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Mentalism vs. materialism, by Bertrand Russell

* Source: Bertrand Russel : Understanding History and Other Essays (New York; Philosophical Library, 1957. 122 p. 20 cm.)


Mentalism vs. materialism

Ever since Greek times there has been a controversy between those who regarded matter and those who regarded mind as the dominant power in the universe. Religious orthodoxy, whether pagan or Christian, has always tended to be associated with the Mentalist party. The Materialist party, on the other hand, has tended to ally itself with scientific orthodoxy. This alliance has sometimes been too intimate for prudence, for when new discoveries required a change in scientific doctrine, the older formulations of Materialism were apt to become untenable, thus enabling the Mentalists to claim that the latest results of science favored their case. This familiar process has been repeated in recent years; quantum theory, in particular, has been interpreted by theologically orthodox commentators as involving the bankruptcy of Materialism. For my part, I think this interpretation, in the main, mistaken. It is true that it would be better to substitute the word 'physicalism' for the word 'materialism': I should define 'physicalism' as the doctrine that events are governed by the laws of physics. But this change has no theological implications whatever. It does not make it any more probable that the world has a purpose, or that it is evolving towards better things, or that it has any other property that would be agreeable to our cosmic hopes.