Is Physicalism on the Ropes?

What is mind? Never matter. What is matter? Never mind! – attributed to Eighteenth Century philosopher George Berkeley

Is reality wholly material, or are some real things non-material? Theists and atheists tend to answer this question rather differently. This issue also ties into the mind-body problem. Is the mind part of the brain? Is it separate from the body, perhaps some sort of immaterial soul? Or is it both material and non-material, and if that’s true how do these two components interact with each other?

For several decades most philosophers have found it rather obvious that all realities are physical. One way to think of physicalism is to imagine an all-powerful creator “laying out all the microphysical phenomena throughout the universe. Having done so, and having settled all the microphysical properties of those phenomena along with the basic microphysical laws, God did not then have to ask Himself ‘Shall I make lightning flashes or caterpillars or mountains or human beings?’ No further work was needed on His part.” (Michael Tye, Consciousness Revisited: Materialism without Phenomenal Concepts, pp. 25-26)

Tye is not advocating theism in this passage. It is fairly common for philosophers to invoke the concept of God in a metaphorical sense, to highlight some conceptual issue, and Tye is using the God-concept to clarify what physicalism is all about. By making all the particles of the cosmos and deciding how they would interact, a Creator would have ensured that lightning flashes, caterpillars, etc. would also exist.

But we aren’t so sure when it comes to consciousness. Some would suggest that: “Even if God had no further work to do in determining whether there would be a tree in place p or a river in place q or a neuron-firing in place r, say, having settled all the microphysical facts,” if God wanted to make sure that humans had conscious experiences, “God did have more work to do” (p. 31).

This issue has been hotly debated in academic circles, especially since the 1970s. Thomas Nagel, Frank Jackson, David Chalmers, Joseph Levine and many others have offered arguments suggesting that it seems odd or even impossible for consciousness to be physically constituted.

Most of those who question the coherence of physicalism still think all of reality is material. We just aren’t sure how to make sense of this fact when it comes to mental processes. Jerry Fodor puts it bluntly: “Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious. So much for the philosophy of consciousness.” (http://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/eb4.html)

This tide of criticism seems to be rising. In 2010 Oxford University Press published The Waning of Materialism, edited by Robert Koons and George Bealer. Some of the 23 contributors advocate substance dualism: mind and matter are two very different kinds of stuff.

I’m sharing this information because atheists and agnostics sometimes assume that anyone who questions physicalism is an idiot. But there are sophisticated reasons for challenging the materialist paradigm. I’m exploring this issue in my current book-in-progress. More about that later.

Roger Christan Schriner

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One thought on “Is Physicalism on the Ropes?

  1. “… atheists and agnostics sometimes assume that anyone who questions physicalism is an idiot.”

    An atheist here. I don’t believe those advocating substance dualism (e.g.) are idiots, merely unpersuasive. I’d be interested in an exchange, here or on atheologically.blogspot.com, going through some of the points you find most worth pursuing from The Waning of Materialism.

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