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Must Science Be Materialist in Principle?

Philosopher Peter Vickers says yes. Philosopher and computer scientist Bernardo Kastrup says no.

Recently, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviewed Dutch computer scientist, Bernardo Kastrup here at Mind Matters News.

Kastrup has been engaged in a debate with “science first” philosopher Peter Vickers (pictured), who has said, “On the face of it, both science and philosophy search for truth: scientists ask ‘big’ questions such as “Where did human beings ultimately come from?”, and philosophers similarly ask ‘big’ questions such as “What is the relationship between the mind and the brain?”. But whereas scientists sometimes actually reach truth (human beings evolved from more primitive mammals, which themselves evolved from amphibians, etc.), philosophers seemingly never do, and are doomed to forever go round in circles.”

Well, wait. Is it as simple as that? Can the human mind really be explained that way? Kastrup thinks the truth is more complex:

The thrust of Vickers’ piece, “Panpsychism, idealism and science,” is an argument about whether theories of mind such as panpsychism and idealism can be considered scientific. He suggests they cannot. The very question, however, already betrays some conceptual confusion regarding the definitional differences between science and philosophy, particularly metaphysics: insofar as a theory of mind is a metaphysics, of course it is not scientific; by definition. It can therefore be argued that the very motivation for his piece is a straw man.

Science studies nature’s behavior, insofar as it can be ascertained through empirical experimentation. Metaphysics, on the other hand, although certainly informed by science, makes tentative statements about what nature is. Theories of mind like panpsychism and idealism are metaphysical theories, in that they maintain that mind is a fundamental part of what nature is …

Be that as it may, Vickers’ point again applies to physicalism as well. Defending a belief in physicalism should also be considered an exaggeration, a non-scientific speculation, if Vickers’ argument is to remain internally consistent.

Bernardo Kastrup, “A strange perspective on the practice of science” at IAI News

Physicalism (the idea that everything is physical) is an extreme form of materialism: “Of course, physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don’t seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy So your thoughts and the number 7, if not physical, are illusions.

The question Kastrup (pictured) is raising is, why should science be committed to either materialism or physicalism? There’s no self-evident reason for that. There may indeed be a mind behind the universe. Miracles may happen. Maybe prayers do help sick people. The placebo effect certainly works. To claim that “science” must oppose these ideas in principle is to make it into an ideology. The truth is, we know little about how some aspects of our universe work. It’s best not to be too hasty, as Treebeard would say.


You may also enjoy: Bernardo Kastrup argues for a universal mind as a reasonable idea.


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Must Science Be Materialist in Principle?