Physicalism vs Materialism (which one?)


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Page last updated: 30/09/2022

In this guide, we will discuss “Physicalism vs Materialism”.

Physicalism vs Materialism

The term or word materialism, unlike the word physicalism, is very old. Physicalism was first introduced as a philosophical concept in the 1930s by Otto Neurath (1931) and Rudolf Carnap (1959/1932). 

Some philosophers may argue that even if physicalism and materialism are interchangeable concepts, they seem to be different. As the word materialism has indicated throughout time, ‘everything was matter’, the matter is conceived as an ‘inert and senseless substance’.  But the term physics has shown that not everything is matter, for instance, let’s consider gravitational forces which are physical but not material in the traditional sense.

However, for others the difference relies solely upon a historical approach of the term and when it was first coined. For instance, we know that materialism is a view that emerges during the pre-socratic period with Epicurus and his predecessors. The main idea or thesis is that for something in this world to be real or exist, it has to be ‘hard and physical’. But physicalism emerges way after materialism and unlike materialism, it doesn’t talk about hard and physical stuff such as physical fields and things that are ‘unobservables’.

Subsequently, the language of physics starts to describe everything but not as ‘matter’, observable matter but instead as energy or fields.

What is Physicalism?

For physicalists, the main thesis here is that everything is physical, intended usually as a metaphysical thesis. The general premise is that the nature of the actual words conforms to the condition of being physical. However, physicalists don’t necessarily deny the existence of things that at first are not considered as physical such as items of biological, psychological or moral nature. But they insist that items are either physical or supervene on the physical.

Physicalism is sometimes known as materialism and both terms are used interchangeably but both have different histories. The term materialism was introduced long ago while the term physicalism was introduced into philosophy in the 1930s by Otto Neurath and Rudolph Carnap who were members of the Vienna Circle. 

Some philosophers argue how physicalism and materialism are distinct from one another since materialists argue that everything is matter and matter is conceived as an inert, senseless substance according to Berkley, while physics has shown how not everything is matter in the sense materialists see it.

Physicalism vs Materialism (which one?)

Types of physicalism

There are two types or categories of Physicalism, which are Reductive and non-reductive.

Reductive Physicalism

Reductive Physicalism indicates that mental states and properties can be (or could eventually be) explained by scientific approaches of physiological processes and states. There are four main types: Behaviorism, type identity theory, token identity theory and Functionalism.

In the case of Behaviorism, mental states are said to be descriptions of what is observable or the observable behavior and it can be described through the scientific method. This means that there is no need to recourse either to internal physiological events or hypothetical constructs of the mind.

The second theory states that there are various kinds of mental states and they seem to be identical to certain kinds of physical states of the brain. 

The third theory is the token identity theory which proposes that particular instances of mental states are the same or identical to particular instances of physical states of the brain. 

The final theory is called functionalism which talks about mental states such as belief, desire or pain as being constituted by their functional role. Moreover, they can be characterized in terms of non-mental functional properties.  

Non-reductive Physicalism

Non-reductive Physicalism argues that even though the brain is all there is to the mind, the descriptions and explanations can’t be reduced to the explanations made by physical science. This ultimately means that mental states depend on physical states and there can be no change in the mental without changes in the physical. There are three main types: anomalous monism, emergentism and eliminativism.

The first type states that the mental events are the same as the physical events, but the mental has a characteristic of being anomalous. The mental events are real and identical with (some) physical matter but they are not regulated by strict physical laws. If we follow this idea we could conclude that mental things are physical but not all the physical things are said to be mental.

The second type is Emergentism, which indicates that there is a layered view of nature. The layers are said to be organized in terms of increasing complexity and each ultimately corresponding to its own special science.

The past type is Eliminativism or Eliminative Materialism. This theory argues that people’s common-sense or ‘folk psychology’ when understanding the mind, is flawed and will eventually be ‘eliminated’ by an alternative which is usually neuroscience. 

Objections to physicalism

Objections contradict the existence of qualia which is said to be the properties of the sensory experiences or the way we perceive things in a world that is merely physical. Moreover, we also have Hempel’s Dilemma proposed by German philosopher Carl Hempel which attacks how physicalists define physicalism.

For instance, one of the arguments includes the definition of physicalism as the belief that the universe is only composed of everything known to physics. However, we could argue that physics is not able to explain how the mind works. 

Parts of the knowledge argument

Now that we have put ourselves in context, let’s talk about the two parts from the knowledge argument. The first one says that physical knowledge is not sufficient or enough for phenomenal knowledge, also called knowledge intuition. 

Moreover, the second argument says that the knowledge intuition entails the falsity of physicalism and even though many others have tried to depict the concept of knowledge intuition, it wasn’t until Jackson that we could consider this to be the best attempt. But additionally, he provides reasons for inferring physicalism is not true. For more information on this problem, you could find it in the case of Mary.

What is materialism?

According to, “Materialism, also called physicalism, in philosophy, the view that all facts (including facts about the human mind and will and the course of human history) are causally dependent upon physical processes, or even reducible to them.”

The term Materialism has been used to refer to a family of metaphysical theories, for instance, those theories referring to the nature of reality. 

Types distinguished by departures from the paradigm

  • The matter is conceived by modern physics as being made up of things such as electrons, protons and mesons, which differ from the concept elucidated by mechanical materialism of the hard and massy particles matter is made of.
  • There is a distinction between matter and energy. Just as indicated by Britannica, “It is, therefore, natural to extend the word materialist beyond the above paradigm case (of mechanical materialism) to cover anyone who bases his theory on whatever it is that physics asserts ultimately to exist. This sort may be called physicalistic materialism.”
  • Another departure from this paradigm indicates that everything is composed of material particles or physical entities, such as living cells or brains, which can’t be reduced to the laws that apply to the fundamental physical entities.

Mechanistic materialism

This theory argues that the world consists entirely of hard objects. These objects interact in the way stones do: “by impact and possibly also by gravitational attraction”. This theory goes against the existence of immaterial things such as the mind or states that they can be explained as material things or motions of material things.

Physicalistic materialism

You may think saying ‘physicalistic materialism’ is redundancy but with this, many believe that it is possible to go beyond what materialism entitles. Matter here is not only referring to hard ‘things’ but also what matter is made of such as electrons, protons and mesons. It is natural then, to extend the word materialism not only to the hard property matter has but also to physics.

According to, “This sort may be called physicalism materialism. Such a materialist allows the concept of material things to be extended to include all of the elementary particles and other things that are postulated in fundamental physical theory—perhaps even continuous fields and points of space-time.”

Why is this blog about Physicalism vs Materialism important?

When talking about physicalism and materialism, many people believe they have a lot in common but are not the same thing. For instance, for physicalism,  physics has shown how not everything is matter in the sense materialists see it. Materialism argues that reality, including the human mind, are causally dependent upon physical processes, or even reducible to them. 

Materialists would say the mind can be reduced to the brain but we believe physicalists may have a more complex answer when they are presented with this argument. It is not only about the physical properties such as the weight, colour, size a brain can have but also how the mental processes are said to occur. If we analyze, both points of view have similar approaches however, they are also different.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Physicalism vs Materialism

What is materialism or Physicalism?

Materialism is also called physicalism since they suggest that facts are viewed as causally dependent upon physical processes, or even be reducible to them. This includes facts about the human mind and will.

What is the difference between materialism and idealism?

Materialism suggests that material objects exist (we can perceive them through our senses) while idealism defends the view where objects are or depend on its existence upon, mental entities.

What are the two types of materialism?

There seem to be three forms of materialism (historical forms of materialism), and they are:

– Naive or spontaneous materialism

– Mechanistic or metaphysical materialism

– Dialectical materialism

Was Aristotle a materialist?

Aristotle was not a materialist. He even talks about the opposite in Chapter 5 of the Book of the Anima. 

What is materialism by Karl Marx?

For Karl Marx, materialism has an objective reality independent of mind or spirit and the material world is perceptible to the senses. Materialists such as Marx didn’t deny the reality of mental or spiritual processes but they affirmed that ideas could arise.

References “Physicalism” “Materialism” “Physicalism”