Mentalistic and Materialistic world-views
“In the beginning was the word.” Although this statement, in its context, is laden with Christological implications, we can also use this statement to illustrate a central feature of various world-views, including Christian theism. The central idea is that fundamental to reality is that which is intelligible and rational. The metaphysical systems of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, Hindu pantheism and Confucian philosophy as well, share this essential conception, as do the metaphysics of Spinoza and Absolute Idealism. The intelligible is fundamental to reality, the unintelligible or non-rational is, perhaps, a by-product of the created order, or perhaps our own ignorance and lack of understanding causes an illusion. These world-views might be described as mentalistic world-views. The mental is fundamental to reality, the non-mental is perhaps a creation, or perhaps a product of ignorance. Reality in mentalistic world-views has a top-down character to it. The higher, mental levels create the lower levels, or the lower levels emanate from the higher levels, or perhaps the lower levels are an illusion generated by the higher levels.
As science has progressed for the last few centuries, a move away from this kind of mentalistic world-view has emerged. According to naturalistic or materialistic world-views, it would be appropriate to say that in the beginning the word was not. Reason and intelligence are the byproduct of centuries of evolution. As the higher primates evolved, they developed large brains which provided them with true knowledge of the world around us, and this was an effective survival tool for them.
A good deal of debate within Western philosophy between world-views has taken place between mentalistic and materialistic world-views. Christian theism has been the most popular, though by no means the only mentalistic world-view. Amongst broadly materialistic world-views, the options are considerable as well. Some proponents of materialistic views are eliminativist with respect to certain features of the mental lives that we common-sensically suppose ourselves to have. Other people in the materialistic camp maintain that retention of many aspects of our mental lives can be done through a reductive analysis of mind to the material. Others believe that a materialistic world-view can be maintained by claiming that although the mind cannot be reduced to the material, it supervenes on the physical level.
Nevertheless I am convinced that a materialist view of the world must possess three essential features. First, for a world-view to be materialistic, there must be a mechanistic base level. Now by mechanistic I don’t mean necessarily deterministic. There can, on my view, be brute chance at the basic level of reality. However, the level of what I will call “basic physics” is free of purpose, free of meaning on intentionality, free of normativity, and free of subjectivity. If one is operating within a materialistic framework, then one cannot attribute purpose to what happens and the basic level. Purpose-talk may be appropriate for macro-systems, but it is a purpose that is ultimately the product of a purposeless basic physics. Second, what something means cannot be an element of reality as it appears at the most basic level. Third, there is nothing normative about basic physics. It can never be said that some particle of matter is doing what it is doing because it ought to be doing that. And finally, basic physics is lacking in subjectivity. The basic elements of the universe have no “points of view,” and no subjective experience. Consciousness, if it exists, must be a “macro” feature of basic elements massed together.
Second, the level of basic physics must be causally closed. Even if it is deterministic, there cannot be something that is not physical that plays a role in producing a physical event. If you knew everything about the physical level (the laws and the facts) before an event occurred, you could add nothing to your ability to predict where the particles will be in the future by knowing anything about anything outside of basic physics.