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.
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.
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.
 John Haught, God After Darwin, Boulder CO, Westview, 2000, p.70
 Ibid. p.72