Wednesday, November 02, 2005

On the concept of physicalism

Another update from an old post, because getting clear on the concept of physicalism is important to some previous discussion.

Physicalism, as understood in my book (and the definition is laid out clearly) is committed to three fundamental doctrines. 1) Physics is mechanistic at the most basic level of analysis. Whetever is happening to the basic stuff of the universe is fully determined by the laws of physics, the initial conditions, and perhaps a quantum chance factor. 2) Physics is closed. No physical event has a nonphysical cause. 3) Whatever exists in space and time that is not physical supervenes on the physical. Given the state of the physical, whatever states that are not physical must be the way they are and not some other way. So, for example, we can describe the braking system of a car in physical terms that does not mention the capability of stopping a car, but given the state of the physical, the braking capacities of the system are guaranteed to be there. Nothing in this definition requires reductionism, and this definition should encompass all forms of materialism, whether they are eliminative, reductive, or non-reductive. Is this definition of physicalism in any way a straw man?


Johnny-Dee said...

I like your way of characterizing physicalism. Unfortunately, physicalists themselves have a hard time coming up with a definition of physicalism. When I attended Bowling Green University's conference on physicalism this past spring, the speakers couldn't agree on what "physicalism" was. The best definitions were "negative" (e.g., physicalism is not dualism). Many of the papers that didn't want to get entangled in the definition debate would say things like, "we can't agree on a philosophical definition of physicalism, but we all know what we mean by it." I thought it was very humorous. Although, I agreed with Sara Worley's definition of physicalism as non-teleological. She seemd unconcerned that her conception of physicalism seems self-refuting along the lines that have been sketched by Norman Malcolm, William Hasker, and yourself.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I don't think lack of consensus is necessarily a weakness. I'd like to see 100 randomly chosen theistic philosophers who have a consensus on the concept of God. That, by itself, wouldn't show that theism is a dumb position.

As for the definition:
1) Physics is mechanistic at the most basic level of analysis. Whetever is happening to the basic stuff of the universe is fully determined by the laws of physics, the initial conditions, and perhaps a quantum chance factor. 2) Physics is closed. No physical event has a nonphysical cause. 3) Whatever exists in space and time that is not physical supervenes on the physical.

As the definition stands, you could be a physicalist and believe in goblins that don't interact with the physical or don't exist in space and time. You need something like 4) There exist no events that do not supervene on the physical.

Victor Reppert said...

So my definition is deficient because it leaves open the possibility of non-spatio-temporal goblins?

Blue Devil Knight said...

The definition leaves out the most important aspect of physicalism: the claim that that's all there is. You have provided useful criteria, but they don't go quite far enough (it is a diamond, as opposed to straw, man) in expressing our view. For instance, I could believe in nonspatiotemporal mathematical objects that do not causally interact with the physical world but still be a physicalist according to your definition. Also, I could believe in a pre-established harmony between the physical and mental. That is, the physical is causally closed, everything in space and time is physical, but there is a psychophysical parallelism with no interactions allowed.

I think you need a "and there's nothing else" clause.

You shouldn't let we physicalists sneak out of having to deal with abstract-seeming properties like the property of being an odd number.

Mark McClure said...

There is an excellent group of essays by philosopher Barbara Montero of the City University of New York on the issue of defining physicalism. After discussing the difficulties she arrives at a negative definition---the physical is the non-mental. She deals very thoroughly with what seems to me a very fundamental problem with physicalism. Her website is located at :

Mark McClure said...

There is an excellent group of essays by philosopher Barbara Montero of the City University of New York on the issue of defining physicalism. After discussing the difficulties she arrives at a negative definition---the physical is the non-mental (she calls it the via negativa). She deals very thoroughly with what seems to me a very fundamental problem with physicalism (of which most physicalists seem unaware).

Her website is located at :

Mike Wiest said...

(Sorry I posted a duplicate of part of this comment at "Paper Presentation..." before I saw the other comments here.)

I just want to warn you that modern physical theory is not "mechanistic" and it's not "causally closed." It's not always easy to get even physicists to say this explicitly although it's been known for decades. Quantum theory is usually described as containing irreducible randomness, so most physicists will tell you that quantum randomness is incompatible with "rationality" or "free will" and such. But it is possible to see the randomness as arising out of the irreducible non-locality, or holism, of the theory. In that picture, measurements appear random because they are influenced by non-local causal connections.

So, without having read your book, I tend to think that your arguments WILL successfully rule out classical physicalism, but not quantum physicalism. Why? Because, in BDK's terms, the classical theory by definition says "that's all there is (causally)" because it is deterministic and completely describes a system's behavior for all time. The quantum description on the other hand is manifestly incomplete for determining behavior.

In this context I find it hard to imagine how to define physicalism in a non-trivial way, because if something has a causal effect on a physical variable, why can't I call it physical? I mean, even if it's straight from God, if it's moving physical objects, then isn't it a physical...aspect of God? It may be unnaccounted for by present-day physics, but then I would tend to call it "new physics" rather than "non-physics."

What do you think? If "non-mechanical" or "holistic" are no longer valid criteria for "non-physical," what other distinctions might we use?

Someone suggested "mental" vs. "non-mental" as the dividing line. But if the mental can move the physical, why not consider it a type of physical entity, or an aspect of a physical entity, rather than claiming it is some kind of inccommensurable substance?

(I take it for granted that non-physicalists believe that mental entities can influence physical bodies...but please tell me if there are epiphenominalist non-physicalists. Maybe they are Calvinists. Anyhow, I think physicalists should also admit that mental properties can influence physical bodies; because if not, there is no way to explain why our conscious experiences are good guides for behavior: ie. fire hurts, sex feels good.)

So...why do we need a notion of non-physical? Even if we're theists, why can't God have a body like Spinoza told us? If we have immortal souls, and there is a consistent explanation of how such souls relate to our bodies (even if we could never find that explanation), why can't I consider it a physical explanation? Does non-physicalism mean simply there are some things we can't explain, and those are called non-physical? Or is it a belief that there are actual contradictions in God's laws?

Or is non-physicalism just a name for the belief that present physics needs some "new physics" to be complete?

Incidentally, I don't think we can use "observability" as a criterion either, because we already have unobservable physical objects: quarks.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Mike, nonphysicalism is more broad than that. Many physicalists take it that present physics/neuroscience is probably wrong, but will get it right someday, and when they do the laws will describe how things are.

My understanding of nonnaturalists of the sort on this blog (i.e., Christian) is that they want some aspects of the human condition to fall outside the sphere of what natural science says is nomically possible. ('Nomically possible' roughly means things that are possible given the theories of natural science: e.g., gravity). Even if physics expands, that just introduces a bunch of new nomic possibilities, but most dualists would say that what they want is that the human mind/soul does not "follow the laws of physics" even if the laws are expanded to include stochastic and nonlocal interactions. I don't mean to focus on physics, but fill in any natural science, e.g., neuroscience.

I'm sure others on the list have more sophisticated understanding of non-naturalism. I describe it as an outsider.

Bones of Time said...

Concerning your understanding of time, I thought I might add the following:

The Limitation of Time

The reason for writing this short paper is that people do not understand what time is.

There are three manners of considering time: 1. As a physical reality – that which is common to all mankind and his physical world. 2. Subjectively – considering time as it directly relates to us. 3. Eternal – that which continues to have existence after all else has ceased to exist as dimensional reality.

1. As physical reality all time is a velocity. It is the speed of common light (electromagnetic energy) in all its varied forms. The reason this value is so important is due to its being the foundation of all physical existence. When eme (electromagnetic energy) moves through empty space, it all moves with the same speed. When eme at very high frequency is formed into mass by the overlapping of its frequency upon itself, that same energy that was once free to move about the universe at a great speed now has as its place of movement a very small space. Because it is confined to a very small volume of space does not mean it no longer moves at the same speed as when it was “free” to move in a straight line. Electrons are direct products of electromagnetic energy, and their being formed into neutrons and protons form our physical world. The unraveling of this state of existence is demonstrated when a nuclear bomb is detonated. That which is evidenced is electromagnetic energy unraveling from its confinement. This energy in turn heats the air about the explosion and that outward expanding air forms the destructive wave that destroys objects. When an atomic bomb is detonated in outer space there is only the release of the electromagnetic energy and small atomic particles that have not had time to unravel, and that’s it.

Electromagnetic energy is able to form mass as well as come from it. This is seen when a high frequency eme wave nears the inner part of an atom and converts into a negative and positive electron. That which was once eme becomes dimensional mass. It is this inner speed of electrons, which form neutrons and protons, that all clocks measure.

When a mass begins moving in any direction, it begins to attain to the speed of its existence. The speeds we move at are so slow that all directions have little relevancy to the actual speed of light, and all objects are able to easily equate to a clock common to all mankind. All clocks measure existence in relation to the internal speed of light within a mass, which is why it matters not whether the clock is the sun, moon, earth’s rotation, a candle, hourglass, grandfather clock and on and on. In all instances, from the atomic frequency of a very accurate clock to an hourglass, everything in the physical world measures time relative to the speed of light. It is for this reason that it is expressed that a person is able to travel to a distant star at the speed of light and then return back to their starting point with little physical time having lapsed. The person has moved to near the actual speed of physical light and so their physical time no longer has the same relevancy to others. For the moving person at near the speed of light, their existence has become the standard by which all other masses relate to as being actual, physical time.

Were a person to move to the speed of light, there would be no physical existence at all. That person and physical time would become one and the same entity. There would no longer exist any difference in time. All clocks at that speed, of any sort, would all read the same, and there would never be a time difference between any of them. Time everywhere and always would be the value of “c” and the hands and numbers (in reality hands and numbers could not really exist, nor could any physical concept) would never change – never. Of course, that would not be true if any of the energy were to be reformed into mass once again. For at that point the mass would be moving in any one direction at less than the value of “c” so it and all other objects could relate to each other once again in a three dimensional fashion at a speed less than that of eme. The once speeding linear energy would once again be susceptible to observable motion at less than that of the speed of light, and so could have clocks tell how it related to other masses as they mutually accelerated and decelerated in relation to the speed of light.

2. The second part of time is that which we are most acquainted with. The problem with expressing this segment to people at large is that every person is a universe unto himself or herself. That which is common to one person’s thinking is not to another. Every one is one. Every world is different in thought to that of the next. There are individual values placed upon every person from time of birth to that of death, which places them as different from all others. Because of this kind of existence, it is impossible for any one manner of thought to be acceptable to all, for all do not understand and relate to our world as do others. Some focus on color, some sound, some feel, some exist in a world of their own making – such as drugs afford– which form of thought-reality is destructive to the person using them. A drug adduct exists in a “real” physical world but under a delusion caused by drugs that make their mind think outside of physical reality. They “think” in a world not common to all, and their delusion becomes destructive because it physically rubs against reality. It is commonly expressed that those who use alcohol cause half of the fatal car accidents. Such people act stupid and drive stupid because that is the stupid world they are in when they drink and drive

This kind of different thinking is also seen in a different manner through the lives of those that look at the real world and decide to examine and live within specific limitations of it. Those interested in music and art, study what actually exists, and seek to form what is a delight to them and present it as a common experience that will be of benefit to others. In this manner their examination of the real world becomes a delight to others because they, having also had common experience of the physical world, are able to directly relate to what they learn that is newly expressed. Music is the expression of the soul, and if the person writing the music has a disturbed soul, then that is what the music will sound like. If the person relates music to the harmony of nature, and they express that flow of thought in a mutually understood manner, the music will be music to all.

Years ago I wrote a book, “To Share Thoughts …” in which I wrote of the influence nature has as being a form of music. I am going to quote that work:


Were a person to meet an alien, much could be determined about it by the kind of music it liked.

Music is an expression of the soul of man. People who are in a hurry, and who are active, enjoy the fast beat of traveling music. The rapid tempo, the louder volume, and perhaps extra beats thrown in, all add up to produce an excitement of the moment in the mind and emotions of a person. Because music moves one's emotions, people wish to express that which they feel within, so they begin clapping their hands or tapping their foot in time to the music. Often, as people become older, and their energy level decreases, the fast music is not as appealing as are the slower works they once thought very mundane. Their thoughts, as their natural expression of body, are a reflection of the decreased inner drive that can be portrayed by music. But, whether young or old, the pure enjoyment of inwardly participating in different kinds of music is a manner by which all people express themselves.

Music, though, is not always that of an instrument found in the band or orchestra. For what is music to mankind other than his relationship with waves of sound transmitted by air? Man responds, through the medium of air, to the instrument that produces waves of "music".

But God has instruments and an orchestra too, that are played in a manner most amazing. We find this in the wind section of a hurricane as it is accompanied by the rolling thunder of the drums, keeping cadence to the flashing baton of lightning strokes, as the black, green?grey garbed audience of majestic clouds witness the scene and silently applaud. The procession passes over the waters, the persuasive notes causing waves to raise their white?gloved hands in unison, then crash together according to the tempo and force of the music which so intensely arouses them to action. The tempo after a time drops, the waves no longer respond to the inner calling of the Song of The Wind. The players that had such an interest in the score before them suddenly have an interest in a promenade found in another part of the world, and they, as their audience, depart.

Then begins a Song of Serenity. The sea becomes quiet and the air still; the only motion being that found in the reflection of sunlight from a wavelet whose origin is unknown. Soon the surface of the ocean is completely still. The Sound of Serenity is reverberating its single, lasting magical note. Rest and quiet cover all. Everything intensely listens to the single note that sends out its continuing, languid presence to all the world about it.

Then, above these majestic displays of music and musical art, God plays The Music of The Universe. The brilliance of our sun completely dominates our world just as music fills a room, or space, with its delicate bits of fleeting existence. Planets, moons, and asteroids move about the stage of our solar system according to the dictates of this warming, life?giving orb that has become the head conductor of all attuned to its waves of time. They, being ordered by a baton seen clearly but by themselves, play notes heard only by an attuned ear. Waters rise, plants grow and other forms of life perform their assigned movement to its melody as long as they are encouraged to do so by its presence. Then, when darkness and winter arrive, these rest. Waters freeze and plants retire to the wing rooms of deep earth, as other forms of life, too, seek places of quiet repose.

The song of The Long Winter's Night then begins. The risen, crystal clear curtains open one's view to the cold light of brilliant, distant stars whose tremulous, feeble notes reflect the divine?sent message from the surface of graceful, white drifts of snow. While rising with quiet dignity, the Luminous Monarch of The Night sounds forth his lines above his fellow musicians, playing a concerto of hope and love especially sent for the young.

Man plays instruments he understands due to his ability to manipulate them, and man plays songs according to his understanding and emotions. God also plays instruments according to His understanding and His ability. Man plays a few notes at a time; God directs orchestras by the trillions at the same instant. Yet, there is not one note played that clashes with another while yet maintaining harmonic beauty and perfection of time. Each song is to the beat perfect in its own time, and the ever changing score endless. From noon to midnight, then back to noon, there are numerous Songs of Perfection, all being played at the same time, serenading those willing to listen. But should those who listen not catch all the notes, nor understand at what moment they are to applaud, the lack of musical appreciation lies with the audience and not the Conductor. Later, I believe later, He shall teach both.

It is not that the reality is nonexistent, it is that we need to perceive what exists and then translate that into what has common meaning and actual reality to all. In this sense it is easy to see that each of us is a world to ourselves. Each has their own manner of thought. Each their own idea as to what reality and time is. What fills your mind is what your reality is, or is becoming. Proverbs 16:3 states “Commit (roll) your works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established.” Being in tune with this world, in a way that includes God, will cause your thoughts to begin being settled (established) in a correct manner. This thought now leads to the third part of time. That as it relates to that of eternity.

3. Time and eternity – how do they relate? Physical, real time, is surrounded by the eternal. Time is like a small boat upon an endless ocean that goes on forever and ever no matter what direction a person takes. Of course for this to be accurate in the literal sense that same ocean would have to extend above and below the boat as well, but it is easier to think in terms of a flat ocean.

In that time fits into that of eternity, eternity is the greater of the two. Eternity was before that of time. This is evident in that time has limitation by its very definition while that of eternal does not. In that the eternal was before that of time, and time has come from the eternal, it is a wise thing to consider what values the eternal may have upon that of time. As we have value placed upon that of time, what value may the eternal have upon ourselves? Are we here by accident? Has the creation of our world, and mankind upon it, been an exercise in futility?

Let’s consider where the boat upon the face of the waters is headed. No matter what direction it goes the end of it is the same. Whether it is a speedboat or a raft, it would make no difference. If it were to go a million miles or stay where it originally was, it would still be in the same place. This is the position of mankind at present. No matter what is done, the result is going to be the same – every one of us is going to leave this life and return to the Eternal existence. Time is going to be destroyed – whether “now or then” it’s all the same. If we become ruler of a great land, or if we wind up as the lowest of the low, time ends for all. Whether at a young age or old age, we are as the boat upon the waters. No matter what is done in what manner, the end is certain.

We have been made intelligent beings. The most common garden variety mind of a human being is still greater than the best computer today. How is it possible that a thing so well engineered as ourselves is able to have no meaning other than our eventual destruction? We have been made to relate to the Eternal at present. Then pass onto that eternal state and forever remain there, as would a mass remain in an eternal state of “no time” were it to reach the speed of light. There have been limitations and restrictions placed upon mankind for his own good, and where mankind refuses to acknowledge these restrictions, he becomes as the alcoholic that lives in a world of his own making, to the destruction of himself and others. The message from that which is Eternal has not been silent, and mankind has not been silent in proving the Eternal as being correct.

How long have wars been waged, and what has been the eventual outcome of all of the warring? Where are the winners and losers of the war of 1776? How about the Civil War of the early 1860’s? Both sides have had their “boats” disappear into eternity. All that remains is the influence they had for good and evil imprinted upon us at present. But they, themselves, are gone. Was what they gained and lost worth what had to do in order to get it? Was what they did in tune, while in time, with that of eternity so that when they reach that eternal state they find that they were in agreement with the laws of the Creator and not directly opposing Him?

There are three quick thoughts that will help you to understand how to relate to that which is eternal at present, and live according to the dictates of the Creator:

1. Read your Bible. It is the source book of Wisdom and understanding. Nations have risen and fallen according to the prophecy of this book.
2. Love God (your Creator) first. The greater this is accomplished in your life, the more content you shall find yourself with the thought of your eventual passing into eternity.
3. Treat others as you would like them to treat you.

This is like an overview of what and why physical time is. The rest has to be filled by each one.

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