An exhausted, jaded Western world awaits its Socrates


Socrates. Plato. Aristotle. These are the big names of Ancient Greek philosophy, of which Aristotle was the most influential. Together with philosophers they inspired, such as Aquinas, Plato and Aristotle would dominate Western philosophy for 2000 years, before being discarded by Descartes and the other early moderns. Read on to find out more about Plato and Aristotle and why they are still important today.

The Pre-Socratics

Some 2500 years ago there was a broad materialist trend in Ancient Greek philosophy. Over a few hundred years, the Greeks had moved from mystical, polytheistic philosophy to materialism and atheism. This culminated in atomism, which held that the material is all made of basic particles called “atoms” and that is all there is. The Sophists, another school of philosophy, taught that all thought was based on the senses and that truth is a matter of convention. Another ancient philosopher, Parmenides, said that time is an illusion and change is impossible. Do your senses tell you otherwise? Your senses are wrong!

All this led to a crisis, as the atomists could not explain how human knowledge was possible. For material things are constantly changing, so if the material is all there is, as soon as you understand something it changes and you don’t understand it any more. The Sophists taught their students to use any argument that was useful even if it was known to be fallacious; thus bringing philosophy into disrepute. More broadly, so many different positions and arguments had been advanced that many despaired of coming to any sort of consensus about the truth.

All this coincided with a broader crisis in Athens, as the elites were perceived as acting against the interests of broader society, bringing Athenian institutions and democracy into disrepute.

Does all this seem familiar? Am I talking about Greece in 500BC or the West in 2017?

The Socratic revolution

But this wasn’t the end. Socrates pulled philosophy from the abyss by re-imagining it not as just an intellectual exercise but a practical quest to understand how to live a flourishing, virtuous life. Socrates was executed, but according to Plato he was untroubled, convinced by his own philosophy not to fear death. Plato was Socrates’ student and Aristotle studied under Plato. As noted, they dominated Western thought for 2000 years.

Now, how can philosophy tell us how to live a flourishing, virtuous life? A nihilistic philosophy that denies that truth, goodness and wisdom exist cannot do this, that’s for sure. How can we know truth, goodness, wisdom?

How can we know anything? According to Aristotle, it is because the abstractions that the mind uses to think also exist in the objects the mind understands. These abstractions are called “forms”. Forms can be thought of as the organising principle of something; the prototypical forms for Plato were those of mathematics, so a form is something like a mathematical blueprint. No matter exists without a form; a material substance is composed of form and matter together. To understand something is to understand its form.

Closely related to this is essence, defined as whatever makes something what it is. For example, the essence of a knife is to have a sharp blade that can cut things. A knife can be made of steel or wood or hard plastic, so the essence of a knife (and thus it’s form) is logically separate from the matter it’s made of.

Just as the forms of material things exist objectively, so do abstractions such as truth, goodness and being – which are all the same thing considered from different points of view. What is good morally speaking also exists objectively, as a subset of what is good for us as rational animals. Following from this is “virtue ethics”, which emphasises the moral virtues of the agent as opposed to the consequences of their actions. Key themes in virtue ethics include virtues (duh), happiness, moral character and practical wisdom.

Then there are four types of causation. Efficient causation is that which creates something. Material causation refers to what the thing is made of. Formal causation refers to its form. Final causation refers to the reason why it exists.

Everything that exists needs all four types of causation to describe it. An example might help. A soccer ball was made in a factory – its efficient cause. It is made out of polyester and rubber – its material cause. It has the form of a ball – it’s formal cause. It is made for use in soccer matches – its final cause.

But what does it mean to say that everything has a final cause? Take water as an example. Water always boils at 100 degrees and never at 75 degrees. From this, it is said that water is aimed at or directed to boiling at 100 degrees. Thus it has the purpose of doing so. This purpose is internal to it, rather than being directed from outside and is not a conscious purpose, as water never consciously purposes anything. This is known as intrinsic teleology.

Final causes are also tied to Aristotelian ethics, since final causes tell us what is good for us as human beings, which is a subset of goodness generally, and is a guide to goodness in a moral sense. For example, since the final cause of our intellect is to discover truth, it is good for us to communicate truth and morally wrong to tell lies.

Aristotle explained change with the concept of potentials. For example, water is liquid but has the potential to become gas if you heat it. States that exist now are “actual”; ones that could exist but don’t are “potential”. Change is something moving from potential to actual.

To summarise so far: actuality and potentiality, form and matter, four types of causes, virtue ethics and intrinsic teleology. The metaphysical menagerie is now done. If you’re encountering all this for the first time, you might be feeling a bit lost. Never mind; the post must go on!

The forms of living things

According to Aristotle and Aquinas, the soul is the form of a living thing. Now don’t get too hung up on that word “soul” – the soul is still merely an abstraction. It comes in three kinds.

The first and most basic is a “vegetative soul”, which is the kind that plants have. The second is the “sensitive soul”, which animals have. It includes consciousness and self-movement on top of what a vegetative soul has. Consciousness on this view is entirely material. (By contrast, Descartes thought that consciousness is immaterial and that animals do not have it.)

The last and final kind is the “rational soul” that humans have. It includes rationality on top of what an animal has, making us “rational animals”. To be rational is to comprehend forms. But the forms are not themselves matter, and matter cannot contain the non-material, so rationality must be immaterial – therefore it must be a form, in this case a “subsistent form”. So the rational soul is not just an abstraction, for our rationality must reside in our form rather than in matter.

This is quite different to Cartesian dualism in a couple of ways. Descartes said that we are thinking beings and our bodies are almost optional extras. But according to Aristotle we are rational animals, so our bodies are just as important to us as our minds and the two work seamlessly together. Arguably this means that there is no interaction problem for Aristotle’s form of dualism.

What about intentionality? To recap, intentionality is the “aboutness” of thought; the way your thought about a cat is “about” that cat. But intentionality is also anything that is “directed towards” something else. Since intrinsic teleology implies that all causes are “directed towards” their effects, the intentionality of thought is not mysterious for Aristotle as it is for Cartesian dualists or materialists.

God and life after death

Plato and Aristotle invented two arguments for the existence of God: the cosmological (or First Cause) argument and the teleological (or design) argument. But the result was very different from Greek polytheism. For Aquinas, God is Existence Itself, and since truth and being are the same thing considered from different points of view, God is also Truth Itself. Since the final cause of our intellect is to know truth, the ultimate final cause of humanity is to know God – and this as a matter of rational argument, rather than just faith.

Given that we have “subsistent forms”, that God exists and our rationality is immaterial, is life after death possible? People still debate Aristotle’s opinion on this, but Aquinas clearly thinks it is possible, with a few caveats.

For Aquinas, since we are rational animals, we are supposed to have bodies and if we exist without them after death, it means we are in an incomplete state. Furthermore, since our minds are dependent on our physical senses for their input, after death our minds cannot receive any new information and we cannot change our opinions; we are locked in place, as it were.

Summing up

Science and philosophy have advanced somewhat in the last 2500 years [citation needed]. Aristotle did make scientific errors. So is the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas still a viable option today?

This is a very large question that cannot be addressed properly in one blog post. Aristotle is so different from how people think today that it takes some time to comprehend, much less critique. Nevertheless many aspects of Aristotelian thought have persisted, in particular his ethics; but even his essentialism is undergoing a revival. Here are a few reasons to take Aristotle’s philosophy seriously:

1. It explains the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” or why mathematics is so effective in explaining the material world.

2. At the same time, it answers the riddle posed by Bertrand Russell, that the mathematical explanations of physics cannot be the whole story, as mathematics can only explain structure and structure presupposes something that has the structure.

3. Arguably it solves the mind-body problems that have plagued philosophy since Descartes, such as intentionality, mental causation and personal identity. This is huge; I know of no other philosophy that can make this claim.

4. It does all of the above without committing any of the following clangers: denying consciousness in animals, denying abstract thought, denying change, denying human knowledge, claiming that consciousness is an illusion or denying science. Again, a large percentage of philosophy does at least one of these things.

Here’s the thing: The way we think about science, matter, mind, God, morality, nature – almost every topic of importance – can ultimately be traced back to Descartes and his decision to dump Aristotle. You are a Cartesian materialist or a Cartesian dualist; a Cartesian Christian, Cartesian atheist or Cartesian agnostic. So if Descartes was wrong when he dumped Aristotle, that means that everyone is wrong, wrong about everything, because they build on faulty foundations.

If that’s so, we are in an ideas cage with iron bars, in an ideas prison, stumbling blindfolded through an ideas fog. We need a new Socrates to let us out.

Further reading

Mathematical Platonism by Massimo Pigliucci. “If one ‘goes Platonic’ with math, one has to face several important philosophical consequences, perhaps the major one being that the notion of physicalism goes out the window.”

Aristotle’s Revenge: Software Everywhere by James Ross. “Adequately replacing the deformed 17th century picture of nature and mind amounts to Aristotle’s revenge: for to explain the success of science, we have to postulate dynamic, inherent explanatory structures everywhere in nature [forms], the equivalent of “software everywhere”… Thus, the stones the builders of the 17th century discarded will become the cornerstones of the new foundations for science.”

David Oderberg on intentionality and final causes. “Proponents of physical intentionality argue that the classic hallmarks of intentionality highlighted by Brentano are also found in purely physical powers … I show that they all point to one overarching phenomenon of which both the mental and the physical are kinds, namely finality. This is the finality of ‘final causes’, the long-discarded idea of universal action for an end to which recent proponents of physical intentionality are in fact pointing whether or not they realise it.”

Virtue Ethics at the Internet Encyclopaedia Of Philosophy.

Read Plato for yourself. He is surprisingly readable. Start with Meno perhaps.

Read Aristotle for yourself. He is not surprisingly readable.

Still there? Read Aquinas for yourself.

Objective reality doesn’t exist

When Descartes rebooted philosophy 400 years ago, he got rid of Aristotelian metaphysics, removing what he saw as superfluous. This started a drive towards empiricism, with each philosophy doubting more than the one before. It was inevitable that someone would eventually doubt objective reality altogether. Thus in the 18th century came George Berkeley and his concept of idealism.

Go outside now and look at a tree. Kick it if you want. That tree is objectively real – or is it? Strictly speaking, you don’t know that. All you know is that your mind is giving you the experience of kicking a tree. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the tree is real, that you understand what the tree is, that you perceive it correctly. To check, you must go outside your mind for a Gods-eye view. Good luck with that.

Berkeley’s solution to this is radical – since you can’t know empirically that objective reality exists, it doesn’t exist. Simple.

Berkeley said that “to be is to be perceived”. In other words, that tree only exists because there is a mind perceiving it. So why don’t  trees and rocks and deserts disappear when they’re by themselves? Because they never are by themselves. A mind is always perceiving them; the mind of God.

So what we experience as objective  reality is actually subjective-in-the-mind-of-God reality. But God is permanent and unchanging so this is enough.

The way Berkeley’s idealism talks about physical reality being observer-dependent reminds one of quantum physics. Berkeley also argued against the science of his day, saying that absolute time and space cannot exist, but that an object can only have motion by comparison to another – reminding one of Einstein’s relativity. Thus, if your only criterion for old philosophy is how it echoed future science, Berkeley wins – hands down.

On the other hand, Berkeley thinks that matter doesn’t exist, that rocks are made of ideas, that mathematics is incoherent and that there is no such thing as abstract thought.

Here’s a quote from the man himself. Marvel at the level of confidence/hubris on display:

It is plain that the very notion of what is called Matter or corporeal substance involves a contradiction in it. … Insomuch that I should not think it necessary to spend more time in exposing its absurdity. But, because the tenet of the existence of Matter seems to have taken so deep a root in the minds of philosophers, and draws after it so many ill consequences, I choose rather to be thought prolix and tedious than omit anything that might conduce to the full discovery and extirpation of that prejudice.

Berkeley’s philosophy was bold, whatever else you might say about it.


After Berkeley came Hegel, who was far more influential.

According to Hegel, history consists of a Mind (Hegel called it Spirit) seeking to understand itself. Now this seems explicitly theistic, but Hegel hedged on whether he was talking about God or the human spirit or something else. It was possible to be a Hegelian idealist and an atheist simultaneously. C.S. Lewis somehow managed it before his conversion to Christianity.

Fortunately Hegel’s philosophy is simple and easy to understand. Take this quote for example:

The knowledge, which is at the start or immediately our object, can be nothing else than just that which is immediate knowledge, knowledge of the immediate, of what is. We have, in dealing with it, to proceed, too, in an immediate way, to accept what is given, not altering anything in it as it is presented before us, and keeping mere apprehension free from conceptual comprehension. (…) This bare fact of certainty, however, is really and admittedly the abstractest and the poorest kind of truth. It merely says regarding what it knows: it is; and its truth contains solely the being of the fact it knows. (…) In the same way the certainty qua relation, the certainty “of” something, is an immediate pure relation; consciousness is I – nothing more, a pure this; the individual consciousness knows a pure this, or knows what is individual.

Clear as mud, I say.

A few more quotes. I don’t understand Hegel, so this is from someone who does at The Electric Agora:

Hegel’s relation to logic is an odd one. He doesn’t think about logic; he doesn’t think logically; he thinks logic.


In Hegel’s epistemology, all objects of thought come to us in a two-fold manner: an inner “for-itself,” and an outer “for another.” So, when Hegel writes of an object “turning inward” — which sounds very strange — what he’s saying is that mind’s attempt to understand the object has gone “into” the object as affirmation of the object’s self-subsistence: “That thing exists and does so wholly in and for itself.” But this affirmation is actually a negation, because the idea of the thing in its self-subsistence is empty: “Okay, the thing exists, but as what?” Mind only begins to comprehend the thing when it begins accounting for the thing’s relationship to other things. “That object is a tree; it is not the bench standing next to it.” “That tree is living wood, not metal,” and so forth. But in this, the object has been negated again, but in a positive way: the individual tree has lost its unique importance, but its substance has been preserved and brought into the idea of “trees” — a universal manifesting itself in this particular.

Hegel’s idealism was a complete system of philosophy that dominated the 19th century. It was said to have answered all the questions of philosophy. It was hugely influential, until the 20th century drift to materialism started as a reaction against it.

Are you looking for an alternative to materialism? Does throwing out objective reality seem a bit much? Never fear; there is another option which will be discussed next time.

How do your thoughts cause your actions?

One of the central questions about the mind is that of mental causation – in other words, do your thoughts cause your actions, and if so, how? Common sense would tell you that your mind is in the driver’s seat – you make the decisions, your body obeys. But is this true and if it isn’t, what then?

Let’s look at how mental causation works if materialism is true. For this post, I’ll assume that materialism entails that your thoughts are encoded in some sort of brain language that is read by your consciousness. So every abstraction your mind produces – such as “dog” or “circle” etc, is stored using brain language and then translated for your consciousness.

A modest example: a tiger appears! You think “I need to run away from this tiger!” This thought is encoded in your brain language and your brain sends a signal to the rest of your body telling it to run away, and off you go. Thus there is a causative link between your brain and the rest of your body. So far so good.

Now, imagine that some crazed neuroscientist has swapped your brain language with its opposite, so that Yes means No and No means Yes. In this circumstance, the physical state of your brain language is unchanged, but your consciousness picks up an entirely different meaning. So instead of “I need to run away from the tiger”, your thought is “I must prepare my tax return” or “I’m zoopdegooging my croodifroods” – or just a complete blank. The logical content of such thoughts is very different, but the underlying physical state is the same. Since the physical state of your thoughts is the same, wouldn’t you run away from the tiger in the same way?

The same applies to anything else you do. You spend hours putting together a budget to decide if you can afford a new house. In the end, you decide to buy. You do this because and only because your brain language is in a certain state. If you had been thinking about football the entire time, or not consciously thinking about anything at all, but the brain language encoding was the same, you still would’ve bought the house.

It’s the physical state of your neurons rather than their logical content that counts. That means that the logical content of your thoughts has nothing to do – and therefore has no causative power over your actions. It’s not that your thoughts are wrong; it’s more that your thoughts are entirely unnecessary,  like a third elbow.

This has consequences. If the logical content of your thoughts is irrelevant, than your thought life is at best a passive observer, an illusion that makes you feel better about yourself but performs no useful function. Your experience of yourself as an active, thinking agent is false.

Also, it follows that rationality cannot possibly have evolved. Natural selection can act on the physical, but how could it act on the content of your thoughts if there is no causative link to your physical brain? For rationality to evolve, there must be a genuine causative link between behaviour and the logical content of your thoughts. So rationality didn’t evolve and must have come into existence some other way.

With natural selection unable to ensure quality, the materialist has two options – either rational thought is a miracle or freakish coincidence, or rational thought is an elaborate fantasy world and we must accept that it is an illusion.

Evolution and immateriality

What if materialism is not true? If the logical content of your thoughts is immaterial and somehow separate to your neurons, does that make it possible for rational thought to evolve? It depends.

If the logical content of your thoughts is a passive observer of your neurons or can bypass your neurons entirely, it will have no causative power and we are back where we started. If the logical content of your thoughts is separate to the structure of your mind and it’s the structure that does the work, there is nothing for the logical content to do and we are back where we started.

For natural selection to operate, the immaterial mind must have real power over the thinking process, rather than being a passive observer. It must be an intrinsic part of your brain as much as its physical aspect is; relying on the physical aspect of mind for its input data and using the physical aspect of mind to implement decisions it makes. Thus we have two-way mental causation – from the body to the mind and vice versa. Finally, the immaterial aspect of mind must be simple – it must be thought alone, rather than thought within a structure.

In conclusion, the concept of immateriality in mind has its advantages. It restores our faith in the theory of evolution by making the evolution of abstract thought possible, and restores our commonsense notion of being active, thinking agents.

To the Western mindset, talk of immateriality in mind seems strange and incomprehensible, but is this a reason to reject it? It is any stranger than what science tells us about quantum mechanics or black holes or many other topics? If science tells us that reality is strange and incomprehensible, on what basis can we insist that philosophy be normal?

It makes no sense to incorporate immateriality into an otherwise unchanged Western mindset; instead it is necessary to demolish the entire thing and rebuild from the ground up. I will discuss two non-materialist philosophies in future posts.

Is this an argument for God’s existence?

Some have used such considerations as an argument for God’s existence, but in my view this is a mistake. The existence of God is a separate issue and should be treated as such.

Further reading

Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind, by Karl Popper. He argues that natural selection requires two-way causation between mind and body.

The Argument From Reason. Victor Reppert discusses and expands on C.S. Lewis’s critique of materialism and natural selection.

Mental Causation at the Stanford Encyclopaedia Of Philosophy.

The Core Of Mind And Cosmos, by Thomas Nagel. He argues that since mind cannot be physical, “it follows that biological evolution must be more than just a physical process, and the theory of evolution, if it is to explain the existence of conscious life, must become more than just a physical theory”.

Kripke, Ross And The Immaterial Aspect Of Thought (PDF), by Edward Feser. “The late James Ross formulated a simple and powerful argument for the immateriality of our intellectual operations. The gist of the argument is that: “Some thinking (judgment) is determinate in a way no physical process can be. Consequently, such thinking cannot be (wholly) as physical process.”


Quantum physics and philosophy 

Berkeley, a philosopher from the 18th century, was an idealist – the direct opposite of materialism. He believed that matter is really mind, that nothing exists unless it is being observed and that everything remains in existence because it is being observed by one Mind.

Scoff you might, as have many others; yet 200 years later in the 20th century, quantum physics told us that on the most basic level we know of, all physical things depend on a measurement by an observer.

To explain change, 2300 years ago Aristotle posited the idea of potentialities as a kind of halfway house between existence and non-existence.

Halfway between existence and non-existence? Yeah right, Aristotle . Except that quantum physics ultimately describes material things as being probability functions. 

Werner Heisenberg, one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics, describes things this way in his book “Physics and Philosophy”:

The probability wave of Bohr, Kramers, Slater… was a quantitative version of the old concept of “potentia” in Aristotelian philosophy. It introduced something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality.

A few caveats are in order here. Philosophy and science ask very different types of questions and it is a mistake to let one overly bias the other. Philosophical positions such as idealism and Aristotelian dualism are supposed to work regardless of the underlying empirical details. Not to mention that idealism and Aristotelian dualism are very different ways of thinking; they can’t both be true.

Nevertheless is is clear how quantum physics could bias people towards a non-materialist philosophy, in the same way that classical physics might bias people towards materialism. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how science could give a bigger free kick to non-materialist philosophy than quantum physics.

The main lesson to learn from quantum physics is this: science is not going to support anyone’s worldview in any straightforward sense. Nature is too strange for that.

How to talk about God and science

How should we talk about God and science? Can science tell us anything about whether or not God exists? To answer this question I will look at two areas of science; one is commonly linked with atheism while the other is often taken as evidence for God.


It’s hard to overstate the hold that the theory of evolution has on the Western mind. For Christians and atheists alike, think science and you think evolution; think evolution and you think atheism. It’s almost a Pavlovian response. But the theory of evolution is about species evolving from a common ancestor, not about God or atheism. So what is the link between the two?

If it is that we can’t specifically see God in the evolution of giraffes (or whatever), this is no different from saying there is no God because when we drop something on the ground it’s gravity. 

Is it that science has filled a “gap” and it’s only a matter of time before the other gaps are filled? This either/or approach to God and science is a recent invention, and would have seemed bizarre to religious scholars, philosophers and ordinary believers alike outside the modern West. Not to mention that it assumes a limitless science; unconstrained by technological limitations or human brainpower.

Is it that evolution disproves creationism – in other words, it disproves one interpretation of one chapter of one document of one holy book held by some of the followers of one religion? But that is far from disproving God overall. There are concepts of God that are far different than that of the creationist. There could be a religion somewhere with evolution baked into it from the start. Does that mean the god of that religion exists? Surely not.

So it is clear that if you think, like Richard Dawkins, that evolution enables you to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist”, it is not evolution doing the work here, but the preconceived ideas that you bring to the theory.


Let’s look at another example: fine-tuning. This is the idea that the constants of physics are highly precise, such that if they changed very slightly, life would not be possible. For example, if the strength of gravity was even a tiny bit different, the stars and planets could not have formed. The science behind this seems solid, leading some to posit God as the explanation for fine-tuning.

But why God, specifically? Why not Reincarnated Steve Jobs [1] or Five-Dimensional Goldfish On Mars? It is because you think God is plausible for other reasons, while Reincarnated Steve Jobs isn’t. So again, we see that it’s not the science of fine-tuning doing the work, but your preconceived ideas doing the work.

Can science tell us about God? Remember, science is not a thing; rather, it is a term of convenience for a diverse range of fields. So let’s break it down. Can geology tell us about God? No, because God is not a rock. Can biology tell us about God? No, because God is not an animal or plant. Can astronomy tell us about God? No, because God is not a star or planet. So it goes for the other sciences.

This is not to say that science should never be used to support a non-scientific position, just that science by itself cannot do so. If you do want to use science as evidence for God or for atheism, be very clear about what the science is telling you versus what your preconceived ideas are telling you, or you will end up with a simplistic position that misinterprets the science.


[1] Reincarnated Steve Jobs is a real thing. I hadn’t realised.

His strange materials

Science tells us what matter is, right? This is what everyone believes, but it is not necessarily true. The idea that science tells us what matter is came from Descartes, a philosopher from 400 years ago.

It is a curious fact about the history of philosophy and science that when science was getting started, the concept of matter was redefined to suit it, and the “new matter” had a narrower definition than the “old matter”.
This immediately raises the question: if matter has been redefined from what it was held to be previously, and the scientific definition is narrower than the old one – is it possible that there is more to matter than what science can tell us?

From here on I will refer to matter not verifiable by science as “strange-matter”, just because I can. Should it exist, I do not think that strange-matter is entirely separate from ordinary matter; rather, I suspect that ordinary matter has strange properties.

Physics is held to be the most fundamental science and the other sciences are in theory reducible to physics. But physics is a mathematical science, described entirely in equations. The question can be rephrased thus: Is there anything in the material world that cannot be described using mathematics? For is there is anything like that, it will be inaccessible to physics and to science as a whole.

Mathematics is a human invention. How do we know it can describe all material reality? In short: we don’t.

Bertrand Russell argued that the abstract nature of physics shows that it must be incomplete.

Physics reveals to us the structure of subatomic particles such as quarks and causative relations between them, but that is all it can tell us. But structure cannot exist by itself. Things have structure; it is not possible for them to just be structure. Therefore there must be more to material reality than what physics can tell us.

The strange-material and the mind

If the strange-material exists, it gives another option to explain those features of mind that science has yet to explain. Features such as:

  • Consciousness: the inner experience of what it feels like to see red, what it feels like to taste chocolate etc
  • Intentionality: this is the “aboutness” that is characteristic of thought. A thought about a cat is “about” that cat, whereas you wouldn’t say that a rock is about another rock.
  • Rationality: abstract thought; arguably the one thing that separates us from animals.

If science is unable to explain any of those things, they must all be immaterial unless the strange-material is an option.

To my mind, consciousness is a clear contender for the strange-material. Science cannot define it let alone explain it; yet at the same time, all animals seem to have it. If science defines the material, doesn’t this imply that sea slugs, echidnas and albatrosses are all part-immaterial? Doesn’t it make more sense to say that consciousness is material, regardless of what science can tell us?

How we got here

So what did “old matter” have that “new matter” doesn’t? Medieval and ancient philosophers held that consciousness and intentionality were both material. It was only rationality that they thought was immaterial. 

Descartes and the other early modern philosophers deliberately excluded both consciousness and intentionality from the new scientific definition of matter, 400 years ago. Even back then, it was clear that science would not explain either consciousness or intentionality, so both of them were not allowed to count as matter. They were shunted into the mind, which was held to be immaterial. Thus Cartesian dualism was born.

Cartesian dualism is very different to the dualism that preceded it. Old dualism says that we are “rational animals” and that our rationality and animality form a cohesive whole. Cartesian dualism says that we are thinking beings – “I think, therefore I am” – and our bodies are entirely separate to our minds.

It is hard to overstate the effects of this. Because Cartesian dualism came to dominate philosophy 400 years ago, it is the only alternative to materialism that most people know. But because Cartesian dualism says that mind and matter are entirely separate, it has a notorious difficulty explaining how they interact. Because modern materialism largely defines itself against Cartesian dualism, this interaction problem in itself makes materialism seem more plausible.

Almost everyone nowadays takes Descartes’ scientific definition of matter for granted, ironically making things more difficult for materialists by placing an impossible burden on science. 

So it is clear that when thinking about the mind/body problem, the definition of matter is just as problematic as mind, if not more so. Part of the answer is to broaden our definition of matter to include the strange-material. 

What would materialism look like?

What would the implications be if there was no such thing as anything immaterial in any way, shape or form?

The majority of materialists hold that anything immaterial is reducible to or dependent on the material. To hold that there is absolutely nothing immaterial at all is called eliminative materialism and is associated with Alex Rosenberg and Dan Dennett, among others.

Eliminative materialism starts with scientism, which says that only science can provide a complete description of matter and that the material is all of reality. Therefore, anything that is immaterial cannot possibly exist in any sense. 

The following is a list of issues usually considered in discussions on materialism and how eliminative materialists handle them. Other types of materialists have a more moderate position on the same issues.

Thoughts: That thought you just had about your cat. Was it really about your cat? A material thing cannot be “about” another material thing. You wouldn’t say that a rock is “about” another rock, would you? Therefore your thought was about nothing at all and all your thoughts are meaningless.

Truth, knowledge, justice: These are just illusions in your mind that have no scientific basis, along with all other ideas and concepts.

Words: How about the word “cat”? Is it about actual cats? Words are supposed to be linked to their definitions, but what is this link? It is impossible for a physical thing to be linked to another one in this way. Therefore the word “cat” has nothing to do with cats and all words are meaningless.

Consciousness: An illusion.

Beliefs, desires, purposes: More illusions.

Your “self”: Science doesn’t know about “selves”. This is another illusion.

Morality: Right and wrong have no basis in science and therefore do not exist in any sense.There are no exceptions, not even murder. To say that anything is wrong is just meaningless word salad. [1]

Mathematics: I was unable to find out if eliminative materialists have a position on mathematics, but given their positions on thoughts and words, I’d imagine they would reject mathematics as being meaningless symbols.

You get the idea. Other things the eliminative materialist denies include meaning, free will, God, the soul and life after death.

The majority of materialists are not eliminative materialists. Nevertheless, the list above shows what topics the materialist must ultimately deal with and explain. It is clear that there is far more to it than simply saying “no God, therefore materialism”.

[1] To be fair, I don’t know if anyone apart from Alex Rosenberg has actually said this. He says that nihilism is true and we should be “nice nihilists”.

Further reading

Eliminative materialists have written books, including:

  • “The Atheist’s Guide To Reality”, by Alex Rosenberg
  • “Consciousness Explained”, by Daniel Dennett

For a critical look at eliminative materialism from a non-materialist philosopher, go to