What is Materialism all about?

I’m sure many of you are familiar with my epically-unsuccessful attempts to discuss various philosophical concepts. In those threads, various philosophies have been referenced.

I’ve reread the formal definitions of some of these philosophies, and there are certain aspects of them that I don’t really see the point to.

For example, this definition of Materialism states that one of the more commonly-held aspects of the philosophy is that things must be extended in space.

But what is space? As far as I can determine, the concept of space doesn’t involve anything other than a limitation on the ways things can interact. I can imagine informational “spaces”, such as the vector space or phase space, that consist only of relationships between defined points. In general English, these would be called mathematical, not physical.

So what does “physical space” actually refer to?


Does anyone actually know?


LOL I’ve composed a post already but I thought better of posting it just yet.

My first offhanded comment, however, is



Seriously, I simply don’t understand what makes the “material” world different from information. An electron and the mathematics that describes its behavior are identical in all ways.

We can view the “real” world as mathematics if we so choose. The whole “matter” vs. “mind” dichotomy goes away.

Why do people insist materialism is different from, say, dualism?

[sigh] Accursed coding. I always screw something up…

Emboldened by the fact that you’re not getting many replies, I’m going to try and humbly contribute some thoughts.
I’m going to go on a tangent here. Let me state for the record that I’m almost completely ignorant about formal philosophy and schools of thought, such as materialism. (is it a school of thought?)

The questions you pose are indeed formidable.
Is what we perceive, model, and describe mathematicaly, the “real” world.
First of all. What is real (or material) ? I’m not going to the dictionary. I’ll just define what I think people mean when they say “something real” or “the real thing”
I’d say that we use the word real mostly to refer to the underlying structure, form or workings behind what we perceive from our senses, or, behind a current model of some phenomenom. For example: When I strum my guitar, it plays a note. Ok, but someone may ask: But how does that really work. Well, I could go on and say “the string vibrates and pushes the air around it in a regular pattern, this air reaches your eardrums…”. But then they could ask “but how does the brain perceive this sound, what is sound, what exactly happens in the brain…”, and then I’d be stumped. This process could be infinite. “Real” can only refer to some level of understanding. If you seek the ultimate “realness”, it would be like asking : Can we know everything? For the moment, no, not even close. I don’t think it’s even possible. So it’s a bit like discussing the existence of God. To know God or to have proof of his existence would take away his “God” status, since he is supposed to be “beyond everything”, beyond human knowldege. The ultimate Real thing. So, to know what’s real , or to know ultimate reality (material reality for example) is akin to knowing God. By definition, impossible.

PD: I’m not a believer, I just used the concept of a search for God as an analogy to a search of what’s real or material.


Hey TVAA, give us a break, willya? :slight_smile: Round here everyone was sleeping so I didn’t have the chance yet to see your post and reply.

Anyway, I’m not really sure what your question is. If it is a general question on what the proper definition of materialism is, I’m afraid the answer is that there is none. One of the things I noted when studying philosophy is that there are very few generally accepted definitions of such categories like existentialism, structuralism, idealism, materialism. In fact, most of the time a philosopher who is generally considered to be a ‘structuralist’ or so, will vehemently deny this.

The definition of materialsm to which you linked is actually a fairly good one. However it looks as if you took an accidental element of the definition and expanded it to the central issue of materialism, which it is not. The only thing the writer wanted to say was that materialism says there exists nothing except ‘tangible’, material stuff. Then he went on to tackle the tricky part, e.g. what is matter. For this he first discusses philosophers who try a technical definition in terms of spatial extension. The author then immediately questions the concept of space.

Again, you see, philosophy has no clear-cut answer to the question ‘what is space’ (which actually seems to be the real question of your OP). Those philosophers who thought about it, all came up with different answers.

You seem to assume that space as a general term is mostly concerned with ‘mathematical’ space (vector space etc.). As far as I know, most people haven’t got much mathematical wherewithal and will think about space in a general way as that in which everything physical moves. This leads to all sorts of interesting debates as whether space actually is itself something positive or can only be definition in a negative way by defining what it isn’t, or by defining it as something we have to assume to exist to make sense of other concepts (this is Kants solution, simplified). In case you really want to delve into this, you may want to look up books about metaphysics (such as D.W. Hamlyn, Metaphysics). I do not really like such books, but they do contain fairly knowledgeable representations of other philosopher’s views on the subject.

If you therefore are asking for a definite answer, I cannot give it to you and I will vouch that none exists. If you want to poll for opinions from other Dopers, by all means go ahead.

I’ll have to close with a possibly saddening conclusion: if you approach philosophy to get definite answers (such as you may get in physics or mathematics), you’re out of luck. Philosophy is more about the search for answers than about getting them. I’m not joking. While looking for an answer, you may find out that the original question was not correctly posed, contained certain ill-defined concepts. The search for the answer may thereby lead you to an understanding of the ambivalence and hidden assumptions of natural language. For the record: I do not find this conclusion saddening, on the contrary I’m still quite happy with reading and studying philosophy.

[…observing with interest…]

I am neither a physicist nor a philosopher but ummm, how about I throw this in: Space, those areas mostly deserted by gravity in its attempts to escape itself?

Of course that leads to the question of “What’s gravity?” To which I’d reply, gravity is the contortion of space caused by the condensing of energy. “What’s energy?” The fundamental perceivable level of reality.

Uh, I better join Lib on the sidelines.

Here, Fatwater. Have a sandwich. Nothing is more interesting than discussions about the mystical metaphysics of materialism. :slight_smile:

If there’s no agreement on the meaning of the terms (regardless of whether that meaning is relevant to the nature of the universe or not), it’s no surprise that there are so few answers.

What was it that C. S. Lewis said? Something like, “we make geldings and bid them be fruitful”.

If we take away the meaning of the words, but try to have a debate about them anyway, why should we be surprised when we find we can’t create any answers or conclusions? It would be like trying to perform math without operations or ordered lists…

I refuse to accept the implication that philosophy is ultimately pointless, and as that would be an inevitable consequence of the lack of meaning. If all those philosophers have argued for so long, it doesn’t seem reasonable that they could be so idiotic as to not actually signify anything.

On the other hand, maybe they are all idiots.

I’ll have to think about this for a while.

If there aren’t any definitions, why are there so many arguments?

Drat. That I should “…of the lack of meaning, I reject the idea that these words have no definitions.”

Drat again. That should be “That should be”, not “That I should”.

What the heck is wrong with me? I can’t even string two words together coherently.

Maybe I should’ve been a philosopher. :wink:

(bowing to audience)

In the course of the argument I may have expressed myself a bit too strongly (I’m apt to do that, I know, bad habit and all…). I see I’ll have to do better than that to defend my favorite pastime (well, one of my favorite ones at least).

I do think philosophy has found some answers, in the sense that we have come to the conclusion that certain questions are simply incorrectly posed. (I’m thinking about the ‘no selfless acts are possible’ thing which was here a couple of weeks ago). For other questions we have managed to chart out a lot of the terrain (free will is one of those; I haven’t posted in the current thread for sheer laziness, also I haven’t read up to it in a while). A lot of other things however are shrouded in mystery. Those things, when further investigated, turn out to have to do with deep-seated but finally unprovable assumptions that we humans (or reasonable beings, depending on your kind of philosophy) have about the world. Thinking about them may as often lead you to a basic axiom, a petitio principii (assuming that what you wanted to prove) or paradox. Questions about “what was there before the creation of the universe” or “has time ever started, and what happened before that” are in that area. Augustine already pondered these questions.

The problem with philosophy is that you are necessarily working with the existing language, which has developed in the hands of non-philosophers and therefore contains all sorts of unphilosophical assumptions. I do not bemoan this: literature and poetry, as well as puns, thrive on ambiguity. I wouldn’t want a philosophical upper class ‘moderating’ natural language. But the consequence is that people who state problems in natural language may make mistakes because of specifics of the language.

Since language evolves and people forget, the thing is that philosophers find they have to combat the errors in thinking of their present age. Most major philosophers who do this succesfully end up in positions that get close to what was already said in the past. Hence Whitehead’s remark that all philosophy can be found already in the writings of Plato.

Another thing is that each era has its own unwritten assumptions that bias the form in which questions are posed. Plato and Aristotle thought about how to create the perfect city state, but thereby had to disregard people who didn’t fit into their state, and relatively unquestioningly accepted slavery. Modern philosophers rightly abhor slavery, but have to deal with the problem of combining respect for individual autonomy with the power of the state to enforce its laws on disobeying citizens (hence contract-theory). The political problem is not the same for every generation.

So you see that very generally speaking we do not get answers and we do not make progress: that is however not due to the stupidity of philosophers but mainly to the fact that every age starts afresh, with new problems and new language, that are only nominally concerned with the same subjects. The classical greek conception of democracy was not at all like ours, nor was their concept of god alike.

This is not to say that we have not seen developments in philosophy. Significant epoch-making contributions have been made by Kant and Hegel, by Plato and Aristotle. One thing a student of philosophy may learn is more flexibility in handling alternative conceptions of basic things like ‘state’, ‘ethics’, ‘being’. Another thing is that he has seen various philosophical techniques for disabling certain common arguments. An example would be the difference between an idea as something that can be realised, or a regulative idea as something that can only be strived for, hence does not actually exist but must be posited in order to make sense of certain phenomena (such as the ideal of eventual mutual understanding is assumed in a discussion, even if it may not be reached in actuality).

After studying philosophy you may find that definitions are ten a penny (or however the expression goes). Hence my somewhat flippant remark on the arbitrariness of definitions. In fact, a carefully crafted definition is worth its while. But you should know (and this is one of the golden truths of philosophy) a definition is like a tool, it is tailored to its intended purpose. If you want to know what space is, you have to ask yourself why you want to know that. If someone comes up with a definition that purportedly is universally valid, I’m quite sure that he is forgetting of one or another assumption that is common of this age.

Of course all the above is only my opinion. You should be able to find philosophers who hold a more ‘scientific’ opinion of what philosophy is. They tend to flock in analytic philosophy; the problem with their viewpoint is that they have to discard the majority of writings of past philosophers as well as subjects traditionally part of philosophy since they find those to be unscientific.

Oops, there I go again with my overgeneralisations. :smiley: Seriously, analytical philosophy has worthwhile things to say. Unfortunately I find that those things are few in number and do not cover my own interests.

Any questions left, class?

Wow. Where have you been all my life? :smiley:

That was an excellent explanation.

I’m not suggesting that we should come up with a definition that would include all ways that the word has ever been used. Not only would that not be very useful, I don’t think it’s even possible.

But if we don’t assign some arbitrary meaning to the term, we won’t get anywhere.

Let’s specify what we mean by ‘space’, then determine if that concept is useful in places whether that word is used. If not, we’ll come up with another word to fit that concept.

(Bows again) Have been right here all this time. :slight_smile:

Your proposal of a practical definition sounds great. I’ll see if I can try to tackle it tomorrow. Now I’m off to a party. :cool:

It’s all about WYSIWYG.

Why, thank you, Lib. I am a mite peckish.

“The Mystical Metaphysics of Materialism”. Sounds like a musical…

Basic Materialism: all is matter. Things. Rocks and bricks.

Later Materialism: okay, energy too.

Yet more Materialism: information?

So: what is space? It’s where you put your matter. How can you have a brick without it being dimensional? Space is just the size of things…even when nothing’s there. e.g., a brick wall with one brick removed: you can measure “empty space.”

The WYSIWYG argument is basically right. We make certain assumptions – the size of my body isn’t changing – and then use those assumptions to work with space – my “cubit” is a constant measure of distance in space.

What is distance? You stand just over there, and I’ll start throwing bricks at you. When you feel safe, stop, and we’ll measure the distance in cubits.

What is energy? Sheesh, I get tired hurling all those bricks: let’s have some ham and potash sandwiches.

What is information? Well, we can write down the distance, in cubits, that you need to be from me to be safe from my bricks. Also, you can write down that potash sandwiches don’t provide much energy. You can give those writings to someone else. Cool beans.

What is materialism? The philosophy that this is all there is. There is no other way to learn, no other way to live, no other way to teach. It is a variant of atheism, in that it says that there are no gods or spirits to teach you these things. You gotta learn by throwing, measuring, eating…or from reading the notes left by others who threw, measured, and ate. There are NO other avenues to knowledge.

That’s materialism in a brickyard. Now…

Start running: I just figured out the rocket-assisted brick.


From the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, annotation and commentary by flowbark:

materialism - See metaphysics. Metaphysics: "Perhaps the most familiar question in metaphysics is whether there are only material entities -materialism- or only mental entities, i.e. minds and their states -idealism- or both -dualism. Here ‘entity’ has the broadest sense: anything real.

But what is metaphysics? Most generally, it is the philosophical investigation of the nature, constitution and structure of reality… broader in scope than science.

…metaphysics was rejected by positivism on the ground that its statements are ‘cognitively meaningless’ since they are not empirically verifiable.

materialism and emergent materialism - See Philosophy of Mind.
Let’s back up. Descartes was a dualist: there are 2 kinds of stuff, mind and body.
Hobbes, in contrast, espoused materialism, a variant of monism or “one kind of stuff”.

Two problems face any monistic theory: how to characterize its fundamental entities and how to explain how the fundamental entities make up non-fundamental entities.

Idealist and neutral monist theories reportedly collapsed in the face of those problems: many philosophers hold that material monism will succeed where ideal and neutral monism failed, due to the successes of quantum mechanics et al in explaining chemistry et al.

Central state materialism, non-reductive materialism, emergent materialism, and functionalism are characterized by flowbark being too lazy to read about them.

Historical Materialism was Marx and Engel’s bag. “It is the view that the economic structure of society is the foundation of society; as the productive forces develop, the economic structure changes and with that the political, legal, moral, religious and philosophical ideas change accordingly.” Yada yada socialism, class struggle, means of production, social consciousness, ruling ideology. See “Reductionism”, opines flowbark.

Philosophy and Answers

  1. Searle did a pretty good job of destroying the legitimacy of the Turing test, as commonly understood.

  2. Bernard Williams sometimes claims that the point of philosophy is to tell us that we don’t understand certain questions as well as we think we do. IIRC.