What is unmaterialism?
It’s the worldview that says our perceptions of the world – the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings that constitute our perception – are all only subjective, conscious experiences, not direct perceptions of actual reality. In other words, what we normally call “the physical world” is only the “experienced world”.
The “real” or external world that causes us to have these experiences could be something quite different. It need only have an “informational correspondence” with our experiences. It doesn’t have to have the same form. That’s a fairly obscure start. This site will hopefully make my position clearer.
I argue that adopting an unmaterialist position is a Good Thing. It provides important insights for the philosophy of science, contemporary physics, and the relatively recent science of consciousness.
Wouldn’t “immaterialism” be a better label?
Yes. That’s the correct academic term. But “unmaterialism” is more fun to say. Try it now. Unmaterialism. See? It’s amusing. The other name for it, which I use interchangeably, is “Materialisn’t”.
Unmaterialism has been a big part of western philosophy for 500 years at least, and seems to be making a comeback. I have fairly arbitrarily divided the history of unmaterialism into three previous “releases”, each different from the last.
The simplest way to think of Unmaterialism 4.0 is to imagine that you are a computer-generated person in a computer-generated world. The world you see around you – with its spatial dimensions, objects, colours, sounds and smells – these are just your phenomenal experiences. The realexternal world which causes these to occur, that’s the computer that’s generating you. You can’t perceive it. You don’t have any access to it. It’s the “real reality” that underlies the virtual world which you perceive. It’s what some unmaterialist philosophers of the past have called “noumenal” reality.
Why should we believe such wackiness?
The primary reason is that we should only claim as much knowledge as we can adequately justify. We can justifiably claim that our phenomenal experiences are caused by a reality of some sort which exists independently of them. But we are not justified in declaring knowledge of what that reality is like.
There are also two secondary reasons. First, this worldview provides a more coherent and unified model of how consciousness relates to scientific methods. Second, it provides a way of understanding some of the more quizzical aspects of contemporary physics which ordinary physicalism struggles with.
So? What consequence does any of this have?
When I started out, I was working on the science of consciousness: the question of how phenomenal experience arises from physical matter. I now view this as the wrong question. What we normally call “the physical world” is just a set of phenomenal experiences; there is no physical world as such.
Questions about consciousness – that is, questions about how you know who and what else is conscious apart from yourself – are basic questions of epistemology. The answers are justified by philosophical means rather than scientific methods, and these answers define what we mean by “empirical evidence” and “publicly-available observation”. In other words, they precede scientific investigation because they are part of defining what a scientific observation is.
What were Unmaterialisms 1.0 to 3.0?
For full details, see the A brief history section. But basically my fairly arbitrary groupings of past unmaterialism are as follows:
Unmaterialism 1.0: 18th century idealism including folks like Berkeley, Hume, Kant. The highly religious Berkeley is the most famous 1.0 unmaterialist. But Hume and Kant held unmaterialist views that were more sceptical and useful.
Unmaterialism 2.0: 19th century idealism, or what I like to call “Not-very-good Unmaterialism”. Philosophers like Hegel and McTaggart were part of this release. They waffled quite a lot.
Unmaterialism 3.0: 20th century phenomenalism, including logical positivists such as Carnap. The problems this view had, and the reasons why it declined in influence, are discussed in more detail in the A brief history section.
Why all the sci-fi pics?
Speculative fiction can sometimes run ahead of academic philosophy. Sci-fi authors were writing about thinking computers decades before philosophical functionalism became academically accepted. Now sci-fi writers are providing pop-examples of unmaterialism. For instance, the program-characters in “Tron”, Agent Smith in “The Matrix”, Miss Evangelista in “Dr Who”, Moriarty in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” are all illustrations of Unmaterialism 4.0 in action.
I’ve written more about these in my Consciousness and pop stuff blog.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yes. I also have a blog in which I try to be amusing while talking about consciousness issues as represented in movies and other pop stuff. You can find it here: Consciousness and pop stuff.