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In ancient Greece, some 2500 years before 20th-century science discovered the subatomic world; the quantum world with its characteristic indeterminancy and uncertainty; chaos; emergence; and the full flowering of the world of fields, materialism[1]—often called scientific materialism—postulated a catalogue of real entities, an ontology,[2] accounting for a particular vision of reality, a worldview not predicated on invoking supernatural causes and forces, the ontology based on primary attribution of matter as the fundamental, underlying constituent of nature—matter conceptualized, in one version, as material particles of many varying shapes and sizes of the same stuff, each particle indivisible, in motion in a void, the particles interacting as dictated by necessities external to the particles themselves, the interactions determining the shape, size, weight, and motion of all objects in the natural world (Anastopoulos 2008).

That version of materialism, called atomism, emerged from the minds of Leucippus (5th century BCE) (Berryman 2010); Democritus (b. ca. 460 BCE) (Berryman 2010); and, Epicurus (341-270 BCE) (Konstan 2009).


The atomists were not dissuaded from their conception of a matter-based reality by having to postulate the contribution of the existence of non-matter-based constituents such as a void within which atoms moved, and necessities external to the atoms that caused their motion. Likewise they were not dissuaded by the existence of seemingly immaterial aspects of reality, such as the mind and will, which they viewed as physical processes:

The atomic theory was the first recorded materialist theory in history—not only did it seek to explain the physical phenomena, but also the psychic ones fell under the scope of its explanation. Life and soul are also, Democritus thought, manifestations of atoms. The atoms responsible are lighter and finer than those of ordinary matter, but they still move in the Void and endure the rule of an iron necessity (Anastopoulos 2008).[3]

The Materialism of Epicurus (c. 341-271 BCE)
…the whole of being consists of bodies and space. For the existence of bodies is everywhere attested by sense itself, and it is upon sensation that reason must rely when it attempts to infer the unknown from the known. And if there were no space (which we call also void and place and intangible nature), bodies would have nothing in which to be and through which to move, as they are plainly seen to move. Beyond bodies and space there is nothing which by mental apprehension or on its analogy we can conceive to exist. When we speak of bodies and space, both are regarded as wholes or separate things, not as the properties or accidents of separate things.
…the first beginnings must be indivisible, corporeal entities.
…the atoms, which have no void in them—out of which composite bodies arise and into which they are dissolved—vary indefinitely in their shapes; for so many varieties of things as we see could never have arisen out of a recurrence of a definite number of the same shapes. The like atoms of each shape are absolutely infinite; but the variety of shapes, though indefinitely large, is not absolutely infinite…
The atoms are in continual motion through all eternity. Some of them rebound to a considerable distance from each other, while others merely oscillate in one place when they chance to have got entangled or to be enclosed by a mass of other atoms shaped for entangling….
Moreover, there is an infinite number of worlds, some like this world, others unlike it…
… For the atoms out of which a world might arise, or by which a world might be formed, have not all been expended on one world or a finite number of worlds, whether like or unlike this one. Hence there will be nothing to hinder an infinity of worlds.
Epicurus: Letter to Herodotus

Other ancient Greek materialists, in particular, Empedocles (490-430 BCE) (Parry 2008), imagined matter as elements, or elementary substances, such as, metaphorically, earth (solid matter), air (gaseous matter), water (fluid matter), and fire (heat matter), substances distinguished by qualities (solid, gaseous, etc.), qualities evident to sense experience, substances interacting through properties inherent to the substances themselves, specifically love (attraction) and strife (repulsion), whose interactions generated and decomposed all the objects of sense experience, clay and trees, sun, moon, and stars (Anastopoulos 2008; Curd 2008;Morris 2003).

From earliest times, then, materialism did not subscribe to a particular theory of matter. But in all theories, something less unquestionably material than matter was in the picture—e.g., void, attraction, repulsion.

Thus, materialism originated with the ancient Greek atomists and elementists of the 7th to 5th centuries BCE. Subsequently it flourished as the scientific paradigm for explaining the nature of the universe for three centuries following the time of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Newtonian and post-Newtonian materialism excluded any explanations of reality that could not be reduced to the physics of the time, whether the fundamental components required to account for the interactions or qualities of matter themselves qualified as material —as remains the case today among 21st century scientific materialists, predominantly embracing so-called physicalism (vide infra ).

Materialism denied supernaturalism, in that it denied that material-independent spiritual or divine powers ever account for observable events in the natural world. It denied mind as independent of, or fundamentally different from the body, an entity of interacting material substances. Such classical materialism held that natural interactions of matter always explain events, even in instances where lack of knowledge precluded explanation (Joad 2005).

Materialism affirmed determinism, in that it asserted that all events of the world result from preceding ones — embracing causality — it asserted that knowledge of the state of the world at any given time can in principle enable prediction of the state of the world at a future time.

Definitions of materialism

The Materialism of Lavoisier (1743-1794)[4]
"We must accept as an axiom;' Lavoisier wrote, "that nothing is created in all process of art and nature. The same quantity of matter exists before and after the experiment." Clearly, this principle had important philosophical implications. If the total content of matter in the world is constant, then matter can be neither created nor destroyed. The world has always had the same amount of matter, hence there was no reason to assume that it had ever been created. The conservation of mass suggested the idea of an eternal universe, with no beginning and no end. This idea had been a central point of the philosophy of materialism from the ancient times until the Enlightenment, and now it seemed to have acquired the status of a basic principle of science, a principle that could be verified in chemical experiments. [emphasis added]
—Charis Anastopoulos (2008)

Macmillan's Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006) gives this definition of materialism:

Materialism is the name given to a family of doctrines concerning the nature of the world that give to matter a primary position and accord to mind (or spirit) a secondary, dependent reality or even none at all. Extreme materialism asserts that the real world is spatiotemporal and consists of material things and nothing else, with two important qualifications: first, space and time, or space-time, must also be included if these are realities rather than mere systems of relations, for they are not material things in any straightforward sense. Second, materialism is fundamentally a doctrine concerning the character of the concrete natural world we inhabit, and it is probably best to set to one side controversies over abstract entities such as numbers, or geometric figures, or the relations of entailment and contradiction studied in logic.

Note that the Macmillan encyclopedia's definition includes space and time as fundamental constituents of the world, even though "they are not material things in any straightforward sense".

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998) defines materialism:

Materialism is the genera! theory that the ultimate constituents of reality are material or physical bodies, elements or processes. It is a form of monism in that it holds that everything in existence is reducible to what is material or physical in nature. It is opposed to dualistic theories which claim that body and mind are distinct, and directly antithetical to a philosophical idealism that denies the existence of matter. It is hostile to abstract objects, if these are viewed as more than just a manner of speaking...

Note that the Routledge encyclopedia's definition includes the word "processes", in a context that implies "processes" as "material or physical in nature".

In their anthology, Moser and Trout (1995) introduce their concept of contemporary materialism:

Materialism, of the kind accepted by many philosophers and scientists, is a general view about what actually exists. Put bluntly, the view is just this: Everything that actually exists is material, or physical. This general view originated with western philosophy itself, among the pre-Socratic philosophers in ancient Greece. Many philosophers and scientists now use the terms "material" and "physical" interchangeably; we shall follow suit. (Likewise, we shall use "materialism" and "physicalism" interchangeably.) Understood as a general position about what exists, materialism is an ontological or a metaphysical, view. Characterized thus, it is not just an epistemological view about how we know, or just a semantic view about the meaning of terms. What however, is the exact meaning of "material," or "physical"? In the absence of an answer to this question, materialism will be an obscure ontological view. It will then be difficult, if not impossible, to confirm or to disconfirm materialism (Moser and Trout 1995).

Boyd et al. (1991), in the glossary of their Philosophy of Science, define materialism:

Materialism: The ontological doctrine that states that everything that exists is, or depends on, matter.

As originally formulated, materialism is a philosophy of mechanism and determinism in respect of workings of the natural world, the world as essentially a machine, a 'clockwork universe'.

Outmoded paradigm?

Philosopher Jessica Wilson argues that materialism, as originally formulated, is no longer a viable philosophy (Wilson 2006):

Materialism, roughly formulated, is the thesis that all broadly scientific entities are nothing over and above material entities, where the latter are characterized as being extended, impenetrable, conserved, such as to (only) deterministically interact, and so on. The material entities ultimately supposed to serve as an ontological basis for all else are those existing at relatively low orders of constitutional complexity – entities that are, as I’ll put it, ‘‘relatively fundamental’’. But contemporary physics has reported that the relatively fundamental entities have few, if any, of the characteristics of the material; and thus materialism has been rendered a has-been (Wilson 2006)

Physicists and science popularizers agree, proclaiming "Materialism is dead" (Davies and Gribbin 1992, 2007):

An extension of the quantum theory, known as quantum field theory…paints a picture in which solid matter dissolves away, to be replaced by weird excitations and vibrations of invisible field energy. In this theory, little distinction remains between material substance and apparently empty space, which itself seethes with ephemeral quantum activity. The culmination of these ideas is the so-called superstring theory, which seeks to unite space, time and matter, and to build all of them from the vibrations of submicroscopic loops of invisible string inhabiting a ten-dimensional imaginary universe.

...scientists are increasingly thinking of the physical Universe less as a collection of cogs in a machine and more as an information-processing system. Gone are the clodlike lumps of matter, to be replaced instead by "bits" of information. This is the shape of the emerging universe paradigm—a complex system in which mind, intelligence and information are more important than the hardware.

Philosopher Alexander Rosenberg (2005) echos those views, speaking in particular to materialism's deterministic aspect:

Between them, Newton and Darwin are the great sources of philosophical materialism or physicalism, which undermines so much traditional philosophical theory in metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and for that matter may threaten moral philosophy...But, twentieth-century developments in physics and the foundations of mathematics have shaken the confidence of philosophical materialism far more than any merely philosophical arguments. First, the attempt to extend deterministic physical theory from observable phenomena to unobservable processes came up against the appearance of sub-atomic indeterminism in nature. It has turned out that at the level of quantum processes - the behavior of electrons, protons, neutrons, the photons of which light is composed, alpha, beta and gamma radiation - there are no exceptionless laws, the laws seem to be ineliminably indeterministic.

Those reports of the death of materialism, though hardly greatly exaggerated, do not imply the death of materialism in all of its classical aspects, including the core aspect, emerging from the Newtonian revolution, that reality consists of nothing over and above that which physics identifies as real, even though physics has yet to complete its exploration of reality. In a sense, materialism has reincarnated as physics-ism, more properly referred to as physicalism. Physicalism evolved from materialism (Wilson 2006), as 20th century physics discovered more and more fundamental entities not strictly material in the sense of atomic matter; discovered the equivalence of matter and energy; and, discovered the indeterministic nature of reality.

Nevertheless, the term materialism continues to be used by many interchangeably with physicalism. The principal contributor of the Encyclopedia Britannica's article on materialism, philosopher John Jamieson Carswell Smart, begins with:

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 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on physicalism, by Daniel Stoljar (Stoljar 2009), begins its section on terminology with:

Physicalism is sometimes known as ‘materialism’; indeed, on one strand to contemporary usage, the terms ‘physicalism’ and ‘materialism’ are interchangeable.

Compared with its matter-based origins, materialism becomes physicalism, and matter is replaced by physical processes.

Contemporary materialism

In respect of the concept of materialism, philosophers, over its 2500 year history, have divided themselves into three generic schools: two so-called monistic philosophies that postulate reality as a unified whole with a single undergirding substratum, in one camp a material substratum—materialism—in the other, an immaterial substratum—idealism—and one so-called dualistic philosophy—dualism—combining aspects of materialism and idealism, and in effect serving as a compromise between the two monistic camps (Vitzthum 1995, p18). Contemporary philosophy includes advocates of the three generic schools, each school having a variety of philosophical species (Stoljar 2009), a distictive variant for nearly each philosopher in each of the generic schools.

An account of the philosophical stances of those generic schools of thought, and of the distinctions among the species of views in each school, coheres only when constructed within the framework of the dominant question of contemporary materialism/physicalism: what is the nature of the relationship of the mind and the body—the so-called mind-body problem?

The mind-body problem

Schopenhauer rightly viewed the mind- body problem as the "Weltknoten" (world knot). It is truly a cluster of intricate puzzles—some scientific, some epistemological, some syn-tactical, some semantical, and some pragmatic. Closely related to these are the equally sensitive and controversial issues regarding teleology, purpose, intentionality, and free will…I am convinced, along with many contemporary philosophical ana¬lysts and logicians of science, that all of these problems have been un¬necessarily complicated by conceptual confusions, and to that extent are gratuitous puzzles and pseudoproblems.
—Herbert Feigl [5]



Recent materialism is very varied, but the dominant form of contemporary materialism is functionalism. This has two components. The first is to focus on causality: what causes "mental states" and what causal effects they have. The second is to identify these "mental states" as phenomena of the central nervous system.


  1. According to Rudolf Eucken (1910), the term materialism was first used by Robert Boyle, in his The excellence and grounds of the mechanical philosophy, published in 1674. Rudolf Eucken (1904) Grundbegriffe der gegenwart. Veit. p.172
  2. Ontology: "The ontology of a theory is the catalogue of things and types of things the theory deems to exist (Dennett DC. (1991) Consciousness Explained. Little, Brown and Company)." [NB: 'theory' here referring to a 'system of concepts'].
  3. The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd edition, gives as a definition of 'materialism', under 'special usage', "the doctrine that consciousness and will are wholly due to material agency".
  4. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier. Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2005-2006 Thomson Gale.
  5. Feigl H. (1967) The "Mental" and the "Physical": The Essay and a Postscript. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816657599.


  • Berryman, Sylvia. (2010) "Leucippus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  • Berryman, Sylvia. (2010) "Democritus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  • Curd, Patricia. (2008) "Presocratic Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  • Davies PCW, Gribbin JR. (1992, 2007) The Matter Myth: Dramatic Discoveries That Challenge Our Understanding of Physical Reality. Simon & Schuster: New York. ISBN 9780743290913 (pbk). Preview book online at Google Books here.
    • Excerpt: Quantum physics undermines materialism because it reveals that matter has far less "substance" than we might believe….matter as such has been demoted from its central role, to be replaced by concepts such as organization, complexity and information.
  • Epicurus (341-270 BCE). Letter to Herodotus. From: Epicurus & Epicurean Philosophy.
    • From website: Epicurus's philosophy combines a physics based on an atomistic materialism with a rational hedonistic ethics that emphasizes moderation of desires and cultivation of friendships. His world-view is an optimistic one that stresses that philosophy can liberate one from fears of death and the supernatural, and can teach us how to find happiness in almost any situation. His practical insights into human psychology, as well as his science-friendly world-view, gives Epicureanism great contemporary signficance as well as a venerable role in the intellectual development of Western Civilization.
  • Feigl H. (1967) The "Mental" and the "Physical": The Essay and a Postscript. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816657599
  • Joad CEM. (1936, 1950) Guide to Philosophy. London: V. Gollancz, ltd. | Google Books preview 1950 ed.
    • Excerpt: We know too much about the physical world to-day, to feel that we know anything for certain. Certainly we do not know enough about it to justify us in asserting that it possesses those characteristics which it must possess, if it is to act as a foundation for the imposing superstructure of a materialist universe.
  • Konstan, David, "Epicurus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  • Morris R. (2003) "The Four Elements". In: Morris R. The Last Sorcerers: The Path from Alchemy to the Periodic Table. Chapter 1. Joseph Henry Press: Washinton, D.C. ISBN 0-309-08905-0. | Google Books preview.
    • Excerpt: Aristotle elaborated on the theory [of Empedocles] by assigning qualities to the four elements. Fire was hot and dry, air was hot and moist, water was cold and moist, and earth was cold and dry. This implied that it was possible for one element to be transformed into another. In Aristotle's day it seemed a reasonable theory, one that was supported by common observations. For example, if the "cold" in water were made hot, then the water would be transformed into air. And indeed this is what appears to be happening when water is boiled. When wood was burned, smoke (air), pitch (water), ash (earth), and fire were produced. If two pieces of flint were struck together, a spark was produced that could be used to kindle a fire. Thus it seemed that the fire element must be present in rock.
  • Moser PK, Trout JD. (1995) General Introuction: Contemporary Materialism. In: Paul K. Moser and J. D. Trout. Contemporary materialism: a reader. ISBN 9780415108638. | Google Books preview.
  • Parry, Richard. (2008) "Empedocles", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  • Rosenberg A. (2005) Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction. Psychology Press. ISBN 9780415343176. | Google Books preview.
    • Excerpt: ...the attempt to extend deterministic physical theory from observable phenomena to unobservable processes came up against the appearance of sub-atomic indeterminism in nature. It has turned out that at the level of quantum processes - the behavior of electrons, protons, neutrons, the photons of which light is composed, alpha, beta and gamma radiation - there are no exceptionless laws, the laws seem to be ineliminably indeterministic. It is not just that we cannot know what is going on with certainty and have to satisfy ourselves with mere probability. Rather, almost all physicists believe it has been physically established that the probabilities of quantum mechanics couldn't explain the behavior of the fundamental constituents of matter (and so of everything), with the fantastic precision that they reflect, if there were a deeper deterministic theory that somehow explains these probabilities. Whether a single particular uranium atom will emit an alpha particle in the next minute has a probability of, say, 0.5×109. No amount of further inquiry will raise or lower that probability; there is no difference in the state of a uranium atom which results in alpha emission during one minute and in the state of the atom when it does not emit the particle during the course of another minute. At the fundamental level of nature, the principle of same cause, same effect, is invariably violated.
  • Stoljar D. (2009) "Physicalism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Vitzthum RC. (1995) Materialism: An Affirmative History and Definition. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1573920274. | Publisher webpage.