The Dematerialization Crusade

Mario Bunge


What have spiritualism and dematerialization added to the body of certified knowledge? Although many proponents of dematerialism have been distinguished scientists, they earned their stripes by inventing theories or methods that had little or nothing to do with that.

Spiritualism is the belief in the real existence of immaterial entities such as angels, ghosts, and freely roaming souls. Dematerialization is the attempt to rid the sciences of the matter concept, thus replacing materalism with spiritualism.

Alternative medicine is likely to be the most popular and best-paying spiritualist business, as shown by the many clinics offering homeopathic, acupuncturist, and chiropractical treatments (Sanz 2016; Randi 1982). Contrary to a widespread belief, the clientele of these practices are not uneducated persons but people who have heard about them at schools and universities (Alcock 2018). We reject them not because of philosophical bias but because they have failed experimental tests on top of having failed to exhibit the mechanisms of their purported efficacy (Bunge 2013). Thus, the homeopathic nostrums are mainly water, which explains why they are usually harmless except when they divert very sick people from scientifically based treatments.

The painter Wassily Kandinsky (1912) gave perhaps the best description of dematerialization in the plastic arts. He strove to substitute form for content or matter, as in his own paintings, in particular his compositions, and those of Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, and some of the surrealists. For instance, I see Kandinsky’s “compositions” as decompositions or disintegrations and cannot help being amused by Magritte’s paradoxes.

Of course, none of the so-called abstract artists succeeded in eliminating matter, since they worked with brushes and canvasses or chisels and marble blocks, all of which are material entities. What they did was to paint or sculpt non-representative things. That is, they created artworks devoid of clues and systems and therefore capable of evoking different subjects in different viewers. In sum, they did not produce anything abstract, since only mathematicians deal with abstractions, such as sets and lattices of nondescript elements.

Spiritualism and the dematerialization crusade have thrived almost everywhere—except in engineering, chemistry, bookkeeping, and the law. Why these exceptions? Contrary to naive expectations, contemporary physics is rife with spiritualist beliefs and has been the cradle of what may be called the “Dematerialization Crusade.” This movement tried to expel matter from science and make us believe that physicists have replaced it by the word observer—or, as Joseph Bell put it, substituted “observable” for “beable.”

In 1921, the great logician Bertrand Russell rejected the matter/mind split and proposed neutral monism (Russell 1921). This proposal does not help the physician who has to opt between pill and prayer or the engineer who must accept or reject the suggestion that he should prefer magic carpets to aircrafts. No wonder that neutral monism has been all but forgotten. Nor do we take seriously Russell’s (1927) idea that matter is a logical construction, since the students of material entities ignore logical analysis. Logic is admirable, but logical imperialism is incapable of handling matters of fact.

The eminent astrophysicist Arthur Eddington (1939) claimed that he could calculate all the universal constants of physics without using any empirical data. But he persuaded nobody, and Max Born (1943) published a scathing criticism of Eddington’s apriorism, and his attempt was an isolated episode. The Dematerialization Crusade in science was launched at the end of the nineteenth century by Ernst Mach (1890 [1914]), the first to observe and measure bullets moving at supersonic speeds. Mach also attempted to rid mechanics of the concept of mass by redefining it in terms of acceleration. To achieve this goal, he started with Newton’s postulate “Force = mass X acceleration” and created a vicious circle (Bunge 1968). But such a logical flaw is nothing compared with his treatment of acceleration as anything other than change of the velocity of a bit of matter. This becomes obvious when acceleration is analyzed as a function from the Cartesian product of the following sets: the set P of generic bits of matter, the set F of reference frames, the set T of time instants, and the set U of units such as cm.sec-2.

In science, the Dematerializtion Crusade culminated at the end of the past century with the distinguished theorist John Archibald Wheeler’s “its from bits” program, which intended to replace bits of matter with information bundles (Barrow et al. 2004). An objection to this attempt is that focusing on information does not authorize us to forget that every physical magnitude is the property of something material, whereas the bit is a unit of the information traveling along a communication channel, such as a telephone line, every bit of which is material. Thus, the immaterial bit stands on the material communication channel.

The strongest argument for the replacement of “matter” with “observable” was the Copenhagen interpretation of the quantum theory advocated by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and other founders of the theory. The core of this school is the belief that all the microphysical things and properties are mind-dependent. This thesis is open to a number of objections, among them that observers are composed of microphysical entities, and that the historical sciences have shown that physical things have been around long before the birth of microphysics roughly a century ago.

The special theory of relativity was another victim of spiritualism, on the strength of the confusion of “frame of reference” with “observer,” and of “relative” with “apparent” or “subjective.” The fact that the theory is used in astrophysics to account for a number of physical processes in uninhabited corners of the universe proves that the indicated identifications are indeed incorrect. In particular, the expression “masses are relative” is short for “the mass values are relative to the reference frame.” More concisely, Reference Frame Observer, hence Relative to a Reference Frame Observer-Dependent, where Reference Frames are material entities, such as gyroscopes, endowed with spatial directions and clocks. (Caution: do not confuse such material items with coordinate systems. Coordinate systems are mathematical representations of reference frames.)

Biology was another science that until about 1900 was committed to immaterial entities such as élan vital (vital impetus) and Bildungskraft (constructive force), as well as goal-directedness (Mahner and Bunge 1997). These remnants of magical thinking were swept aside as so many obscurantist residues of prescientific thought by the physicalist reductionists of the early twentieth century. To be sure, some teleology did remain, but only in psychology and social science, where it refers to the goal-striving activities of actors.

Psychology is perhaps the only science where spiritualist ideas are still influential, as shown by the resilience of mind-body dualism, psychoanalysis, and related brainless myths, such as the proverbial “mind over brain actions,” the scientific translation of which is of course “cerebral cortex over immune actions,” exemplified by the placebo effects.

Social science is the last prestigious refuge of spiritualism. Indeed, the social theories taught at most universities involve such immaterial items as invisible hand, free trade, consumer power, and market wisdom. The people who invoke such ideas overlook monopolies, crony capitalism, registered lobbyists, military aggressions launched to protect powerful private interests, and the supposedly liberal ideals protecting such interests.

Why have engineers, lawyers, management experts, and bookkeepers escaped the spiritualist traps? I suggest that those experts offered advice to hard-nosed clients who sought practical results, not the pieties of the believers in the power of elusive self-existing and self-moving ideas.

Move one step from materialist engineering and you encounter architecture, which has welcomed a number of spiritualist gurus as well as esoteric practices such as feng shui (Matthews 2018). Why are the practitioners of such superstitions thriving? Because they find plenty of clients, mostly private individuals rather than hard-nosed businessmen or government officials. These people can be fooled by ideas dressed in modern jargon, not by ancient myths.

To conclude, what has the Dematerialization Crusade added to the body of certified knowledge, and what is the current state of materialism in science? Although many of the proponents of dematerialism have been distinguished scientists, they earned their stripes by inventing theories or methods that had little or nothing to do with said crusade.

For example, we revere Niels Bohr for his early atomic model rather than for his philosophical writings in favor of the Copenhagen “spirit.” As for the fate of materialism, suffice it to remember the advances of condensed matter physics since the end of World War II, or the economic changes brought about by the commercialization of the many synthetic materials over the past half century: semiconductors, stainless steel, superconductors, synthethic oil, synthetic rubber, fullerenes, and synthetic fibers such as nylon, rayon, velcro, and kevlar.

Anybody interested in playing with the Ouija board?


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Mario Bunge

Mario Bunge is a laureate of the International Academy of Humanism and a professor of philosophy at McGill University, Montreal. He is the author of fifty books and five hundred papers on physics and philosophy, among them Foundations of Physics (1967) and Treatise on Basic Philosophy (in eight volumes, 1974–1989).