- the supernatural: “Gods, gods, spirits, souls or other immaterial entities which are alleged to direct or influence the operations of nature, society and the inner man” (from George Novack’s The Origins of Materialism)
- immaterial minds: not only souls but also minds that are somehow independent of brains
- free floating ideas: theories, statements, concepts, or the like that are taken to exist outside human brains. This doesn’t exclude the representation of such ideas in physical objects, but those objects are physical things themselves and ideas cannot exist outside some sort of material substrate.
- moral values that are thought to exist – or even to be objectively right – independently of what people actually think and independently of particular social contexts
There are inevitable difficulties in any serious materialism. In its earliest phases it has a comparative simplicity of definition, since it rests on a rejection of presumptive hypotheses of non-material or metaphysical prime causes, and defines its own categories in terms of demonstrable physical investigations. Yet … in the continuing process of investigation, the initial and all successive categories are inherently subject to radical revision, and in this are unlike the relatively protected categories of presumed or revealed truths
But there’s a good reason for that, as Williams tells us: “For the special character of materialism, and that which alone gives it value, is its rigorous openness to physical evidence”. In other words, materialism is ultimately a scientific claim. Materialists are committed to the idea that only certain kinds of things can exist and have causal effects, and they are prepared to revise their definition of those kinds of things in response to the evidence. There is even a point at which evidence could in principle force consistent materialists to abandon materialism: if irrefutable evidence was produced that precisely the sorts of things that materialism specifically excludes were actually causally effective, then materialists would have to admit defeat. Given enough miracles, materialism falls! I don’t see that happening, personally, but I’ve been wrong before.
What about the second problem? In a recent comment on one of my earlier posts, Mervyn Hartwig seemed to question whether my materialism was consistent with critical realism. Let me quote from my own reply to Mervyn:
This, of course, is where Bhaskar’s idea that there is a domain of the real beyond the actual world comes in. I have a thoroughly materialist understanding of the actual … but I have also argued consistently (and consistently with Bhaskar’s early work, I think) that there are aspects of the universe beyond the actual, aspects that we can have true beliefs about which do not depend on the existence or properties of material things. As I put it in my recent review of Tuukka Kaidesoja’s book for the Journal of Social Ontology, “there are true facts about the world, the referents of which are not actual things or events”. In particular, it is true that certain types of things … would have certain types of causal power that arise from their composition and structure, and this is true whether or not examples of the type actually do exist: in other words, there are real causal powers, independently of whether there are any actual objects with those causal powers.
So, following Bhaskar, I’m making a distinction between the ontological domain of the actual, which includes everything that exists in the universe and everything that happens in the universe, and the ontological domain of the real. The real, according to Bhaskar, includes the actual but is not exhausted by it. One good reason for accepting that is that there are true facts about the world which are not facts about actual things, and the idea of real causal powers describes one such type of fact. So I’m being materialist about the actual, while acknowledging that a coherent ontology must include other elements too. But which other elements? And why not all the things I’ve excluded earlier in the post? That’s a big question, which I can’t guarantee to answer completely, but I will try to make some progress on it in a later post.