Materialism, immaterialism and Ockham’s Razor

Diana asked:

How does an appeal to Ockham’s Razor favor the materialist over immaterialism?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is such a preposterous lie, Diana.

Let’s keep things simple. According to the materialist, physical entities — or conditions, or posits — are all that is ultimately real. They exist as a fact. We needn’t enquire how such a ‘fact’ came about because facts end where science ends. Whatever ‘is’, is whatever is posited by the currently accepted physical theory.

The immaterialist (on the simple version) accepts all of this but then adds something on top: physical entities in space are not all that is ultimately real. They are merely ‘appearances’ (Kant) or ‘ideas’ (Berkeley). Appearances can’t just appear by themselves, they must be OF something. Ideas can’t just float free, they must be IN something.

So, according to Kant, appearances are ‘of’ something beyond the reach of human experience, something that we cannot even conceptualize: the realm of ‘noumena’ or ‘things in themselves’. According to Berkeley, the ‘ideas’ we experience exist as ‘archetypes’ in the mind of God. (There are over versions of idealism or immaterialism but similar points apply.)

Well, it looks like the immaterialist is committed to a hell of a lot more than the materialist is committed to, so doesn’t that mean that if you apply Ockham’s Razor — reduce the minimum the number of posits in a theory — that materialism wins hands down?

No, it doesn’t. For one very simple reason. William of Ockham intended his principle to apply to two rival theories that are assumed to be otherwise equal as explanations or ‘best explanations’. Theory 1 posits x unexplained entities, theory 2 posits y unexplained entities. If x is greater than y, then ceteris paribus or other things being equal, theory 2 is to be preferred to theory 1.

But other things are not equal. The materialist has completely baulked the question, Why is there anything at all? Why is there not Nothing? Facts are facts, existence exists, the materialist says, we don’t need to go beyond facts or physical existence. The immaterialist laughs at the materialist’s naivete. The immaterialist’s theory explains more, so naturally you’d expect it to assume more.

Now, you are perfectly entitled to say that you don’t accept or agree with the immaterialist’s ambitions. The notion that there is ultimately something ‘beyond facts’, something with the essential character of reason or necessity or purpose may leave you completely cold. That’s a ground for being a materialist. But in making that decision you’re not applying Ockham’s Razor, because the two rival theories aren’t comparable in that way. They’re apples and oranges, not two different varieties of apple.

10 thoughts on “Materialism, immaterialism and Ockham’s Razor

  1. ” Critique of Pure Reason( A383): Cf. Kant ‘—– if I were to take away the thinking subject, the whole corporeal world would have to disappear, as this is nothing but the appearance in the sensibility of our subject and one mode of its representations.”

    Do you yourself agree with what Kant is saying here?

    1. This quote is taken from the First Edition of Critique of Pure Reason (‘A’ numbering) which was criticized (unfairly, in Kant’s view) for being too close to Berkeleian idealism. However, from the context it is clear that ‘thinking subject’ refers to a noumenon. Noumenal ‘objects’ would still exist if we took away the noumenal ‘subject’, but the phenomenal world (the world of ‘matter’ that materialists believe is the ultimate reality) would indeed disappear, on Kant’s theory. Whether the theory is true or not (whether I ‘agree’ with it) is not under discussion. This is simply about the exposition of Kant’s ideas.

    1. ‘Computer’ is a concept which refers to a spatio-temporal continuant. Non-empirically it exists as X. There’s nothing more we can say, according to Kant.

    1. It means that, ‘I am sitting at my computer typing a comment on Ask a Philosopher’ is true. My computer exists as an empirical fact, and similarly for the other entities implied by the truth of my statement. The only other kinds of ‘truth’ are a priori truths arising from transcendental arguments, for example, ‘Knowledge of objects in space is a necessary condition for self-knowledge.’ Some commentators like P.F. Strawson (‘Bounds of Sense’) would like that to be the end of the story, but I disagree. Kant without the noumenal world is not Kant. Not an easy pill to swallow, but there it is.

    1. According to Kant what we call the ‘world’ (the world in space and time) is empirically real and transcendentally ideal. Space and time are not a ‘things in themselves’. Or, in plain language, space-time is not the ultimate reality. What is ultimately real? We cannot know because our cognition is limited to our spatio-temporal ‘forms of perception’. But even this statement borders on the unintelligible because one is now talking about noumenal ‘subjects’ concerning which according to Kant’s own view nothing can be meaningfully said or known.

  2. “They are merely ‘appearances’ (Kant)” .

    If things are merely appearances in the mind then is it not wrong to say that they exist? Also the chair you are sitting on, in whose mind is it existing? Only in your mind or everybody’s mind?

    1. Kant never says that things are ‘merely appearances in the mind’. That would be to confuse the empirical with the transcendental. In the ‘Refutation of Idealism’ (2nd edition of Critique of Pure Reason) he argues that ‘things’ are necessarily in space as well as time. They exist out there in the world and not in our minds (empirical realism). However, the reality of ‘things in space and time’ is merely a world of ‘phenomena’ or ‘appearances’, ultimately grounded in a noumenal world beyond all possible human knowledge.

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