As water to fish: physicalism

Years of exposure to the toxic effects of mathematics have rendered me unfit for human society and civil discourse. I used to happily acquiesce in whatever I was told was true, whether it was that fiber is good for you or that the Moon is made of roquefort. Now however, grown cynical and suspicious, I find myself doubting the most innocent statements and wondering, “How do they justify that?” Consider the following:

By physicalism, I mean the idea, roughly speaking, that everything can be explained by physics and that the scriptures thereof can written down in mathematics. This sort of conception used to be labelled materialism; it was, at that time, envisioned that reality amounted to point masses or particles flying around and colliding like billiard balls or influencing one another by gravity or magnetism or electric charge. As present-day physics is filled with more ghostly entities—probability amplitudes, warped space-time, vibrating branes, and so forth—the term materialism has given way to the broader physicalism.

Now so far as I can tell, what we would call a well-educated person in the Western tradition has a very strong tendency to assume automatically, without question, almost without awareness, the validity of physicalism. The “truth” of their position is evident to them. The idea that it might be an assumption is as invisible to them as water is to fish.

Notice that I refer to the “well-educated” person. I have in mind the sort of person who is considered knowledgeable, who follows world affairs, who has a college degree, who is perhaps an academic or intellectual, who tends to be a leader in the community and who, even if only unconsciously, helps shape the views of those in his or her orbit.

It is quite possible—perhaps likely—that the majority of people do not subscribe to such a doctrine. There are, after all, still many religious believers and many who avidly follow their horoscopes.

And of those who do subscribe to physicalism, we may find some who at the same instant unconsciously believe or even loudly proclaim their belief in some basically contradictory idea or -ism. (Think, for example, of the inwardly skeptical politician who is sharply aware that a strong affirmation of religious faith is crucial to his survival.)

Yet despite all this, I have the impression that physicalism is the foundation of the way our educated class views the world.

This is understandable in the case of scientists and engineers. After all, they spend their working lives looking at the world from from the standpoint of physicalism. And of course they may contaminate administrators, financial planners, and others who have to come to them for advice. But I think this influence of physicalism is felt even in the humanities, a place where one might hope to seek refuge from it. Though it is proclaimed there that the heart and spirit of the enterprise is Man—his thoughts, songs, arts, accomplishments—yet in the literature of, say, the last century and a half, the feeling comes through that Man is simply an accident, thrown up by the blind and random forces of nature, who is now faced with the impossible task of justifying his own significance. This seems the sort of mindset that would be a very natural consequence of underlying physicalism.

A thing that seems to me quite strange is that although it is the well-educated who are likely to believe in physicalism, they are unlikely to feel any need or to have any ability to justify their belief.  (There are, of course exceptions; quite possibly the present reader is one.)  Indeed, the fact that they subscribe to such a belief is a principal reason to describe them as “well-educated.” To do otherwise is to invite the adjectives “superstitious,” “naive,” or “ignorant.”

Of course given this situation, one of the first questions that occurs to me is this: How does one justify physicalism? And hard on the heels of that, a second question suggests itself: “What are the alternatives?” Surely if we are going to believe in physicalism, it must be because it is the best of the choices before us. But what choices?

Two possibilities are idealism or religion of some flavor or other.

I have little feel for idealism or how one might contrast it to physicalism. I suspect the same is true for the average well-educated person.

As for religion, it looks to me as though matters have reached such a state that we cannot compare them; it is automatically assumed that people cannot discuss religious matters and physics at the same time; they are said to operate in different domains. (This is not at all the same sort of discussion the atheist may have in mind when he says he certainly can discuss them at the same time; physics rules, and religion is a delusion produced by neuropathology or less honorable means.)

Are there other alternatives?

Very likely. And yet—again—strange to say, no one seems conscious of them. Or at least conscious of them as alternatives. That is, not as systems of thought that can be brought into the same arena with physicalism and compared by noting contrasting assumptions, consequences, or how well they comport with physical or psychological reality.

So let me leave you with these questions:

What—if any—are the alternatives to physicalism? And why is it preferable to all of them?

6 thoughts on “As water to fish: physicalism

  1. There are exceptions, of cusroe. But if we exclude people who become atheist for its shock value, theists in transition to atheism who are still clinging to elements of their old worldview, and atheist Buddhists, what remains are those who have embraced the naturalism implied by science. These last make up the great majority of modern atheists. There is even an effort to give the name Brights to those who adopt the naturalistic worldview.You’re right in one sense, I will admit. Many atheists are too timid to embrace naturalism as true. After all, naturalism is only the working theory of science. Of cusroe evolution is also only a working theory, but very few atheists refuse to embrace evolution as true (and then only for semantic reasons). I think its misguided and inconsistent not to embrace naturalism as well.

  2. Hi Mike–

    I came across this on the Plato’s Cave website (tho I am not a member as yet), and, as also a Ph.D. academic, feel impelled to formulate an answer to it.

    Your metaphor of a fish in water is apt, I think, for expressing what we who have been indoctrinated by western philosophy have been blinded to for so long, in part because it is so “close” to us, because it is what, essentially, we _are_. For some reason, we continue to be stuck in the modality of reductionism when we think about what the world is “really” made of; in our mind’s eye, we strip it all down to billiard-ball-like point masses or vibrating branes, completely missing the level of living organisms and their interacting systems, of which we human beings are a part. It is as though what western philosophy inherited from the Copernican Revolution and the triumph of Newtonian mechanics, along with a greatly increased ability to control purely physical (“mechanical”) systems, is an equally great inability to comprehend and deal with complexity, the complexity that characterizes biological systems. Our hunting and gathering far ancestors, and even our agricultural near ones, had to grasp and deal with that sort of complexity to survive, since they were (and knew they were) living organisms themselves, even though their cognitive understanding of underlying biological processes was small. Now we live in a time when billions of people are fed by mechanistic means and so can live largely detached from natural systems, and even though contemporary biological science is informing us daily of the intricacies of living beings, their genetic commonality and ecological interdependence, and the vast range of “choices” made by the tiniest living organism minute by minute, most people of industrial societies seem not to “see” this biological level at all. They are, for the most part, still living with an 18th-century worldview, believing that humans are separate from and able to “control” living systems as easily as they can predict and control billiard balls rolling down inclined planes.

    So when you ask, Are there other alternatives to physicalism, beyond idealism (the -ism that might arguably be said to govern our abstract financial sphere, and similar social constructs) and the various flavors of religion (all organized around an anthropocentric, patriarchal framework, of course), my answer is Yes. And what I would like to call it is vitalism–opening our eyes to Life as a phenomenon that exists in many forms on this planet, and putting it at the center of our ontology and our ethics. I like the word “vitalism” because of its linguistic congeners and metonymy–vitality, vivacity, in vivo–and also because of its historical role as the other pole of the dualism that was supposedly defeated by “mechanism” back in the 19th/early 20th century. Somehow the successful synthesis of urea was taken to show that there was no real distinction between the living and the nonliving, and, absurdly, the notion is with us to this day. Nothing could be further from the truth, but this simplistic way of thinking surely has fed late 20th/early 21st century fantasies of “control,” which we now desperately need to overturn.

    I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it to Plato’s Cave this weekend, but I hope you will seriously consider this alternative as you prepare to lead the discussion. Life is the water in which we swim, and once we start “seeing” it again, that’s when I think the truly interesting, paradigm-changing conversation can begin.

    • Ronnie,

      I do believe I’ve seen you before at The Movable Feast. Thank you for bringing up vitalism. I must confess to having little feel for the idea. The next meeting of Plato’s Cave is not this weekend but June 23. Perhaps you could show up and tell us something about it. Meanwhile, I’ll forward your post to Steve Hall, the organizer for Plato’s Cave.

      • Thanks for your reply, Mike. Yes, I think we probably did meet at the Moveable Feast, years ago–too bad that’s not still going on, it was good food and a good bunch of people! Sorry I failed to pay more attention to the date–maybe I could attend, later in the month, if it is OK with Steve and the group. I do think it’s high time to question “physicalism” as the dogmatic assumption it has become in our culture. Glad you’re doing so!

        • Ronnie,

          Movable Feast has been resurrected. They are shut down for the summer but will start again in the Fall. You can contact Roberta Lerman at and find out more if you want. As for Plato’s Cave, contact Steve and come if you can.

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