In his essay, Thoughts points out a contradiction in materialism, inveighs at great length against materialism and its dogmatic adherents, and suggests the alternative of empiricism.
On one hand I can't object to a general exhortation against dogmatism and an irrational attachment to outdated ideas contradicted by modern observations. On the other hand, it's not at all clear that Thoughts intends only such a facile reading.
There is a notable difference between the ordinary, common use of terminology and its use by experts and professionals. If I gave you tickets to a classical music concert, you would probably not be too surprised to hear Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Vivaldi on the program, even though a professional musicologist would consider only one of those composers (Mozart) to actually be classical. You might even be unsurprised to hear Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein. (And if the tickets turned out to be to Cosi fan tutti, you might well object, "That's not classical music, it's opera!") Likewise, professional philosophers have a detailed taxonomy of philosophical ideas and writing. A professional philosopher may use "materialism" to denote something very different from what an ordinary philosophically literate person might mean.
Thoughts does not explicitly disambiguate what usage of "materialism" he intends, but his use of broad generalities to characterize materialists and their intellectual failings suggests that he's talking about the larger audience. However, he presents a technical philosophical definition: "Materialism is the belief that everything is due to matter and the flow of matter from place to place." This apposition of the general population with the technical meaning is suspicious: one might similarly criticize the Philadelphia Classical Music Appreciation Society on the basis of its name alone for ignoring Bach (Baroque) and Beethoven (Romantic).
Furthermore, for all the many denunciations of materialists' dogmatism in his essay, Thoughts does not give us any concrete examples. It's one thing to simply mention a bad argument for an incorrect position as a rhetorical springboard to a good argument for a better position, but when an author lays the anonymous denunciations on so thick as in this essay, a careful reader suspects a fallacy of the converse and an ad hominem argument. And Thoughts strengthens this suspicion with a description of his preferred alternative — "empiricism" — that is thin to the point of vapidity, consisting mostly of the banal exhortation that we should pay attention to the evidence and keep an open mind.
Also too his choice of alternative is curious in the context. Materialism (and "dualism" (technically dualistic idealism or mentalism) are ontological positions: they purport to describe how the world actually is. Empiricism is usually taken, however, as an epistemological position: a methodology to gain knowledge about how the world actually is. (Empiricism as an ontological position — that all that exists is perception — is if anything even more philosophically discredited than naive materialism.)
It is a matter of historical fact that materialism as a formal philosophy was developed in the 18th century and achieved wide currency in the 19th century as classical, non-relativistic physics made profound advances and especially as scientific biology demolished vitalism. As such, the formal definition of materialism, that everything can be characterized by matter and its interactions, or more popularly as that everything is matter in motion, reflects this early scientific view. It is also a matter of historical fact that since the development of materialism, modern science has made additional advances — notably Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics — which have changed our understanding of physical reality as much as did classical physics. Thoughts argues that these modern scientific advances fundamentally demolish materialist philosophy. But do they?
If we take the terms of 18th and 19th century philosophical materialism literally, with matter meaning specifically atoms and motion in the specifically Newtonian sense of change in an atom's position in absolute space over absolute time, then of course materialism is at least in some sense incorrect, or at least naive. But we must ask: do people today who can reasonably be described as materialists subscribe to this view of physical reality? Do they actually "deny observation" to preserve their view? Is the view of physical reality as "matter in motion" essential to materialism? And most importantly, how much does our modern understanding of relativity and quantum mechanics actually change the philosophy of materialism?
One should always be skeptical of an opponent's description of an opposing philosophy. Wikipedia describes several notable philosophers and scientists as "scientific materialists" (presumably falling in the category of materialists that Thoughts criticizes), including Daniel Dennett, Willard Van Orman Quine, Donald Davidson, John Rogers Searle, Jerry Fodor, and Richard Dawkins. If Thoughts wishes to make his charge stick that materialists deny observation and ignore well-established modern physics, we should expect the support of citations and quotations from at least the most notable advocates of materialism. It might be the case that Thaddeus Hicklehooper* of Muncie, Indiana has a naive and out-dated view of physical reality, gleaned from his C- in Introduction to Philosophy at the Adult Learning Annex, but who cares?
*Not a real person
Thoughts' choice of critique of materialism is also puzzling. He critiques materialism not on the obvious grounds that reality is more complicated than atoms moving and bouncing around, but on the basis of a specific interpretation of time:
If everything is due to the flow of matter and time is like the succession of frames in a motion picture [emphasis added] then at every instant reality is a frozen three dimensional pattern, like a single frame in a movie.Note how Thoughts apparently extends the definition of materialism in the bolded passage. This particular view of time is certainly not part of the stated definition of even 18th century materialism, and Thoughts offers not even an argument why we should consider this definition essential to materialism. And indeed this definition seems not only unjustified but perverse: if we consider materialism to be matter in motion, then motion must be an intrinsic property of material reality; viewing time as a succession of frozen images denies motion as an intrinsic property. Furthermore, the assumption of a continuum is a fundamental part of classical (and even non-quantum-mechanical relativistic) physics; if instants in time are "frozen", there must be not only infinitely many of them, but this infinity has to be the same cardinality of the real numbers. A lot of our prosaic intuitions simply fail even at the "lesser" infinite cardinality of integers. And of course it's astonishing to suggest that philosophers, scientists, and ordinary philosophically literate people have been for three hundred years unaware of Zeno's paradox until an anonymous blogger has brought it to our attention.
Materialism does not allow the transfer of information from the past to the present except as recorded data so the frozen instant is all that exists in the materialist paradigm. The instant is frozen because there is no time for motion to take place at an instant.
And indeed the fine details of physicists' ontology are not necessary to materialism. The essence of materialism is not what can be deduced from a specific ontology, but rather the rejection of idealism and dualism, an essence specifically noted by Wikipedia, materialism
is different from ontological theories based on dualism or pluralism. For singular explanations of the phenomenal reality, materialism would be in contrast to idealism and to spiritualism.In his essay, Thoughts actually notes this essential contrast: philosophers "have split into two main groups," materialists and dualists. The essential property of philosophical materialism is its monism, not the specific details of physics.
And, while they profoundly change our view of physical reality, the truth is that Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics don't much change philosophical views that rests on a classical understanding of reality. Relativity and quantum mechanics don't even change a lot of science; wide swaths of scientific and engineering endeavors can safely ignore relativity and quantum mechanics, including a lot of astrophysics, orbital mechanics, and even electronics (while transistors do depend fundamentally on quantum mechanics, most electrical engineers ignore the quantum underpinnings and work at the level of classical approximations of their emergent behavior). Newtonian classical physics might be a "special case" of relativistic quantum mechanics, if by "special case" we mean 99.999..99% of observable phenomena.
Even the 0.000.01% of "edge" cases of relativity and quantum mechanics don't affect our materialistic philosophy much. Relativity doesn't change anything important; if anything it reinforces materialism: time and space are now interactions of matter; they don't sit "outside" matter, actually eliminating a puzzling dualism within material reality. And the only aspects of quantum mechanics that pertain to a materialistic philosophy are the Copenhagen interpretation, which simply denies that science has anything to say about ontology whatsoever, and the role of the observer in quantum mechanics. But the first is just cowardice — quantum mechanics does have something to say about ontology; it's just too weird and counter-intuitive for many people, including many scientists, to believe. And the role of the observer is pure speculation; we have absolutely no evidence to prefer any special role of "consciousness" to more prosaic, materialistic (or "physicalist") views such as the Many Worlds or Transactional interpretations.
Finally, Thoughts exhortation that, "The problem of how we can experience anything will require a scientific rather than an ideological approach," falls flat. Even the relatively naive 19th century view of materialism is the result of a scientific understanding of reality, and the philosophy easily survives modern scientific knowledge just by tweaking the specifics of what we consider "substance" to be. Materialism hardly requires a massive denial of observation or a dogmatic rejection of the relevance of "any cosmology after 100 AD."