physicalism allows for forces such as gravity which on the face of it are not material as say the cup of tea I have to hand. So materialism literally taken seems to be wrong.

But looking at this more closely (and taking physicalism to be correct) the cup is not material either - the reason why the cup doesn't fall through the table is due to electromagnetic forces.

Hence materialism seems to vanish altogether!

(The SEP however does allow a more expansive definition of materialism which is more or less synonymous with physicalism)

  • 2
    "The SEP however does allow a more expansive definition of materialism which is more or less synonymous with physicalism"; this is the sense in which I have always taken it.
    – Dennis
    Commented Mar 28, 2013 at 1:25
  • @dennis: so do I, at least since I understood physics. But I still find it strange when I reflect on it. Commented Mar 28, 2013 at 2:50
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    Just a few thoughts in passing :) There's a phenomenological problem about invisibility I feel like you're trying to point to -- it might be constructive to try to consider Merleau-Ponty and Husserl in this context (or maybe even Serres -- The Birth of Physics seems possibly relevant.)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Mar 28, 2013 at 3:26
  • @weissman: I think there is a phenomenal difference between materialism & physicalism. Objects at hand have a materiality that gravity for example doesn't. I'm not sure that this is phenomenological in Husserls sense. But then I don't know anything about Husserl. Commented Mar 28, 2013 at 3:31
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    "Materialism" predates the term "physicalism" and carries with it a lot of the older (now seen as inaccurate) notions of physics/physicality. The term physicalism, it seems, was an attempt to distance the emerging views of materialism from the old ones, and using a new name helped facilitate that. That said, the term materialism covers a range of distinct theories, going as far as being synonymous with the more modern "physicalist" theories. But yes, I'm sure the older materialism theories did not address the point you make, as the creators of such theories did not know about such concepts.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 19:54

3 Answers 3


Especially given what you observe about electromagnetic forces, not to mention atomic theory post 1911 (c.f. the Rutherford model) and gravity post 1916 (c.f. general relativity theory), the notion of what is "material" becomes a rather significant question. To say nothing of special relativity and the Einstein equation linking matter to energy...

I would, as a matter of practical discussion, include antimatter and energy, and in fact anything which is understood to obey mechanical laws, into the notion of what "materialism" accepts as pertinent 'substances'. It seems to me that materialism was originally presented in opposition to dualism and idealism; and inasmuch as there is any distinction between the monism of materialism and that of idealism, it is that the notion of matter following mechanical laws of motion being primary versus consciousness and/or spirit being primary as the fundamental nature of reality. Aside from taking different positions on the hard problem of consciousness, the pertinent difference is whether mechanism or intention is the most important principle of dynamics: and materialism is clearly on the side of mechanism.

Physicalism is therefore the natural modern formulation of materialism, and perhaps is best construed as an elaboration of it in which it is recognised that 'matter' was a potentially narrow description of what one ought to consider pertinent. (Though it is still perhaps feasible, if unfashionable, to try to interpret energy as merely describing kinetic behaviour and potential.)


If the question was not only about whether materialism and physicalism are the same I want to add a comment about what you said about gravity and electromagnetic forces.

Natural forces can seem non physical at first glance and I hear many people talk about them as being the invisible laws that govern the universe. But a less magical way to view it is to see that all natural laws or forces are just functions of matter. If you take away the matter the force disappear as well. Gravity and electromagnetic forces does not exist by themselves as non-physical entities, they are just a way to talk about material change as apposed to mater frozen in time (like your cup of tea).

  • Technically, the solutions to general relativity in which black holes are usually formulated actually have no matter at all. The hole itself is not material; it's merely the shape of spacetime at a certain location. We simply suppose that the equations can have similar solutions when matter is actually present nearby to the hole. Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 21:03
  • I'm not sure I know what you are saying, but the way I understand it a black hole contains a lot of matter and is only a metaphorical 'hole'. If you try to describe spacetime you must necessarily talk about matter. "The curvature of spacetime is directly related to the energy and momentum of whatever matter and radiation are present." (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_relativity) Or are you saying that "the hole" is only a "description of gravity as a geometric property" and not a real object i.e. it is just a model? (but is it not still a model which try to describe how matter is moving?)
    – Kriss
    Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 14:48
  • I mean that while black holes can arise due to the collapse of matter, one can have a pure black hole spacetime with no matter whatsoever. Since a black hole is a feature of spacetime which constrains the worldlines of matter --- specifically, it either remains forever outside or crosses the event horizon exactly once --- one should think of gravitational collapse as being merely a sufficient condition for the presence of a purely geometrical feature in spacetime. Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 15:02
  • Is this just an argument about how to define matter? i.e. is the argument saying that 'because matter in a black hole has no density it is not really a 'thing' anymore but instead spacetime'? or is it saying that black holes can form without matter?
    – Kriss
    Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 15:27
  • What does it mean for the matter to be in the black hole? It is not that it has no density; it is that what defines the black hole is its geometry and not the matter inside of it, and as the SEP link I gave you points out, you can have a black hole without matter. A black hole may be caused by matter collapsing, but the hole consists of a particular geometry of space-time. Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 15:38

Yep Agree. Materialism is a ideology. Ideology of declining all invisible (especially including God, spirit etc..). It is a simple ideology of people of 18-19th centuries, which did not know, that "materia" is, in original nature, an energy. Nuclear physics can say, hitting the table: "This table is empty space (almost), it is just an energy". Comparing distances between atom cores in a table and atom cores size could lead to such conclusion and therefore atom cores can be neglect from the material point of view. Not the same with it's energy.

Therefore all kind of simple materialism are wrong as their original postulates was wrong. But ideology of materialism is a bit wider. And ideology can be overrun just by another and (!) better ideology. Especially new clones of materialism, as dialectic m. and various socialism and communism ideologies need brand new and better explanation of specific questions raised by materialists.

Ideology respecting both, invisible internal character (as energy) and visible external form (as materia), both in balance, should appear. Also duality of all things (the plus-minus pattern) should be included. Such ideology should be acceptable by sciences and religions, otherwise new scepticism and new kind of materialism will appear.

Let's make a search for best option... My best tip is the Unification Thought, as Japanese and Latin America's communists in 1960's give strong direction not to talk with CAUSA members, giving UT lectures that time in countries where ideology of communism began to spread, which helped to collapse of communist structures in that countries. So I see that as a hammer to materialism.

  • If you wonder about the downvotes: While the question addresses how the label materialism could/should be understood in the context of the development of natural science from an epistemological point of view, your answer seems to address (polemically) dialectical/historical materialism, which is a sociological theory as well as a social doctrine. This misses the issue of the original question.
    – DBK
    Commented Apr 2, 2013 at 23:21
  • --- thats funny
    – Dee
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 7:38

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