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

5 comments on “THE CASE FOR “MATERIALISM” (2)

  1. Hi Tony,

    I was led to your blog by Terry Sissons, who suggested I responded directly with you.

    Below is therefore an edited version of a comment I made on a post on her blog which had been influenced by what you had written on materialism.

    I agree with much of what you say here, but perhaps not yet with the key assertion. It seems to me that something is being assumed or asserted without sufficient justification.

    I’m aware that my understanding of relativity & theoretical physics is so limited as to be practically non-existent. So there could be some eg mathematical truth about fundamental particles which I haven’t taken on board & which changes everything.

    But even if there is some sense or perspective in which, ultimately, matter = energy = information, I do not see how one can extend this equation to include either life or mind or both. In some places you seem to be saying that information does not imply mind – which I would agree with. But if not I cannot see how mind can be admitted as something immanent in the universe, which you also seem to be saying – or at least allowing for?

    To talk of 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 can mean one of (at least) two very different things to me.

    It could mean that the potential in the ultimate matter/energy building blocks is the potential to generate everything which happens to have arisen. So all the planets, all the colours of every rock, every distance between every pair of objects, every chemical process, every evolved organism, are ‘potentially’ there in the primal building blocks – but only by definition, because they happened, and they happened as a result of those building blocks. At this level there would be nothing special about life or mind as a result of whatever happened since the beginning of the universe. The 1000th volcano on Mars would be just as ‘special’ as the consciousness of Mahatma Ghandi. The development of life and mind would be no more inevitable or necessary than was the eruption of that 1000th volcano. Everything that happened was only inevitable and necessary because it happened to have happened.

    Or we are saying that life and mind were both inevitable and necessary because they were somehow contained within that primal matter/energy as necessary aspects of it.

    So, to put it crudely, the first option would be saying that matter = energy = information = the potentiality and actuality of (volcano 1 +/or volcano 2 +/or volcano 1000 +/or all the volcanoes from volcano 1 to volcano 5 +/or all the volcanoes from volcano 3 to volcano 1003 +/or the blackbird in my garden +/or Mahatma Ghandi +/or … ad infinitum). There might be a sense in which this is ‘true’, but if so it seems either trivially or metaphorically true.

    The second option has more content, & it’s something like this: matter = energy = information = life = mind. But I cannot see the justification for this (particularly the ‘= life = mind’ bit), other than the fact that we are living and we have minds. What if we hadn’t evolved? What if no life had evolved? I do not think we are justified to say that life and mind had to have happened just because we are both of those things.

    Hope this makes some sort of sense?

    Chris Lawrence
    thinking makes it so

  2. tonyequale says:


    Thanks for your comment and for posting it on my blog.

    First let me clarify the point of “materialism” (2). It follows close on the heels of “Materialism (1) which laid out Chomsky’s critique of Cartesian “body,” called res extensa and which Chomsky claims was without justification limited to characteristics he calls “contact mechanics.” Body was inert and dead by definition … and I would add, in order to make room for res cogitans which by similar ungrounded prejudiced gratuity was claimed by Descartes to go beyond the capacities of matter. The second posting claimed to have found clear evidence of the ambiguities and confusions created by the faulty definition of matter in a treatment by Dr John Haught of Georgetown University. My fundamental position was laid out in the first posting, and I refer you to it for clarification.

    I agree with Chomsky who claims very simply that the limitations on matter’s properties imposed by the unjustified Cartesian definition do not hold. This is a very minimal and negative statement. He is not saying anything positive. He ends his analysis by saying “the properties of ‘body’ are yet to be discovered.” In other words he is simply saying we can no longer assume that we know what the limitations of matter are … limitations that in the past and based on Descartes’ prejudicial definition, were used to prove the existence of a second “kind of thing” or genus of being that he called “mind” and is understood to approximate to Plato’s “spirit.” It was the application of this kind of analysis (actually, insinuation) that I was criticizing in Haught.

    You express confusion about the significance of my statements. The equations you lay out were not in my posting. And the “necessity” you seem to feel I intended was not there either. It occurs to me that your focus on “necessity” suggests you yourself are still functioning under the assumptions of “contact mechanics” which contemplates a “matter” that is utterly deterministic, reductionist, inert, passive. I am not saying I know what matter is or how it does the magic trick of pulling volcanoes and minds out of its voluminous hat. I don’t know how material energy does it … but it does. We are all in the same boat. I am not offering explanations for what we all see before us and are driven to explain. I’m only saying the dualist explanations are no longer tenable. The “mind-body” division of being, which up to now has been assumed to be the sufficient and necessary explanation for the phenomena that were assumed to exceed the capabilities of matter, is no longer credible. There are not two separate and opposed “substances” or even “principles” of being. There is only “one thing” out there … matter’s energy. It’s a problem for all of us. What is it? How does it do what it does? And how do we go about finding out? The properties and potential (power) of this new single material energy that we realize is the living dynamism and matrix in which we live and move and have our being … as Chomsky said “are yet to be discovered.”

    • tonyequale says:


      Your points bring a few things to mind … that are not necessarily direct responses to your queries … but are aspects of this issue that intrerest us all.

      First, mind. Just how “immaterial” is it? Exactly what part of what’s going on in my mind is immaterial and how do I decide that it is immaterial? Example: I “recognize” my friend Larry. I know its Larry when I see him … but I am seeing him, and my recognition is not separate from the sense image. I also know it’s Larry when I think of him in his absence, but, again, there is a sense image, a memory, some sort of neural formation associated with that recognition, and perhaps even a sentence or statement: “I remember Larry’s laugh,” or some such thing. Now, one can say that the “recognition” is immaterial because it goes “beyond” the sense images, either present or remembered … because I can have sense images of things I do not recognize. But then I ask, if it is “separate” from the sense imagery associated with it, shouldn’t I be able to have the raw idea, “Larry,” without any imagery whatsoever? Try it. Try thinking of someone or something in the complete absence of any statement or memory or image of any kind. Not so easy … maybe even impossible?

      I can have pictures of two people. One I recognize, the other I don’t. What’s the difference? What is going on in the “recognition” of the one I know that is not going on in the picture of the one I don’t? And yet that “recognition” is equally had only in the seeing or the remembering of the picture or some other identifiable phenomenon going on in my imagination … how else could I say there was anything going on at all?

      So if I insist my recognition … which admittedly is “not just” a seeing … is “different” from seeing, what evidence (even for myself) do I have for that … or what apparatus other than my sorting through sense imagery and memories do I have for “recognizing that recognition occurred” in case one but not in case two?

      But wait, there’s lots more. I have a cat. And it’s clear that my cat recognizes me when I go to the vet to pick her up … she reacts with obvious “recognition.” What’s going on in her “mind” that is different from what goes on in mine? Anything? And if these “recognitions” are different, how are they different and on what basis can I dare claim that such a phenomenon so obviously analogous in each case is “really different”? After all, I can’t get in the cat’s mind … and even if I could, I will wager that the only thing I would “see” would be the image of me, just like I see the image of my friend Larry. The “recognition” occurring in each case is not “separate” as recognition. It’s a “dimension” or a quality that attends the imagery. But it seems not to exist in my brain except in imagery … it has no independent existence.

      These are questions. And they are endless. I could run through the same routine on “knowing something through its cause” … which is rationality … and which sanimals also do. Any difference is one of degree … and not of kind. What is immaterial here?

      There’s more to come on this, but it’s bedtime for me … the rest will have to wait.

      • Thanks again Tony. But I wasn’t sure if this was a response to my first comment or my second – which seems to have disappeared? Shall I post it again?

        Thanks, Chris.

      • Here’s the repeat:

        Thanks Tony for the clarification. Apologies for the equations which were my crude translations of what I thought you might have been saying in eg:

        The evidence [Haught] adduces, to my mind, is more than sufficient to suggest that material energy is in itself more than what the reductionist definition contemplates.

        …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 …

        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.

        Overall, you seemed to be saying one of two rather different things, and I was trying to ascertain which one. I was trying to understand whether you thought ‘life’ and ‘mind’ were necessary or contingent features or manifestations of matter (where ‘matter’ is free of arbitrary definitional constraints).

        I think the scientific consensus is that, somehow, matter and energy are necessarily related to each other – perhaps alternative complementary descriptions of the same reality. I don’t think a physicist could conceive of a world where there was matter but no energy – ie one in which energy hadn’t ‘come along yet’.

        As far as ‘information’ is concerned, I’m rather in the dark. It’s possible that information is an ultimate aspect or perspective (I’m trying to avoid the word ‘component’) of reality. It may be that matter, energy and information are necessarily related in that, again, there could not be a world which we could describe as having matter and energy but not (yet) information.

        But now we get to life and mind. I think we could conceive of a ‘reductive materialist’ with an extremely sophisticated understanding of matter, energy and information, and who might understand matter, energy and information as being necessarily rather than contingently related. What would distinguish the ‘reductive materialist’ in this context would be that he/she would see no grounds for thinking that life and mind were anything other than contingently related to the other three. Thus he/she would say there could be a world where there was matter, energy and information, but nothing that could be described as life or mind (yet, or ever).

        Hence my example of the 1000th volcano on Mars. There couldn’t be a world where there was matter but no energy; or matter & energy but no information; but there could be a world where there was matter, energy & information, but no 1000th volcano on Mars (yet, or ever).

        I thought you might be saying something different from that kind of reductive materialism, and that in some way life and mind were necessary aspects of matter/energy/information, not just contingent aspects or manifestations of it.

        Hope this makes what I was trying to say a bit clearer.

        Thanks again, Chris.

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