[lit-ideas] Re: "Promissory Materialism" and "Physicalism" as terminology

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 16 Nov 2011 13:04:06 +0000 (GMT)

Eric Yost wrote:-
“Isn’t it more precise to refer to the particular view of mind-brain identity 
“physicalism” rather than materialism? Materialism seems an awkward term, 
especially given the electrical nature of neuronal activity, but also 
considering that “matter” (ordinary matter and energy) is only a small portion 
of the universe.
I hope to indicate why Popper's terminology of "World 1" etc. is perhaps better 
than either "materialism" or "physicalism".
problem with the term “materialism” is that it may seem limited to explanation
in terms of ‘material’ or ‘matter’, or something embodied. When we allow for
physical forces, including electro-magnetic forces, we have moved beyond this
kind of “materialism”. As Popper puts it, TSAIB p.5, “Materialism Transcends 
Itself”: the programme of classical materialism initially
took matter as “ultimate; essential; substantial: an essence or substance
neither capable of further explanation nor in need of it”; but by “explaining 
matter and its properties
modern physics transcended the original programme of materialism. In fact it
was physics itself which produced by far the most important arguments against
classical materialism”. 

this reason it may seem that “physicalism” is a terminological advance on
“materialism” - for modern physics adds fields of forces and various forms of
radiating energy to the explanation of matter, offering “a theory that explains
matter by assumptions about non-material (although certainly not mental)

as a matter of terminology, “Many philosophers who hold [that animals and men
are electrochemical machines] (especially U.T. Place, J.J.C. Smart and D.M.
Armstrong) call themselves “materialist”, thereby giving the term “materialism”
a meaning which somewhat differs from its earlier meaning. Others who hold very
similar views, and especially the view that men are machines, call themselves
“physicalists”, a term due, so far as I know, to Otto Neurath” [TSAIB p.6]. 

might say that “materialism” may fairly be given this extended sense in
deference to the great tradition of “classical materialism” from which modern
physics emerged. Though we might also note that “criticism of the old
materialism, even if conclusive, is not necessarily applicable to the
prevailing physicalistic version of materialism.” This also perhaps tells us
that the term “materialism” is potentially more confusing than “physicalism”,
which more clearly denotes “the prevailing physicalistic version of
materialism”. All this is terminological, however, and does not impact
crucially on the underlying metaphysical issues which could be similarly
addressed whether we use “materialism” in this extended sense or “physicalism”
as itsequivalent.

reason “World 1” is perhaps preferable as terminology is that “physicalism”
itself (where it denotes explanation in terms of physics) may be inadequate for
understanding the brain: for we may need explanations in terms of chemical and
biological principles that cannot be reduced to explanations in terms of mere
physics. If we look at the brain as a living organism we may raise questions as
to the biological functions of its constituent parts and of the characteristic 
functional interactions between these
parts. These questions would appear to go so far beyond the questions addressed
by modern physics that the term “physicalism” is arguably inadequate and
misleading and awkward - as it (wrongly) suggests the a properly scientific
account of the brain may be confined to an explanation purely in terms of the
physics involved. For example, we may study how if a part of the brain is
damaged, another part may then come to perform the functions of the damaged
part (for example, when the part governing speech is damaged). Or we may study
how certain brain capacities, such as learning a language, may be lost if they
are not used within a certain time in the growth of the brain (the theory of 
and ‘closed’ modules of the brain).

of this kind of explanation may remain within “World 1” as Popper terms it,
where this includes the biological and chemical as well as physical explanation
of the brain’s activities; and it need not involve any World 2 of distinct 
events. Yet if the terminology here is to be derived from the natural sciences,
it would be better called “biologicalism” (or some such term) than
“physicalism” – for while the biological level of understanding the brain as a
living organism must fully encompass the physics involved, the reverse is not
obviously true but rather unlikely: it is unlikely that the biological
functions of the brain can be fully accounted for in terms of its mere physics
[particles and forces do not have functions and functional interactions in the
biological sense]. As World 1 encompasses all such levels of explanation –
physical, chemical, biological – it is a better term to use than any term
derived from any single one of these levels, as all of these levels of
explanation are involved in understanding the brain.

1 is also better terminology because it is drawn in distinction with World 2
and World 3. Whether we conclude that these distinctions hold or not, the
underlying metaphysical issues are as to whether they hold or not. So it is
important to have terminology that allows us to draw the relevant distinctions
and does not prejudice the metaphysical issues by not allowing us to draw 
crucial distinctions.

terminology better brings out what is at stake here philosophically and
scientifically. For it is not simply whether there is a World 2 or World 3 but
whether these are not reducible to World 1. And it is not simply whether they
are so irreducible but whether they have downward causal affects – for if they 
not, World 1 would remain causally closed to these other metaphysical ‘levels’.

is also very useful that Popper’s terminology broadens out the mind-body
question beyond the a mere World 1 and World 2: for seeing the arguments for a
quasi-autonomous World 3 puts a very different perspective on the problems of
understanding the mind-body liaison. This is the perspective from which it
becomes very hard to conceive how a “physicalist”, or other World 1 level of
explanation, could explain a Mozart opera or Dylan’s Modern Times, or indeed 
the staggering theoretical success of the
natural sciences themselves. 

Assuming (whether in his right mind or not) he is here 

and now
And in


Other related posts:

  • » [lit-ideas] Re: "Promissory Materialism" and "Physicalism" as terminology - Donal McEvoy