Materialism Philosophy (A brief guide)

In this guide, we will discuss “Materialism Philosophy”, the difference between materialism and physicalism, materialism and dualism, types of materialism distinguished by departures from the paradigm, Materialism and their view about psychological properties and additional related concepts.

What is Materialism Philosophy?

Materialism philosophy, sometimes known as physicalism, is the view that suggests that facts are causally dependent upon physical processes, they can even be reduced to them. The term materialism has been used thoroughly to refer to a family of metaphysical theories and as indicated by the Britannica encyclopedia, “can best be defined by saying that a theory tends to be called materialist if it is felt sufficiently to resemble a paradigmatic theory that will here be called mechanical materialism.”

In other words, materialism or physicalism indicates that everything is physical or everything supervenes on the physical. The central thesis is intended as a metaphysical thesis,  where the general idea is that the nature of our world conforms to the condition of being physical. However, physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain items that don’t seem physical at first, for instance, items of biological or physiological nature. But they argue that these items, at the end of the day, are physical.

This view explains human behaviour in physical terms, meaning there are no minds separate from the brain and there are no souls or spirits. According to R. Vitzthum, “For those who hold the position of materialism, there is the need to account for the existence of such entities as emotions and thoughts as physical events in the brains of humans.  The Neurosciences have made considerable progress in establishing such entities as physical.”

Beginnings of Materialism

If we talk about the history of materialism philosophy, we need to go as far back as the Greek and Roman civilizations. For instance, Thales of Miletus (c.580 BCE) along with other pre-socratic philosophers have been regarded as being materialists. However, this tradition is really said to begin with Leucippus and Democritus who were Greek philosophers who were born back in the 5th Century BCE.

Democritus suggested that the world consists of nothing but atoms in empty space. Even if the atoms can be imperceptibly small, they can still interact either by impact or by hooking together.  As indicated by Britannica:

“The great beauty of atomism was its ability to explain the changes in things as due to changes in the configurations of unchanging atoms. The view may be contrasted with that of the earlier philosopher Anaxagoras, who thought that when, for example, the bread that a person eats is transformed into human flesh, this must occur because the bread itself already contains hidden within itself the characteristics of flesh.”

Materialism vs Physicalism

The term or word materialism, unlike the word physicalism, is very old. Physicalism was first introduced as a philosophical concept in the 1930s by Otto Neurath (1931) and Rudolf Carnap (1959/1932). 

Some philosophers may argue that even if physicalism and materialism are interchangeable concepts, they seem to be different. As the word materialism has indicated throughout time, ‘everything was matter’, matter being conceived as an ‘inert and senseless substance’.  But the term physics has shown that not everything is matter, for instance, let’s consider gravitational forces which are physical but not material in the traditional sense.

Materialism vs Dualism

Philosophers believe that something is material if and only if it is spatial, extended in space. The construct ‘material’ includes the view that everything that exists is extended in space, as mentioned, and nothing nonspatial exists.

Materialism Philosophy (A brief guide)

However, as indicated by the dictionary of Philosophy of Mind, “The problem is that the relevant notion of spatial extension may depend on the very notion of material in need of elucidation. If there is such dependence, conceptual circularity hampers the proposed characterization of materialism. The main worry here is that the notion of spatial extension is actually the notion of something’s being extended in physical space, or the notion of something’s being physically extended.”

However, how could we talk about something purely spiritual? Well, materialists argue that it seems conceivable that something such a spiritual being can have a temporal extension, in virtue of extending over time, even if it lacks extension in physical space. This means it is not contradictory if we have something that is temporally extended but it is not a ‘body’ per se.

Types distinguished by departures from the paradigm

  • The matter is conceived by modern physics as being made up of things such as electrons, protons and mesons, which differ from the concept elucidated by mechanical materialism of the hard and massy particles matter is made of.
  • There is a distinction between matter and energy. Just as indicated by Britannica, “It is, therefore, natural to extend the word materialist beyond the above paradigm case (of mechanical materialism) to cover anyone who bases his theory on whatever it is that physics asserts ultimately to exist. This sort may be called physicalistic materialism.”
  • Another departure from this paradigm indicates that everything is composed of material particles or physical entities, such as living cells or brains, which can’t be reduced to the laws that apply to the fundamental physical entities.

Materialism and their view about psychological properties

Materialists don’t seem to share a uniform point of view in regards to the nature of psychological properties such as the properties of being a belief, being a desire or being a sensory experience. Moreover, they do not indicate that “every psychological property is equivalent or identical to a conjunction of physical properties”, However, proponents of reductive materialism may support this view.

In contrast, non-reductive materialists affirm that psychological properties can be represented even in an immaterial world. We can include functionalists about the mind who suggest that psychological properties differ from those inherent to material properties.

 Materialism and the mind

Materialists have always had difficulty when explaining psychological phenomena such as thoughts, beliefs, desires, intentions, among other similar terms. 

Ancient civilizations have used the terms spirit or soul to refer to the ‘mind’. But how does materialism seem to explain mental states? Well, for starters, eliminative materialism denies the existence of psychological states or phenomena as the ones we have mentioned before (‘folk psychology’). For instance, they couldn’t talk about how someone could be experiencing pain or joy but will include concepts as neural states instead. 

Another materialist or physicalist theory of the mind is philosophical behaviourism. According to theorists, psychological states are logically equivalent to ‘dispositions’ of our behaviour. For instance, the pain would not be conceived as a subjective reality but only the human tendency to wince or cry. There seems to be a strong connection between mental states and behaviour, leading us back to the concept of ‘dispositions’ we talked about earlier.

This means that ‘being in pain’ is simply a disposition to certain behaviours such as crying or wincing or ‘being happy’ is the disposition to behaviours such as laughing or smiling. However, in practice, the mind and the mental states seem to involve a more complex and broadened explanation than talking merely about ‘dispositions’. 

Why is this blog about Materialism Philosophy important?

As we have discussed, materialism philosophy, sometimes also known as physicalism is the view that suggests that facts are causally dependent upon physical processes, they can even be reduced to them. Also, we talked about the history of materialism philosophy but many philosophers have managed to transform the concept of materialism that was conceived by the Greeks and Romans many years ago.

We also explored how there seems to be a difference between materialism and physicalism, even if the terms are used sometimes as if they represent the same concept. Finally, we talked about how materialism understands the concept of the ‘mind’. As discussed, Materialists have always had difficulty when explaining psychological phenomena such as thoughts, beliefs, desires, intentions, among other similar terms. However, let’s consider that the explanation seems to leave out a far more complex explanation about how psychological phenomena manifest.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Materialism Philosophy

What is the philosophy of materialism?

The philosophy of materialism suggests that matter is the fundamental substance, not only in nature and all the things in it but also in mental states and our consciousness, which are also considered material interactions.  Moreover, materialism is closely related to physicalism which is the view that all that exists in the world is ultimately physical.

What is an example of materialism?

Materialism is the philosophy that explains everything in terms of matter.  An example of materialism could be explaining love in terms of matter since it is an abstract concept that can be materialized through things such as jewellery, clothes, a car, etc. however, we could think about other abstract concepts that could potentially be materialized such as happiness or friendship.

Who is the founder of materialism?

Democritus is said to be the founder of materialism tradition in western philosophy, a Greek philosopher born in the 5th century. However, Thales of Miletus and some of the other pre-socratic philosophers are also said to be regarded as materialists.

What does Marx mean by materialism?

For Marx, materialism has an objective reality independent of mind or spirit and the material world is perceptible to the senses. Materialists such as Marx didn’t deny the reality of mental or spiritual processes but they affirmed that ideas could arise.

What is wrong with materialism?

Living a materialistic life will give you a sense of false happiness, have shallow and unmeaningful relationships, we will come across as superficial, unfriendly, unlikable, selfish, and less empathetic which can fill us with resentment, anxiety and depression. However, if we see it from a philosophical perspective then it seems to be a more complex point of view. 

References 

Vitzthum, R. (n.d.) Chapter 4: Metaphysics. Materialism. Retrieved from qcc.cuny.edu.

Carswell, J.J (2020, Jul.) Materialism Philosophy. Retrieved from britannica.com.

Plato.stanford.edu: “Physicalism”

Sites.google.com: “Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind: Materialism”

Philips, M. (n.d.) What is Materialism? Retrieved from philosophynow.org.

Khan, F. (2017, Apr.) Can Materialism Explain the Mind? Retrieved from Renovatio.zaytuna.edu

Materialism Philosophy (A brief guide)

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.