History of materialism

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

5. Materialism after 1900

The extraordinary developments in physics in the twentieth century sounded the death knell of the positive ontological claims of philosophical materialism. Materialism had seen itself as the champion and defender of science, but it was science that declared the traditional ontology of materialism bankrupt. There is no void, but a pervasive, non-material gravitational field, and a pervasive and non-material electromagnetic field, and further fields for the weak and strong nuclear forces. Atoms are not indivisible and there is a bewildering array of elementary particles, and the latter are not thought of as matter extended in space but rather as excitations of fields. The particles of quantum physics can be created and destroyed, and are not always localisable. The key understanding that emerges is that concepts stemming from our ordinary language of living in a world of medium-sized physical objects are hopelessly inadequate for the task of describing the world of the very small.

Philosophical materialism was obliged to relinquish its claim to provide a theory of the nature of the world, because this task could only be undertaken successfully by experimental science. In one form or another, modern materialism handed over to science its positive component, saying that what exists is what science tells us exists. However, current science is much more than physics, and science only ever offers a provisional account of what exists. It is possible that science will at some future time claim a final theory has been reached, and that a definitive answer to the question of what exists can be given, but for the time being the fruits of scientific endeavour are provisional.

In the light of the demise of the concept of ‘matter’ from fundamental physics, most materialists now prefer the name ‘physicalism’ for the theory. As should be clear, this is more than a simple change of name.

However, modern materialists hold on to the negative claim, that there are no deities, spirits and souls, and that there is no afterlife. They argue for this in two ways – first, from a critique of the arguments offered in favour of the existence of these immaterial things, and second, from the recognition that science does not need them to explain the phenomena it investigates.

With regard to the mental phenomena of our own experience, some materialists have tried to reduce these to physical processes. They claim mental states are simply kinds of brain state. But the coherence of this view has been challenged. The alternative approach recognises the existence of mental phenomena but claims that, while they are distinct from material things, they are nevertheless wholly dependent for their existence on material things (see Epiphenomenalism; Supervenience).

Citing this article:
Brown, Robin Gordon and James Ladyman. Materialism after 1900. History of materialism, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC122-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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