This is practically a climate of many of my questions, and it's a simple question with possibly many complex answers, so I'd like to know what you will answer. Please note this in your answers:

A) I'm mainly focusing on 20th+ century science.

B) This is highly related to scientism.

I would like to say that I have heard that String Theory does make waves in the scientific community about this subject, so if you'd like to note this as well it'd be helpful.

Edit: I have now discovered I completely misunderstood my own question, and should rephrase "materialism" to "mechanism". Should I ask that in a different question or rewrite the title of this one?

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    – user2953
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 6:22

3 Answers 3


A relevant distinction here is between "ontological materialism" and "methodological materialism" (compare the discussion in the SEPh article on "naturalism"). Ontological materialism is the claim that only matter exists. (I'm assuming you're using "matter" in a broad sense that includes the kinds of energy and fields studied by physics. Otherwise early twentieth century field theories are already incompatible with materialism! Given this assumption, string theory and the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics are both entirely compatible with ontological materialism.) Methodological materialism is roughly the claim that we should investigate reality by focusing on things made out of matter. Ontological materialism requires methodological materialism; but methodological materialism is compatible with the existence of non-material stuff.

Methodological materialism fits well with the view that Stephen Jay Gould called "non-overlapping magisteria": science and religion are concerned with different issues, aspects, or components of reality, and therefore there's no logic conflict between traditional religion and evolution by natural selection. However, some theologically conservative philosophers — most notably Alvin Plantinga — still argued against methodological naturalism. Presumably Plantinga's arguments would also apply to methodological materialism. Of course, ontological materialism is flatly incompatible with most if not all traditional religions.

Moti Mizrahi distinguishes "strong" and "weak" senses of "scientism." Strong scientism is the claim that "Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the only 'real knowledge.'" Weak scientism is the claim that "Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge." A view like ontological materialism seems to point strongly towards strong scientism — if only matter exists, it's hard to see how anything other than scientific knowledge could be real knowledge. Methodological materialism is compatible with both kinds of scientism, and could be consistent with the rejection of weak scientism depending on exactly how it's understood. Specifically, if methodological materialism says that "we should investigate material things" but doesn't proscribe how we should investigate them, then some non-scientific forms of knowledge (perhaps traditional ecological knowledge) could be just as good as scientific knowledge.

So, all together, ontological materialism fits tightly with a rejection of religion and strong scientism, while methodological materialism can be compatible with both traditional religion and non-scientific forms of knowledge.

  • Isn't traditional ecological knowledge scientific in the broad sense? If some early man ate some purple berries and then died, and this knowledge is passed on, then this is a crude form of science. Sometimes the "studies" are flawed, due to small experimental samples (what if the man in questions died because he had allergies that others don't), but it's still a form of science. Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 10:11
  • With that kind of very low threshold for "science," TEK might indicate count as "scientific knowledge." But then it's hard to see how any kind of empirical knowledge wouldn't count as "scientific." If we consider the social institutions of science — formal training and credentials, peer review and publication, some degree of transparency and reflexivity about data and methods — then TEK looks like a very distinct epistemic tradition.
    – Dan Hicks
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 22:29

I would argue that science has reached the point where it makes it quite difficult to embrace realistic materialism. The boundary around what is considered physical has expanded constantly over time, ans is now well beyond what previous generations would have considered material.

We have field effects and warped space and necessary indeterminacy, none of which are really in tune with the notion that the world is truly material. I cannot see this do anything but continue to grow, with reality on other scales seeming less and less like the pedestrian middle ground that forms our basic ideas of what is material or mechanical.

To believe that there is something going on that we will never be able to capture in material terms is not a problem for any modern physicist. When you have begun discussing the imaginary dimension of time as a complex number, you are not talking about anything material. You are inventing contrivances that might provide better predictive power, but obviously are not meant to appeal to our natural sense of material reality.

Since Popper pointed out what makes genuine science succeed, and pseudoscience fail, the real question for people questioning science is really whether prediction is the right approach to validating knowledge. Does power consist only in a certain form of control, or is there a distinct underlying intuition that remains necessary? Is thinking basically a neo-Liberal Capitalist endeavor which chooses the ideas that optimize our overall return on investment?

I think that question is answered by the existence of moral sentiment. 'Right' has nothing to do with 'effective' at a certain juncture: We know it is wrong to kill off all the stupid people, even if that would be a vast improvement to the world. And if we want to maintain that perspective, science won't help.

But having a minimum example is not much use. We need a real sense on the boundary around 'productive mythology' in the sense of C.S. Lewis's Christian Apologetics. And we need it freed of religion and injected into secular philosophy in some way.

  • "the boundary around what is considered physical has expanded constantly over time" - so, as far as I know (correct me if I'm wrong), also materialism has. Your other points are excellent. Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 16:37
  • And what is wrong with that one? Materialism has a definition, it is not infinitely flexible. You can fall back upon 'physicalism' and then fall back further, but no, the definition of what can be considered material really is limited for most people.
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 19:25
  • I was trying to say that materialism catches up with pysicalism. And honestly, I haven't heard of a physical concept that can't be described as material. Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 11:56
  • OK, you have heard the example I gave. The imaginary part of the complex value of time can be interpreted as material? It is part of Hawking's physical explanation of the Big Bang and entropy. If you want something with a better pedigree, how is curved space material?
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 22:27
  • yes I agree with you, see the edit to my question. I have been mistaken in the term I used, you made me realize that. Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 5:48

Recall, materialism was contrasted with idealism -- the view that logic, experiences, and abstractions like math, are the base material of the universe.

No, Science does not force us to embrace materialism. The opposite is the case. Science has REFUTED materalism.

This was done most dramatically by Einstien, who showed 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.

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