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A common argument against any hint of non materialism in science, be it idealism, supernaturalism, substance dualism, etc. is that complete materialism is essential for making scientific progress. I understand the assumption to be that materialism is testable, whereas all these other ideas are not, so if they are allowed then we'll waste a bunch of time with untestable theories. This article I found outlines this point of view well.

However, is this concept of scientific progress true? Has science made progress purely insofar as it is materialistic? Or has the introduction of non materialistic concepts ever helped science progress? I'm not talking about whether scientists were religious or had ideas inspired by religion, but whether the concepts undergoing scientific testing are themselves all entirely materialistic, or are there exceptions.

NOTE: This question was originally asked in the history of science stack exchange, but was closed for being off topic.

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    Metaphysical paradigms have no practical implications whatsoever. Why should it make a difference? The problem is that people generally confuse experience/representation and how it is described with ontological claims.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 29 at 15:08
  • Thats a truly bizarre comment,especially coming from you @PhilipKlöcking 😀 Think (1) Descartes Rationalism → coordinate geometry (2) Newton: mechanistic universe → physics (3)Turing: Formalism+Constructivism → Church-Turing thesis → General computers → Programming and the IT profession. More sombrely. Also ideas have consequences en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ideas_Have_Consequences
    – Rushi
    Commented Mar 1 at 9:50
  • @Rushi One can develop, make use of or do each of those things without any commitment to the corresponding metaphysical paradigm, or even if you reject it.
    – sdenham
    Commented Mar 2 at 0:58
  • @sdenham Hindsight is 20/20 — that's for develop. As for "make use of" "do" etc of course we all do... once the likes of Descartes, Newton, Turing have hewn out the path through the unknown
    – Rushi
    Commented Mar 2 at 4:08
  • @Rushi You appear to be talking Philip's claim as one about the history of ideas and find it bizarre, but there's another reading, as being about the necessity of a prior acceptance of some metaphysical paradigm. As the latter reading should not even seem surprising, we should assume that is more likely to be Philip's intended meaning, unless and until he chooses to say otherwise.
    – sdenham
    Commented Mar 2 at 15:25

12 Answers 12

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I don't know that anyone would say "complete" materialism is "essential" for making scientific progress.

However, science relies on methodological materialism (or methodological naturalism - cue debate about the difference between materialism, naturalism and physicalism).

That is to say: if you want to explain something with science, you don't have to believe that only the natural exists (which would be metaphysical or ontological naturalism). But rather, your methodology should be natural: you should explain things with only demonstrable natural things. "It was magic" can explain anything, therefore it explains nothing. Why did the ball fall to the ground? Magic. Why did that thing dissolve? Magic. How did my keys end up there? Magic.

When someone appeals to the supernatural, that's usually where scientific enquiry ends. We would never have made any scientific discoveries if people just stuck to "it was magic" without trying to make sense of the world in naturalistic terms. We would've never discovered gravity, or chemistry, or key gnomes.

Plenty of scientists are theists. But the ones that do good science leave their theism at the door and try to explain things in naturalistic terms (even if theism is the reason they entered that door in the first place).


This is written from within the perspective of the world most of us seem to be living in, where supernatural events are either altogether nonexistent, or merely not reliably demonstrable.

The issue with "supernatural" things is not that there is some "supernatural" realm which is outside of the scope of science (although there could be - we can't know). The issue is that "supernatural" consists entirely of things that aren't reliably demonstrable, and science can't deal with things that can happen any time, anywhere, with no rhyme or reason.

If we were living in the Harry Potter universe, or if deities were messing with reality in consistent and predicable ways, science could deal with those things. But we aren't living in such a universe (and skeptics would say that's because "supernatural" things don't exist).

* In our universe, Harry Potter-style magic would probably be classified as supernatural. In the Harry Potter universe, it could reasonably be classified as natural, given that it would just be a common feature of the world. But even if it wasn't, we'd still be able to see clear and reliable demonstrations of such magic. One might imagine something similar to magnetism, where we can scientifically study magnetism by merely studying the effects of magnetic forces on physical objects (regardless of whether we can see magnetic forces and fields themselves).

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    This answer conflates testable with materialism. The two are not identical. Something could be testable but not material, say a ghost laying out the winning lottery numbers before they are drawn. Something can be material but not testable, such as the massless invisible pink elephant orbiting Mars.
    – yters
    Commented Feb 29 at 0:02
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    @yters I addressed the link and distinction between testability and materialism in the second half of my answer. I even offered an example where the supernatural would be testable (i.e. the Harry Potter universe).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 29 at 0:08
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    @yters The failure to reliably demonstrate mystical things is arguably part of why we call them "supernatural". The key term there is "demonstrate": there could conceivably be consistent interaction, but it needs to be demonstrated for it to be known (and reasonably accepted) by humans. This might sound circular in the sense that we need to demonstrate what we methodologically reject, but it's more about rejecting it until it's been demonstrated. Invisible attraction forces could've been rejected as supernatural at some point, but then we demonstrated it, and now it's called magnetism.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 29 at 1:50
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    @yters Saying "we don't know magnetism isn't supernatural" doesn't make sense because we don't classify things as "natural" and "supernatural" based on some (non-)physical distinction. We don't say that magnetism is supernatural, because it's a regular feature of this world that we can reliably demonstrate. My entire point, which I said in my answer, and in earlier comments, is that the classification of "supernatural" is tied to a lack of reliable demonstration more than anything else. You seem to be trying to argue semantics more than anything else, but such arguments are usually pointless.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 29 at 20:34
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    @yters I used "regular" once, maybe twice, and "reliable demonstration" 6 times. Reliable demonstration is the much more important part. And the issue is not with how I define it, it's with other people saying things that aren't reliably demonstrable are supernatural, and then they say that a lack of reliable demonstration is an expected or required part of something being supernatural, to justify using different standards. I'm totally on board with getting rid of the "supernatural" distinction, but then all that falls back into "non-existent" (although they were in there all along).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Mar 1 at 2:11
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  1. First, materialism is an outdated term. It was used as a political catchword in many ideological discussions. Mostly with a pejorative meaning.

    Quantum field theory emphasized the concept of fields, as a more fundamental concept than matter. Of course, the introduction of the field concept is much older. It was Newton, who recognized its fundamental role when elaborating his theory of the gravitational field.

    From the view point of field theory – and expressed in a rather metaphorical way – the material elementary particles are the harmonics of vibrating qantum fields. Hence instead of “materialism”, according to current physics the expression “field theoretic viewpoint” is more fitting .

  2. Leaving now the linguistic level, the important point of your question is: How relevant are non-physical concepts in modern science?

    A large set of indispensable concepts are mathematical concepts like Hilbert space, selfadjoint operator, curvature of manifolds etc. . Being mathematical concepts, created by mathematicians and scientists, these are ideas, not physical objects.

    These ideas serve as the tools of mathemacial physics. And other sciences have developed or use ideas of non-physical entities, e.g. the concept of information in biology.

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Is materialism essential to scientific progress?

No. Not only is it not necessary, it is actively harmful.

But first, we need to contrast materialism (which is a philosophy) with methodological naturalism, which is a method.

Consider, for example, the photon that is emitted when an electron interacts with a particular substance. It's one thing to say "God did it". Many theologians would even argue it is correct to say "God did it". Back before "modern science", this was often the end of the matter... but Christian theology teaches that God usually works in ways that are orderly, predictable... testable, reproducible.

Thus, "modern science" was born. Methodological naturalism is in no way 'opposite' to theism. Rather, it postulates that most of what we see, even if God is the ultimate Cause, is subject to investigation. This was in direct contradiction to many competing theologies that believed that the gods were capricious and unpredictable. The idea that physical events ordinarily proceed in a predictable manner is what enables scientific progress. Methodological naturalism is absolutely essential to scientific progress. It's also completely compatible with theism and the existence of the supernatural. (Note that a simple definition of "supernatural" is "God acting in a way that is contrary to the way in which he ordinarily acts".)

What, by contrast, is "materialism"? Simply, it is the philosophical dogma that nothing immaterial exists. Now, we can debate semantics and whether this specific formulation has been pedantically disproven; in general terms, it is the axiom that nothing supernatural (e.g. God) exists.

We've already established that this dogma is unnecessary; the majority of science has proceeded happily without it, and materialism has not resulted in a single technological improvement. All it does is categorically exclude a set of possible explanations, but more importantly, it excludes explanations that might be correct.

I don't know that I can improve upon Richard Lewontin's description, so instead I'll quote it here:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

Science is about searching for truth. Materialism isn't about truth, it's about concocting whatever explanation is necessary, without regard to its plausibility, accuracy, or even usefulness, in order to adhere to a particular philosophy. Imagine where science would be if we had dogmatically denied the existence of germs, or radiation, or electricity.

If a naturalistic explanation of some observed phenomena is correct, methodological naturalism, or the principle of economizing miracles, is sufficient to uncover that explanation. Conversely, if the supernatural exists, a philosophy that excludes its existence axiomatically can only lead to an incorrect understanding of the universe.

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    Very good 👍🏼. Most scientism-ists pretend they are scientists. Also note that What, by contrast, is "materialism"? Simply, it is the philosophical dogma that nothing immaterial exists is circular — immaterial is defined as negation of material and vice versa!! At best we have table thumping, stone kicking
    – Rushi
    Commented Feb 29 at 17:36
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Materialism is actually a science hypothesis. If materialism is not testable, and refutable, and therefore rejectable, then it is pseudoscience, per Popper's demarcation criteria.

The discovery by Einstein that matter is not fundamental, is a refutation of materialism. Post Einstein, most materialists have rebranded themselves as physicalists, because materialism is untrue. Physics isn't an ontology, so this label has some degree of discomfort as a replacement.

Our inability to DO physics without abstractions: math, logic, and information, actually show physics to be effectively dualist ontologically, where one of the ontologies would be whatever the substance is that produces matter and energy, and the other ontology would be the math/logic/information abstractions.

There is no intrinsic problem with operating methodological naturalism without assuming physicalism as a prerequisite. This is a point made by the giants of the philosophy of science: James, Popper, Quine, etc. Your paper's author assumed that "non-material" means rejecting the methodologic naturalism that science relies upon. But this is an incorrect assumption. There is not an essential link between dualism, idealism, Russellian neutral monism, etc and rejection of the methodology of testing that is central to science.

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  • The discovery by Einstein that matter is not fundamental - what specific discovery are you referring to? and why do you see it as implicating that matter is not fundamental?
    – OfirD
    Commented Mar 12 at 8:00
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    @OfirD Matter can be both created and destroyed. Clearly FROM SOMETHING ELSE!
    – Dcleve
    Commented Mar 12 at 8:19
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Most of the existing answers and many comments speak about how "materialism" is outdated and that "matter" is not underlying reality, since we know about quantum theory and field theory. I feel that this misses completely what OP is asking. OP is not asking about whether the universe is made from "matter" or "quantum fields", but asks about idealism, dualism ("souls") and so on and forth.

As explained in Materialism:

According to philosophical materialism, mind and consciousness are by-products or epiphenomena of material processes (such as the biochemistry of the human brain and nervous system), without which they cannot exist. Materialism directly contrasts with idealism, according to which consciousness is the fundamental substance of nature.

Materialism is closely related to physicalism—the view that all that exists is ultimately physical.

Assuming this is what OP is talking about, here is my answer:

To make scientific progress, it is irrelevant whether the universe consists of physical aspects only, or whether there is something "more" which lies completely outside of physical reality. It does not matter if there really are souls, gods, multiverses, fairies, or anything else.

Also, if the latter exist, science will never be a threat to them.

Science "is a rigorous, systematic endeavor that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the world." At the end of the day, there are these logical possibilities:

  • Either the "world" (i.e. the universe, reality, or whatever you want to call it) consists of only physical things - be it matter (which is indeed an outdated concept if you go down to quantum levels, but still an absolutely valid abstraction when we talk about the rest, which surely is still 99.99999% of science), quantum fields or even deeper concepts which we might find in the future when we solve the unification of quantum and relativity,
  • or there is something outside of reality, like souls, gods which live outside of time and space, consciousness which is not caused by our brain chemistry and whatever supernatural phenomena you could imagine.

In the first case, there is no discussion to be had. Science is possible and there is nothing more to it.

In the second case, it will still be true that the purely natural aspects do indeed exist, for some definition of "exist". Science will always be the proper tool to learn about these aspects. The science of fluid mechanics will never depend on whether souls exist.

The only interesting question then remains: will science proper ever be able to be applied to these supernatural aspects? I.e., assuming that at some point in time we actually do figure out (or become convinced...) that something supernatural actually is true beyond any doubt, will we then ever be able to rigorously and systematically build and organize knowledge about said supernatural phenomenon. If so, then science will be enough to describe everything including supernatural phenomena. If no, then no.

But even then, science will still be applicable to all the rest, at least on the level of abstraction that we have today.

At the end of the day, this chain of arguments has been around a long, long time. Before we (re)started science in the west, in the dark middle ages, God was considered real and doing science brought you into bodily danger. Over time this shifted ever more, and ever larger swaths of reality moved from religion to science. It was always the case that some people would attribute features of reality that were not yet explainable by science would be attributed to God, and it was always the case that this realm got ever smaller and smaller as science improved.

Not once, ever, has anything at all ever been truly scientific and then reverted back to being outside of science and in the realm of Gods and spirits. Obviously many scientific theories and discoveries have been falsified, which is the very foundation (or even definition) of science. So not everything that science has ever brought up is true, but it is still scientific.

TLDR: So no matter whether it is God or some kind of soul or some supernatural basis for conscience; science will always encroach on it, there has never been even the tiniest, slightest hint (in science) that anything not open to the scientific process must exist. And it will lead to endless frustration for someone to insist that something supernatural does in fact exist in the "gaps" between the scientific know-how. It is, instead, very fine to just say that we simply don't know some things yet, or may not know them ever. There is no fundamental reason to pose that there is anything fundamentally different from physical reality.

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  • "materialism" is outdated and that "matter" is not underlying reality, since we know about quantum theory and field theory - funny how it's used for good old God of the gaps argument. "Science is so complicated therefore it's God".
    – Groovy
    Commented Feb 29 at 10:13
  • @groovy, I have trouble parsing your comment - are you agreeing or disagreeing? ;)
    – AnoE
    Commented Feb 29 at 10:16
  • I am being sarcastic - it's funny how people used God of the gaps fallacy 1000 years ago cause they knew almost nothing, and now they know so much that they came to the same point. Isn't that ironical? :)
    – Groovy
    Commented Feb 29 at 10:19
  • @groovy, Yeah, it's almost as if it's not a property of the universe we're talking about, but a property of our brain (being unable to handle unexplained phenomena without coming to extreme solutions ;) ).
    – AnoE
    Commented Feb 29 at 10:42
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Non-materialistic concepts have played a role in the history of science, particularly in areas like psychology and biology where the mechanisms underlying mental and biological phenomena were not well understood. However our understanding of these phenomena has advanced, materialistic explanations have consistently proven to be more accurate and reliable than non-materialistic ones.

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    This answer is about twenty years out of date. A lot of philosophers and scientists today have abandoned materialist and physicalist theories because they simply can't account for what is observed. Commented Feb 29 at 8:48
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    1. Who are the scientists that have abandoned materialist and physicalist theories, and what are their reasons for doing so? Please mention well-known people in physics, biology and chemistry who 20 years ago had one view and now abandoned it. 2. What alternative theories have these scientists proposed, and how do they account for the observed phenomena in a way that materialist and physicalist theories cannot? 3. How widespread is the rejection of materialist and physicalist theories within the scientific communities, and what evidence is there to support this claim?
    – Groovy
    Commented Feb 29 at 10:07
  • But you can just skip it all to save the embarrassment and cringe. :)
    – Groovy
    Commented Feb 29 at 10:08
  • @DavidGudeman If it can be observed than by definition it's physical...
    – haxor789
    Commented Feb 29 at 11:21
  • I won't bother to post my answer, as it was basically the same as this. But I'll add as a comment: People have gotten stoned or had dreams that gave them ideas for scientific explanations, Vaughn Jones, who came up with the Jones polynomial in knot theory, said that it came to him when he crashed out on his bed after a night of drinking. So inspiration comes from all varieties of human experience. But only those inspirations that survive the hard light of day become part of science.
    – JonathanZ
    Commented Feb 29 at 17:36
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No.

Science is all about observations and describing them by models/theories.

This is an eternal cycle. No resulting model/theory can ever be proved correct, only poor ones rules out. Pretty tough to be a theorist - you can never get it right only not-so-wrong...

Thus, better theories allow new experiments/observations that allow better theories.

This general scientific approach can be applied not only in a "materialistic" sense. There are very fundamental things in nature that are arguable not "materialistic" like "fields", "forces" but also, e.g., in psychology scientific methods can be applied.

Unscientific is, when you start to leave this circle of observation->theory->start over.

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  • Nice! Science ≠ Scientism
    – Rushi
    Commented Mar 1 at 9:30
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Science advances by observing and quantifying phenomena, by developing theories that purport to explain the observations, then testing the theories against more observations and measurements. Understandably, therefore, science tends to be concerned with things that have observable and measurable consequences. The fact that the consequences are observable and measurable is usually taken to mean they are physical, and I suspect most hard scientists consider them as such in practice. The dividing line between what is and isn't physical is hard to delineate exactly, and to some extent it's a moving feast. For example, let's take the idea that there are persisting spirits of the dead. I assume that most people would consider such spirits to be beyond the poorly defined boundary of the physical. But if a theory was developed that assumed the existence of such spirits, and if the theory was able to explain a lot of hitherto inexplicable phenomena, and it was found to be supported by a considerable body of evidence, then I suspect that the result would be to move the boundary of what we considered to be physical to encompass the spirits. In that sense, science is concerned with the physical almost by definition.

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Yes, though let us call it physicalism (SEP) instead of materialism. Modern science makes presumptions about physical reality, and then does its business. One doesn't have to accept physicalism philosophically, but one cannot do science as modern philosophers of science conceive of it, without physicalism. In particular, physics, chemistry, and biology in particular are largely social activities that are about extending physicalist metaphysics under the banner of naturalized epistemology (SEP).

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It's not essential, but it definitely helps.

People in ancient civilizations believed many supernatural ideas, but they were still able to develop remarkable technologies. Archimedes was essentially correct when he said

Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.

even though he probably didn't understand all the physical processes that underlie the operation of a lever. Even if you believe that gods are making these phenomena happen, you can do "science" as long as you believe that they've established consistent rules, which we can discover through observation and experiment.

While modern science tends to be divorced from religion, for much of history it as actually funded by religious institutions. Rather than disproving the need for or existence of God, it could be viewed as learning more about the world that he created for us. Even if you believe that a clock was created by a clockmaker, you can learn quite a bit by reverse-engineering the clock.

However, religion can be a hindrence if strict adherence to scripture biases or interferes with scientific exploration (e.g. the Inquisition penalizing Galileo for heresy). Which is why I say materialism "helps".

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Religion is not a problem if it does not influence the way how experiments are planned and results are interpreted.

Even astronaut, astronomer or biologist can easily take this attitude, assuming that God is far away and beyond that they explore. But when astronaut starts caring not to hit angels, astronomer is afraid to depart from the flat Earth hypothesis and biologist questions the origins of dinosaur bones because "there cannot be evolution", then yes, no further science is possible. Unfortunately this happened multiple times during the history.

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  • What you are pointing out is that religion(s) when they exist and function in the empirical world can have large political consequences. What about irreligion/atheism when it functions as a religion? Atheism was official communist policy in most of the 20th century and killed a hundred million people. Even if that is exaggerated by an order of magnitude its still twice the scale of the holocaust
    – Rushi
    Commented Feb 29 at 17:45
  • Atheism as religion makes no difference from others here. Researchers were jailed during times of Stalinism for works on genetics as it "indirectly supports the existence of God".
    – h22
    Commented Feb 29 at 19:33
  • Your 2nd statement agrees with my comment. Your 1st disagrees. Just to be clear: When atheism becomes state policy it can do harm at least as much as crusades/jihad/witchhunts/inquisition etc etc. In fact given: (a) the fact that for traditional religions the data is in millennia whereas for atheism as state policy less than a century (b) This more meagre data points towards at least as much damaging consequences as the first, it behoves humanity to be careful before going overboard with untested fashions
    – Rushi
    Commented Mar 1 at 2:52
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I'm going to try to take another approach to answering this question:

Scientific progress is apparently about two (closely related) things: poking and prodding in order to figure things out, and making useful models.

Whether you're a materialist or not, you must notice that it's much easier to poke and prod matter than it is to poke and prod whatever nonmaterial thing you might propose, like souls or ghosts or whatever. So to the extent that science is about poking and prodding, of course it's about matter. That doesn't mean matter is necessarily the only thing that exists, but it means there isn't a whole lot of science we have so far been able to do on things that aren't composed of matter.

The second is, when it comes to models, our history is FILLED with detailed models of physical things, many of these models detailed so well that we can produce compelling computer simulations of those things - small scale quantum events, atoms and molecules and chemistry, planetary physics. We can make computer simulations of these things, and those simulations work because our models are detailed enough to make algorithms to compute them.

Meanwhile, what models are there for the non-physical explanations of things? What model is there of the "substance" souls might be made of, for example?

So it's not so much that materialism itself - the belief that only material things exist - is essential to scientific progress. It's more that the operative ways science functions - via poking, prodding, and models - have so far really only worked for matter, because non-materialists have not developed ways of poking, prodding, or making models of non-material explanations.

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