From Aeon’s “Minding Matter”:
Materialism holds the high ground these days in debates over that most ultimate of scientific questions: the nature of consciousness. When tackling the problem of mind and brain, many prominent researchers advocate for a universe fully reducible to matter. ‘Of course you are nothing but the activity of your neurons,’ they proclaim. That position seems reasonable and sober in light of neuroscience’s advances, with brilliant images of brains lighting up like Christmas trees while test subjects eat apples, watch movies or dream. And aren’t all the underlying physical laws already known?
From this seemly hard-nosed vantage, the problem of consciousness seems to be just one of wiring, as the American physicist Michio Kaku argued in The Future of the Mind (2014). In the very public version of the debate over consciousness, those who advocate that understanding the mind might require something other than a ‘nothing but matter’ position are often painted as victims of wishful thinking, imprecise reasoning or, worst of all, an adherence to a mystical ‘woo’.
It’s hard not to feel the intuitional weight of today’s metaphysical sobriety. Like Pickett’s Charge up the hill at Gettysburg, who wants to argue with the superior position of those armed with ever more precise fMRIs, EEGs and the other material artefacts of the materialist position? There is, however, a significant weakness hiding in the imposing-looking materialist redoubt. It is as simple as it is undeniable: after more than a century of profound explorations into the subatomic world, our best theory for how matter behaves still tells us very little about what matter is.
This article is quite interesting, but the last line of the above quote is key. The fact is that materialists, for all their bluster, cannot even coherently define what matter is. Locke called it ‘that which I know not what.’ Other materialists have tried to define matter in a negative sense as being that which is not mental, but the negative definitional route causes all sorts of problems for materialists. Furthermore, Hempel’s Dilemma rears its ugly head whenever materialists seek to define what matter, or the natural world, is.
This is one of the reasons that I am a rational immaterialist (or mentalist). It is also one of the reasons that I laugh at the alleged rationality of materialists and atheistic-naturalists who claim that the natural material world is all that there is. After all, if you cannot even adequately define what ‘material’ and ‘natural’ means, then how can you boldly claim that all that there is, is this stuff that you cannot even adequately define. It seems to me that a position of agnosticism would be much more rational in such a case. And note that the burden is on the materialist / atheistic-naturalist to provide this definition, not on the immaterialist to do so.
So, in the end, the next time a materialist and/or atheistic-naturalist gets cocky with you, don’t even bother debating any substantive points with him. Just ask him to explain and define what matter is and then repeatedly probe the coherence of that definition. You will find that you will rarely leave that debate with an adequate definition of what matter is in hand. And that fact, in and of itself, is quite telling against materialism.