Physicalism: What This Philosophy Is And What Does It Propose

What is physicalism? Let’s look at his ideas about ontology and the nature of mind.


The daily experience of the human being, and his interaction with the ins and outs of reality, leads him to think that everything that surrounds him has two possible substances: tangible and intangible. Or what is the same: what it can and cannot perceive through the organs of sensation.

However, the truth is that the “impression” of our senses exclusively announces a perspective of things, sometimes misleading or skewed, such as the straight line of the horizon (compared to the sphericity of the earth) or the apparent movements of the sun. (which seems to revolve around the planet and not the other way around).

This veil, inherent in the limitations of our biology, fueled some skepticism among some of the greatest thinkers in recent history; who assumed the witness of those who preceded them in the search for an elemental substrate for all things in the world, beyond the perceptual dictatorship of a simple observer.

Faced with this conjuncture, physicalism is located , a philosophical model that tries to answer one of the great dilemmas of history: what is it that makes up reality. Over the years it emerged as a materialist alternative in the particular field of Ontology, in an evident opposition to Platonic idealism and Cartesian dualism. Let’s see it in detail.

What is physicalism?

Physicalism is a branch of philosophical knowledge, whose claim is to explore reality. In his theoretical corpus he assumes that the nature of what exists is limited exclusively to the physical, that is, to matter (or to energy understood as the constitutive fabric of any tangible entity). It is therefore a form of monism, which reduces the complexity of the universe in which we inhabit down to its most elemental substance, and which embraces materialism as an inspiration for the elaboration of its basic concepts (as well as naturalism).

This perspective is based on the epistemological branch of the philosophy of mind, which is why it assumes that the ethereal substance that we refer to as “soul” and / or “consciousness” must also be based on tangible reality. In this way, the brain would serve as an organic support for all phenomena of a psychic order, implicitly rejecting the existence of the spirit and / or God. From this perspective, the basic foundations of almost all religions would be denied, residing in this precept the main cause of controversy that he had to face from his birth.

The fact of considering any activity of the mind as an epiphenomenon of organic reality, reducible to the action of hormones and neurotransmitters on brain physiology, was a confrontation with the dualist thesis of Descartes (Cartesian dualism). According to such a philosophical perspective, with a long tradition in the old continent, the physical (extensive) and the mental (cogitans) would be the two basic dimensions of reality (both equally important) and would absolutely connect one with the other (both physical as well as mental could be the cause or consequence of an object or situation).

The physicalist theses would demolish the ideas of dualism from the base, since the mental would necessarily have to be a cause of the physical, without in any case any relationship in the opposite direction could occur. Following this idea, the links that shape any chain of events would have a tangible substrate, being susceptible to analysis and understanding with the tools of the natural sciences (which is why his proposal has been valued as a naturalistic philosophy). In this way, all mental processes would have their reason for being in the brain, and through its study its gears and operating mechanisms would be discovered. It would therefore be assumed that mental things do not have their own reality, but that they always depend on the physical.

Physicalism has been criticized by countless scholars, taking into account its comparison with materialism. However, it differs from it by the inclusion of “energy” as a form of matter in a state other than tangible (which materialism never contemplated), which allows it to adapt to spaces in which it never participated. (like the analogy between mind and brain).

Thus, in its applied form it emerges as a scientific working hypothesis that reduces everything to the material, and that the plausibility of the theory from which it starts does not arise. Therefore, it opts for an application of an operative nature, including the possibility that the phenomena of Psychology can be reduced to the neurological / biological.

In the successive lines some of the fundamental ideas regarding the theoretical basis of stratification will be presented, which has been used to explain physicalist reductionism, and without which it is difficult to understand its dynamics in action.

Physicalist reductionism: stratification

Cartesian dualism postulated an ontological division for the essence of all things in reality, with two different but widely interconnected dimensions: matter and thought or cognition. However, physicalism proposed a much more complex structure for this natural ordering: stratification. Its logic implies the succession of many levels, following a hierarchy of relative complexities that would start from the essential to progressively ascend to much more elaborate constructions.

The body of any human being would be in its essence an accumulation of particles, but it would become more sophisticated as it reaches the upper levels of the scale (such as cells, tissues, organs, systems, etc.) to culminate in the formation of a consciousness. . The higher levels would contain in their own composition the lower ones in their entirety, while those located at the bases would be devoid of the essence of those that occupy the top (or would be only partial representations).

Consciousness would be a phenomenon dependent on the activity of an organ (the brain), which would be of less complexity than it. Therefore, the effort to understand it (anatomy, function, etc.) would imply a way of encompassing knowledge about how to think, and ultimately an approach to one’s own consciousness. It follows from this that there is no thought as a reality independent of the physical basis that would make it possible. This process supposes an inference of the upper strata of this hierarchy from the observation of the lower ones, generating analogies of one another and thus understanding that their essence is largely equivalent. From such a prism, phenomenology (subjective and unique construction of meaning) would depend only on physical qualities inherent in biology.

It is at this point that many authors point to implicit reductionism to physicalism. Such criticisms focus (above all) on the potential existence of differential characteristics for each of the levels, which would make an adequate comparison between them (of the part with the whole) difficult and would leave the question of the relationship between mind-body unresolved. . The currents that most vehemently questioned this physicalism were anti-reductionism (due to the excessive parsimony of its approaches and the naivety of its logical deductions) and eliminativism (which rejected the existence of levels or hierarchies that could be established between them) .

Main opponents of physicalism

His main critics were Thomas Nagel (who pointed out that human subjectivity cannot be grasped from the perspective of physicalism, as it is closely associated with individual perspective and processes) and Daniel C. Dennett (although he supported physicalism, he struggled to maintain the idea of free will, since he understood it as an inalienable quality of the human being). Denial of this precept, which is given cardinal value in the context of religion, also exacerbated the complaints of Christian thinkers of the day.

Although all were very notable oppositions to physicalism, the most relevant of them arose from subjective idealism ( George Berkeley ). Such a doctrine of thought (also monistic) did not conceive the existence of any matter, and was oriented only towards the mental plane of reality. It would be a way of thinking that would be located within immaterialism, to the point of conceiving a world formed only by consciousness. As in the case of physicalism, idealism would explicitly reject Cartesian dualism (since such is the nature of monisms), although doing so in the opposite way to that of the former.

The idealistic vision would locate the axis of reality in the individual who thinks, and who is therefore an agent subject in the construction of everything he comes to know. Within this perspective, two variants can be distinguished: the radical (according to which everything that exists before the eyes of an observer is created by himself in a process of conscious ontology, so there would be nothing outside the activity of the observer. own mind) and moderate (reality would be nuanced by one’s own mental activity, in such a way that the individual would adopt a particular perspective of things depending on the way he thinks and feels).

The debate between the two perspectives is still active today, and despite the fact that there are certain points of convergence (such as full conviction about the existence of ideas, despite differences in nuances), their views tend to be irreconcilable. Therefore, they suppose antagonistic ways of perceiving the world, which have their roots in what is perhaps the most elementary question that philosophy has in its repertoire: what is the human being and how is the fabric of reality in which it lives?

Bibliographic references:

  • Lemke, T. (2015). Varieties of materialism. BioSocieties, 10, 490-495.
  • Shrum, L., Lowrey, T., Pandelaere, M., Ruvio, A., Gentina, L.… and Nairn, A. (2014). Materialism: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Journal of Marketing Management, 30 (17), 14-42.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *