Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Current status of Materialism

  1. Feb 8, 2010 #1
    Matrialism has been hotly debated in philosophy for millenia. In physics, up until the 20th century, it seems materialism had gained the upper hand. The 20th century physics demolished the old mechanistic ideas of the universe and replaced the fixed objects in immutable space and time with relative ones. QM and QFT seem to alienate us even further from our everyday perceptions of the world. Some of the prominent physicists of our time have gone as far as to proclaim materialism is dead(Zeilinger, Wheeler, Davies, Gotswami,...), others are still on the fence.

    Paul Davies and J.Gribbin state:

    "Many people have rejected scientific values because they regard
    materialism as a sterile and bleak philosophy, which reduces
    human beings to automata and leaves no room for free will or
    creativity. These people can take heart: materialism is dead."

    'The Matter Myth', Davies & Gribbin, p.13

    What evidence from GR, QM, QFT and candidates for a future TOE(string theory and LQG) supports Materialism? (You can also think of materialism as objects having definite properties in space and time)
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2010
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 8, 2010 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Materialism has also been incredibly successful. So some balance thinking required here.

    My position is that the mistake is to frame this as a matter of either/or. That is, either materialism and everything else (not-materialism) is wrong/ or that materialism is wrong and something else better will take its place.

    Instead, I think the correct approach would be complementary. For deep reasons, you will arrive at complementary descriptions of nature from two rival perspectives.

    Broadly speaking, one perspective is looking up from the bottom. That is starting off with the small-scale, componential, atomistic, mechanical, additive, constructive view of causation and logic.

    The other complementary view is to see the whole and so look down from the point of view of the system - of global scale constraints, of self-organisation and semiosis, of thermodynamic organisational principles, of hierarchy theory and dynamical systems theory.

    There have always been these two camps within science and philosophy, though brute materialism has for a long time enjoyed the upper hand in anglo-saxon discourse. And perhaps rightly so because it is the more immediately effective brand of modelling if your primary social purpose is building machines (systems that are brutely material rather than alive or otherwise self-organising and truly systems-like).

    Note this is also the most ancient of metaphysical dichotomies. The great set-piece debate in Plato/Aristotle's Athens was the search for the essence of reality. The question was whether it was substance or form that was the basic single "stuff" of reality.

    The answer, if you read Aristotle with sufficient care, and picked up on Plato's later comments about the chora, is that reality is both. You need both substance and form to have a reality (and as diametrically opposed concepts, they completely divide and exhaust all other intermediate possibility).

    For substance, read material. Or atoms, or components, or physical stuff....or in the modern era, information bits, the "atoms of form".

    QM and relativity did not actually kill materialism. They are both "mechanics" after all and do not really deal with systems level causality - downwards causation, the self-organisation of constraints, etc.

    Many leading physicists realise that some kind of systems or top-down causality would be needed for a more complete modelling of reality - Davies, for instance, has written well on this.

    http://www.ctnsstars.org/conferences/papers/The%20physics%20of%20downward%20causation.pdf [Broken]

    Summary - Materialism = a substance-based notion of ontology and causality.

    But there has always been substance and form as fundamental complementary categories.

    The choices are:

    1) monadism: take one or other to be true, the other wrong.

    2) dualism: take both to be true but ontically unconnected and therefore mysterious.

    3) dichotomy: take both to be true AND complementary. They are just two opposed poles of description. Standing nearer one pole (as does materialism) can be more effective for certain modelling purposes. But a complete description of reality would require a formalisation of both poles of description.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  4. Feb 8, 2010 #3


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I don't think qm killed materialism at all. Instead, it seems to show how limitless materialism can be.
  5. Feb 8, 2010 #4
    The definition is really the problem. Ever since Einstein showed that matter and energy are interchangeable, what matter is, has been elusive. One can describe the universe as different types of energy, or different types of particles. Both are useful, but neither is entirely correct.

    Materialism, in the classical sense is about particles. So its quite reasonable to say materialism is dead.
    However, that doesn't mean that its still not descriptive of what we experience, at least to a certain degree.
  6. Feb 9, 2010 #5
    None. Materialism is dead, and the truth is that there never was anything that supported it. Even Newtonian mechanics didn't actually support materialism, but rather that the material half of Descartes dualism operated deterministically.
  7. Feb 9, 2010 #6
    That'll be because you can't kill things which are already dead. :)

    http://affordablehousinginstitute.org/blogs/us/wp-content/uploads/2007/11/imagespython-dead-parrot-small.jpg [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  8. Feb 9, 2010 #7
    I've always seen materialism as an assumption in science rather than a conclusion. We observe patterns in nature which we model mathematically. Whether these patterns are fundamentally mental or physical (or something else) is not addressed.
  9. Feb 9, 2010 #8


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    I agree.

    Science as a pragmatic process does not include any philosophical stance.

    In my view, newever theories has only changed how "material" can be defined. However, this is not in support of materialism. Materialism is more similar to a religious stance than a purely philosophical one. Materialism is in no way "deduced".
  10. Feb 10, 2010 #9
    175 hits and no evidence from modern physics supporting materialism? I am well aware that there are no particles as such in what we observe as matter, and the random nature of quantum phenomena. It appears there is a consensus and experimental evidence that anything can take place given enough time in a reality like ours. Here is a quote by Alvaro de Rujula of Cern, who was involved in writing a safety report:

    "Besides, the random nature of quantum physics means that there is always a minuscule, but nonzero, chance of anything occurring, including that the new collider could spit out man-eating dragons."

    Science is entirely rooted in materialsim, so is there and could there be a natural explanation for the human experience? And what is physics describing? A world of objects or...
  11. Feb 10, 2010 #10
    Depends what "natural" means.
  12. Feb 11, 2010 #11
    I don't know. It seems to me there is good consensus among physicists that the effect of quantum tunneling used in electron microscopes(and most of the other quantum effects), strongly suggest that electrons, quarks and atoms aren't material objects at all(the fact that that guy from CERN uses the same rhetoric appears to confirm my suspicions). Seems to me, it's no longer justified to use the multiverse as an escape route from supernatural origins, as the multiverse we propose is itself material(not mere potentials of observing material objects).
  13. Feb 11, 2010 #12
    I still don't know what you mean by "natural" and "supernatural".

    Is Paul Davies a supernaturalist?

    Materialism is dead, but skeptical naturalism and atheism live on.

    Were Nietzsche and Sartre supernaturalists?
  14. Feb 11, 2010 #13

    I already said i have no idea. If the material world of objects in space and time, exists only in our brains(which are themselves not material in the traditional sense any more), this changes the paradigm completely. It seems, since the solid world of our perception has evaporated from the minds of physicsts, then we know nothing about origins any more. Let me answer in a philosophical way to your question above with another question - what is natural and what is supernatural in a non-materialistic universe?

    He is a deist, it seems to me he finds his idea of god, a natural one. That would depend entirely on what is meant by 'natural', as you have pointed out, but this is going offtopic.

    No but i don't really understand Sartre's belief that the self is transcendental and doesn't require a creator, since its existence precedes essence. Sounds like the weak anthropic principle which i find to be a circular statement.
  15. Feb 11, 2010 #14

    Not agreed. Does Bell's theorem falsify evolution by natural selection?

    Let's say Quantum Berkeleyan Idealism is true. The "noumenal-material" world is replaced by ideas in the mind of God. In God's ideas, electrons can be in more than one place at the same time. However, in this version of QBI, the world behaves exactly as a materialist thinks it ought to - which is another way of saying that there is no way for human consciousness, free will, God or anything else to load the quantum dice, there is just a cosmic random number generator. This version of QBI is causally indistinguishable from deterministic-random materialism and therefore naturalistic.

    Supernaturalism comes in two flavours. The first is all-out physical-law-busting madness, like young earth creationism and David Icke's dimension-flipping shape-shifting reptilian aliens. This involves radical and unpredictable suspensions of the classical laws of physics. The second only "breaks" probabilistic laws which can't really be "broken" in the classical sense. It restricts the supernatural to the highly improbable, but not actually requiring blatant breaches of the laws of physics (e.g. free will, karma, synchronicity and some types of old-earth creationism.)

    I find Sartre pretty incomprehensible myself. The only point is that you don't have to be a materialist to be a skeptical atheist.
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2010
  16. Feb 11, 2010 #15
    All by itself no, Bell's theorem doesn't attempt to answer what reality is(only what it is not). Let's see what might lie ahead - String Theory suggests the universe is a projection(a 2D hologram) and LQG hasn't made a clear statement beyond spacetime being a phenomenon caused by the interaction of tiny loops AFAIK. So, does a holographic universe not carry a significant load of philosophical ramifications for origins? I would argue that it does and that it has ramifications that reach far beyond natural selection.

    That would be a damn good quantum generator if it can create what we observe from mere quantum potentials.

    My point is that in a non-material universe(that has no objects existing in space and time), anything can take place(as seen in that quote by Alvaro de Rujula of CERN). How do we tell apart natural from supernatural? He seems to be saying that anything can take place, given enough time. And as far as i can see, experimental evidence(electron microscopes and such) prove his point that quantum 'particles' don't have a definite position. So what is natural and what is supernatural in such a..., well, reality?
  17. Feb 12, 2010 #16
    What ramifications?

    All I am seeing is "materialism is false, therefore anything is possible!" I do not believe this is the case. Young-Earth creationism doesn't seem any more likely. Climate change hasn't stopped. What are these ramifications? I'm not saying they do not exist, just that you need to be clearer about what you are actually saying. I have no intention of allowing YEC to use the failure of materialism as an excuse to peddle its nonsense.


    Anything at all? Flying pigs? I think you are taking his quote too literally.

    THAT reality isn't the one we experience. We experience a classical world where there are limits on what happens. Those limits are described by the Newtonian-Einsteinian physical laws and I have no reason to believe they will ever be breached - at least not by any significant margin under "normal conditions" (not right next to a black hole).
  18. Feb 12, 2010 #17


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    bah! From a materialistic perspective, all that's really happened is that materials have been found to have cooler properties.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  19. Feb 12, 2010 #18
    I think the problem is worse than that. None of the interpretations of quantum mechanics actually works. By that I mean that although all of them are empirically equal, none of them take into account all of the things we want them to take into account without leading to paradoxes, absurdities, etc...
  20. Feb 12, 2010 #19
    Is there a natural explanation for a holographic universe?

    It seems really hard to say what is possible and what impossible. As far as i am aware, QM and QFT allow only a probability to be assigned, not certainty of events. There is very likely an underlying reality that affects those probability that we see(why else would the SE work at all, if that were not the case?).

    Well, certainly, some ideas seem so ridiculous. Yet, at the end of the day, we too don't know what we are talking about, do we?

    I am sure he means it literally(given enough time). I am sure an HIV virus can tunnel from within a condom and appear on the other side without actually going through the rubber barrier. The probability for this happening is probably 1:1 000 000 000 or less, but ask over in the quantum forum, it is actually possible. There is a vast difference between extremely unlikely and impossible.

    But they can be breached. Ask about EPR, the possibility for a virus to tunnel, quantum teleportation, etc(relativity and qm are already united in QFT). If QM is right, which seems to be the case for every experiment ever performed, then the universe is crazy. Hence why all interpretations sound insane. Is a universe that splits at every quantum interaction natural? Or one that is purely relational? Seems like we need to first define what we mean by 'natural' in light of the new discoveries.
    And as i said earlier in the thread, i have no idea how to separate events into natural and supernatural, because my brain doesn't really understand the reality that contemporary physics describes. And unless i somehow start to comprehend it(though probably nobody on the planet does), i'd rather leave this question open.
  21. Feb 12, 2010 #20
    Is there a natural explanation for any sort of universe? What difference does it make what its made of? Something supernatural about holograms?

    Then how can you ask questions like "is there a natural explanation for X?"...?

    You have no meaning for the word "natural", therefore the question is meaningless. You are really asking "Is there any material explanation for a holographic universe?" Well...no. Should there be?
    Last edited: Feb 12, 2010
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook