Why physics alone cannot define the 'physical': Materialism, metaphysics, and the formulation of physicalism

Canadian Journal of Philosophy 31 (3):333-359 (2001)


Materialist metaphysicians want to side with physics, but not to take sides within physics.If we took literally the claim of a materialist that his position is simply belief in the claim that all is matter, as currently conceived, we would be faced with an insoluble mystery. For how would such a materialist know how to retrench when his favorite scientific hypotheses fail? How did the 18th century materialist know that gravity, or forces in general, were material? How did they know in the 19th century that the electromagnetic field was material, and persisted in this conviction after the aether had been sent packing?The doctrine of physicalism casts a long shadow in contemporary philosophy, configuring all kinds of philosophical issues and projects. Unsurprisingly, its proponents argue that physicalism has all the obvious features necessary for a scientific hypothesis to be in what we will call ‘good standing,’ i.e. being worthy of serious scientific investigation. In fact, many claim much more, arguing that physicalism is a well-confirmed hypothesis and possibly amongst the best of our theories. But, as our second opening passage makes clear, a persistent worry has been that physicalism, or ‘materialism’ as van Fraassen terms it, is an edifice built on sand. For many philosophers question whether the ‘physical’ can be specified at all, or at least in a manner that will produce a physicalism that would be in good standing.

Download options


    Upload a copy of this work     Papers currently archived: 72,805

External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server

Through your library


Added to PP

128 (#93,931)

6 months
1 (#386,031)

Historical graph of downloads
How can I increase my downloads?

References found in this work

New Work for a Theory of Universals.David K. Lewis - 1983 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 61 (4):343-377.
Tarski's Theory of Truth.Hartry Field - 1972 - Journal of Philosophy 69 (13):347.
The Elements of Being.Donald Cary Williams - 1953 - Review of Metaphysics 7 (2):3-18, 171-92.
The Body Problem.Barbara Montero - 1999 - Noûs 33 (2):183-200.

View all 19 references / Add more references

Citations of this work

On Characterizing the Physical.Jessica Wilson - 2006 - Philosophical Studies 131 (1):61-99.
The Russellian Monist’s Problems with Mental Causation.R. Howell - 2015 - Philosophical Quarterly 65 (258):22-39.
Defining Physicalism.Alyssa Ney - 2008 - Philosophy Compass 3 (5):1033-1048.
Physicalism as an Attitude.Alyssa Ney - 2008 - Philosophical Studies 138 (1):1 - 15.

View all 32 citations / Add more citations

Similar books and articles

A Mereological Characterization of Physicalism.David Pineda - 2006 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 20 (3):243 – 266.
From Physics to Physicalism.Barry M. Loewer - 2001 - In Carl Gillett & Barry M. Loewer (eds.), Physicalism and its Discontents. Cambridge University Press.
Current Physics and 'the Physical'.Agustín Vicente - 2011 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62 (2):393-416.
On Characterizing the Physical.Jessica Wilson - 2006 - Philosophical Studies 131 (1):61-99.
Defining Physicalism.Alyssa Ney - 2008 - Philosophy Compass 3 (5):1033-1048.