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

4 comments on “The Case for “Materialism” (1)

  1. theotheri says:

    I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! This is one of the interesting things I’ve read in my life. For decades I have turned over what we psychologists call “the mind-body problem,” and concluded that either there must be another spiritual world which informed matter and gave it life, or there would be some revolutionary way akin to Einstein’s thinking about space and time, which would suggest how matter can possibly give rise to mind. I didn’t expect to get even a glimmer of the latter in my life time. But you’ve done it.

    Okay, now I must go back and re-read your post with less of what Ronald Knox would have called Enthusiasm and a little more calm critical analysis. It’s a little bit like going back for second helpings of a very rich dessert. With double dips of cream.

    Thank you. Thank you.

  2. Roberto says:


    Yesterday I was referred to you by Terry, the person who posted the above comment. She recommended your writing and said very nice things about you. She also wanted my opinion about your writing and I read The Case for “Materialism” and then I wrote a response which I published on my blog. Today I received a comment to that blog from Terry suggesting that I make my thoughts known to you about what you wrote. I tend to not shy away from discussions and arguments, and I thought it would only be fair, so that you get a chance to respond. As I said in my blog, my thoughts about what you have to say in no way exhaust what you said. I did find some of your conclusions problematic, but that’s not to say that you’re wrong, I just have a different point of view, one that you no doubt know about. Here is my blog entry with a long excerpted chapter from Huston Smith:

    My name is Roberto, and I’d be happy to discuss these ideas with you. I am open to ideas that differ from the ones I hold onto.

  3. Roberto says:

    *Terry who posted the comment *below* mine.

  4. […] in correspondence on Tony Equale’s Blog, particularly on a series of articles arguing The Case for “Materialism”. It has helped clarify a particular problem I think I have always had with the concept of […]

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