Arguments against Materialism

1. Introduction
The purpose of this article is to attempt to clarify the differences and similarities between the Kadampa Buddhist view of reality and the western philosophical positions of materialism, dualism, epiphenomenalism and physicalism - including the modern reductionist version of physicalism known as computationalism. Links to detailed refutations of the materialist/physicalist worldview are provided.

2. Terminology
One of the main problems in western philosophy is that of terminology, different writers use the same term to mean different things. A trivial example is that among theologians materialism can be used to mean either a philosophical school of thought, or a lifestyle dominated by craving for new goodies and gadgets (though many Buddhists would claim that the the philosophy and lifestyle are not unrelated).

For the purpose of this article I shall review four viewpoints
- Classical materialism
- Classical dualism
- Modern physicalism
- Kadampa Buddhism.

3. Classical Materialism
I shall take materialism (in the context of this discussion) to mean classical nineteenth and early twentieth century materialism (such as Marxism) which holds that only material things exist and these are composed of atoms, whose behavior is totally defined by the laws of physics. At the beginning of the twentieth century matter and energy were shown to be interchangeable, but this finding didn't at that time weaken materialism. If anything it strengthened it.

To the classical materialist, the universe is one huge mechanism composed of tiny particles which behave like electrically charged billiard balls. Theoretically if you knew the mass, velocity, spin and charge of each of these particles then you could predict the behavior of the universe from now until eternity. As humans and animals are composed entirely of atoms, their behavior is also, in theory, predictable and therefore free-will does not exist.

3.1. Classical Materialism and Behaviorism
The psychological implications of classical materialism were taken to their logical conclusions by the behaviorists, who held that internal mental states do not exist. This absurd school of philosophy enjoyed considerable vogue in the US from the 1930's until the 1960's. It is amazing that no-one ever realised that all phenomena - from atoms to galaxies - can only be known via internal mental states. If internal mental states do not exist then the things that become manifest through them cannot exist - or at any rate must always remain totally innaccessible to understanding.  (But presumably this doesn't matter because understanding, being an internal mental state, also cannot exist!).

3.2. Classical Materialism and Epiphenomenalism
Epiphenomenalism avoids some of the absurdities of the behaviorists by claiming that consciousness and thought-processes do actually exist, though only as epiphenomena generated by the physical activities of the brain. However,  thoughts have no causative functions!  The illusion of free-will remains precisely that - an illusion.

In other words a 'zombie' could be constructed which could be programmed or hardwired to carry out all the functions of a sentient being with an identical degree of efficiency, but would never experience any internal mental states or qualia.   Consciousness is seen as some sort of incidental by-product or fortuitously generated phenomenon, which plays no useful role in the life of the organism.

This argument collapses as soon as we consider biological evolution (see symbiotic mind). Biological systems do not carry excess baggage without good reason. Those organisms that possess costly features with no adaptive significance are rapidly eliminated. If consciousness were a useless by-product with no causal capability (ie no selective advantage) then the structures that communicate with it would never have evolved in the first place. Even if by some chance organs of consciousness (over and above those needed to control the reflexes of a zombie) became present, their possessors would be swiftly eliminated, due to their less efficient organisation of resources compared with their competitors.

4. Dualism
The western response to materialism is dualism, which claims that there are two kinds of things in the universe - material objects and souls. The major exponent of dualism was Descartes. The soul is regarded a thinking self-conscious entity which interfaces with the nervous system through the the pineal gland. From this organ the soul controls the rest of the body, which is a purely mechanical system. Only humans have souls, animals are simple automata incapable of any subjective mental experience.

Consequently, dualism goes further than epiphenomenalism in claiming not only that zombies could theoretically exist, but they actually do exist in the form of all non-human animals.  The Buddhist view disagrees with this and treats animals as sentient beings capable of experiencing happiness and suffering.

Dualism implies that  mental experience is a radically new feature that only humans possess, and a late optional extra slipped into an already well-defined, functional, physical universe (for Buddhist counterarguments see dukkha,  sunyata and  participatory anthropic principle).

As dualism in one form or another continues to be the predominant teaching of the church, it is apparent why there is so much antipathy from fundamentalists towards the theory of evolution.  It is extremely difficult to envisage how a mechanistic zombie (animal) could have gradually evolved into a dualistic being (human). This problem is not shared by Buddhism, which regards the mind as being primordial and capable of forming a temporary association with any sentient organism, as discussed in symbiotic mind.

5. Modern Physicalism
The version of materialism prevalent nowadays is more accurately known as physicalism. It is more concerned with the laws of physics and with information processing than with matter as substance. Physicalism has grown out of advances during the second half of the twentieth century in the fields of genetics, evolution and computer technology. Modern physicalism takes as its subject matter DNA codes, computer instruction sets and datastructures, rather than the bouncing billiard balls of the nineteenth and early twentieth century materialists

Physicalism's tenets are that the entire operation of the universe, including the human mind, can be reduced to algorithms and datastructures. The laws of physics are seen as as the algorithms which determine the informational states of particles (velocity, position, spin etc) from previous states.

The process of evolution itself is regarded as an algorithm. Evolution produces complex structures out of the endless algorithmic loop of replication, random error in copying, and resources which are insufficient  to allow all replicated copies to survive to replicate themselves in turn.  Evolution is the algorithm, and the DNA codes of living organisms are the corresponding datastructures.

Physicalism has taken on board some of the early findings of quantum physics (but is struggling to interpret some of the more recent ones such as non-locality). In particular, it is more in agreement with Buddhism than are either Classical Materialism or Dualism, in that Physicalism does not recognise the existence of things-in-themselves. The material world can only be known by its interactions. Production of new information always depends upon the change of state of a system.

At the quantum level, the ultimate particles of matter are unknowable as things-in-themselves, and in the final analysis turn into mere probabilities. The characteristics of fundamental particles can never be directly apprehended, but must be deduced by their interactions with particles of a similar nature to themselves. The very act of observation consequently changes what is being observed in an unpredictable manner.

Physicalism claims that all things can be explained in terms of:

(1)  Algorithms (cause and effect -  equivalent to the sequential  IF .. THEN .. ELSE statements of high level computer languages)

(2) Datastructures (interlinked tables of information such as x,y,z and t coordinates, velocity, charge etc)

According to Physicalism, any information-processing system can be simulated using only algorithms and datastructures.  The actual substrate on which these algorithms and datastructures are implemented is unimportant.   To the present-day engineer the obvious solution is a computer constructed out of electronic devices, but theoretically a computer could also be constructed out of pneumatic logic gates of the type used in flameproof areas (though the cost, size and compressor capacity required to do this would be economically prohibitive).   To the physicalist the human brain is either a computer, or a device which can be simulated by a computer in terms of how its inputs are processed to give outputs. The physicalist believes that the mind is identical to the functionality of the brain.

Consequently if any activity or property of the  mind can be demonstrated which cannot be simulated by algorithms and datastructures, then the physicalist worldview is shown to be incomplete. There is increasing evidence that such non-algorithmic properties do exist, and this is examined in the articles on computationalism, qualia and formless mind.

6. Kadampa Buddhism
According to Kadampa philosophy all phenomena exist by dependence on other phenomena, which are themselves dependently related to other phenomena and so on. No matter how deeply or far back we search, no phenomenon can ever be found which is fundamental, a first cause, or a thing-in-itself. Neither the observer nor any observed phenomenon exist independently, but are inextricably intertwined. This viewpoint is known as dependent relationship.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso [1], the founder of the New Kadampa Tradition of Buddhism,   states that there are three levels of dependent relationship:

(1) Gross dependent relationship - causality - the dependence of phenomena on their causes.

(2) Subtle dependent relationship - structure - the dependence of phenomena on their perceived parts (including aspects, divisions and directions).

(3) Very subtle dependent relationship - the dependence of phenomena on imputation by mind.

It is fairly obvious how Kadampa philosophy maps onto physicalism. 

  • It agrees that things-in-themselves are unfindable and can only be known by interdependence with other things.

  • It agrees that the first of these ways of interdependence is algorithmic - IF ... THEN... ELSE - cause and effect.

  • It agrees that the second way of interdependence is by analysis into structured information.

However it goes further by pointing out that physicalism is an inadequate explanation for all  phenomena.   A third mode of interdependence - dependence on the mind - is necessary to explain the phenomena of awareness (and according to the teachings on sunyata, most other phenomena as well). To the Kadampa Buddhist, the mental continuum (formless mind) is a fundamental and primordial dimension of existence which cannot be reduced to physical phenomena.


7. Summary

The table presents a very brief summary of the main feature of the four philosophical systems:



Classical Materialism Dualism Physicalism Kadampa Buddhism
Mind affects environment? No Humans Yes
Animals No
No Yes
Mind essential for existence of universe? No No - optional extra No Yes
Mind survives death? No Humans only No Yes - all sentient beings
Universe explained in terms of: Things Things and souls Dependencies - causality and structure. Dependencies -
causality, structure and mental continuum.



8. Detailed arguments against materialism

The inadequacy of the computer as a model of the mind.
'...There are a number of arguments against computationalism . Algorithms do not contain within themselves any meaning.  For example, the following two statements reduce to exactly the same algorithm within the memory of a computer
(i) IF RoomLength * RoomWidth > CarpetArea THEN NeedMoreCarpet = TRUE
(ii) IF Audience * TicketPrice > HireOfVenue THEN AvoidedBankruptcy = TRUE
Such considerations have led critics of computationalism to claim that algorithms can only contain syntax, not semantics [SEARLE 1997]. Hence computers can never understand their subject matter. All assignments of meaning to their inputs, internal states and outputs have to be defined from outside the system...'

Non-algorithmic phenomena
'....The great difficulty in talking about non-algorithmic phenomena is that although we can say in general terms what they do, it is impossible by their very nature to describe how they do it. (If we could describe in a stepwise manner what was going on,    then the phenomenon would be algorithmic)....'

Mind/matter interactions in quantum physics.
'...Whenever and wherever there is no mind there is no meaning and no reality. This is a similar conclusion to the Mahayana Buddhist teachings on sunyata...'

Meditative experience of the non-procedural and non-structural nature of the mind. 
'...The description of the root mind as 'formless' doesn't just refer to its non-material nature, but it emphasises that it is unlimited, non-mechanistic and totally free from any structure or topology. . In Buddhist psychology the root mind is non-physical and non-algorithmic.  The mind cannot be understood in terms of circuit diagrams and flowcharts. It is pure awareness....'

Qualia - the irreducible phenomena of subjective experience.
'...The Buddhist does not doubt that the brain does some very sophisticated ordering of its incoming nerve impulses into the datastructures which are the objects of knowledge.   But when all is said and done, those datastructures remain as objects. They are not themselves knowledge, neither are they that which performs the function of knowing....'

Reductionism asserts that:
- The mind is nothing but the brain.
- The brain is nothing but a biological system.
- Biological systems are nothing but chemical interactions.
- Chemical interactions are nothing but physical interactions.

Therefore the mind is nothing but a set of physical interactions.
This hierarchy exists as bottom-up `objective reality'. If you removed the top level then the rest of the structure would be unaffected.
From a Buddhist standpoint, the reductionist argument is flawed at the top ('The Hard Problem'). It is flawed at the bottom (quantum-mind interactions and the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics), it is flawed in the middle (the problem of emergence), and it is flawed ontologically (There is no inherently-existent objective reality. Mother nature doesn't make statements, she only answers questions, and the questioner is part of the system).

Qualia, mind, and biological fitness.
What makes a sentient being different from an automaton?

The participatory universe
'...Both quantum theory and Buddhist teachings on sunyata suggest that as soon as an observer's mind makes contact with a superposed system, all the numerous possibilities collapse into one actuality. At some instant one of these possible alternative universes produced an observing lifeform. The first act of observation by this mind caused the entire superposed multiverse to collapse immediately into one of its numerous alternatives..'

The non-material basis of mathematics
' the final analysis the entire number system has been generated by the play of mind on emptiness, in the complete absence of the need to refer to any material thing, or things, which are being counted.  Numbers are therefore fundamentally devoid of inherent 'Platonic' existence..'

The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in science and engineering
'....So we are left with something of a mystery. According to the physicalist worldview, the mind (including mathematicians' minds) is an epiphenomenon of matter which has evolved solely to ensure the survival of the selfish genes which code for it. Why should this 'top-level' phenomenon have such intimate access to the 'bottom level' phenomena such as quantum physics? After all, the two levels are supposedly separated by less well-understood (in some cases) explanatory layers such as evolutionary psychology,    neurology, cell biology, genetics, molecular biology, and chemistry...'

The inadequacy of 'emergence' as as explanation of the mind.
'...The mind cannot be an emergent property of the brain or any other physical system, since emergent properties and emergent phenomena are psychological in origin, and require the pre-existence of an observer's mind in order to become manifest....'

The Three Poisons
Hatred, Confusion and Desirous attachment.

The very subtle mind
'...The mind is neither physical, nor a by-product of purely physical processes, but a formless continuum that is a separate entity from the body. When the body disintegrates at death, the mind does not cease. Although our superficial conscious mind ceases, it does so by dissolving into a deeper level of consciousness, called 'the very subtle mind'. The continuum of our very subtle mind has no beginning and no end....'

Buddhist Teachings
on the mind, personal relationships, meditation and the spiritual path.

Arguments against Buddhism
' ....People get spiritual experiences under the influence of electromagnetic fields such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS),   and from psychedelic drugs such as mescalin, LSD, Psilocybe semilanceata and Amanita muscaria. All these transpersonal experiences are simply delusions caused by disruption of the normal electrochemical activity of the neurones.'

' ...Yes and No. There's no doubt that people experience other realms of reality under the influence of TMS  or psychoactive drugs. In these conditions the functioning of the brain is indeed abnormal.  But - you've got to ask yourself - what is the purpose of the normal functioning of the brain? The brain is a device which has evolved by selection of the fittest (not the most truthful) to project the delusion of the inherently-existing self onto the mind. This delusion of a permanent, unchanging self is 'imputed' over the ever-changing transitory collection of biochemical building blocks that makes up the physical aspects of a sentient being. Disruption .... by biochemical or biophysical agents, enables the mind to temporarily push the doors of perception ajar and peek beyond mundane biologically-determined appearances.... '

- Sean Robsville

[1] Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang, Joyful Path of Good Fortune, 2nd Edition - page 349, (Ulverston: Tharpa Publications, 1995, ISBN 0 948006 46 3)

If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?

Christian versus Buddhist worldviews on materialism and physicalism

Buddhism in Everyday Life
The Daily Meditation