What is matter? What is materialism?

I have often thought most philosophers vague when they talk about matter. And especially when they use the word “materialism.”And this includes some who call themselves “philosophers of science.”

And try to hunt down the definitions. Answers for example describes matter as “something that has mass and exists as a solid, liquid, gas, or plasma.” In Wikipedia we find: Matter is the substrate from which physical existence is derived, remaining more or less constant amid changes. Anything that occupies space and has mass and weight.” Search for clarification usually produces the circular definitions that matter has substance and substances are matter.

Philosophical materialism

This understanding of matter extends to definitions of philosophical materialism. Wikipedia says: “the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance.”

These definitions may have been useful 2oo years ago but surely the discoveries of the last 100 years or more make them inadequate. We now understand the equivalence of matter and energy. We know about mass less particles. Matter comes and goes – it has become very unsubstantial. Yet some philosophers don’t appear to have caught up.

This is often manifested in discussions of philosophical materialism.  Of course the critics of materialism will opportunistically use the old definitions. It sets up a straw man that is very easy to knock down. The old mechanical materialism is really no longer relevant but it makes a handy target.

But even those who might be expected to accept philosophical materialism. I just wish that they would carefully define terms like “materialism” when they use them to prevent this sort of straw mannery.

At least Michael Ruse in his book Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science acknowledges the problem (see Making room for faith in science?). He points out the discovery of electromagnetic forces “showed the idea of a world of simple masses, atoms, is no longer tenable. Whatever may be the basic stuff of existence, forces in some sense must be included. For this reason, a lot of people (myself included) hesitate to speak of themselves as materialists, if this means some sort of Cartesian res extensa is the substance of reality.”

This seems to me an avoidance of the problem. Why not talk in more depth about the modern scientific understanding of matter and introduce better definitions. Leaving the old definitions unscathed hands them over to those who wish to use them maliciously.

Particle physics

However, the particle physicists are well aware of the inadequacy of of definitions of matter. They are busy creating weird and wonderful particles all the time in their accelerators. They have particles for forces and forces for particles. It’s fascinating but all very confusing to the lay person.

Frank Wilczek

So people like Frank Wilczek are very valuable. He is a Noble Prize winner and an educator – a professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he has also done a lot to make his field more intelligible to the motivated lay person.

I was impressed with his book Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces. Very readable but still covering the field, new discoveries and speculations.

There are a number of videos of popular lectures of his online (* see below for a short list).

And last week a discussion between him and Robert Wright on Blogging Heads became available (see Bloggingheads.tv – Science Saturday: Lightness of Being). It’s a great discussion and he provides useful descriptions of some modern scientific understandings of the nature of matter.

Really, matter is more like light than the old mechanical matter. And more easily understood as fields. Particles are excitations in a field.

He really knocks the old concept of matter as “substance with mass volume and weight” to six.

Now all we need is for philosophers of science to incorporate this into their teachings. A year ago I wrote a review of Alan Chalmers’ excellent book The Scientist’s Atom and the Philosopher’s Stone: How Science Succeeded and Philosophy Failed to Gain Knowledge of Atoms (see From stones to atoms). I think the title summed it up well. Philosophical atoms was vague and unproven. It took science to make atoms real.

Perhaps we need a book with a title like “The scientist’s field and the Philosopher’s substance.”

* See also some of Frank Wilczek’s lectures:
Nobel Lecture by Frank Wilczek
The J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecture – Frank Wilczek. Anticipating a new golden age.
The Large Hadron Collider and Unified Field Theory – Frank Wilczek

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2 responses to “What is matter? What is materialism?

  1. “Really, matter is more like light than the old mechanical matter. And more easily understood as fields. Particles are excitations in a field.”

    My only objection to that is the first word: “really”.

    Is the FULL complexity of reality within the capacity of the human brain, our senses, and our instruments?

    I’m not suggesting anything supernatural–just that we may never develop the ability to fully examine and comprehend absolute reality in its full glory.

    Is that a problem?

    Not for the girls I go with.

    Poor Richard

    Poor Richard’s Almanack 2010


  2. This is an illuminating discussion, and I applaud you. My own allegience to Physicalism has been checked by the generally poor understanding of science that most Philosophers seem to have. Particularly when we are speaking of that hot and contentious intersection between Neuroscience and Philosophy (my own area of obsession). I agree that Philosophers need much more scientific training – perhaps rigorous academic training – before they can begin attacking the “larger picture.”
    -The Black Jester


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