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Materialism matters: The role of philosophy in science

Originally published: Advanced Science News on February 20, 2024 by Kieran Schlegel-O'Brien (more by Advanced Science News)  | (Posted Apr 16, 2024)

In this first article in a series on philosophy and science, we take a look at materialism and why it is fundamental to science.

A short disclaimer before we read further: I’m a materialist. Materialism is a branch of philosophy to which the sciences, particularly the physical and life sciences, owe a lot. Materialism posits that the material world–matter–exists, and everything in the Universe, including consciousness, is made from or is a product of matter. An objective reality exists and we can understand it. Without materialism, physics, chemistry, and biology as we know it wouldn’t exist.

Another branch of philosophy, idealism, is in direct contradiction to materialism. Idealism states that, instead of matter, the mind and consciousness are fundamental to reality; that they are immaterial and therefore independent of the material world.

A lot of scientists and researchers don’t necessarily have a conscious philosophy, or else don’t consider philosophy to be particularly relevant to their day-to-day work. But by not having a conscious philosophy, scientists—like anyone else—can unconsciously pick up other philosophies and outlooks in the society around them. This has led to a situation where idealist philosophies, both consciously and unconsciously, are creeping their way back into the sciences, particularly in theoretical physics, leading to false interpretations of the nature of reality and the Universe.

I am not alone in this view. Writing in Scientific American in 2019, science journalist John Horgan wrote:

The so-called pure sciences aren’t so pure either. Prominent physicists persist in promoting glitzy but unconfirmable ideas like string theory, inflation, multiverse theories and the anthropic principle (which holds that the universe must be as we observe it to be because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to observe it). In mind-science, theorists advocate models–based on quantum mechanics and information theory–that make consciousness a fundamental component of reality. Like the anthropic principle, these mind−body theories reflect our narcissistic insistence that we are central to the cosmos.

Ideas like there being no such thing as an objective reality; certain conclusions drawn from the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics; and the anthropic principle mentioned above, are all examples of idealism within science.

But by rejecting materialism and embracing idealism, the physical sciences cannot progress further. Scientists need to reaffirm that reality exists, it is objective, and it can be investigated and understood. To reject any or all of these assumptions is to fundamentally reject the scientific method. It is therefore time that scientists and researchers reclaim materialism.

The case against idealism

Reading the popular science literature, not a year goes by without a book or article being published that claims—based on the latest experiments in quantum mechanics—sensational theories, such as that no objective reality exists, or our observation of the Universe brings the Universe into being, or even that physical reality itself doesn’t actually exist at all.

Such idealist explanations of experimental results have even gone as far as turning science fiction into serious scientific inquiry, with claims that it is 50% likely that we are all actually living in one big computer simulation. That these ideas are taken so seriously is a symptom of a science facing crisis.

Aside from the most obvious questions which arise from these theories (what was the nature of reality before conscious life evolved? Did nothing exist before conscious life evolved?), another conclusion can be drawn by denying objective reality: If objective reality cannot be known, or is non-existent, then we cannot change the world around us. Some might even go further and conclude that there is therefore no point in trying.

In an age of mass extinction and climate catastrophe, this is dangerously complacent if not outright complicit in the existential threat facing our societies. But by accepting materialism, we accept that we can and must change the world for the better.

Materialism and science

Science and the scientific method are rooted in materialism. The scientific revolution in Europe and North America of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were built on the foundation stones of materialism. In an age of revolution and struggle against the old feudal order, philosophers and scientists began questioning the established ideas of society, including ideas within what would later be known as the natural sciences.

As Frederik Engels wrote of this period in 1883, it was “a time which called for giants and produced giants—giants in power of thought, passion, and character, in universality and learning.”

Empiricism became the basic scientific method. It states that knowledge can only be gained by observing, measuring, and experimenting, rather than through things like logic and intuition alone, or indeed through what the Pope told you.

This is very useful to science, and acted as a great impetus to progress and discovery, but it also has its limits. For example, if all we did was rely on our observations of the movement of the heavens to understand them, we could quite easily draw the conclusion that everything in the heavens–the Sun, the Moon, the planets, the stars–rotates around the Earth, which is static. Of course, people did think this for millennia, and who could blame them? The idea that the Earth orbits the Sun went against “common sense” and all the empirical evidence at the time. Furthermore, you cannot feel the Earth moving, so common sense would tell you it must be stationary.

Only with better instruments, more accurate measurements, and new observations did astronomers start to observe things which didn’t quite fit with this geocentric view of cosmology, also known as the Ptolemaic system–after the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy.

But since the Ptolemaic system was also supported by the Catholic Church, going against this model was out of the question as it would mean going against God Himself. At first, rather than realizing the model was wrong, astronomers came up with more and more weird and wonderful explanations for these discrepancies and more and more complicated and cumbersome mathematical models tacked onto the geocentric model to shore it up. This was evidence that medieval cosmology was entering crisis—along with medieval society in general—and something would have to give.

Eventually, the evidence became too overwhelming and the geocentric model came crashing down with the Copernican Revolution, when in the 16th century, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus finally took the bold step in saying what perhaps many were already thinking but didn’t dare say: The Earth and planets orbit around the Sun, not the other way round.

This was a truly revolutionary step forward in thought. The 16th century saw the beginning of the end of absolutism in Europe and dominance of the Catholic Church in peoples’ lives and society at large, and as in all revolutionary epochs, philosophy and science were not immune to the seismic changes taking place within political institutions and economic relations. It is no accident that the centuries spanning the Copernican Revolution and the Enlightenment coincided with the Reformation, the decline and fall of feudalism and absolutism, and the bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries.

With the heliocentric model of cosmology now firmly in the saddle, and with cosmology and philosophy freed from the ideological grip of the Church, physics and mathematics made great leaps forward, culminating in Newtonian mechanics.

A mechanical materialist conception underpinned this early classical mechanics. The motion of the planets and moons were thought of as similar to that of a mechanical clock, and scientists described the world in this rigidly mechanical sense. Cogs, levers, and pulleys were the main metaphors of the day, and Newtonian mechanics informed us that this perfect, clock-work universe was entirely predictable, so long as the mathematics were there to describe it.

The French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace took this worldview to its logical conclusion when he proposed the idea that if one were to know the starting conditions–location and speed–of all matter in the Universe, right down to every atom, then everything in the entire Universe would be entirely predictable.

We now know that this assumption is very simplistic.

The limits of early materialism

The Universe is not a giant clock-work machine; there are imperfections, there is unpredictability, there is randomness, and a whole other multitude of phenomena that cannot be predicted by mathematics alone (or even predicted accurately at all). Just take weather forecasts as one trivial example.

Just like with the Ptolemaic system, scientists had for a long time seen such observations that threw the mechanical worldview into doubt, and there were detractors right from the start. Unlike what Newtonian mechanics implies, people knew that some things were not reversible. You may be able to boil water, capture the steam, and condense that steam back into water, but if you drop an egg in that boiling water, the egg cannot be unboiled along with it. It has undergone a qualitative change from which there is no going back. And eggs aren’t alone in this. The world around us is full of such change.

This is not to disparage Newton, Laplace, and other scientists of the Enlightenment. Newton, for example, was looking at the movement of the heavens–which at first glance do look perfectly mechanical–and wasn’t spending his time boiling eggs. Their contributions to science were a great and progressive leap forward in our understanding of the natural world but they could only work with the knowledge and means of investigation which were available to them at the time.

It wouldn’t be until the beginning of the last century when classical mechanics, and with it a mechanistic materialist worldview, were supplanted by other paradigm shifts in the forms of perhaps the most well-known theories of the 20th century: relativity and quantum mechanics.

Other new advances, like chaos theory and complexity, also emerged to try and understand the randomness found in a lot of natural systems, and these go a lot further in better describing processes in the natural world than a rigid, clock-work worldview ever could. Of course, in the field of biology, evolutionary theory took a materialist view of life and gave an explanation to how it develops and changes.

Matter in motion

Science therefore acquired a new materialism, one that acknowledged that matter and movement are not forever static and unchanging. Materialism today does not just claim that matter is all that exists, but matter in motion, in a state of constant change. This idea can also be found in philosophy, going right back to ancient times.

But by the end of the 18th century, these philosophical ideas about change had fallen out of fashion in western thought, and in a lot of respects had been forgotten about, buried under the weight of the dominant mechanics of Newton. It took the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, writing in the early 19th century, to “rescue” this and bring it to light again.

Hegel named his philosophy dialectics, a word which up until that point had meant the writing of philosophical arguments in the form of a dialogue, or “dialectic”. Now, with Hegel, dialectics meant a philosophy of change.

In the next article, we’ll see how dialectics, coupled with materialism, can provide a powerful heuristic approach to understanding laws and phenomena of the natural world discovered in the 19th century and beyond.

Kieran Schlegel-O’Brien Writer, editor, and illustrator at Advanced Science News.

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