The scientific method operates by validating theories through observation and experimentation, if the observations and experimentation is inconsistent with the theory, the theory must be rethought. This requires that nature is fundamentally materialistic i.e. that everything is reducible to matter, for if it wasn't, their would be nothing to observe and experiment on. The success of science would suggest that this assumption is well founded, but with science not yet developing a definitive theory of consciousness or reality one could wonder if the influence of the assumption of materialism is the reason for the present shortcomings of science. So, could the assumption of materialism be a flaw in the scientific method?

  • I think the problem here might be defining "scientific method." There's no necessary reason it must be a pure materialism or scientism. It merely needs to believe that experimentation is a means to truth about the physical world...
    – virmaior
    Jul 8 '14 at 9:43
  • It is not science who is to blame. There i no Intellect who can "solve" consciousness. You assume science is a tool like a bulldozer. It is not. You need human first. A brilliant one. With a good experience. You know manY? Tell me.
    – Asphir Dom
    Jul 9 '14 at 0:22

You are asking a question for which there are no "answers". You're digging at a metaphysical question that we do not have the capacity to answer right now.

I'll try not to be long-winded.

tl;dr - Yes. We don't know much of anything.

So, could the assumption of materialism be a flaw in the scientific method?


Modern science starts from Aristotle... fast forward to the Empiricism of David Hume... fast forward to Karl Popper... (Understanding them is critical when talking about science, particularly Hume and those philosophies that derive from his work.) Then liberally sprinkle with various philosophies that have polluted modern science with pseudo-religious conjecture and drivel, e.g. Charles Darwin & co., the same ones that claimed the Irish are subhuman, etc., and you end up with the radical materialism/empiricism to which most "scientists" subscribe.

What we've ended up with is a very twisted form of "science" that simply doesn't hold up well once examined. It relies on existing systems of measurement that are failing us (never mind getting into the philosophical deficiencies of it). But there is hope!

Look into plasma cosmology or "the electric universe" and you'll find science that goes beyond the traditional, limited views. (Plasma cosmologist have had predictive power where traditional physics has had none.) Throw in M-brane theory and all of a sudden you can see how our materialistic view of the universe is horribly deficient, if not grossly irresponsible. We examine/measure 4 out of the 11 dimensions we live/exist in, and then call those 4 "the universe".

You can verify this by asking a pretty silly question...

Can you measure "love" in meters, seconds, joules, ohms, volts, or whatever SI unit you choose?

Materialism fails. There is more to the (multi-)universe than we know, and trying to BS our way around that is far from scientific.

And yes, there are attempt to show emotions and whatnot "scientifically", but they are very far from actual answers that hold up to skeptical scrutiny.

We have a lot more work to do before we can answer questions like "what is consciousness?" The radical empiricism that we are currently using in modern science will fail in its current incarnation. It needs to absorb a lot more about what we currently understand to be useful in answering those difficult questions about consciousness. Humeian concepts need to be updated. However, the consequences of that are devastating to the world-views of many people. Don't expect that to be an easy ride. Once upon a time, the world was "flat" and you were an idiot if you didn't agree, because everyone could easily see that "flatness". (And I'm an idiot for trying to answer this because I know I'll end up with lots of downvotes.)

  • 2
    How do plasma cosmology and string theory transcend traditional science? Just because they (or maybe just plasma cosmology) are non-standard models of the physical universe doesn't mean they aren't models of the physical universe.
    – leibnewtz
    Jul 11 '14 at 8:31

Science as a discipline does not take as axiomatic the view that nature is fundamentally material, although many scientists do. Science does postulate the existence of objects having mass and physical forces that produce effects on these objects, but postulating the existence of one type of object does not preclude the possibility of other types of objects existing. Keeping this in mind it is safe to say that even if everything was not reducible to the kinds of objects the physical sciences are concerned with (particles, energy, plants, animals, etc.), science could still go on studying those things, as they wouldn't cease to exist the moment, say, spirits, minds-as-distinct-from-brains, or ethical norms came into existence.

I would not say that because there are problems which scientists have not yet been able to solve that there is a flaw in the way they solve problems. It is true that disciplines such as psychology and sociology arose, at least in part, due to a perceived failure of the life sciences to explain complex human phenomena, and in light of their successes (limited though they may be), you are right to suggest that there may be more to the world than just the physical. Nevertheless it is important to remember that science as it is currently conceived cannot exist without experimentation, and I cannot see how one could test theories about the unobservable. So perhaps if there is a flaw in human attempts to understand the world then it does not lie in science but in our stubbornly held belief that science offers us the only viable path to discovery of truths.

The scientific method operates by validating theories through observation and experimentation, if the observations and experimentation is inconsistent with the theory, the theory must be rethought.

As a rough description, sure. I'll assume that the inconsistent results you're referring to are ones that are still inconsistent after all possible sources of error have been ruled out.

This requires that nature is fundamentally materialistic i.e. that everything is reducible to matter, for if it wasn't, their would be nothing to observe and experiment on.

The bolded part above is where the mistake enters your chain of reasoning. Matter is only a small part of the observable universe.

We can also detect anything that has an effect on matter - any measurable effect whatsoever. These things we study in great depth, grouping them into types that we call 'forces'. We can see, study and comprehend a lot more of the universe when we include forces & energy, neither of which are 'matter'.

Because of the hard work of scientists & natural philosophers over the past 300-odd years we now know that everything that affects us in our lives, from the chemical make-up of the food you eat and the air you breathe all the way up to the gigantic nuclear furnace in the sky that brings us heat and light each day, is based on only 4 fundamental forces*! This wasn't an assumption but rather a conclusion reached from hundreds of years of investigation by thousands of dedicated individuals.

The success of science would suggest that this assumption is well founded,

Again, less of an assumption, more of a conclusion. But I interrupt.

... but with science not yet developing a definitive theory of consciousness or reality

... ? ...

Alright, let's start with the second half: We don't need a specific 'Theory of Reality' because Reality is what all of our scientific theories are trying to describe. Our current 'Theory of Reality' would be:

  • 'Science. All of it.'
While it may not be definitive (since we obviously don't know everything - if we ever did, science would stop), it's certainly quite comprehensive.

Now back to the first half: Consciousness, or the perception thereof.

We're at an exciting point in our investigations of the universe. We can honestly and confidently state that we've got a pretty good grasp of the fundamentals: we know the basic forces, we know the basic particles.

From these basic concepts we get a lot of emergent behaviour - that is, phenomena that we observe at larger scales that are not apparent at the more minute scale. Physics, chemistry and biology are each very broad areas of study that are built upon or reduce down to each other, and at each level we see emergent properties or behaviours that are not obviously true when zoomed to a different level.

There is no reason (other than hubris) to believe that our consciousness is something other than an emergent property of our biology, and plenty of reasons to suspect that it is. We know that different conscious states can be induced through specific chemicals or physical trauma; we know how hideously complicated a neural net can be; we know that there's no evidence for any new forces that could affect a physical object (such as a ghost/spirit driving your body as some separate thing).

This is not necessarily a bad or scary conclusion, no more so than the discovery that, at the atomic level, solid objects are mostly empty space. We're not going to suddenly sink through the floor, and we're not going to suddenly stop thinking just because consciousness is emergent biology, biology is emergent chemistry and chemistry is emergent physics.

one could wonder if the influence of the assumption of materialism is the reason for the present shortcomings of science.

Your above 'shortcomings' were more ignorance of findings in specific scientific fields and/or a sense of unease brought by contemplation of the conclusions. Neither of which are bad, and neither are they shortcomings of science.

Do you have any actual shortcomings in mind?

So, could the assumption of materialism be a flaw in the scientific method?

Simply speaking, no.

If there are things out there that have absolutely no interaction with matter in any way, shape or form then it is indistinguishable from it not existing. This includes 'other' ways of knowing being invalidated as a means to detect them.** If there is no way to detect or know something, then it is out-of-reach of all human endeavour, not just science.

Theories of spirit/consciousness, 'supernatural' entities, etc. all make the assumption that there's something nebulous out there... and that it can be perceived, manipulated or that this something can have an effect on our lives. Even if we can't pour 'spirit' into a glass, there are still predicted effects are open to scientific investigation!

That consciousness is a fascinating, complex, emergent property of our biology is a conclusion, not an assumption, reached through many years of searching by many dedicated people. This is a triumph, not a shortcoming, of the scientific method.

* These are: Gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force. If there are other forces at play, they are either infinitesimally weak or operate on infinitesimally short distances.

** We've gotten very good at detecting forces and particles that have nearly zero interaction with matter. For example: Neutrinos have so near to zero interaction with physical matter that trillions can pass through your body every second undetected - and are studied regularly and in detail.


If I told you the chair is rickety and unstable due to excessive weathering you would have something to work with regarding the ‘affordances’ (J.J.Gibson) of the chair; namely that you should be wary of sitting on it; using it as a shelf to place a weighty object; as an improvised ladder; a door stop, etc. Alternatively if I told you I’ve just finished applying a coat of clear exterior oil based varnish on it you would know not to touch or use it in the ways mentioned above. Again if I told you the chair is sturdy, clean and available for use, you could then appropriate it in the above mentioned ways. Now image if I told you the chair is physical. Precisely what difference does that make to any potential interactions you might have with the chair? None whatsoever. What difference would it make to assume consciousness is non-physical? - Basically the same; namely nothing. The physical/non-physical distinction is bogus. I’ve found P.W. Bridgman’s ‘operationalism’ (not a term he coined) to be helpful when thinking about such things: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operationalism

  • 1
    If you told me the chair had a physical existence it wouldn't change the way I interact with it because I already believe it to have a physical existence. If you told me, however, it existed only as an illusion in my mind I would probably try to walk through it. Physical/non-physical does matter as long as you don't say that everything or nothing is physical. If you do it comes down to what terminology you use.
    – leibnewtz
    Jul 9 '14 at 0:27


Third-person, objective 'science' is excellent for studying objects and learning how to manipulate them, but terrible for helping subjects (e.g. human beings) thrive if used as the sole means.

I could be wrong about this, but materialism seems to militate against there being an interior realm of existence—the mind—which is potentially infinite in complexity (given the right resources to grow). It seems to argue for something like atomism, where everything is finite in the ultimate equation and we'll end up figuring out how everything works and how to manipulate everything, which if you've ever tried to grow plants or raise children, is a pretty terrible strategy.

What I've said below many apply to materialism qua materialism, but it certainly does seem to apply to current applications of materialism, during the practice of science.

What is 'knowledge'?

It is important to understand the shift in definition of 'knowledge', spurred by Francis Bacon. The following is from Owen Barfield's Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry:

Now whether or no there is another kind of knowledge of nature, which corresponds to 'engine-knowledge' in the analogy, it seems that, if the first view of the nature of scientific theory is accepted, the kind of knowledge aimed at by science must be, in effect, what I will call 'dashboard-knowledge'.
    Francis Bacon, whose startlingly original mind was so influential in bringing about the scientific revolution, was very frank about this. Not only did he maintain that knowledge was to be valued for the power it gives man over nature; but he practically made success in this aim a part of his definition of knowledge. The key words he uses to distinguish the knowledge he exalts from the knowledge pursued by the Schoolmen are 'fruit' and 'operation'. In other words, not only 'science' but knowledge itself, that is, the only knowledge that is not mere trifling, is, for him—technology. Knowledge (for which Bacon, when he wrote in Latin, of course used the word scientia) is that which enables us to make nature do our bidding. (55–56)

It used to be that understanding of reality included 'contemplation' of it. Aristotle was famous for this, and the 2010 Scientific American article Aristotle's Error gets at what Bacon was reacting to:

The waterfall effect (or motion aftereffect, as it is also known) was first noted by Aristotle. Unfortunately, as pointed out by 20th-century philosopher Bertrand Russell, Aristotle was a good observer but a poor experimenter, allowing his preconceived notions to influence his observations. He believed, erroneously, that the motion aftereffect was a form of visual inertia, a tendency to continue seeing things move in the same direction because of the inertia of some physical movement stimulated in the brain. He assumed, therefore, that the grass would seem to move downward as well—as if to continue to mimic the movement of the waterfall! If only he had spent a few minutes observing and comparing the apparent movements of the waterfall and the grass, he would not have made the mistake—but exper­iments were not his forte. (He also proclaimed that women have fewer teeth than men, never having bothered to count Mrs. Aristotle’s teeth.)

The Enlightenment can be seen as an "abandoning of Aristotle"; one such feature of that is to abandon his Four Causes, or at least abandon the formal and final causes, such that the only ones that matter are the material and efficient causes. And so, 'science' is defined as caring only about knowledge that gives you power over reality. It is no mistake that we have the phrase, "Knowledge is Power!"

Humans are not objects to be controlled

There is a very specific place where this Enlightenment attitude falls apart: humans. Consider the following attitude of Daniel Dennett, as described by R. Scott Smith in In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy:

    In his own summation of his views in 1994, Dennett describes his starting point as the "'third-person point of view' of science." In The Intentional Stance, Dennett declares as a "tactical" choice his starting point to be "the objective, materialistic, third-person world of the physical sciences," as it is the "orthodox" choice among philosophers in the English-speaking portion of the world. Indeed, for him, "philosophy is allied with, and indeed continuous with, the physical sciences," and that view grounds his "modesty about philosophical method" and his "optimism about philosophical progress." (138)

What happens when psychologists attempt to interact with humans using this "'third-person point of view'"? Dual clinician and academician Donald E. Polkinghorne describes this in Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences:

    The second concern is an apparent devaluation, even loss of faith in the ability of research in the human disciplines to deliver on their original promise of helping to solve human and social problems. In this regard Seymour Sarason's Psychology Misdirected made a striking impression on me. He talked about the disenchantment he and others had with the field of psychology because of its lack of progress. (ix)

I suggest reading the short three-page preface. There is a telling review by Robert J. Richards of Narrative Knowing which exposes a prejudice that led to the very problem Polkinghorne elucidated:

    First, a vagueness envelops too many of his assertions about the nature of narrative knowledge, for instance, when he proclaims that the human sciences "do not produce knowledge that leads to the prediction and control of human experience; they produce, instead, knowledge that deepens and enlarges the understanding of human existence" (p. 159). Since the Enlightenment, the criteria of science, that is, "knowledge that deepens and enlarges the understanding," have been prediction and conceptual control through the application of general principles. It is incumbent on anyone attempting to discover another kind of rationality to show that it is not merely the complexity of situations and poverty of appropriate laws that distinguish the human from the natural sciences. Although the antecedents of a human act may never exactly reoccur, this itself does not imply that the meaning of "narrative cause" is different from "cause in formal science," as Polkinghorne seems to think (p. 173)-else we must abandon the death of the dinosaurs or the formation of our solar system to storytellers outside the pale of "formal science." Surely, other things being equal, we accept as plausible a narrative history that conforms to relevant, well-confirmed physical, biological, or psychological principles and reject as implausible a history that violates such principles. (259)

If you know what you're looking for, you can see 'Baconian science' written all over this. What you get if you attempt to view human beings as objects to be controlled is something like what Charles Taylor calls the "punctual self" in his Sources of the Self. Human beings become objects to be manipulated and control to one's whim—but whose whim? BF Skinner is famous for wanting to control and manipulate humans (for their well-being, of course!); his follies are well-illustrated by Noam Chomsky's famous The Case Against B.F. Skinner.

Humans are beings to be understood

In contrast to the "punctual self", see James Hillman's Healing Fiction:

    For what I want and the patient wants seems always to be entangled by another factor, like a thread pulling back, a reflective hesitancy which keeps one's assertions about what one really wants from ever finding direct speech, so that even while broaching one's intentions they negate themselves: "That is not it, at all. That is not what I meant at all."
    I have come to think that the uncertainty about what the patient and I are really there for is in fact what we are really there for: this third factor that seems willfully to keep our aims changing and riddling, and presses the question on us even while refusing our answers. (85)

I want to suggest that why "what one really wants" cannot make it into speech is twofold:

  1. The Enlightenment has so eviscerated teleological reasoning that we find it hard to even think in those terms—see linguistic relativity.
  2. What people want is not something that can be discovered once and for all; it is a continually developing narrative.

Curiously enough, Mark Turner's argues in The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language that narrative—particularly what he calls 'parable'—may indeed precede language—contra Noam Chomsky and his universal grammar.


Science, if defined as the study of objects from the third person, is wonderful at understanding objects and how to manipulate them. However, if the goal is to enhance people, who necessarily have first-person perspectives, then this kind of 'science' is insufficient. Indeed, third-person science actively thwarts the pursuit of human thriving if used alone, as it 'finitizes' the inside of a person, instead of treating that inside as something which can grow, perhaps without known limit.

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