Instead of jumping right into Aristotle, I’d like to say a few things concerning materialism. I have already explained, in a previous post, why I would love to be a materialist, and how it would actually resolve a lot of tension in my religious life. Materialism also has a psychological appeal that I think is rarely acknowledged – it is nice to think that everything in the universe is tangible, measurable, and concrete (I know I’m using these terms sloppily but it gets the point across). However, I simply have a very hard time accepting materialism for a few reasons. This post will not be an argument for those reasons, but rather, just a summary of some of the problems of materialism, with a few helpful links that will help you read more about it.
First of all, for those of you who don’t read too much philosophy, I should define materialism. When philosophers talk about “materialism,” they’re generally not talking about how modern people tend to buy lots of consumer goods and stockpile them in their houses. Instead, materialism is the view that everything in the universe – everything that is real in existence – is made of matter (or matter and energy). Materialism is usually interchanged with “physicalism” and “naturalism,” though others see subtle differences between such terms. I’m just going to use the term materialism for the sake of simplicity.
At first this type of thinking makes sense – what is there that is not made of matter or energy? Everything we observe or interact with seems to be made of matter, such as cars, houses, the ground, air, rain, the Earth, etc. Some things like electricity, and possibly gravity, are actually material things too (in the case of electricity, it’s flowing electrons). Even light is composed of photons, though photons aren’t “particles” in the intuitive sense.
But then again, there are some things that, upon closer inspection, don’t seem to be composed of matter at all. For instance, is a triangle composed of matter? Certainly a triangle can be composed of matter, but when geometry buffs do their calculations in their heads, they seem to be “interacting” with an object that actually doesn’t exist in a concrete way. The same goes with numbers, like the number 7. What kind of matter is the number 7 composed of? The questions seems strange and incoherent. It would seem that these things are not material. Similarly, what about concepts like “justice”? Is that composed of matter? Not really. Things in real life can resemble the concept of justice to a greater or lesser degree, but justice itself is kind of an abstract thing.
This type of thinking long ago led some philosophers to decide that perhaps there are some things that are “real” in the sense that they exist in the world in some way, but are not material entities. They have also pointed out some other quirky things about materialism as well, through the years.
For instance, there is the problem of qualia. What are qualia and why are they such a big deal? Qualia are often called the “raw feels” that we experience. For instance, a common example is the sensation of “redness” that we experience when we look at a red object. It would seem that a person who only saw in black and white could learn everything there is to know about red light and how our brains work (photons, wavelengths, retinas, optic nerves, neurons, etc.), but there would still be one thing they wouldn’t know about the color red: what it looks like. This thought experiment is a loose adaptation of the “Mary’s Room” thought experiment in philosophy.
And qualia don’t stop at redness. For there are qualia of colors, sounds, flavors, feelings, emotions, and some have even argued that are qualia of mental operations. An alien scientist who didn’t experience any of these things could open my skull and examine my neurons all he wanted to, but that alien would not be able to know “what’s it’s like” for me to experience those things. As such, it would seem that everything in our conscious experience is composed of qualia that are not explained just by physical or material facts. The philosopher David Chalmers calls the issue of qualia the “Hard Problem of Consciousness.” To read more about qualia, try here or check out my favorite discussion of qualia here [pdf].
Another problem with materialism is the issue of intentionality. Intentionality is defined as the ability for matter in our minds to “represent” or “be about” other things. This is a concept that it was very hard for me to understand at first, but once I realized the full force of the argument, I realized that it was extremely strong and a keystone of the problems of materialism. Take the following example: when I’m thinking of my grandmother in Utah, I take it for granted that the neurons in my brain that are activated when thinking of my grandmother are somehow “pointed at” or represent an actual being who lives in Utah. However, on materialism, this is a major problem, because materialism states that neurons are just neurons, with the properties of neurons, and can’t be “about” anything outside of them. Yet, as we interact with the world, we take it for granted that all our thoughts seem to be “directed at” an actual external world. To read more about intentionality, read here or here.
You can already see that both of these issues deal with the mind, and since I am an experimental psychologist-in-training, these issues troubled me greatly when I tried to make sense out of them on a materialist standpoint. It does seem like the mind presents unique challenges to the materialist, because the mind seems to have, create, or illuminate a bunch of properties that matter isn’t “supposed to” have. There are also some quirky problems that have troubled me for some time about the nature of matter in general. For instance, take an electron. It would seem that all electrons everywhere in the universe that we can observe behave in exactly the same way (when all variables are controlled for). Why are all electrons everywhere “playing by the same rule book?” What is it about the nature of “electron-ness” that seems to be universally shared among all electrons? And this can be applied to electrons, protons, and other particles but then also more unevenly applied to galaxies, stars, people, and cats and dogs.
So when we compare one type of particle to another, say an electron and a proton, what is similar and what is different? Someone might say that an electron and a proton share the property of being “matter” but differ in their “natures.” Therefore it seems that an appeal to just plain matter by itself isn’t sufficient to explain the complexity of the difference between electrons, protons, and other particles and objects. Even if we include waves or forces into our discussion, the issue is the same. What is it about the nature of gravity that seems to be consistent everywhere in the universe, etc. One must also tell us what kind of matter it is, and by “kind” we’re talking about what nature of matter it is.
Now, certainly, materialist philosophers have responses to all these objections. Some of them respond by stretching the definition of “matter” and some have very complex solutions that still boil down to everything is just stuff at the bottom level. However, this should give you a brief overview of some of the problems of materialism and where you can read more about them. If you’re even more interested in the problems of materialism and consciousness you can check out Edward Feser’s books Philosophy of Mind and Aquinas, which I believe are simple and scholarly enough to explain the problems. For the problems of a theory of mind from a psychological/neuroscientific standpoint, you can try Irreducible Mind, a large but brave and important book compiled by Dr. Ed Kelly and Dr. Emily Kelly at the University of Virginia. For some of the most severe and damning implications of materialism, which I believe should be taken into account as well, try reading this.