History of materialism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC122-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 15, 2021, from

1. Challenges to philosophical materialism

Philosophical materialism is open to two distinct kinds of challenge.

The first kind of challenge questions the adequacy of materialism to account for all the things that exist. The simple expression of materialism above clearly runs into immediate difficulties, because there are many things that are not material yet seem to have a very strong claim to be things that genuinely exist. These things are of different sorts.

First, properties and relations like velocity of a body in motion seem to clearly exist without being material things. In response to this objection, the materialist can develop the theory to grant existence not only to material things, but also to features of the world that depend wholly for their existence on material things. By this extension of the theory velocity would be recognised as existing, but also an account of the existence of phenomena like Love and Courage may be possible.

Second, it may be argued that the number 2 exists, and in arithmetic there is a theorem that states ‘There are infinitely many prime numbers’ – seemingly a true ontological statement contradicting materialism. However, the materialist will deny that the purported existence of numbers has any relevance to the ontological issue that materialism is aiming to address. If numbers have existence, it is only in a most abstract form. They cannot be ‘found’ anywhere in space-time, and while they can be thought about, they are also evidently not psychological entities. Many materialists deny that numbers exist in any meaningful sense, but even if they are granted some kind of existence, it is of a radically different kind of existence from that of concern to materialists.

Third, and most important, critics of materialism claim that the theory cannot possibly give an adequate account of psychological phenomena. There have been widely differing responses to this challenge from materialists. Eliminative materialism makes the startling claim that thoughts, and psychological phenomena generally, do not in fact exist at all (see Belief and knowledge). The mainstream of materialist thought, however, recognises that the existence of psychological phenomena presents the greatest challenge to the theory. Having said that, some materialists, while acknowledging the dubious adequacy of their account of psychological phenomena, point also to the inadequacy of non-materialist accounts of psychological phenomena: the mental world presents a problem for all philosophical theories.

More positively, Mind-Brain identity theory (see Mind, identity theory of) seeks to apply the concept of reduction to the analysis of psychological phenomena, thereby pulling the psychological into the material realm (O’Connor 1969). In the early twenty-first century, the alternative and dominant approach has been to recognise the existence of psychological phenomena, but to claim that their existence is, as in the case of velocity, though in a different way, wholly dependent on material things. One important claim in this strand of materialism is that human psychology is wholly dependent on the human body as a living organism, so that on the death of the organism, nothing psychological could possibly survive.

The second kind of challenge questions the ethics of materialism, claiming it is an immoral theory in so far as it encourages people to live purely for pleasure, and ignore responsibilities to live moral and honourable lives.

The materialist response is that there is no necessary connection between an ontological theory and an ethical perspective on how to live life. In any case, when it comes to the ethical teachings of the materialists, their views on the pursuit of pleasure have been grossly misrepresented. For example, the materialist Epicurus believed people should pursue pleasure, but believed that pleasure could only arise from a virtuous life. Far from encouraging excess, he lived frugally and thought a primary requirement of a happy life was friendship.

Citing this article:
Brown, Robin Gordon and James Ladyman. Challenges to philosophical materialism. History of materialism, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC122-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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