I was reading Wikipedia through materialism and physicalism article and was unable to find, whether modern scientists largely subscribe to physicalism in natural sciences.

What is the scientific consensus on the metaphysical stances?

To particularize:

  • Does physicalism holds for mathematics and what is the mathematicians' consensus?
  • Do natural scientists subscribe to physicalism in their fields?
  • Do social scientists subscribe to physicalism in their fields?
  • 2
    My guess is that many hard scientists view mathematical objects as having a non-physical existence.
    – Xodarap
    Oct 21, 2012 at 19:17
  • To continue on @Xodarap's comment: do you consider mathematicians as scientists? In that case, you will not have an answer as simple as physicalism. That being said, many (myself included; paradoxically I am a mathematician that mostly works on science) would not consider mathematicians as scientists, so you should clarify what you mean by scientists and how you stand on mathematicians and the weird border between the theory branches of hard sciences and math. Oct 22, 2012 at 4:41

1 Answer 1


The operational consensus of physical scientists is that physicalism holds. That is, experiments are planned and executed as if physicalism is true. The reasons are simple: no compelling evidence has been found to the contrary despite various attempts (e.g. intercessory prayer studies, psi studies, etc.); and it makes planning and interpreting experiments much easier (and it works).

Whether individual scientists hold different personal views is a sociological question to which I do not have a definitive answer. The overwhelming majority of theistic positions are not physicalist, and

the National Academy of Science charted belief in God as low as 5.5 percent among biologists and 7.5 percent among physicist and astronomers in a 1998 study

(source). So at least 5-8% of scientists are apparently not physicalists, but this doesn't really answer how many actually are.

I am not sure what the rates are among social scientists, but I'm also not sure why they would be in any better of a position to judge the merits of physicalism than are lawyers or investment bankers. As their title says, they work in heavily social settings where whether something is physical or not is an implementation detail that they don't need to worry about.

  • 1
    +1, my only nitpick with this answer is that belief in God (Abrahamic or otherwise) doesn't necessarily entail a disbelief in physicalism. While in principle it may ought to, depending on the particular "God" we are discussing, it is not uncommon for people to (unknowingly or not) hold views which technically conflict each other...
    – stoicfury
    Oct 22, 2012 at 2:19
  • This is a bit off the way, but I'm curious as to whether you (stoicfury) think that including a little bit about the recent Larry Krauss / David Albert unpleasantness could be relevant to the discussion: i.e., the question of "nothingness" having either a physical or nonphysical status. Or maybe that deserves it's own question?
    – Ryder
    Oct 22, 2012 at 14:40
  • @RyderDain - Although I'm not familiar with the incident in question, I bet it deserves its own question. These sorts of issues almost invariably end up being about how we use language, not about the underlying nature of reality, and require more than an aside in a comment to resolve.
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 22, 2012 at 17:26
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    -1 as the answer suggests a rejection of physicalism entails an acceptance of 'intercessory prayer studies, psi studies etc.'. It does not, and furthermore it is highly dubious that physicalism has anything to do with science. It is not testable, it makes no predictions, and offers no explanations. It is highly problematic. It is surely part of philosophy, and as such, scientists are no better qualified to make proclamations on the truth or falsity of physicalism than confused thinkers in any other walk of life are.
    – adrianos
    Nov 2, 2012 at 14:22
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    @RexKerr I guess it depends what you mean by 'physicalism'. Is it some kind of ontological denial in regard to anything not deemed sufficiently 'physical'? If 'physical' means physics, physicalism is false, as there is lots of evidence for the claims of biology, history etc. If it means matter or substance or something like that, it is clearly false, as there is evidence for non-material things even in physics. My point is just what is the inference from science to physicalism supposed to be? I don't see what metaphysical conclusion is supported - I suspect none at all :)
    – adrianos
    Nov 3, 2012 at 1:35

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