ontology and materialism

by Neil Rickert

Recently Dan Kaufman and Massimo Pigliucci had a discussion about ontology, materialism and related topics.

Here’s Massimo’s blog post, where he introduces the video.  And you can find the discussion video on that page:

Ontology is part of metaphysics.  And I have never seriously studied metaphysics.  So I watched the video all of the way through to see what I could make of it.

Generally speaking, I’m a skeptic of metaphysics and of ontology.  After watching the video, I am still a skeptic.  But I did enjoy the discussion.

Some comments

I’ll add some of my own comments on what was discussed in the video.  I’m calling them comments, because this is not an attempt to review the video or to make serious arguments about what is discussed there.  It is just comments or reactions to what I am seeing and hearing.

Early in the video, Dan says that he is moving away from materialism and wonders what would be a good alternative that does not involve mysticism or Platonism.  To me, this seems a bit strange.  I’m not a materialist.  But I also have no urge to find an alternative view to materialism.  I prefer to just remain uncommitted.  But perhaps an academic philosopher feels pressure to make some sort of commitment.

At around 4:30, Massimo explains what is ontology and why it is important.  I’m afraid that I am unconvinced.

As far as I am concerned, to say that X exists is just to license certain ways of talking about X.  I can see why philosophers might want to study this.  But, for  most people most of the time we should just go ahead and talk as we want.  And, most of the time, the ontological question won’t really matter.


The two spend some time discussing materialism.  I started being unsure what people really mean by “materialism”.  And, after listening to the discussion, I am still just as unsure about what people mean by materialism.  It seems that it is as vague a term as I had suspected.

As part of the discussion, they mentioned physicalism and supervenience physicalism.  This is the idea that everything supervenes on the physical.  For myself, I don’t have any strong objection to supervenience physicalism.  But I also don’t see the point, because supervenience is so vague that it is hard to say what it implies.

Massimo says that he adopted materialism when he moved away from religion.  But he is now moving away from materialism.

Dan wonders whether materialism, as the term is used today, mostly comes from  scientism.  And then he points points out how “material thing” does not adequately describe a lot of what we consider to exist.  And I’ll note that my own objection to materialism is similar.


At around 44:00 they start talking about eliminativism, and they are generally opposed to the current trend toward eliminativism and toward saying that various things are illusions.  For example, some folk say that minds are illusions.  I prefer to say that “mind” is a metaphor, because when we talk about a mind we are usually talking about aspects of a whole person rather than about some part of that person.

They continue with a discussion of Sellars and his ideas about the scientific image and the manifest image.  Massimo sees the issue as one of how to reconcile those two images (or views).  Massimo describes two interpretations of “reconcile”.  On one interpretation (he calls it the right wing view), the scientific image is true and the manifest image is an illusion.  That’s roughly the view of Dennett and apparently of Churchland.  The other interpretation (the left wing view) is that we need to look at both images as different ways of looking at the world.  He mentions Rorty as taking that “left wing” view.  And that’s also my own position.  The scientific and manifest images complement one another, they don’t really contradict one another.


Overall, I thought this was a good and interesting discussion.


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