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

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

Abstract

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.

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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

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