Philosophy Word of the Day – Physicalism

Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical. The thesis is usually intended as a metaphysical thesis, parallel to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales’s thesis that everything is water, or the idealism of the 18th Century philosopher Berkeley, that everything is mental. The general idea is that the nature of the actual world (i.e. the universe and everything in it) conforms to a certain condition, the condition of being physical. Of course, physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don’t seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are wholly physical.

Physicalism is sometimes known as materialism. Historically, materialists held that everything was matter — where matter was conceived as “an inert, senseless substance, in which extension, figure, and motion do actually subsist” (Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, par. 9). The reason for speaking of physicalism rather than materialism is to abstract away from this historical notion, which is usually thought of as too restrictive — for example, forces such as gravity are physical but it is not clear that they are material in the traditional sense (Dijksterhuis 1961, Yolton 1983). It is also to emphasize a connection to physics and the physical sciences. Indeed, physicalism is unusual among metaphysical doctrines in being associated historically with a commitment both to the sciences and to a particular branch of science, namely physics.

(Via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Given that physicalism, and naturalism more generally, is the reigning orthodoxy today in higher education and in large pockets of our culture, it’s helpful to keep in mind that none of these worldviews are verifiable by science, or deducible from science.  Instead, these are philosophical approaches to science, which will have to gain their justification from philosophical arguments.  Many today mistakenly believe that physicalism (and naturalism, scientism, etc.) just somehow immediately follows from the scientific method or experiments in a laboratory.  But, that’s a misunderstanding, and quite false.

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32 thoughts on “Philosophy Word of the Day – Physicalism

  1. If psi is still there, you might want to look at Bernardo Kastrup’s writing (see If the brain is an image appearing in consciousness (and this is consistent with virtually all scientific data, then whether or not brain activity correlates with mind or has an effect on it is irrelevant with regard to physicalism. Physicalism is not necessary because it’s a completely meaningless word that explains nothing.

    “The term physical is just kind of like an honorific word, kind of like the word ‘real’ when we say ‘the real truth’. It doesn’t add anything, it just says ‘this is serious truth’. So to say that something is ‘physical’ today just means ‘you’ve got to take this seriously’. […] As soon as we come to understand anything, we call it ‘physical’ ” Noam Chomsky, Linguist, Philosopher & Cognitive Scientist

    “What is the Natural world? Many people equate it with the physical world… So we’ve got physical space, time, matter, energy… That pretty much well should do it, right? The problem with ‘physical’, is the very notion of the category, because the category of the ‘physical’ is a moving target, and it is moving now. A crucial element here that is often overlooked is that the demarcation between physical and non-physical is created by human beings. Nature didn’t whisper into the ear of a physics department at MIT ‘this is the real definition’! Is a probability function physical? Is a mathematical description of an electromagnetic field physical? Is dark matter physical? How about dark energy? How about the laws of physics? So what does the word physical even mean anymore? What we know is it’s become very ethereal and what we know is there is no consensus.” – B. Alan Wallace, physicist & philosopher, author of “Hidden Dimensions” & “Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic

    • What “physical” really means, then, is clear – it’s a dogmatic, faith based statement characteristic of the desperate attempts of members of a cult trying to avoid any remote possibility that mind or consciousness may play a fundamental, causal role in the universe.

      In other words, anyone who associates physicalism with science has no idea what science really is (yes, I’m including Hawking, Weinberg, Feynmann and others. They may be brilliant technicians but if they believe in physicalism they’re cultish fools).

  2. Pingback: Top Posts of 2009 « Cloud of Witnesses

  3. Psi,

    You said,

    “The point I am making is that claims that evidence doesn’t rule out your claim is very different from having supporting evidence.”

    Yes, I agree. But what I presented was supporting evidence for the belief that consciousness is non-physical, which supports the first person experience of mystics that, again, consciousness is non-physical. Of course they say more than that about their experience as well, but as far as physicalism gets it wrong their testimony gains credibility. And as Goetz argues, there may be more reasons to consider first person perspectives than physicalism has led us to believe. After all, without doing so in the first place we can’t do science.

    But enough and best wishes to you as well. I also learned something from the discussion.

  4. Hi Swarmi,

    Have you ever played that game with your kids were you make some silly assertion and they have to try to catch you out and you have to come up with ever more silly justifications as to why you assertion is true anyway.

    A bit like Sagan’s dragon in his garage essay maybe?

    The point I ma making is that claims that evidence doesn’t rule out your claim is very different from having supporting evidence.

    For example I can claim that you are wrong about consciouness as it is all done by Leprechauns, I can point out that you can prove it isn’t and that this claim is totally consistent with a correspondence between brain and mind.

    – – –

    You did comment that;
    “Thus science does not tell us conclusively that there is no non-physcical reality.”

    Well no one has claimed it does and anyway I find it very revealing that you resort to this tactic after I pointed out that your “evidence” doesn’t support your claim (you now confirm that it is consistent with it rather than supporting).

    I also didn’t say that your claims were contradicted by the one to one correspondence between mind and brain – just that they are not supported and in fact seem to leave the “magical” bit of your own view unnecessary.

    Anyway, I am afraid that we are going around in circles now.

    Thanks for engaging, it’s always interesting to have pleasant discussion with folks I don’t agree with and I have certainly learned something.

    Best regards,


  5. I don’t think we started with out of body experiences, but rather with the idea that physicalism is not the conclusion of science, but rather an interpretation of scientific data that has been pushed strongly as if it were science itself. Thus science does not tell us conclusively that there is no non-physcical reality.

    My understanding is that you believe that there is nothing other than the physical and you would like to see evidence in support of the belief that there is something else out there. I just gave you some but you seem to have misunderstood it. At least that is what it seems from your remark.

    The paper I cited that you read

    “posits that the mind (the psychological world, the first-person perspective) and the brain (which is part of the ‘‘physical’’ world, the third-person perspective) represent two epistemologically and ontologically distinct domains that can interact because they are complementary aspects of the same underlying reality. . . mind (including consciousness) represents an irreducible and fundamental aspect of our world.”

    Now that is what I believe as well. And so do the mystics. They believe that they are experiencing themselves as consciousness and that they/it are non-physical.

    So, no, it did not take you long to read the link, but you might need to read it again to catch the implications of the research stated in the conclusion. It demonstrates that physicalism runs contrary to the evidence presented in the research paper. You wanted evidence . . .

    I think you also misunderstood my other comment about downward causality. What I was saying was that a person who believes that consciousness is ontologically different from matter takes as a given the fact that there will be correspondence between brain and mind. Thus evidence that the brain corresponds with the mind is of little consequence to him or her. But evidence that consciousness is causal rather than caused is not at all a given for physicalists. Indeed, it runs entirely contrary to their belief.

    Thus when a physicalist cites evidence of mind brain correspondence to refute the idea that the two are not ontologically different substances, this obviously does not impress one who believes otherwise because he or she already knew that, and such evidence does not run contrary to his or her belief.

  6. Wow that didn’t take long did it.

    I can’t see anything to do with a soul or spirit in there at all.

    Are you under the impression that I don’t think that the “mind” exists?

    That’s not the case. I just think that the mind comes from the brain doing what it does.

    Are we getting anywhere with this?

    We started with claims of out of body experiences didn’t we?



  7. Hi Swami,

    Going to try it again now but couldn’t resist pointing this out;

    “Evidence for downward causation should arguably be taken more seriously than evidence for correlation between brain and mind because in any argument for substance dualism the latter is a given, whereas in naturalism the former is not.”

    That’s not how logic or science works.

    Just because you hypothesis assumes that your hypothesis is true, doesn’t make it true.

    Or are you trying to say something else?



  8. psi,

    The link just worked for me. Try it again.

    If not, try cutting and pasting it in your browser or in a secondary browser.

    Evidence for downward causation should arguably be taken more seriously than evidence for correlation between brain and mind because in any argument for substance dualism the latter is a given, whereas in naturalism the former is not.

    Do you really think that there is no naturalist explanatory gap in mind brain science/philosophy? That’s really far fetched and out of touch with contemporary discussion of mind/brain issues.

    The jury is still out by a long shot, and what I object to is the attempt to close the case prematurely on the part of naturalist enthusiasts. It would be hard to argue that such is not seriously in play, even when contemporary naturalists readily acknowledge an explanatory gap.

  9. Hi Swami,

    Thanks I’ll go have a look.

    In the meantime, Istruggle with your characterisation of the other article as well reasoned as it does not address the huge pile of evidence that the brain produces the mind which I suppose you can put in two points;

    We observe that various type sof damage to the brain have various impacts upon the mind.

    We observe various activities of the mind always coincide with activities in the brain.

    (Isn’t modern brain scanning technology wonderful)

    What do you think?

    Where is the gap for your spirit or soul?



  10. Psi,

    I agree that there is not much evidence in the articles I cited, just good reasoning (in my opinion), especially with regard to the lack of objectivity involved in reaching a naturalist philosophical conclusion from scientific evidence. The argument against the need for causal closure in order to do science is also good. You may appreciate it more after Reading Goetz’s book Naturalism. But I doubt we will agree on much here.

    As for the evidence for downward causation that gives credence to substance dualism, you will find some From Beauregard here:

    Best wishes

  11. HI Swami,

    This is MY BAD I think.

    I was thinking of limitations along the lines of not knowing why I prefer Beethoven to Bach or other such judegments. Also limitations in that there is a physical limit to our brain capacity and abilities (before we go cyborg anyway).

    Sorry for the misunderstanding, I just lit up like a bulb by realising we are at cross purposes – well sort of ;-)



    I will definitely look into the link you have posted – sounds very interesting.

  12. Psi,

    here is Moreland’s position in brief—Argument from Mind/Conciusness:

    In his book he examines the most current thought on consciousness in some detail reaching a well reasoned, evidenced based substance dualism conclusion.

    You certainly don’t have to agree with it, but it is not illogical nor lacking evidence. Evidence and logic can lead to diverse, faith-based positions. Yours is one his is another.

  13. Psi,

    Here is your position in your words:

    “My two tenets are that the universe is real and that logic seems to work. From this I figure out that I can learn about the universe. Further I don’t see evidence for anything supernatural. Where are the foundations missing in this compared with person of faith?”

    So you believe that the universe is real and you believe that logic seems to work. You have also said that you recognize that logic is limited in its capacity to reveal truth, as far as I have understood. And that was my question: “You find no limitations to logic and reason? ”

    Perhaps I have misunderstood you here. Is logic in your belief system something that works perfectly, other than the fact that logic itself cannot verify that? Or is logic otherwise limited in terms of its capacity to reveal all there is to know—to become enlightened as to the ultimate meaning of life if there is one?

    If the latter is your belief, then what other means of knowing are you sympathetic to? If you say none, this leaves you with an imperfect means of knowing, at least in the sense that you admit it cannot be logically demonstrated that it is perfect now or ever will be. So if perfect knowledge, or call it enlightenment, is available, it seems unlikely that it will be realized by such an imperfect means. Whereas if it is available, it will be so on its own terms. Hence some form of revelation is required. Perfect knowledge can reveal itself. Again, while it may not be possible for the finite to know the infinite, it is possible should the infinite care to reveal itself to the finite. But maybe perfect knowledge or God does not exist. You have no evidence for such so . . .

    But, logic and current scientific evidence does not mandate that we approach our understanding of life through a physicalist methodology that mandates causal closure—with no room for positing, for example, that consciousness is supernatural. Indeed others have argued well for just the opposite. Goetz has done so here

    J.P. Morgan also argues well for evidence that suggests downward causality from mind/consciousness to brain (Consciousness and the Existence of God). This in turn offers us evidence that leads most naturally to logical position of substance dualism with regard to consciousness/brain, unless of course we illogically claim that there is no science without causal closure.

    Why argue that we are no more than some degree of a machine when we don’t have to and evidence does not lead naturally to such an unnatural conclusion anyway?

    And then the example of the mystics is there as well. Yes, they make metaphysical claims about the nature of their experience. But we should take a close look at their experience and perhaps put more weight on what the mystic himself says his experience constitutes. After all, if a man can be in noetic ecstasy living in a cave in meditation for years on end with practically no material stimulus and he has a philosophy that supports his conclusions that admits his so called supernatural experience cannot be verified empirically, why should such a persons experience be dismissed. I guess only if one is illogically committed to metaphysical, methodological, and epistemological naturalism in the name of objectivity.

  14. Hi Swami,

    You said;

    “My original point was that such evidence is not the only thing one should consider in pursuit of ultimate knowledge.”


    Evidence is the only thing I have any evidence to suggest that it actually works.

    So yes, it means everything to me, otherwise we can all just make stuff up can’t we?

    Interested in your response.


    PS If you want to just make stuff up, or just accept stuff that others have just made up, that’s fine by me. But it’s just not my cup of tea.

  15. I think I made it clear throughout that I do not have empirical evidence to support a supernatural reality. My original point was that such evidence is not the only thing one should consider in pursuit of ultimate knowledge. You agree that such a means of knowing is limited but continue to ask me for evidence as though it means more to you than you are willing to admit: just about everything, for without it there is no reason to continue the discussion. That’s fine. To be clear. No I do not have the kind of evidence you are interested in.

    As for the definition of yoga you have cited, I wrote that “meditation” is not about relaxation. But neither is yoga in classical sense. The definition you have cited explains the yoga phenomena as it appears popularly in the West today, which has little to do with the philosophy that underlies it, especially the relaxation part.

    My position on Harris in not based merely picking and choosing, but on reading all that he has said on the subject. But I may be wrong about his motives and position.

    Yes, often differences are those of degree, but sometimes they are categorical. So you do not think you are a machine, not a crude one that is.

  16. Hi Swami,

    “I think that Harris is backtracking in such statements to remain credible in atheistic circles. ”

    OK then lets just pick out the ones you like then ;-)

    “Meditation is not about relaxing. ”

    Well you quoted Harris and that is what he says. Here is my dictionary;

    “yoga |ˈjəʊgə|
    a Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practiced for health and relaxation.”

    It’s not really a God in the gaps argument because there is an alternate theory with results.

    Great please tell us about them!

    I have asked for your evidence about four times now.

    “Yours is as much a metaphysical position as mine.”

    My only position is one of asking to examine your evidence before making up my mind.

    Will you give us some?

    “But if life itself is physical, it is hard for me to see this atheistic distinction between man and machine as anything other than one of degree.”

    I quite agree. Most differences turn out to be ones of degree in my experience.



    PS have you got any evidence that you want to discuss or not?

  17. psi,

    Regarding not being a machine, I understand how you might see yourself as being different from a machine, a computer for example. But if life itself is physical, it is hard for me to see this atheistic distinction between man and machine as anything other than one of degree.

  18. Hi Swami,

    Yes I did read it. Did you know that Harris has also said he claims nothing mysterious and supernatural from meditation?

    I think that relaxation is good too.

    Most neuroscientists seem to accept that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. There is very very little support for the kind of dualism you and the articles seem to suggest.

    I just watched the latest Horizon with visits to several teams of scientists in various countries all merrily investigating consciousness, apparently unaware that they have been ignoring it and that they haven’t gotten very far.

    (The experiment when they can tell what decision a subject has made six seconds before the subject becomes aware of it themselves is amazing and simply points at the mind coming from the brain.

    That’s why I asked if you had any evidence.

    Have you got any?

    BTW I don’t think you are a machine.

    I just don’t see any evidence for a spirit/soul. Do you have any?

    – – –

    Have you heard of the god of the gaps logical fallacy?

    I think you invented a similar one;

    “And if science is coming up empty handed in terms of demonstrating that consciousness is matter . . .”

    Eastern mysticism of the gaps?

    Looking forward to any kind of evidence.



    • I think that Harris is backtracking in such statements to remain credible in atheistic circles. His statements at the end of ‘The End of Faith” were widely criticized by his sect.

      Meditation is not about relaxing. It is often best when seeking to understand something we are not familiar with to listen to those proficient at it, especially when it involves a cultural divide.

      It’s not really a God in the gaps argument because there is an alternate theory with results. Yoga is a means by which the subjective conscious self is isolated as far as possible while still embodied from its attachments/desires to the objective world of matter and thereby its bias, offering a very different reading of reality than that which can be perceived without doing so. In fact this is what Harris is saying in The End of Faith, calling such an approach rational, as opposed to religious belief and superstition.

      As for the current interest in consciousness, I acknowledged that there is interest currently but only because it could not be ignored any longer–ever since looking deeply inside the atom in an effort to ignore it only to find it so relevant therein.

      But despite the results in neuroscience with demonstrating correspondence between states of mind and functions of the brain (which it should be obvious is a given in yoga philosophy), science is no where near understanding consciousness at all, much less proving that it is a physical force—no evidence. Let me know when you find some. Yours is as much a metaphysical position as mine.

  19. Psi,

    Did you read the article? Yes, East sounds often sounds weird to West. What do you make of Harris’ comments?

    Think of it like this. What do we know about consciousness and why do we sense that we exist? And why does someone feel hurt if there are only physical reasons/laws interacting that supposedly constitute all there is to pain?

    Of course you could ask Dennet, but even his contemporaries like Searle have found his reasoning absurd. While the West has ignored consciousness for as long as they could, when looking deeply within matter they realized they had to deal with it. And thus far they hove not gotten very far. Furthermore, if science has turned any where outside of itself in pursuit of understanding consciousness it is (not much but) to the East and mysticism where consciousness has been the main subject long before Descartes feebly reasoned about the possibility of a distinction between mind and brain.

    Evidence? Do you know much about yoga and the history of mysticism as opposed to that of religion. I think you will find the closest thing to evidence there. And if science is coming up empty handed in terms of demonstrating that consciousness is matter . . . You are asking me to take a post dated check as much as I am asking you to, but if it is not evidence I have, that does not make what I do have weird. Is it weird to think that I am a machine? I think so.

  20. psi,

    Yes, of course logic works to an extent. The argument is that it cannot provide comprehensive knowledge and that it and reason are not the only means of knowing.

    As for no evidence of the supernatural, I think the best evidence is the experience and example of mystics. The premise of yoga philosophy is that consciousness is a metaphysical substance. The methodology to substantiate that is yoga itself, wherein consciousness is isolated from matter and we see results in as mush as happiness is no longer derived from sense objects, etc.

    In the yogic worldview consciousness is a non-spatial stuff that is linked to the brain via the mind, through which it can be contemplated and through the silencing of which in meditation it can be known. Such meditation and yogic dedication involves a radical objectivity, calling for detachment on the part of the conscious being from his or her material surroundings in an effort to experience consciousness as independent of matter. What is that experience? According to those who have it, it is ourselves, our pure “I-ness” unencumbered by the physical and psychic dimensions of awareness that constitute our material ego or fleeting sense of material identity derived from our sense of “mine,” our attachments. What is the nature of this yogic experience? Sam Harris, popular atheist author with a keen interest in neuroscience and a desire to revisit religion with reason said it well when he said that he considers it likely that the happiest man on the planet might well have spent the last twenty years living alone in a cave (in meditation).

    I realize this will not meet to bar of empiric evidence but it is not that easy to dismiss, nor is empiric evidence the last word.

    Here is an interesting article to consider:

  21. Hi swami,

    Thanks for your question.

    Yes I do.

    I understand that you can’t use logic to support logic.

    That’s why I said that it was a tenet.

    I am still happy to go with it as it seems to work. Let’s take the moon landings, modern medicine (giving us each a lifetime twice the length that thousands of previous generations had), modern agriculture etc etc

    Of course if you don’t accept that logic works then I have a very simple and conclusive argument against anything else you want to say;

    “Cucumber sandwich”




  22. psiloiordinary,

    You find no limitations to logic and reason? Furthermore reason is speculative and it is not possible to demonstrate logically that logic is the only or even the most comprehensive means of knowing. Perfect knowledge requires a perfect method of knowing. How can the finite know the infinite? Only if the infinite allows the finite to do so.

  23. As stated before on another thread, my two tenets are that the universe is real and that logic seems to work.

    From this I figure out that I can learn about the universe.

    Further I don’t see evidence for anything supernatural.

    Where are the foundations missing in this compared with person of faith?



  24. Rob,

    I think the point is that physicalism is not empirically verifiable and therefore it is metaphysical world view. In other words, it speculates about he nature of reality beyond what scientific data tells us. It is only one interpretation of that data. One of its premises is that only that which can be empirically demonstrated is real. Fortunately this premise is not empirically verifiable.

    • Good point, Swami. I think most naturalists/physicalists believe that their viewpoint just somehow naturally follows from the scientific method. But you’re exactly right — it’s simply a philosophical position that needs to be established by sound arguments . . . which, in my view, are sorely lacking.

  25. Thank you for this. If I understand correctly, this is similar to positivism, except that positivism didn’t really have a metaphysical argument. It just rejected metaphysics. Is this then a restatement of the same argument? I’m trying to imagine what sort of metaphysical argument could be made for physicalism and I’m drawing a blank. Wouldn’t you have to make assumptions in favor of physicalism in order to demonstrate it?

    • Hi Rob,
      Sorry for the long delay in responding. It seems to me that positivism was an epistemological principle, but standing on a foundation of physicalism. I’m guessing most of the positivists started out with the assumption that all that existed was matter and the laws of nature, and then built an epistemology that reinforced that view. I think positivists and physicalists would both reject most traditional kinds of metaphysics, which usually assumes something beyond the physical — abstract entities or God or something else.
      Thanks for the good question.

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