Journal for General Philosophy of Science

, Volume 40, Issue 2, pp 207-225

First online:

Quantum Mechanics and the Plight of Physicalism

  • Fernando BirmanAffiliated withPhilosophy Department, Delft University of Technology Email author 

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The literature on physicalism often fails to elucidate, I think, what the word physical in physicalism precisely means. Philosophers speak at times of an ideal set of fundamental physical facts, or they stipulate that physical means non-mental, such that all fundamental physical facts are fundamental facts pertaining to the non-mental. In this article, I will probe physicalism in the very much tangible framework of quantum mechanics. Although this theory, unlike “ideal physics” or some “final theory of non-mentality”, is an incomplete theory of the world, I believe this analysis will be of value, if for nothing else, at least for bringing some taste of physical reality, as it were, back to the debate. First, I will introduce a broad characterization of the physicalist credo. In Sect. 2, I will provide a rather quick review of quantum mechanics and some of its current interpretations. In Sect. 3, the notion of quantum non-separability will be analyzed, which will facilitate a discussion of the wave function ontology in Sect. 4. In Sects. 5 and 6, I will explore competing views on the implications of this ontology. In Sect. 7, I will argue that the prior results, based on a thoroughly realist interpretation of quantum mechanics, support only a weak version of non-reductive physicalism.


Configuration space Non-separability Physicalism Quantum mechanics Supervenience Wave function ontology