There is No Question of Physicalism

Mind 99 (394):185-206 (1990)
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Many philosophers are impressed by the progress achieved by physical sciences. This has had an especially deep effect on their ontological views: it has made many of them physicalists. Physicalists believe that everything is physical: more precisely, that all entities, properties, relations, and facts are those which are studied by physics or other physical sciences. They may not all agree with the spirit of Rutherford's quoted remark that 'there is physics; and there is stamp-collecting',' but they all grant physical science a unique ontological authority: the authority to tell us what there is. Physicalism is now almost orthodox in much philosophy, notably in much recent philosophy of mind. But although often invoked, it is rarely explicitly defined. It should be. The claim that everything is physical is not as clear as it seems. In this paper, we examine a number of proposed definitions of physicalism and reasons for being a physicalist. We will argue both that physicalism lacks a clear and credible definition, and that in no non-vacuous interpretation is it true. We are concerned here only with physicalism as a doctrine about the empirical world. In particular, it should not be confused with nominalism, the doctrine that there are no universals.2 Nominalism and physicalism are quite independent doctrines. Believers in universals may as consistently assert as deny that the only properties and relations are those studied by physical science. And nominalists may with equal consistency assert or deny that physical science could provide enough predicates to describe the world. That is the question which concerns physicalists, not whether physical predicates name real universals. (We will for brevity write as if they do, but we do not need that assumption.)

Author Profiles

Tim Crane
Central European University
Hugh Mellor
Last affiliation: Cambridge University


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