THE CASE FOR “MATERIALISM” (2)

THE CASE FOR MATERIALISM (2)

        In this posting I want to illustrate the ambigüities that can arise from the fact that, as Chomsky pointed out, the nature of matter has never been adequately determined, and that a default definition of “contact mechanics” dominates the way it is conceived.

      John Haught is a professor of theology at Georgetown University.  In 2000 he published a Book titled God After Darwin in which he attempts to develop what he calls a theology of engagment with Darwinism.  He wants to elaborate a “theology of evolution” that neither avoids a clash with evolution, nor denies it.  He believes evolution has some­thing creative to tell us about what God is like.  He wants to introduce a new line of thinking that, on the one hand, does not depend upon the static abstractions of the philosophía perennis, and on the other, eschews a reductionist, atheist scientism which from the very first pages he refers to simply as “materialism.”  In his characterizations of this “materialism” he regularly calls “matter,” without further qualification, lifeless, mindless, mechanical.  He makes no distinctions. 

        As he develops his argument against “materialism,” he points to the presence of “information” which he clearly intends as evidence that there is something “in nature” that goes beyond the capacities of matter.  Hear him speak:

      The point I wish to emphasize here is that the use of the metaphor “information” by scientists today is a transparent indication that they now acknowledge, at least implicitly, that something more is going on in nature and its evolution than simply brute exchanges along the matter-energy continuum. Though it is not physically separate, information is logically distinguishable from mass and energy. Information is quietly resident in nature, and in spite of being non-energetic and non-massive, it powerfully patterns subordinate natural elements and routines into hierarchically distinct domains.[1]

       To help explain, he takes an illustration from Michael Polanyi (an “Intelligent Design” advocate) where at first, a hand moves a pen on paper in meaningless scrawls, but then begins to write a coherent sentence.

      Physical continuity remains, but this continuity does not rule out an overriding logical and informational discontinuity. At the level of a purely chemical analysis of the bonding properties of ink and paper nothing new is going on when the informative sentence is introduced suddenly. From the point of view of physical science, things are the same as before. Yet from another kind of perspective, that of a human mind capable of reading written information, there is all the difference in the world.[2]

        I believe the above remarks of Haught illustrate the very point of Chomsky’s crtitique of the modern mindset toward matter.  Haught assumes a “contact mechanical,” absolutely reductionist view of matter, and on the basis of these gratuitous notions, intimates (without stating it in so many words) that something else, not matter, must exist to explain the phenomena presented.  But notice, he use the example of “writing” ― information that can only be decifered by a human mind.  The presence of biological “information,” as in bacterial DNA which does not require a mind, is not the imagery he has chosen to illustrate his point.

        What interests me for the purposes of our current topic is that the “materialism” in the above citation is reductionist and is not distinguished from other ways of conceiving “matter.”  The evidence he adduces, to my mind, is more than sufficient to suggest that material energy is in itself more than what the reductionist definition contemplates.  But there is no mention of this possibility.  Matter, it seems, cannot have these properties according to Haught.  There are no distinctions.  Once you accept the definition of an inert and passive matter ― what Chomsky calls “contact mechanics” and Haught calls the “brute exchanges along the matter-energy continuum” ―  you gratuitously limit the potential of matter to what are studied by physics and chemistry.  Thus, phenomena like “information” are implied (but not directly claimed) to “exceed” the capacities of mere matter.  What Haught does not acknowledge ― and what is the very heart of what I am proposing ― is  that “information” may very well be an absolutely unalloyed material function, the potential for which was “quietly resident” in matter all along … a potential that eluded our notice because of our gratuitous assumption that “matter” was incapable of it … a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

        How does he make that that unstated insinuation?  With a very strange turn of phrase: “information is logically distinguishable from mass and energy.”  Hence the implication: there must be something else there that goes beyond the capacities of matter.

        Can someone help me out here?.  I fail to see how being “logically distinguishable” leads to the positing of something that is not observably or detectably present.  Logically distinguishable?  Energy itself is “logically distinguishable” from matter, even though physically and metaphysically they are one and the same “thing.”  Does “logically distinguishable” mean that material energy is “mind“ or something other than matter (which can only be “spirit”)?  His remark seems designed to evoke the “spirit-matter,” “mind-body” divide without actually stating it.  His failure to clarify exactly what he means suggests to me that he is willing to insinuate the existence of realities that he does not attempt to defend. 

     I don’t think it is irrelevant that what he alludes to so surreptitiously ― “spirit” ― forms the traditional horizon for the perennial western ideology.  “Spirit,” as we well know, grounds the theory of the “two worlds” ― this material one, pale and shadowy where we live temporarily and our bodies die, and the “other,” spiritual world where we will supposedly live forever after death, punished or rewarded as solipsist individual “souls” by a morally authoritarian individualist “God.”  Whatever his intentions might have been, the final result seems to justify the institutional religious status quo, the foundational underpinnings of western civilization and culture with its values and priorities.

        But even without conflating Haught’s ambigüous definition of matter with the inveterate western individualism and the “two worlds” it presupposes, modern scientists themselves balk at that kind of reductionism.  Biologists will not concede that their science can be reduced to the laws of physics and chemistry.  They demand recognition for the fact that biology as a discipline is organized around its own heuristic principles, axioms, canons and unique evidence, that while it does not disobey any physical or chemical laws, transcends them and follows its own.  Does that mean that biologists are positing a “second substance” ― mind ― to explain the living phenomena they labor to understand?  Not at all.  DNA and RNA is “information” that functions mindlessly within the most primitive organic things … in bacteria, in plants that are not sensate, and even in viruses which many claim are not even alive.  To illustrate “information” by using the example of a human hand writing, immediately evokes mind, and without a word of clarification.  Metaphor? In such a context, hardly!

      As you go up the pyramid of emergent organic complexity, there is no evidence whatsoever that every last bit of it can’t be understood as the properties and potential of matter itself, whose precise algorithmic way of effectuating such emergence is yet to be discovered … and does not appear to be present in inanimate matter.  Matter exercizes an ever increasing sophistication as it integrates and complexifies.  To claim that activities that go beyond what is studied by physics and chemistry at any given point, necessarily go beyond the capacities of matter itself is to project a definition of matter for which there is no justification.  It is a definition that presupposes the existence of “something else” ― a separate substance ― “mind.”  

      On the very face of it, whatever I see material energy doing, is being done by material energy and material energy alone.  Unless there is some observable factor indicating that something else is functioning besides material energy, I have no choice, logically, but to expand my arbitrary Cartesian definition of the capabilities of matter.  And that is the point of this exercise.  Matter’s energy is not as we have conceived it.  The word “materialism” must be given more than one meaning, and the meaning I am proposing harbors the numinous.

        I am proposing a different kind of “materialism.”  It’s a materialism that sees matter as a living dynamism, the one and only “something” in which we palpably, visibly, irrefutably, live and move and have our being.  It is our unique and universal substance, that which makes us live and want to live, such as we are … the source of all creative emergent evolution and our sense of the sacred.  It is characterized by a potential (potentia = power) that has found a way to extrude out of itself every last structure and organism in the universe, including the famous human mind.  It is matter’s energy, the quarks and gluons of every fiber and function of our being.  It is also that which brings down, as if with a trum­pet blast, walls that we in the west have erected to project our delusions of “spiritual” grandeur placing us above and outside the world made of “mere matter.”  The Cartesian “second substance” or “spiritual soul” also justified our lust for plunder and xenophobic genocide.  The famous debates held at the Spanish Court in the 1550’s between De las Casas and Sepúlveda, questioning the enslavement of the Amerindians in the New World, heard the canon lawyer / advocate for the slave-owners justify enslavement on the basis that indians had no souls.  Thus philosophy and politics ― who you think you are and how you act and treat others ― are inextricably entwined.

 


[1] John Haught, God After Darwin, Boulder CO, Westview, 2000, p.70

[2] Ibid. p.72

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The Case for “Materialism” (1)

THE CASE FOR “MATERIALISM” (1)

       Before reading another word, I want you to notice that the word “materialism” is set in quotation marks.  I did that because there are various meanings to that term, and the one that most assume is not the one I mean.  I hope you are open and seriously interested in understanding my perspective on this.  There will be a number of installments … and you will have plenty of opportunity to question and comment. 

 Chomsky and “matter”

       I want to begin with Noam Chomsky. 

       Chomsky is a ground-breaking seminal thinker in linguistics, recognized as dominating the field for the last 40 years.  In his “Managua Lectures” of 1988[1] in which he lays out his theory of universal grammar (UG) and the hypothesis of the hard wiring of the brain for language, Chomsky declares himself open to the suggestion that “mat­ter” is more than simply the passive recipient of motion. The significance of that statement goes far beyond its place in his presentation.  For Chomsky is saying that for the last three hundred and fifty years, science has been per­forming its tasks without a definition of matter.

            The historical background for this anomaly has to do with Descartes’ division of all reality into two “things” ― in Aristote’s categories, “substances” ― called res extensa and res cogitans … literally, whatever exists, will be either “an extended thing” or “a thinking thing.”  It was a reprise of Plato’s matter and spirit dualism restated in the terms of the then burgeoning scientistic view of the world.  Instead of matter and spirit, Descartes used the terms “body and mind.” 

          It’s difficult for us to appreciate the radical change which his distinction represented for the way matter was understood in 1641. By calling “matter” a substance, Descartes replaced the traditional scho­lastic con­ception of “substance” as an amorphous prime matter given form by the “essence” that informed it.  For the schoolmen a “substance” could not be only “matter;” it had always to be matter and form which for Aristotle were principles of being, not separate “things,” substances or components.  By redefining matter as a separate cor­poreal “substance,” which, regardless of form, “possesses its own properties, all of which fall within the purview of mathematics,”[2] Descartes set in granite a “physical” Platonic dualism that Aristotle had rejected.  What that meant for wes­tern thought is that Aristotelian essentialism would eventually give way to an unintelligible material reductionism, and the so-called substance, “matter,” no longer a principle, became a “thing,” totally fibrotic ― lifeless, dead, inert and passive.  And it was in that form that it was studied by physics and chemistry, and until recently, presupposed by all the sciences.

             But Descartes also believed there was a res cogitans, a mind distinct from matter … that was a form of “spirit.”  The generalized belief in “spirit” as res cogitans held for for many centuries.  It meant life had an explanation in essences ― the ideas of “God’s” mind ― culminating in Hegel’s vision of history as the “trinitarian thought of God.”  But with the advent of Darwinism, belief in “spirit” (and a spirit-god) disappeared among scientists.  Descartes’ inert reductionist matter remained, however, confirmed by mathematical science, and it left life totally unexplained except as the (presumed) result of an equally unsubstantiated mechanistic epiphenomenon of a mechanical “matter.”  We inherited only one-half of Descartes’ dualism.

             “Matter” for Descartes was a purely passive “substance” limited to the kind of interaction that Chomsky describes as “contact mechanics.”  Spinoza ― who was thoroughly Cartesian in this regard ― defined it clearly in1677: matter, “body,” can be acted upon but cannot act.[3]  Matter’s inertness and passivity was so definitive in their view that it was able to serve double-duty as an undeniable indicator of the necessary existence of an invisible “second substance,” immaterial “mind,” needed to explain “that which went beyond the properties of matter.”  To this day all philosophical assertions of the existence of “spirit” must ultimately rely upon this gratuitous and unwarranted belief that we know exactly what the limits of materiality are, and therefore we must necessarily postulate the existence of “mind” to explain phenomena that go beyond those limits.

             Ironically, Descartes’ conception of matter was soon called into question by the near-con­tem­po­ra­ne­­ous work of Isaac Newton whose scientific work (1684) persuaded him that gravity was a force that “acted at a distance” without physical contact of any kind.  He was himself a convinced Cartesian and quite perplexed by his own discovery.  Despite the evidence that the properties of matter were not limited to the “contact mechanics” that Descartes had claimed, Newton still insisted that the explanation must be framed in mechanical or quasi-mechanical terms.  What that meant, says Chomsky, is that science has been operating since then without a tenable definition of the matter it studies. This should have undermined the theory of matter’s passivity and erased any claim to know the existence and necessary character of the “second substance,” mind, predicated precisely on knowing where the capacities of “body” stopped. 

… there is no definite concept of body.  Rather there is a material world, the properties of which are to be discovered, with no a priori demarcation of what will count as “body.”  The mind body problem, therefore, can not even be formulated.  The problem cannot be solved because there is no clear way to state it.  Unless someone proposes a definite concept of body, we cannot ask if some phenomena exceed its bounds.[4]

             He doesn’t attempt to solve the problem, being content with opening the door to the material evolution of the language faculty which he believes is a hard-wired feature of the human brain ― the point of his lecture.  But the larger question is exactly what we are setting out to solve.  Just what is “matter”?  … is “science,” as we know it, competent to answer that question?  And in such a context, what exactly can “materialism” mean?

 matter ― dead or alive?

             In our times we have learned from science that matter and energy are thoroughly convertible.  Matter is energy; they are one and the same thing.  This fact radically alters the presumptions of the Platonic-Cartesian dichotomy.  There is nothing to exclude the possibility that matter’s energy is the one and only source of all the energy in our cosmos, including the energy of life, its specifically human form ― mind ― and the activities associated with it: thought, language, creativity, spirituality, mysticism.  There is no longer any constraining need ― as there was for Descartes ― to “explain” life by something outside of, other than, and separate from matter, for matter is no longer “matter” as it was for him.  It no longer has the “limits” claimed for it pre-maturely by a nascent, uninformed science still dominated by imagery inherited from an archaic Greek dualism.  Everything that spirit was once called upon to explain — vitality, auto­nomous activity, self-identity, self-preservation, perdurance, adaptation, consciousness, empathy, altruism — is now potentially intelligible as the properties of matter’s energy.  Spirit and matter, for us, are one and the same thing. Please note: This doesn’t reduce all things to “mere matter” any more than it defines all reality as “mere phenomena” of the spirit. It contemplates something far more radical: it obliterates both those categories altogether, for without a basis in fact, “vital spirit” and “inert matter” are seen to be equally imaginary projections of a scientific world view that has disappeared“Spirit” and “matter,” equally, no longer refer to anything real.  The most they can be used for is the identification of past ideas.  They are museum pieces, historical oddities.  And the “materialism” based on them does not exist.

             My argument against the existence of “spirit” as a separate genus of being is that it is a completely ungrounded prejudice, given an untenable philosophical justification by a “matter” assumed to be inert.  Since all the properties of material energy are not known there is no way of validly denying that any given phenomenon may be produced by a potential of that energy.  “Spirit” does not need to be posited.  Ockham’s razor comes into play here.  All things being equal, you cannot adduce two factors as an explanation when one is sufficient.

             The “materialism” that people reject claims that all matter is as Descartes conceived it, inert and passive, and that nothing else exists but such “matter.”  That is not what being proposed here.  My vision contemplates an entirely different view.  The dynamic living properties of “body,” as Chomsky said, “are yet to be discovered.”  There is no “matter.”  It is matter’s energy.

the baggage-train of “spirit”

             Secondly, there are serious negative ramifications that come in the train of the dualist theory of an inert matter.  For on the basis of the belief that certain phenomena “exceed the limits of matter,” traditional religionists blissfully go on to project the existence of another kind of being altogether, “spirit,” and another world where it supposedly resides.  They construct a colossal conceptual edifice of mind-boggling complexity within that other, non-existent, world, based on nothing but a paranoid authoritarian imagination.  It is a world of heaven and hell, angels and demons, and terrified “souls” who on a “day of wrath” stand as defenseless individuals ― denuded of all human community ― before a “Judge of the Living and the Dead.”

            Belief in “another-world” encourages us to deny the symbolic nature of religious poetry.  Dualism promotes taking religion as scientific “facts.”  It postpones the inevitable reformulation of “dogmas,” like an authoritarian-despotic divinity of Christ, which has been used through 1600 years of history by an insatiably larcenous West to justify its power projections as “liberating the heathen from the slavery of error.”  “By their fruits you will know them,” may also be said to apply to “doctrinal truth.”  A doctrine that lends itself so readily to disdain, dominance, plunder and genocide is “false” on the face of it.  It may “work” for power, but it is not the way of the Nazarene.  Whatever “divinity” Jesus may have actually enjoyed as he walked among us, was far different from the one that Romanized Imperial Christianity imposed on him … and on the world.

             The pattern continues today.  The alleged existence of “spirit” is most often not used to enhance our sense of the stunning miracle of life, love and human insight.  Rather it is routinely employed as an escapist stargate, opening to a fantasy world we cannot see, test or question and whose existence justifies our destructive disregard for this one and the human bodies it has spawned.  Heaven and hell, as a permanent and eternal disembodied reward and punishment, necessarily trump any value for the precious gift that comes from the living dynamism of material energy ― rendering life pale and surreal, a treacherous illusion to be mistrusted and ultimately rejected.

             Please notice how this coincided with the needs of Imperial Rome to replace its discredited polytheistic theocracy with a new divine justification for external conquest and internal control.  How much more transparent does this need to be before we recognize that we are dealing with a cultural routine that might be called horizon maintenancethe empire, having come to believe that its exploitation of others was “willed by the gods,” harnessed Christianity to the very same task, and readjusted Christian doctrine accordingly.  Reward and punishment for the isolated defenseless individual meted out into eternity by an all-seeing Eye, a Roman Pantocrator, neutralized human solidarity and communitarian empowerment.  It reduced the need for coercive police action.  Social stability, control ― often mis-labeled “peace” ― was maintained.   

            But there is no other world.  This is paradoxically confirmed by the very people who believe in it most intensely.  For the most serious religious practicioners, the mystics, confide that they found the “other world” nothing but a distraction to learning how to live with love and a sense of awe in this one.  They agree across the traditions:  the process of spiritual maturation is a progressive realization of the ultimately superfluous scaffolding of conventional “other-worldly” religion.  Each of them offered their particular program for transcending it.  The ultimate goal of all mystical counsel is to learn how to live fully in the present moment.  All things ― such as they are ― “live and move and have their being” in a material matrix “the properties of which,” as Chomsky said, “are yet to be discovered.”


[1] published as Language and Problems of Knowledge,Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1988, p.142ff.

[2] René Descartes, Meditations, Med VI, tr Lafleur, NY, Bobbs Merrill, 1960, p.134

[3] Ethics, II, prop13  passim.

[4] Chomsky, op.cit., p.145