Is materialism integral to science? The naturally leads to two sub-questions. The first is what is materialism? The second is what is science?
1. What is materialism?
Materialism is the view that all there is, is material.
As can be seen in the history of science, the definition of what counts as ‘material’ (or physical) changes – for example, electromagnetism would not typically have been thought to be material or physical in the beginnings of modern science. This positive definition, then, is something of a moving target.
Materialism is probably better understood as essentially having a negative definition – in some sense, it denies the reality of mind. This in turn can be understood in two primary ways. In the first, mind is thought of as arising from non-mind. Typically, this is understood in an evolutionary context – in the beginning there was no mind, then through gradual accretion of complexity, organisms developed minds.
The second view (usually known as eliminative materialism) is that there is no mind whatsoever – what we think of as mind is actually some sort of illusion.
That what is known as science does not require the latter view is obvious – consider archaeology, anthropology, or parts of biology for that matter. These are scientific disciplines, yet they deal explicitly with minds.
This leaves the former view. What is the argument for this view? Basically, it is the evolutionary view – what we observe first is no organisms, then relatively simple organisms, finally organisms like humans or dolphins. We then combine this with the brain sciences – the mind seems to be part and parcel of the brain, and the brain developed through evolutionary forces. So, whatever the ultimate nature of mind, it depends on the brain, and the brain came about through evolution. Therefore, in the beginning there was no-mind.
What is important to note here is that this does not make materialism integral to science, but rather makes materialism a contingent conclusion of scientific inquiry.
This leads to the next question.
2. What is science?
Science in its essence is figuring out what there is and how it works. It’s not really more complicated than this.
In doing this, neither the first view of materialism (there are no minds) nor the second view (minds are not at the beginning) are required. They are both contingent outcomes of the process of inquiring into how things work.
Therefore, materialism is not integral to science. It is not good enough to say “Some scientist or science journalist says materialism is the only proper way of proceeding in science.” This view either a) describes a mistaken belief – i.e., that scientist and so on doesn’t understand what science ought to be, or b) describes some kind of probabilistic argument, such as “You will probably get more progress toward understanding how things work if you assume materialist principles of some sort.” b) might be correct, but the point is that there is nothing essential to science which says it will be. It is conflating how science ought to work in the broadest sense with a specific, contingent view of how things seem to work nowadays.
Having said that, it very well may be the case that many scientists think a), and so have unnecessarily restricted the development of science, leading to b) in what is an unwarranted kind of way. I.e., materialist conclusions about the way the universe works might come from a kind of contemporary metaphysical bias, which has accumulated over time – instead of postulates leading from where the evidences available to us naturally ought to flow.
Again, however, this accumulation of metaphysical bias does not speak to what is integral to science.