philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Electronic Philosopher

Feature Articles

University of London BA

Philosophy Lovers Gallery

PhiloSophos Home

International Society for Philosophers

Materialism vs immaterialism and the role of physics


To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Materialism vs immaterialism and the role of physics
Date: 3 August 2006 14:51

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 25 July, with your fourth essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'What is matter? Does the physicist's account of the nature of matter have a significant role to play in the philosophical dispute between the materialist and the immaterialist?'

I liked the way you expressed this point: 'Why is Stephen Hawking not a great metaphysician? Because his work is neither the subject matter or the method of metaphysics. In metaphysics, we look for general truths about any possible world that were being given long before modern physics was even heard of. As brilliant and thrilling as Hawking's work is, it doesn't try to break loose from the mundane.'

For shorthand, let's call Hawkings' theory the 'super-string theory'. Why can't super-strings be part of the 'subject matter' of metaphysics? The argument would go something like this. Super-strings (whatever they are) are part of a model of the cosmos put forward to explain observations and experimental results, or reconcile theories which themselves have been put forward to explain observations and experiments. The observations are the same, whether you are a materialist, or an immaterialist. The explanation or the theory - in some sense - must be the same also. Of course, something is different too - the framework within which you view both the observations and the theory.

Metaphysics seeks to understand - to 'define' - the framework, the notion of 'reality', or the concepts of existence and truth. Its methods are necessarily different because the appeal to observation or the results of experiment doesn't work.

What you said about Ying and Yang suggests that maybe metaphysicians are too stuck on defending this theory or that, rather than on seeing how reality can have different aspects or be seen in different ways. There is something in this that I want to agree with - that often in metaphysics we come across false dichotomies, where one is asked, or commanded, to either 'believe this' or 'believe that', when in fact both alternatives turn out to be false, and the truth lies in an overlooked alternative that one hadn't even considered. This is argued at the end of the program where I look at the 'antinomy' between transcendental and non-transcendental idealism.

However, there is another sense in which I would resist the 'Ying and Yang' view, in its implication that materialism and immaterialism could both be *right*. The alternative to the view of the metaphysician as rejecting false dichotomies and finding overlooked alternatives, is the view of the metaphysician rejecting false dichotomies by finding a synthesis between the two views. There is less about this in the program because I don't have any good examples. The 'dialectic' is negative, because it proceeds backwards, by rejecting rather than forward by 'accepting' or synthesising.

- Maybe there is room here for psychological reflection on the mind set of different kinds of metaphysician?

There has been a development in physics recently, where some physicists have begun to call themselves 'experimental metaphysicians'. The story as I heard it goes something like this: The theory of relativity is not just an empirically better supported theory than Newtonian mechanics. It also possesses the additional virtue of according better with certain very general principles of 'symmetry'. The perfect or ultimate physical theory would be one which was derived purely from consideration of symmetry principles.

If this could be done - and if this means explaining, among other things why the big bang banged - then we would have a theory which had been derived purely a priori, a 'science of metaphysics' in Kant's sense. Would this be metaphysics in our sense? I would rather say, that this showed that physics ultimately reduced, without remainder, to mathematics.

All the best,