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Title: Physicalism  
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In philosophy, physicalism is the ontological thesis that "everything is physical", that there is "nothing over and above" the physical,[1] or that everything supervenes on the physical.[2] Physicalism is a form of ontological monism—a "one substance" view of the nature of reality as opposed to a "two-substance" (dualism) or "many-substance" (pluralism) view. Both the definition of physical and the meaning of physicalism have been debated.

Physicalism is closely related to materialism. Physicalism grew out of materialism with the success of the physical sciences in explaining observed phenomena. The terms are often used interchangeably, although they are sometimes distinguished, for example on the basis of physics describing more than just matter (including energy and physical law). Common arguments against physicalism include both the philosophical zombie argument[3] and the multiple observers argument,[4] that the existence of a physical being may imply zero or more distinct conscious entities.


  • Definition of physical 1
  • Non-reductive physicalism 2
    • Supervenience physicalism 2.1
    • Token physicalism 2.2
    • Emergentism 2.3
    • Realisation physicalism 2.4
  • Reductive physicalism 3
    • Type physicalism 3.1
  • A priori versus a posteriori physicalism 4
  • Other views 5
    • Strawsonian physicalism 5.1
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
    • External links 7.1

Definition of physical

The use of "physical" in physicalism is a philosophical concept and can be distinguished from alternative definitions found in the literature (e.g. propositions of which can at least in theory be denied by observation[5]). Physical here entails not only physical properties but metaphysical or logical sets thereof (higher level non-reducible categories which supervene on physical properties/observables, such as rocks). The theory-based conception of physicalism proposes that "a property is physical if and only if it either is the sort of property that physical theory tells us about or else is a property which metaphysically (or logically) supervenes on the sort of property that physical theory tells us about".[2] The object-based conception suggests that "a property is physical if and only if: it either is the sort of property required by a complete account of the intrinsic nature of paradigmatic physical objects and their constituents or else is a property which metaphysically (or logically) supervenes on the sort of property required by a complete account of the intrinsic nature of paradigmatic physical objects and their constituents".

Physicalists have traditionally opted for a "theory-based" characterization of the physical either in terms of current physics,[6] or a future (ideal) physics.[7] These two theory-based conceptions of the physical represent both horns of Hempel's dilemma[8] (named after the late philosopher of science and logical empiricist Carl Gustav Hempel): an argument against theory-based understandings of the physical. Very roughly, Hempel's dilemma is that if we define the physical by reference to current physics, then physicalism is very likely to be false, as it is very likely (by pessimistic meta-induction[9]) that much of current physics is false. But if we instead define the physical in terms of a future (ideal) or completed physics, then physicalism is hopelessly vague or indeterminate.[10]

While the force of Hempel's dilemma against theory-based conceptions of the physical remains contested,[11] alternative "non-theory-based" conceptions of the physical have also been proposed. Frank Jackson (1998) for example, has argued in favour of an "object-based" conception of the physical whereby (roughly speaking) an object or property is physical if and only if it is either a paradigmatic example of the physical, such as a rock or a tree, or it is required for a complete account of such entities or properties.[12] An objection to this proposal, which Jackson himself noted in 1998, is that if it turns out that panpsychism or panprotopsychism is true, then the aforementioned understanding of the physical gives the incorrect (for some anyway) result that physicalism is, nevertheless, also true since such properties will figure in a complete account of paradigmatic examples of the physical. Finally, David Papineau[13] and Barbara Montero[14] have advanced and subsequently defended[15] a "via negativa" characterization of the physical. The gist of the via negativa strategy is to understand the physical in terms of what it is not: the mental. In other words, the via negativa strategy understands the physical as "the non-mental". An objection to the via negativa conception of the physical is that (like the object-based conception) it doesn't have the resources to distinguish neutral monism (or panprotopsychism) from physicalism.[16]

Non-reductive physicalism

Supervenience physicalism

Most physicalists understand "nothing over and above" the physical in terms of "metaphysical supervenience". Supervenience physicalism is a minimal physicalism intended to capture the core commitment of physicalism.[17] Supervenience is generally thought of as a "determination" relation, which entails that if "A" properties supervene upon "B" properties, then there cannot be a change or difference in A properties without a change or difference in B properties.[18] "Metaphysical" supervenience entails that if A properties metaphysically supervene upon B properties, then at every possible world in which A properties and B properties are instantiated, there cannot be a difference in A properties without a difference in B properties.[19] It supposes that two hypothetical worlds cannot be identical in their physical properties but differ in their mental, social or biological properties.[2]

Supervenience physicalism claims that all non-physical properties in the actual world metaphysically supervene upon the physical. Such physicalism does not entail that all properties in the actual world are type identical to physical properties. It is, therefore, compatible with multiple realizability.[20] If all non-physical properties in the actual world metaphysically supervene upon the physical, then there cannot be a world that is just like ours in all physical respects, but which differs from ours in some non-physical respect—on pain of there being a difference in non-physical properties without a difference in physical properties, thus contradicting the original supervenience claim. This suggests a natural supervenience-based formulation of physicalism:

1) Physicalism is true at a possible world w if and only if any world that is a physical duplicate of w is also a duplicate of w simpliciter.[21]

Applied to the actual world (our world), statement 1 above is the claim that physicalism is true at the actual world if and only if at every possible world in which the physical properties and laws of the actual world are instantiated, the non-physical properties of the actual world are instantiated as well. To borrow a metaphor from Saul Kripke (1972), the truth of physicalism at the actual world entails that once God has instantiated or "fixed" the physical properties and laws of our world, then God's work is done; the rest comes "automatically".

Unfortunately, statement 1 fails to capture even a necessary condition for physicalism to be true at a world w. To see this, imagine a world in which there are only physical properties—if physicalism is true at any world it is true at this one. But one can conceive physical duplicates of such a world that are not also duplicates simpliciter of it: worlds that have the same physical properties as our imagined one, but with some additional property or properties. A world might contain "[22] To handle the epiphenomenal ectoplasm problem, statement 1 can be modified to include a "that's-all" or "totality" clause[23] or be restricted to "positive" properties.[24] Adopting the former suggestion here, we can reformulate statement 1 as follows:

2) Physicalism is true at a possible world w if and only if any world that is a minimal physical duplicate of w is a duplicate of w simpliciter.[21]

Applied in the same way, statement 2 is the claim that physicalism is true at a possible world w if and only if any world that is a physical duplicate of w (without any further changes), is duplicate of w without qualification. This allows a world in which there are only physical properties to be counted as one at which physicalism is true, since worlds in which there is some extra stuff are not "minimal" physical duplicates of such a world, nor are they minimal physical duplicates of worlds that contain some non-physical properties that are metaphysically necessitated by the physical.[25]

But while statement 2 overcomes the problem of worlds at which there is some extra stuff (sometimes referred to as the "epiphenomenal ectoplasm problem"[26]) it faces a different challenge: the so-called "blockers problem".[27] Imagine a world where the relation between the physical and non-physical properties at this world (call the world w1) is slightly weaker than metaphysical necessitation, such that a certain kind of non-physical intervener—"a blocker"—could, were it to exist at w1, prevent the non-physical properties in w1 from being instantiated by the instantiation of the physical properties at w1. Since statement 2 rules out worlds which are physical duplicates of w1 that also contain non-physical interveners by virtue of the minimality, or that's-all clause, statement 2 gives the (allegedly) incorrect result that physicalism is true at w1. One response to this problem is to abandon statement 2 in favour of the alternative possibility mentioned earlier in which supervenience-based formulations of physicalism are restricted to what David Chalmers (1996) calls "positive properties". A positive property is one that "...if instantiated in a world W, is also instantiated by the corresponding individual in all worlds that contain W as a proper part."[28] Following this suggestion, we can then formulate physicalism as follows:

3) Physicalism is true at a possible world w if and only if any world that is a physical duplicate of w is a positive duplicate of w.[29]

On the face of it, statement 3 seems able to handle both the epiphenomenal ectoplasm problem and the blockers problem. With regard to the former, statement 3 gives the correct result that a purely physical world is one at which physicalism is true, since worlds in which there is some extra stuff are positive duplicates of a purely physical world. With regard to the latter, statement 3 appears to have the consequence that worlds in which there are blockers are worlds where positive non-physical properties of w1 will be absent, hence w1 will not be counted as a world at which physicalim is true.[30] Daniel Stoljar (2010) objects to this response to the blockers problem on the basis that since the non-physical properties of w1 aren't instantiated at a world in which there is a blocker, they are not positive properties in Chalmers' (1996) sense, and so statement 3 will count w1 as a world at which physicalism is true after all.[31]

A further problem for supervenience-based formulations of physicalism is the so-called "necessary beings problem".[21] A necessary being in this context is a non-physical being that exists in all possible worlds (for example what theists refer to as God). A necessary being is compatible with the definition provided, yet contradicts the notion that everything is physical. Since supervenience-based formulations of physicalism are compatible with the existence of a non-physical necessary being, supervenience-based formulations of physicalism at best state a necessary but not sufficient condition for the truth of physicalism.[21]

Additional problems exist with respect to the above definitions provided for supervenience physicalism. One could imagine an alternate world that differs only by the presence of a single ammonium molecule (or physical property), and yet based on statement 1, such a world might be completely different in terms of its distribution of mental properties.[32] Furthermore, there are differences expressed concerning the modal status of physicalism; whether it is a necessary truth, or is only true in a world which conforms to certain conditions (i.e. those of physicalism).[2]

Token physicalism

Token physicalism is the proposition that "for every actual particular (object, event or process) x, there is some physical particular y such that x = y".[2] Token physicalism is compatible with property dualism, in which all substances are "physical", having at least physical properties—and potentially also mental properties. Token physicalism is not however equivalent to supervenience physicalism. Firstly, token physicalism does not imply supervenience physicalism because it does not rule out the possibility of non-supervenient mental properties. A particular x (with a corresponding physical particular y) could also have a mental particular that does not supervene on it (epiphenomena). Secondarily, supervenience physicalism does not imply token physicalism. A (high level) particular x (e.g. nation or "soul") does not necessarily have a physical particular y, yet the particular x may supervene on the physical particular y.


Supervenience physicalism has been seen as a form of emergentism, in which the subject's psychological experience is considered genuinely novel.[2] While some forms of emergentism appear either incompatible with physicalism or equivalent to it (e.g. posteriori physicalism),[33] others appear to merge both dualism and supervenience. Such emergentism claims that mental facts and physical facts are metaphysically distinct while maintaining the supervenience of mental properties on the physical. This proposition however contradicts supervenience physicalism, which asserts a denial of dualism.

Realisation physicalism

Closely related to supervenience physicalism, is realisation physicalism, the thesis that every instantiated property is either physical or is realised by a physical property.[34]

Reductive physicalism

There are multiple versions of reductionism.[2] In one formulation, every mental concept is analysed in terms of a physical concept. One counter-argument to this supposes there may be an additional class of expressions which is neither physical or mental but which increases the expressive power of a theory.[35] Another version of reductionism is based on the requirement that one theory (mental or physical) be logically derivable from a second.[36]

A common argument against reductive physicalism is multiple realizability, the possibility that a psychological process could be instantiated by many different neurological processes (even non-neurological processes, in the case of machine or alien intelligence).[32][37] The possibility a single mental kind (property, state, event) could be realised by many distinct physical kinds.

Type physicalism

Type physicalism is a form of reductive physicalism which asserts that "for every actually instantiated mental property F, there is some physical property G such that F=G".[2] Unlike token physicalism, type physicalism entails supervenience physicalism.

A priori versus a posteriori physicalism

Physicalists hold that physicalism is true. A natural question for physicalists, then, is whether the truth of physicalism is knowable a priori (i.e., with justification independent of experience) or a posteriori (i.e., with justification dependent upon experience). So-called "a priori physicalists" hold that from knowledge of the conjunction of all physical truths, a totality or that's-all truth, and some primitive indexical truths, the truth of physicalism is knowable a priori.[38] Let "P" stand for the conjunction of all physical truths and laws, "T" for a that's-all truth, "I" for the indexical "centering" truths "I am A" and "now is B", and "N" for any non-physical truth at the actual world. We can then, using the material conditional "→", represent a priori physicalism as the thesis that PTI → N is knowable a priori.[38] An important wrinkle here is that the concepts in N must be possessed non-deferentially in order for PTI → N to be knowable a priori. The suggestion, then, is that possession of the concepts in the consequent, plus the empirical information in the antecedent is sufficient for the consequent to be knowable a priori. One profound challenge to a priori physicalism and to physicalism in general is the "conceivability argument", or zombie argument.[39] At a rough approximation, the conceivability argument runs as follows:

P1) PTI and not Q (where "Q" stands for the conjunction of all truths about consciousness, or some arbitrary truth about someone being "phenomenally" conscious [i.e., there is "something it is like"[40] to be a person x] ) is conceivable (i.e., it is not knowable a priori that PTI and not Q is false).

P2) If PTI and not Q is conceivable, then PTI and not Q is metaphysically possible.

P3) If PTI and not Q is metaphysically possible then physicalism is false.

C) Physicalism is false.[41]

Since a priori physicalists hold that PTI → N is a priori, they are committed to denying P1) of the conceivability argument. The a priori physicalist, then, must argue that PTI and not Q, on ideal rational reflection, is incoherent or contradictory.[42]

A posteriori physicalists, on the other hand, generally accept P1) but deny P2)--the move from "conceivability to metaphysical possibility". Some a posteriori physicalists think that unlike the possession of most, if not all other empirical concepts, possession of the concept of consciousness entails that the presence of PTI and the absence of consciousness will (always) be conceivable—even though, according to them, it is knowable a posteriori that PTI and not Q is not metaphysically possible. These a posteriori physicalists endorse some version of what Daniel Stoljar (2005) has called "the phenomenal concept strategy".[43] Roughly speaking, the phenomenal concept strategy is a label for those a posteriori physicalists who attempt to show that it is only the concept of consciousness—not the property—that is in some way "special" or sui generis.[44] Other a posteriori physicalists[45] eschew the phenomenal concept strategy, and argue that even ordinary macroscopic truths such as "water covers 60% of the earth's surface" are not knowable a priori from PTI and a non-deferential grasp of the concepts "water" and "earth" et cetera. If this is correct, then we should (arguably) conclude that conceivability does not entail metaphysical possibility, and P2) of the conceivability argument against physicalism is false.[46]

Other views

Strawsonian physicalism

Galen Strawson's realistic physicalism (or "realistic monism") entails panpsychism – or at least micropsychism.[47][48][49] Strawson argues that "many—perhaps most—of those who call themselves physicalists or materialists [are mistakenly] committed to the thesis that physical stuff is, in itself, in its fundamental nature, something wholly and utterly non-experiential... even when they are prepared to admit with Eddington that physical stuff has, in itself, ‘a nature capable of manifesting itself as mental activity’, i.e. as experience or consciousness".[47] Because experiential phenomena cannot be emergent from wholly non-experiential phenomena, philosophers are driven to substance dualism, property dualism, eliminative materialism and "all other crazy attempts at wholesale mental-to-non-mental reduction".[47]

Real physicalists must accept that at least some ultimates are intrinsically experience-involving. They must at least embrace micropsychism. Given that everything concrete is physical, and that everything physical is constituted out of physical ultimates, and that experience is part of concrete reality, it seems the only reasonable position, more than just an ‘inference to the best explanation’... Micropsychism is not yet panpsychism, for as things stand realistic physicalists can conjecture that only some types of ultimates are intrinsically experiential. But they must allow that panpsychism may be true, and the big step has already been taken with micropsychism, the admission that at least some ultimates must be experiential. ‘And were the inmost essence of things laid open to us’ I think that the idea that some but not all physical ultimates are experiential would look like the idea that some but not all physical ultimates are spatio-temporal (on the assumption that spacetime is indeed a fundamental feature of reality). I would bet a lot against there being such radical heterogeneity at the very bottom of things. In fact (to disagree with my earlier self) it is hard to see why this view would not count as a form of dualism... So now I can say that physicalism, i.e. real physicalism, entails panexperientialism or panpsychism. All physical stuff is energy, in one form or another, and all energy, I trow, is an experience-involving phenomenon. This sounded crazy to me for a long time, but I am quite used to it, now that I know that there is no alternative short of ‘substance dualism’... Real physicalism, realistic physicalism, entails panpsychism, and whatever problems are raised by this fact are problems a real physicalist must face.[47]
Galen StrawsonConsciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?


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  1. ^ See Smart, 1959
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Stoljar, Daniel (2009). Edward N. Zalta (ed.), ed. "Physicalism". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition). Retrieved 2014-08-07. 
  3. ^ a b c d Chalmers, D. (1996): The Conscious Mind, Oxford University Press, New York.
  4. ^ a b c d Zuboff, Arnold (1990). "One self: The logic of experience". Inquiry 33 (1): 39–68.  
  5. ^ a b c d Karl Raimund Popper (2002). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Psychology Press.  
  6. ^ See e.g., Smart, 1978; Lewis, 1994.
  7. ^ See e.g., Poland, 1994; Chalmers, 1996; Wilson, 2006.
  8. ^ Andrew Melnyk should apparently be credited with having introduced this name for Hempel's argument. See Melnyk, 1997, p.624
  9. ^ see Vincente, 2011
  10. ^ See Hempel, 1969, pp.180-183; Hempel, 1980, pp.194-195.
  11. ^ For a recent defence of the first horn see Melnyk, 1997. For a defence of the second, see Wilson, 2006.
  12. ^ See Jackson, 1998, p.7; Lycan, 2003.
  13. ^ See Papineau, 2002
  14. ^ See Montero, 1999
  15. ^ See Papineau and Montero, 2005
  16. ^ See e.g., Judisch, 2008
  17. ^ a b c d e Lewis, David (1983). "New work for a theory of universals". Australasian Journal of Philosophy 61 (4): 343–377.  
  18. ^ See Bennett and McLaughlin, 2011
  19. ^ See Bennett and McLaughlin, 2011, section 3.1
  20. ^ See Putnam, 1967
  21. ^ a b c d See Jackson, 1998
  22. ^ a b c d Horgan, Terence (1982). "Supervenience and Microphysics". Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 63 (January): 29–43. 
  23. ^ Jackson, 1998
  24. ^ Chalmers, 1996
  25. ^ Where "metaphysical necessitation" here simply means that if "B" metaphysically necessitates "A" then any world in which B is instantiated is a world in which A is instantiated--a consequence of the metaphysical supervenience of A upon B. See Kripke, 1972.
  26. ^ See e.g., Stoljar, 2009, section 4.3.
  27. ^ See Hawthorne, 2002.
  28. ^ Chalmers, 1996, p.40.
  29. ^ Chalmers, 1996; Stoljar, 2009, section 4.3.
  30. ^ see Hawthorne, 2002, p.107
  31. ^ See Stoljar, 2010, p.138
  32. ^ a b c d e Jaegwon Kim (26 November 1993). Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays. Cambridge University Press.  
  33. ^ a b c d Byrne, A (1993). The Emergent Mind (Ph.D.). Princeton University. 
  34. ^ a b c d Melnyk, Andrew (1997). "How to Keep the 'Physical' in Physicalism". The Journal of Philosophy 94 (12): 622.  
  35. ^ a b c d Smart, J. J. C. (1959). "Sensations and Brain Processes". The Philosophical Review 68 (2): 141.  
  36. ^ a b c d Ernest Nagel (1961). The structure of science: problems in the logic of scientific explanation. Harcourt, Brace & World. 
  37. ^ a b c d Fodor, J. A. (1974). "Special sciences (or: The disunity of science as a working hypothesis)". Synthese 28 (2): 97\u2013115.  
  38. ^ a b See Chalmers and Jackson, 2001
  39. ^ See Chalmers, 2009.
  40. ^ See Nagel, 1974
  41. ^ See Chalmers, 2009
  42. ^ For a survey of the different arguments for this conclusion (as well as responses to each), see Chalmers, 2009.
  43. ^ See Stoljar, 2005
  44. ^ cf. Stoljar, 2005
  45. ^ e.g., Tye, 2009
  46. ^ For critical discussion, see Chalmers, 2009.
  47. ^ a b c d  
  48. ^  
  49. ^ Skrbina, D. (2009). Mind That Abides: Panpsychism in the New Millennium. Advances in Consciousness Research. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 322.  
  50. ^ a b c Daniel C. Dennett (24 June 1993). Consciousness Explained. Penguin Adult.  


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  • Poland, J. 1994.Physicalism: The Philosophical Foundations. Oxford: Clarendon.
  • Putnam, H. 1967. "Psychological Predicates." In Art, Mind, and Religion, eds. W.H. Capitan and D.D. Merrill. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 37–48.
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  • Stoljar, D. 2010. Physicalism. New York: Routledge.
  • Tye, M. 2009. Consciousness Revisited: Materialism Without Phenomenal Concepts.Cambridge Mass: MIT Press.
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External links

Daniel Stoljar's SEP entry on Physicalism:

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