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  • Probabilism, Emergentism, and Pluralism: A Naturalistic Metaphysics of Radical Materialism
  • Donald A. Crosby (bio)

William James and Alfred North Whitehead strongly rejected materialism as a metaphysical option. While James lived and wrote only up to the beginning of the revolution in physics that brought to the fore fundamentally different theories such as quantum theory and the special and general theories of relativity, Whitehead, as an accomplished mathematician, was readily conversant with these new developments. Since their respective times, however, much innovation and refinement of theories in physics and other natural sciences has taken place. With these later developments, conceptions of matter and its capabilities have undergone far-reaching explicit and implicit changes.

A consequence of these changes is that the older Newtonian, mechanistic view of matter, against which James and Whitehead inveighed and that tended to be taken for granted in the thought of most educated people of their day, has become scientifically obsolete. The newer notions of matter, in the meanwhile, remain to a significant extent incomplete and uncoordinated. As a result, they are much in need of further development in physics and other natural sciences. These notions are also in need of probing new thought in philosophy.

What I propose to do here is to take into account some tendencies and trajectories of this developing concept of matter in the natural sciences and sketch ways in which they can be incorporated into a type of metaphysical materialism to which I give the name of radical materialism.1 I shall argue that radical materialism does not suffer from the stark philosophical inadequacies of the kind of materialism against which James and Whitehead rightly objected, that it has important merits as a metaphysical outlook to which I want to direct attention, and that the term materialism should be purged of the opprobrious connotations and assumptions with which it has long suffered in the minds of many—philosophers and nonphilosophers alike.

Among other things, I contend that materialism as I think we should conceive it is entirely consistent with a probabilistic rather than deterministic vision of the universe, with genuine consciousness and freedom, and with [End Page 217] a robust affirmation of the fundamental importance of moral and spiritual realities and values. Thus radical materialism is not reductive but emergentist and expansionist in its character, and its scope includes far more than can be encompassed in the single discipline and methodology of physics. I also argue that radical materialism is consistent with philosophical pluralism because matter is what matter does, and it has shown itself over eons to be capable of producing and supporting the emergence of an astounding array of different orders of being and becoming.

Moreover, the radical materialism I espouse is naturalistic through and through. It does not presuppose or involve anything other than the inherent possibilities and actualities of nature. No God or other putative source or ground of nature is required. Material nature as I conceive it is its own source and ground. Finally, I argue that radical materialism can be defended against the metaphysics of a third American philosopher,2 Justus Buchler. Buchler’s principle of ontological parity may be thought not to permit giving the kind of metaphysical priority I accord to matter. I shall show why assignment of such priority to matter is appropriate in response to what I interpret him to mean and not to mean by ontological priority.

In what follows, I support these claims under the following main headings: the rejection of materialism by James and Whitehead; radical materialism and the natural sciences today; radical materialism and naturalism; and radical materialism and Buchler’s principle of ontological parity. In a single essay I cannot give to any of these topics the fullness of discussion each deserves, but I shall offer a sketch of each of them with brief analysis and argument. My explication and defense of the concept of radical materialism here is only programmatic and suggestive, but I hope that it will be sufficient to merit consideration and provoke discussion.

I. The Rejection of Materialism by James and Whitehead

In his writings, William James rejects the materialism of his day on at least three grounds: it does not allow...


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