By materialism I mean that all phenomena can be explained by matter and its interactions.

What are the strongest arguments against materialism? I, being a former materialist, was convinced that materialism is untenable by a seminar on Nagels book "The View from Nowhere". I feel that I was naive in this topic until I read and discussed Nagels book, although it took a while to really understand the point.

I discussed this topic a lot with natural scientists, experiencing that they totally agree with materialism. They just say, it is obvious, that everything can be explained by matter and nothing else. Only a lot of explanation makes the counterposition a little bit plausible to them, but they never agree. What is a good example to explain Nagels position?

Among philosophers, does anybody strongly disagree with Nagels statements on materialism? Is materialism generally spread today among philosophers? Did anybody also experience a transformation from a materialist to a non-materialist? What convinced you the most? Do philosophers agree that mental phenomena can't be fully reduced to its physical processes?

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    Have you read, "What Is It Like To Be A Bat?"? I ask because "material reductionism" is not the same thing as materialism.
    – MmmHmm
    Apr 22, 2017 at 12:31
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    For the purpose of this question, are we to assume that no one can simultaneously be both a scientist and a philosopher? If so, which label should we apply to someone who would otherwise seem to meet the criteria for both labels?
    – Nat
    Apr 23, 2017 at 3:14
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    Regarding the scientific perspective, non-materialist positions seem derivative of Searle's fallacy, which itself was just a modernized vitalism.
    – Nat
    Apr 23, 2017 at 3:25
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    @Nat I strongly disagree that one can't simultaneously be both a scientist and a philosopher. As Nagel puts it, physical reality is just one part of reality and the scientific method only allows to rely on this physical reality. But of course, one can also accept as a scientist that mental phenomena are real and can't be fully reduced to its physical properties. Apr 23, 2017 at 8:41
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    @Mr.Kennedy, there is no need to split the question or to focus it. it is reasonable and interesting as it is. We are not robots and guide lines are meant to guide not to be followed mechanically and strictly. I totally get it that you like following them strictly per your interpretation of them, and that you wish to help and to keep the website high quality, but overdoing it is a distraction, scares newcomers away, and will turn this website into a dry bore.
    – nir
    Apr 23, 2017 at 9:38

3 Answers 3


An argument from incompleteness is not convincing. Empiricism cannot ever give us a complete model, but we can reasonably accept a worldview anyway, even if it has a few unraveled edges. If that is what Nagel argued, I consider it a weak argument against materialism.

Alternatively, referencing science is far more powerful.

Materialism historically in the 1900s was contrasted with idealism -- the view that logic, experiences, and abstractions like math, are the base material of the universe.

However, this mateiralist view is in conflict with the last century plus of science. This was shown dramatically by Einstien, who demonstrated that matter == energy with E=mc^2. If matter can be made from energy, and turn into energy, then MATTER is not fundamental.

Materialists recast their worldview into "physicalism", where matter and energy are treated as aspects of the same "physical" stuff.

But physics continued to make this problematic. Space itself turns out, in general relativity, to also be an aspect of mass. And as geometry is MATH, and math is a subjest of logic, not the physical -- physicalism then has to be expanded to include LOGIC as "physical". Which pretty much destroys the whole point of materialism as an alternative to idealism.

In quantum mechanics, the base components of matter also turn out to be probability functions. https://plus.maths.org/content/ridiculously-brief-introduction-quantum-mechanics. Which are ideal. So it isn't just a subset of the "material" universe (space) which is actually ideal, it is basically ALL OF IT.

Materialism also was an assertion of what is "reality". And it turns out that much of the universe is "dark energy", which is the enegy field of virtual particles. http://hetdex.org/dark_energy/what_is_it/vacuum_energy.html Fitting virtual particles into a "real matter" worldview pushes the limits on "realism".

In addition to these other problems with conventional meanings of matter and "physical", one final effort to assert physicalism was to hold that physical is whatever physics comes up with. But physics has come up with the principle that physics itself is not stable. All laws in physics are actually based on symmetries, and all symmetries are broken. Therefore, physics HAS NO GENERAL LAWS. http://www.pnas.org/content/93/25/14256

Additionally, materialism presupposes some method of dismissing the independent existence of psychology, and reduction of it to matter. Jaegwon Kim holds that the consensus in philosophy of mind is that this effort at reduction for qualia has failed. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7snrs Plus reductionism overall in science is considered a failed project: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-reduction/

Daniel Stoljar concludes that physicalism is no longer compatible with 20-21st century science https://www.amazon.com/Physicalism-Problems-Philosophy-Daniel-Stoljar/dp/0415452635.

Answering on the views of philosophers -- slightly over half of philosophers today identify as physicalists. https://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl The most common approach to philosophy of mind is functionalism (per Kim), and reductive physicalists often do not consdier functionalists relative to mind to actually be physicalists (Kim does not). This is because functions are logic structures, or information, not matter. I believe that many functionalists self-identify as physicalists, however (Sellars did when he articulated functionalism).


I, being a former materialist, was convinced that materialism is untenable by a seminar on Nagels book "The View from Nowhere". I feel that I was naive in this topic until I read and discussed Nagels book, although it took a while to really understand the point.

The book appears to cover a lot of ground. can you explain in detail what happened and why you are convinced that materialism is untenable? I would be very interested in such a description!

Did anybody also experience a transformation from a materialist to a non-materialist?

I underwent such a transformation about 17 years ago.

What convinced you the most?

I believe this problem should be understood in terms of opening eyes, not in terms of convincing, as you put it yourself in your original deleted post:

Nagel's book opened my eyes

I believe that a logical argument can only play a (small) part in a genuine shift on this particular problem, and might not even be required. Imagine trying to open a door without unlocking it first. no amount of pulling will help, as you experienced with your friends.

That said, there are many "wrong" reasons to adopt or reject materialism, and people may be persuaded into or out of materialism by persuading them to adopt or reject such reasons.

The most obvious problem is that materialism and physicalism are hard to define if not outright incoherent. See this SEP article by Daniel Stoljar: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/physicalism/ and the following opinion by Chomsky: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5in5EdjhD0&t=46m22s.

If that is the case then mind-body arguments in terms of materialism are inevitably a meaningless mess where anything goes.

Luckily, I believe the problem can be framed more intelligibly in terms of computational functionalism. Namely, if it is possible in principle for computers to be conscious in the fullest sense of the word.

This formulation is related enough to the classical mind body problem because computation is a mechanical phenomenon in the sense that any computation may in principle be computed with a "mechanical" device made out of cogwheels and running on steam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40DkJ9vt5CI

Note that here too there are plenty of "wrong" reasons to adopt or reject either position, mostly stemming from misguided intuitions, misconceptions, and misunderstanding of computation.

Generally speaking, the root computational functionalist argument is that a computer should in principle be able to simulate a functioning brain in its entirety by simulating it as a physical system (of atoms and molecules) and if that is the case then one would be hard pressed to explain what would be left out of such a computation: https://xkcd.com/505/

Among philosophers, does anybody strongly disagree with Nagels statements on materialism? Is materialism generally spread today among philosophers?

What is said Nagel's statement on materialism?

Daniel Dennett is a famous philosopher and computational functionalist who believes that computers may in principle be conscious in the fullest sense. He expressed his position clearly in The Zombic Hunch: https://dl.tufts.edu/file_assets/tufts:ddennett-2001.00004

(The painting by Steinberg to which Dennett is referring to in his paper is the following: http://pp.kpnet.fi/seirioa/cdenn/newyorkr.gif)

From my experience most philosophers, and overwhelmingly most people, who have their bearings on this subject agree with Dennett.

I would be interested to know what you think of Dennett's position after reading his paper:

a) I think that Dennett is right. Nagel just confused me for a while.
b) I think that Dennett is as blind as a bat. What on earth is going on?

  • Thank you for this very rich and interesting comment. I will need some more time to carefully read the essay by Dennett and reread the first two chapters of Nagels book, which covers I believe the question on materialism. So this is just a "precomment": Apr 23, 2017 at 8:10
  • In Chapter 2 of "The View from Nowhere" Nagel describes that the complete world is not objectively comprehensible. Physical reasoning is thereby a part of objective reasoning and what I naively describes by materialism is this physical part of objective reasoning. So showing that objective reasoning is not a complete description of the world, also shows that "materialistic" reasoning is not complete. It is important to add that he sees the mental perspectives as a part of the world as it really is, as explained on Page 18. Apr 23, 2017 at 8:24
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    Accepting this, a good example for something that cannot be fully understood objectively are mental phenomena. A mental phenomena is essentially subjective and analyzing mental phenomena so that they are revealed as part of the "external" world loses that subjectivity. Therefore objective reasoning is not complete. I hope, I understood Nagel correctly and also explained it appropriately. I accept that mental phenomena can't be reduced and everything else I said in these comments from Nagels book and hence believe "materialsim" is not correct. Apr 23, 2017 at 8:31
  • @ConstantinK, I'll read these two chapters by Nagel. Take a look here, by beautiful coincidence someone just down-voted this old question of mine and so it floated into my notifications queue: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/15460/…
    – nir
    Apr 24, 2017 at 11:03
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    For a compelling analysis of Dennett's position including later works can be found here. It basically is that a) we necessarily have to think that there is more than materialism (and hence cannot accept it beyond doubt) and b) we can explain why that has to be so in evolutionary terms and that it really could just be about processes that can be explained in materialist terms (and in that sense give reasons for materialism being a viable possibility nevertheless).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 7, 2018 at 8:48

I see that materialism is false, but I think the arguments regarding incomplete reasoning are very weak. I think the various elaborations of Kant and later those of Schopenhauer have still not been surpassed. Because these arguments or treatments of the old philosophers seem to me most effective, most robust and rigorous, I'm confounded by the fact these contemporary weaker treatments by professionals like Nagel, Dennett, and Searle etc. are taken as the serious subject of conferences and discussion. Anyhow, I haven't taken contemporary philosophy serious since I came to this conclusion about 5 years ago. The classical works really must be revisited.

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    Could be more precise? Why do you believe that Nagel's treatment is weak? What were the arguments of Kant and Schopenhauer concerning this topic? Apr 23, 2017 at 8:54
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    Forgive me for saying so, but you really have to do the reading. Confronting the great arguments and the great works and grappling with them honestly is what its all about, to me anyways. If you read these philosophers you will know why I say that the argument regarding incomplete reasoning is weak. If it was a chess problem, its as if someone were to show a mate in 5 when we've already been shown a mate in 2. In any case this is sort of why I gave up on academic philosophy: I kept encountering professors who hadn't even taken the time to read the original classical works. Unfortunate.
    – Paul
    Apr 23, 2017 at 9:03

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