The Evolution of Ideas, Part 3: Reductive Materialism and the Scientific Worldview



“The prevailing doctrine – that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation of physical law – cannot be regarded as unassailable. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.” – Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, pg 11.


Reductive materialism is the philosophical theory that all components of reality can be explained sufficiently by the existence and function of matter. A reductive materialist may allow that you fall in love or get afraid, but insist that those experiences are simply the bi-product of a physical interaction (in this case, of brain chemistry). This (to the reductive materialist) is more than describing a correlation between the firing of certain neurons and the onset of an emotional state. It is to explicitly state that one condition causes another.


Reductive materialism is also known as type physicalism or identity theory. It has more extreme versions: eliminative materialism suggests the elimination of all ‘folk psychology’ terms (love, anger, etc) as an obsolete mode of understanding physical processes (To paraphrase Paul Churchland: What people used to call pain is actually C-fiber stimulation {or whatever science finally decides it is}. There really is no such thing as “pain”; only the C-fiber stimulation actually exists).

A reductive materialist may claim that you fell in love because of the release of certain chemicals in the brain, but would not, necessarily, deny the reality of the emotion – albeit now relegated to a bi-product of brain chemistry. An eliminative materialist, though, would tell you that the term ‘love’ has no reality of its own – it is an imprecise and old-fashioned way to describe a particular chemical reaction. ‘Love’, in any meaningful sense, does not exist.


Opposed to reductive materialism is idealism, which is the theory that reality consists solely of mind. Idealism is synonymous with eastern philosophy (Central to Indian philosophy is the theme of spiritual liberation. Hence idealism, though not necessary to the theme of liberation {or Moksha}, finds common ground in the idea of throwing off the shackles of an illusory world). in popular culture, most notably certain forms of Buddhism (Yogagcara Buddhism is often incorrectly believed to be an idealist philosophy) and Vedanta philosophy in India. In the west, Plato is often held up as the father of metaphysical idealism due to his theory of forms. But this is an erroneous attribution – Plato explicitly states that he believes in matter, simply as an imperfect or transitory mode of being. Plato, therefore, is a dualist – one who believes that mind and matter co-exist to weave the web we call reality, rather than a monist – one who believes (either as an idealist or a materialist) that reality is reducible to a singular model of existence.

I opened this section with a quote from Thomas Nagel because it was his recent book ‘Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False’ that brought the subject to mind.


In the book, Nagel examines the adoption of reductive materialism as a philosophical principle upon which the scientific method is based. This materialist philosophy, he says, has slipped innocuously into scientific thought in the following roundabout manner:


The physical sciences develop to study the physical world. They succeed spectacularly. They do not find any trace of a non-physical world. They conclude that non-physical reality is the bi-product of physical reality. This is a prime example of circular reasoning. The physical sciences are bound not to work beyond their remit, so could not have concluded otherwise. For this reason, Nagel says, it is not their place to make pronouncements on metaphysical subjects. Nagel suggests that the drawing of these paradigm-defining lines in the sand of our ideas is best left to philosophers.


Rather, however, than anything inside Mind and Cosmos, it was the critic’s reaction to the book that prompted this piece of writing. It was universally panned. Even the gentlemanly Steven Pinker opined on Twitter that Mind and Cosmos was “The shoddy reasoning of a once great thinker.”


No one is duty-bound to like or dis-like any particular book. Nonetheless, the vehemence of Nagel’s detractors does carry a certain sobering message: Stop writing this or we’ll laugh you out of academia. The materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett, for example, wrote of Nagel’s work that it “isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.” And Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist, wrote “his views are pretty much anti-science and not worth highlighting.” This backlash is doubly strange when you consider that a number of respectable scientists publicly hold views similar to Nagel’s (Christian de Duve, Robert Hazen, and Harold J. Morowitz, for example).

There is a segment of the intellectual world that would like any question of reductive materialism (and related subjects such as Darwinian evolutionary theory) to be black balled. But strength of opinion is not indicative of necessary correctness.


There should be no prohibited thoughts. It is perfectly valid to question the modern day doctrine of reductive materialism.


There are questions we should ask of materialism:


Why assume the primacy of matter? There is an obvious correlation between happenings in the brain and happenings in the mind, but why does this necessitate that mind is a bi-product of brain? And why is it simpler to posit an Emergentist (Emergentism refers to two systems interacting in such a way to create a third, fundamentally different, system, whose properties could not be deduced from knowledge of the original two systems) solution to the appearance of mind that relies solely on matter interacting with matter than to posit a secondary mode of existence that can exist independent of matter? Why not posit a non-physical component of existence that interacts with matter to produce mind as we experience it?

I contend that it is not simpler to reduce mind to matter for the following reason: it is counter-intuitive. It is clear to any normal human being that our existence consists of two strata of experience: the physical and the mental. Why should we attempt to reduce one of these to the other? And if we were to do so, how could we concretely prove such a reduction?


The simple answer to the above question is that, at present, we cannot prove that mind is reducible to matter. It is acceptable as a truth only if we accept reductive materialism as brute fact, and I believe that something has to be self-evident to be accepted as a brute fact. Not only is reductive materialism not self-evident, it is actually at odds with our experience of the world. This is apparent from the fact that, whatever one may privately believe, we are all, functionally, dualists.


3 responses to “The Evolution of Ideas, Part 3: Reductive Materialism and the Scientific Worldview

  1. You wrote that “It is clear to any normal human being that our existence consists of two strata of experience: the physical and the mental. Why should we attempt to reduce one of these to the other? And if we were to do so, how could we concretely prove such a reduction?”

    Normal human beings, as we observe them, can’t tell the difference between good food and bad food. Many of them are not literate, never mind educated to the level of respected thinkers regarding this subject. To suggest that common thinking is correct because it is common is flat Earth kind of thinking. I don’t think that is the best way to go about this problem. It has, so far, achieved nothing but argument and division between philosophy and science.

    To entertain the thought that because consciousness doesn’t feel like the result of material processes it should not be considered an emergent property of material processes is simply backward thinking and counter productive.

    You have posited that some ‘other thing’ could be involved but have no thoughts on testing it, quantifying it, identifying it. Your final paragraph basically says ‘it can’t be that other thing, so it must be that my own pet theory is true’ …. not really very scientific of you. I am most decidedly not a dualist. Your claim that we all are is simply false.

  2. Hi MAL, thanks for commenting, you raise some excellent objections. Before I counter them, I’d just like to mention that this piece (and all of the pieces in this series) are fairly non-academic philosophical essays that were written on commission for an inter-disciplinary journal looking to spark conversation. Not that I’m using that as an excuse for any lack of argumentation, just an explanation for brevity and, occasionally, the playing of devils advocate.

    Your first critique is an analogy whereby you note the uneducated persons inability to distinguish between good and bad food. Of course, you are right, without education one cannot tell the difference between good and bad upon any particular spectrum. But, I would counter that the difference between good and bad food is only meaningful because we are discussing a single thing — that is the sense of taste. The subject of this essay presents itself (whether or not you or I choose to treat reality as such) as two things: mental experience and physical experience. I’m not so much advocating a refinery of taste, where my opinion of reality is somehow more refined than yours or anyone else’s, but rather the existence of two separate experiences. So, to expand upon your metaphor, we would be better discussing not ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food, which always has a measure of subjectivity to it anyway, but rather the senses of taste and smell. Does it make more sense, prime facie, to regard them as two distinct things, or rather as a single thing?

    I contend that it is natural to consider taste and smell as two separate things (which does not mean that they actually are two separate things — only that the burden of proof is to demonstrate that they are not, rather than the other way around). And this is a better metaphor for mind and body. Not that they are necessarily two distinct phenomena, but that on the face of it they appear to be so, and that therefore the burden of proof is to demonstrate that they are not.

    My ending to the piece, where I state that no matter our private beliefs we are all functionally dualists, simply means that whatever we believe about the structure of reality, we all experience a physical reality and a mental reality and that sometimes those two realities do not seem to be synchronised (such as in the case of dreaming, or certain comas). That, of course, does not mean that they are not synchronised, it simply means that they do not appear prime facie to be the same.

    So. what I am saying is that the burden of proof is on anyone, materialist or idealist, who suggests that mind and body don’t exist as equal participants in reality. Not that I necessarily believe that existence is dualistic, rather that I believe we are logically obliged to prove that it is not.

    Thus far, I am ignorant of any proof that existence is a solely materialistic thing — but I am open to being proved wrong, and please do give me links to anything that proves reductive materialism as an incontestable worldview.


  3. I guess I’m not a normal human being. My mental processes seem to operate in a causal manner indistinguishable from other observed processes and inextricably linked to those other processes and their component entities. Shrugging and naming mind a thing in itself whistles past this fact with eyes averted. There is a sort of middle ground (occupied by Searle) which self-consciously skirts the issues of identity and mental causation, but the arguments for token physicalism and reductive explanation, at least, remain unaddressed by the sort of critique proposed by Nagel or yourself.

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