She’s A Material Girl … And A Particle Physicist

I know, you’re thinking I’ll never deliver on that title… amiright?


That might be a long way to go to get to thoughts on materialism, but I think they segue nicely.

philosophy : the belief that only material things exist
1 a :  a theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that
all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations
or results of matter
b :  a doctrine that the only or the highest values or objectives lie in material well-being and in the furtherance of material progress
c :  a doctrine that economic or social change is materially caused — compare historical materialism
2 a preoccupation with or stress upon material rather than intellectual or spiritual things

Okay, yes, that’s Merriam-Websters definition but there is a more specific philosophical definition:

Materialism is the idea that everything is either made only of matter or is ultimately dependent upon matter for its existence and nature. It is possible for a philosophy to be materialistic and still accord spirit a (secondary or dependent) place, but most forms of materialism tend to reject the existence of spirit or anything non-physical.

Some theists (and others) get caught up in the idea that materialists do not believe we have free will. Let me correct that for  you. In my opinion the right thinking materialists understand that consciousness is an emergent property and does not rely on billiard ball interaction between past and present to make decisions. The argument is clearly one fraught with issues on all sides. I maintain that we have free will because consciousness is not an elemental part of the physical world, rather it is an emergent property of parts of the physical world. It is dependent upon the physical world yet operates independently of it, at least in the ways we think are important: making decisions and experiencing the world etc.

Yes, I know Sam Harris said this or that, and he’s wrong on free will. Trust me, that’s another argument altogether.

Mind body dualism has a fair bit of dogma attached to it. It is neither necessary nor useful when explaining consciousness. Yes, I know you’ll want support for that but you’ll have to wait. I promise it’s coming. The point is that simply claiming materialism does not preclude you from understanding mammals to have free will. If it did, we would need proof that the mind is not an emergent property which acts in discord with the physical world – meaning that it acts with self agency rather than simply react to the physical world. It would be best if I could prove this, but currently we have no proof either way on free will for materialists. I do know that Sam Harris is wrong because he makes simple assumptions about a set of observations without considering the whole of the brain and how it works.  His views are like saying that vehicles are fuelled by passengers because they never go anywhere until there is a passenger in the vehicle.

In the quote above I highlighted ‘most forms’ for the reason that not all forms of non-physical are necessarily beyond the physical world. For instance (shout out to the philosophy students) red is immaterial but is only part of the physical world. Before you jump too far, the color red is only a problem for philosophers, physicists are quite alright with it. Philosophers are not an overly helpful lot. All this talk about brains and thinking yet not one of them can define what a thought is. They’ve had a pretty good run at it and just can’t get over that hurdle.

I’m a materialist and I know we have free will, all mammals do and probably even more species of life on this planet.



  1. No, you think we have free will. But do we?

    I think that flock/school/herd has a discrete boundary because I see it operating with a discrete boundary. I see it act as if it were a single thing with intention. I assume it must have agency, right? A hidden driver, so to speak. operat8ng invisibly. I look for this driver, this agency with intention, but all I can find are local units obeying local rules – birds, fish, elk. No little independent (free) driver anywhere to be found.

    What appears to be a ‘thing’ with agency is no such thing. Our will appears to be a driver of our discrete mind that we assume has independent agency. But when we look we find the same material cause as we find with the flock/school/herd: local units obeying local rules. If it’s will, it’s not free but fully dependent on these units and these rules. And if it’s free, it’s not will but fully dependent on the material processes that animate them.

    Here’s an example where we can ask as Harris suggests we do, “Could I have thought differently?”

    I say ‘elephant’, you think… what? See what I mean? Could you have thought differently than you did? You thought what you did not by directing your thought from some independent driver with agency and independent intention that defines what we mean ‘will’ (OED: The faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action) but by a reflexive chemical process. A physical process unalterable by anything other than some other material intervention. There’s nothing ‘free’ about what it was you thought in response to my word ‘elephant’ because there was nothing there to do any directing other than local units obeying local rules.

    Learning, I should mention now, can change the rules… again, a physical process of creating and breaking neural connections. There are many techniques for doing this.

    • I will not argue that you do not have a point. I will say that I disagree. It is possible to mimic via such rules as you have described but if this were true I would not have asked anything in response to your statement “elephant” … it simply would have made no sense and would have failed to register above the noise threshold. That I asked WTF? means that I am thinking independent of environmental influences.

      I, in fact, did think differently. I did not simply think wtf? I thought ‘what kind of ruse is this?’ and what is the point? Still, that I thought at all is the deficit in your thinking. I thought. Think about that. It was not a simple reaction or failure to match a pattern. It is independent of the environment and stimulus. Your statement did not cause my thoughts, I formed them in response as a way to understand what I sensed. This is different than simply reacting. Separate thought and reaction. If you hit me I will flinch. My mind will go a hundred different directions all at once and I can choose violent reprise or calm politics – neither is dependent on the environment no matter how much it appears so.

    • I think therefore i am..wAit no I am therefore i think…wait this discussion’s been had hundreds of years ago..why are we having it again..and to no clearer end. 😉

      • There are many philosophers who can’t make up their mind’s what a thought is. Everytime someone pushes their buttons they go off on a wild goose chase only to return and say ‘we don’t know, but it seems awfully sad that there is no soul’ and there we have it. One small group of people holding back all of humanity for the sakes of keeping their jobs… It’s criminal, purely so. Until we get the council to agree to restrict their parking they will keep getting into the meetings.

        • Please, you clearly never met a philosopher, they can hardly afford a sandwich, never you mind a car. Why do you think they’re always so willowy and fatigued, it’s all the jogging.

          • Damn! That must be why we’re having issues. I shall have their bus passes revoked immediately…

  2. One thing I always like to point out is that the definition of “material” is actually quite complicated. There are dozens of types of particles that do not interact strongly with ordinary matter; there are fields upon which the very structure of our universe depends, whose existence particle physicists are still working to obtain hard evidence of.

    And then there is information – an arguably immaterial quantity that is still conserved every bit as strictly as matter and energy (see Hawking radiation). There are lots of things, like free will and the placebo effect, that arguably produce concrete effects with information as their mechanism.

    I will agree that I see no need for our universe to revolve around things that are not part of the natural world, or are not physically manifested on the material plane. But let’s remember just how complicated “material” can be! We don’t know everything about it yet!

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