THE CASE FOR “MATERIALISM” (3)
This is the third posting on this topic. It will be more easily understood if you read the first two. They are below this one.
The major reason that people give for rejecting materialism, is that they claim it is “anti-religious.” They say that “God” could not possibly be material ― and what seems like the same thing but is not exactly ― that “matter” cannot be God. Theologian John Haught regularly equates “evolutionary atheism” and “materialism.”
It is exactly this un-nuanced definition that I am challenging. Could “God” be matter?
The “materiality of God” was a topic that was apparently much discussed in the ancient world. Despite our assumptions that it was resolved at that time, we have a witness of no less stature than St Gregory of Nyssa (“Doctor” of the Church, 4th century) conceding that it remained a conundrum for them. For either there is no reason why “matter” should exist at all, since “God” is pure spirit, … but since it does, it must have come from another “source” … otherwise, how could its creator not have its properties? Here’s what Gregory said:
“3. … they [who challenge the possibility of matter being created by an immaterial God] employ in support of their own doctrine some such arguments as these: If God is in His nature simple and immaterial, without quantity, or size, or combination, and removed from the idea of circumscription by way of figure, while all matter is apprehended in extension measured by intervals, and does not escape the apprehension of our senses, but becomes known to us in colour, and figure, and bulk, and size, and resistance, and the other attributes belonging to it, none of which it is possible to conceive in the Divine nature, — what method is there for the production of matter from the immaterial, or of the nature that has dimensions from that which is unextended? For if these things are believed to have their existence from that source, they clearly come into existence after being in Him in some mysterious way; but if material existence was in Him, how can He be immaterial while including matter in Himself? And similarly with all the other marks by which the material nature is differentiated; if quantity exists in God, how is God without quantity? If the compound nature exists in Him, how is He simple, without parts and without combination? so that the argument forces us to think either that He is material, because matter has its existence from Him as a source; or, if one avoids this, it is necessary to suppose that matter was imported by Him ab extra for the making of the universe.
4. If, then, it [matter] was external to God, something else surely existed besides God, conceived, in respect of eternity, together with Him Who exists ungenerately; so that the argument supposes two eternal and unbegotten existences, having their being concurrently with each other — that of Him Who operates as an artificer, and that of the thing which admits this skilled operation; … Yet we do believe that all things are of God, as we hear the Scripture say so; and as to the question how they were in God, a question beyond our reason, we do not seek to pry into it, believing that all things are within the capacity of God’s power — both to give existence to what is not, and to implant qualities at His pleasure in what is.
Others have taken up this question. Aquinas‘ approach is predictably dualist and Aristotelian, i.e., he presupposes an absolutely inert matter ― all vitality is attributable to “form” alone. “Matter” cannot move anything without being moved, therefore it cannot be “God” who is the unmoved mover. Also matter is pure “potency” but God is pure Act … . And matter is “less noble” because it is lifeless; form alone provides life, and God could not be or have anything that was “less noble.” These scholastic truisms were taken up by Baruch Spinoza in the mid 17th century, and reworked in the context of the Cartesian vision of the independent reality of “lifeless” matter, res extensa.
Spinoza was overawed by the scholastic axiom that God was esse in se subsistens ― God’s essence was to exist. Spinoza was determined to elaborate a systematic understanding of reality based on the recognition that “God” was the only “stand-alone” thing in the universe. Everything else existed in God. The Aristotelian-Cartesian definition of “substance” as that which existed in itself and not in another, strictly speaking, could be applied only to God. This meant that Spinoza had to revisit the problem of how a world of matter could emanate from an immaterial God.
On the one hand Spinoza claimed clearly and distinctly, “extension is a property of God. God is an extended thing,” and just as unambiguously rejected any notion that God has or was a “body.” How could this be? It seems like a contradiction. I believe Spinoza’s “solution” is internally incoherent because he tried to ground it in the same dualist-idealist assumptions of his era and his tradition. The engine of Spinoza’s system was a metaphysical idealism that was centered on the existential power of divine ideas, which he inherited from the schoolmen. God’s essence is his existence and therefore his concepts are himself with an infinite creative power. If God “thinks” matter, then matter must exist and must be “God” for God and his thought and all reality are one and the same thing. “Divine spirit” creates “matter” by thinking it … and by thinking it, divine spirit becomes “materiality.” This may seem strange to us, but it was the coin of the realm for those still immersed in idealist mediaeval scholasticism, like Spinoza. “Materiality” was an idea; body was matter. Materiality (extension), the idea, is God; matter (real body) is not.
Spinoza believed that divine “thinking” could not take place in a material, sequential, conditioned way as in a “body.” Such bodily thinking, no matter how powerful the “spirit” that is pulling the corporeal puppet-strings, cannot have ultimate existential (creative) power because it would represent a dilution of God’s existential self-identical thought. The limitations of “matter” cripple the power of “spirit” to create.
The very possibility of Spinoza’s “solution” depends on idealist premises that are alien to us. Spinoza held to a “second level dualism” that to my mind leaves his “monism” floating alone in the “mind” of God. Once you descend to earth, Spinoza is as thoroughly dualist as Descartes, even to his terminology. For Spinoza res extensa and res cogitans are really distinct except in the mind of God. So the materiality of God in his system is actually only a thought … and it is real for us only as a thought. We can think it but we cannot experience it materially with our senses … because it is not matter. It is God’s self-idea, and therefore, according to Spinoza, necessarily exists just as God necessarily exists. That argument does not work for us. The modern “dualists” that I know prefer Gregory’s “solution” ― “we can’t understand it … we do not seek to pry into it.” Of course, this solves nothing!
Matter’s divine character
My reaction is that these approaches necessarily fail because they are dualist. They are trying to reconcile two diametrically opposed principles of being. But I believe they are trying to solve a false problem. There are not “two things” in the universe; there is only one, matter’s energy. Since I see no evidence for the existence of a metaphysical genus of being called spirit, or mind, apart from matter, I naturally do not believe that God is a kind of being different from the material universe either.
But does that mean I do not believe in God? That’s the conclusion most jump to. If you accuse me of not believing in God simply because I do not accept the existence of “spirit” then I will in turn accuse you of not making “God” your priority but rather of divinizing a philosophical theory ― the Platonic-Cartesian Paradigm and its fantasy World of Ideas. Your “God,” in other words, is idea. What you really “worship” is mind … and I would add, your mind, a rational mind. You are not willing to accept “God” however “he” might be … you have determined in advance God must be just like you … with a “rational” mind.
Are you are claiming, like Spinoza, that “mind” alone can exercise existential (i.e., metaphysically creative) power? … before you answer, please remember: the only “mind” you have ever experienced is your own, and it is “rational” precisely because it is thoroughly organic. So for you to hold that mind alone apart from matter can be existentially creative, you would have to project a mind without an organic base ― a non-rational mind that you postulate but have never experienced. Such a mind would be so different from yours that you could not even imagine how it might function. To claim to know such an alien reality, based only on a purely speculative conceptual abstraction, is an empty exercise ― you are reduced to mere words without intelligible content. The only “minds” we know are ours, and they are “rational” precisely because they are derived from and function for “matter.”
So here’s my “case.” Not only is the only “mind” we know material, but matter has created all the various “kinds” of things that exist including our minds. Humor me. Concede (hypothetically, of course, and only for the moment) what science claims: everything that we can see in the heavens and on earth evolved out of the primordial coalescence of material energy. Quarks and gluons formed protons at the first nano-seconds of the big bang. Protons attracted electrons and became hydrogen. Hydrogen aggregated into stars and suns, whose fusion furnaces forged the complex and elegant table of the elements … well, you can see where I’m going with this … your famous “mind” was eventually built of this very same stuff. It is the evolved product of these material integrations and many, many more that preceded human emergence over 14 billion years. “Matter” is obviously capable of this kind of creative activity, because it did it. “Mind” is a derivative of matter and not the other way around. “Mind,” ― your mind, the only mind you know ― evolved from the primitive elements of what appeared to be “inert” matter. To claim otherwise is to make an assertion that has no evidence and to deny what is undeniably evident.
Let’s take another step into this new territory. Still conceding that everything evolved from the most primitive elements of matter, please also notice, it is not like matter evolved something different from or other than itself. Matter’s energy evolved aggregations and re-combinations of itself. “Things” were created out of prior things the way a tree emerges out of its seed, or the way an organism emerges out its zygote. Cells divide, multiply and specialize creating an organism that does not in any way look or act like its “seed” or original state. Nevertheless, the organism is always only itself. Everything that evolved is made of the very same quarks and gluons, protons, electrons, atoms, molecules, cells, etc., etc. A hydrogen atom in the heart of a star is no different qua hydrogen atom from one in a molecule of water in a muscle cell in your heart or a neuron of your brain. The hydrogen in each case is the same as are the quarks, gluons and electrons that comprise them. What does this mean? We ourselves are only this material energy. Matter is that “in which we live and move and have our being.”
I’m sure you recognize that phrase from Paul’s speech at the Areópagus in Athens. So here we have at least two characteristics of “God” that are undeniably being performed by “matter.” The first is universal creative power producing all structure in the universe and all living species on earth including our famous minds. The second is that matter is the exclusive and universal matrix for participatory existence; everything, in other words, exists because it participates in ― is made of, is an extrusion of ― matter’s energy.
Is there possibly a third? Let’s consider: the matter of which we are made is available to become anything and everything … suggesting, paradoxically, that in itself it is nothing. And yet we know that it is pure energy, the source of every form and structure, function and force that we see in our roiling universe and teeming planet. This realization gives me no new factual information but it tells me something very important. It says that I am the result of a self-donation so unimaginably immense that it has allowed its own energy to be harnessed and exploited to become other things ― like us ― and at a pace determined exclusively by those other things as they in turn participate in the exercise of material energy’s creative power. It is precisely its utter emptiness of all “self-ness” that reveals matter’s character and its unique bearing. The Greek word kenosis which means “self-emptying” is used to great poetic effect in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 2. Christian theologian Nancey Murphy speaks of the kenotic nature of God as Creator. Catholic theologian John Haught, empoying the very same terminology, adduces evolution itself as evidence for his vision of creation as divine kenosis. Matter’s energy simultaneously is no-thing, … wants nothing … and makes everything be. Does this ring any bells? It is that maternal character, allowing us to be born of and feed off its own substance, empty of all self-determination, that impels us to recognize the awesome accuracy of the ancient metaphors, like “Mother” or “Father,” used universally by humankind since time immemorial to express the insight into the existential relationship that has spawned and sustains us. Ours is not the first generation to open its eyes and look at the world around us.
There is a fourth transcendent property of matter that seems to run counter to our prejudiced claims that it could not possibly be “God.” The first law of thermodynamics states that matter’s energy is neither created not destroyed. The law is generally used mathematically to calculate the divided results of chemical reactions, but it has a metaphysical significance. There is something permanent and apparently self-subsistent about material energy. It seems that matter’s energy exists and cannot not exist. It is some kind of ultimate self-embrace. I am reminded of the scholastic definition of “God” that impressed Spinoza so much: esse in se subsistens.
This doesn’t feel as strange to me as I would have expected. I “understand” this feature of reality. And the reason is because I experience its resonance within myself. I love living. And I do everything I possibly can to stay alive. I identify myself with existence and I live day to day never really expecting that I am ever going to die, even though I “know” that someday I will. The “knowledge” of death doesn’t affect my psychological state until an intense “realization” occurs … which can immobilize me, but usually only temporarily. My natural internal dynamic, the energy for living, is a survival drive that seems to have a life of its own. It suppresses or at least mutes the consciousness of death, and fights against it with every fiber of being.
There is something in this phenomenon that I definitely do not control. The energy embedded in my organic components struggles to survive, sometimes even against my own desire to die. Some call it the “reflex or instinct” for self-preservation. Doctors refer to the “force of life” as an impersonal and involuntary drive of the body that functions in the absence of intention or even consciousness. Evolutionary biologists identify “the survival drive” as the force responsible for phylogenesis, the production of new species. Species evolve because matter insists on existing. It apparently cannot NOT exist.
In the case of human beings, following in a long tradition since ancient times, Spinoza called this drive conatus sese conservandi, the drive for self-preservation. We are driven to do whatever is necessary to preserve and enhance our life. We each love our life ― intensely ― and starting from there we also love and cherish all those things that provide, support and protect our life. These are the things we consider “sacred.” The involutary paroxysmal self-embrace of existence, the conatus, which is derived from matter’s need to exist, can therefore be identified as the energy-source of our sense of the sacred. Is this a fifth feature that suggests that matter may not be incompatible with “God”?
So, “matter” has a number of qualities that classically were reserved to the “divinity:” (1) it has created every known structure and living organism in our universe; (2) it provides the concrete existential matrix in which all things “live and move and have their being;” (3) it seems to be maternally available to become virtual anything other than itself and to offer itself in a kenosis without reserve allowing other things to develop and survive; (4) it is neither created nor destroyed and seems to fulfill the classic definition of ultimate Reality: esse in se subsistens, and (5) it is directly and physically responsible for our sense of the sacred.
So, maybe the issue is not whether you are religious and I’m not, but rather what kind of religion you are determined to have ― one that corresponds to a dualistic view of the world generated two thousand years ago before the advent of modern science by a Greco-Roman theocracy trying to resuscitate a dying empire, projecting “another world” where the individual who disobeys authority will be punished … or one that reflects what we have discovered in the last 500 years and is compatible with the notion of cosmic community.
Some have objected to my conclusions by saying that identifying “God” with matter means that “God” for me is only immanent. Pan-entheism, they say, means God is both immanent and transcendent. They claim that my position denies the Divine’s transcendence and makes me a pantheist … . And that supposedly terminates any discussion!
I respond by saying “transcendence” does not mean “beyond” in the sense of “other” … a metaphysical or physical opposition. In a temporally evolving (process) universe like our own, transcendence means, rather, having a potential to “go beyond” what exists at present and become and/or produce something that does not yet exist. Material energy is radically capable of what, right now, it is not, just as it was always radically capable at any point in the past of becoming what, at that point, it was not yet. As hydrogen atoms formed and then aggregrated into suns 400,000 years after the big-bang were not yet the chemical component of water (H2O), they always had that potential (please note: potentia = power). The potential was not something that came from somewhere or someone else. It resided intrinsically in matter’s energy. Similarly, the molecule of water when it first formed in the cooling universe was not yet the main component of the protoplasm of a cell in my heart or neuron in my brain, but it always had the potential for it. So, transcendence means the power to become what is not yet. It is the power to create new being. It is a function of immanence.
I’m sure you realize that the above discussion does not “prove” that God is matter, nor that matter is God. What it accomplishes, as far as I am concerned, is to show that, even working from the traditional categories that we have inherited, God and matter are not incompatible categories. That may not seem very significant, but in fact, it represents a sea-change for our culture and our values. It was the supposed impossibility that “God” could be “matter,” claimed by our tradition, that set in place the metaphysical “spirit-vs-matter” dualism that forms the almost undetectable horizon of our lives. Dualism necessarily skews the appreciation of our organic human nature and our relationship to the material world around us. Also, quiet as it’s kept, indirectly it makes us obsessively individualistic because it projects our individual personalities into a spiritual eternity. These notions are all mutually interdependent … while dualism remains in place, western culture with its affects, defects, and psycho-social pathologies, remains in place. Some may not consider the continued existence of that mindset to be a problem for the species and our planet … I do.
To terminate this lengthy posting I also want to offer another restriction and caveat. One can only get so detailed, or every essay turns into a book. Suggesting that there is no reason to say that matter cannot be God or that God is not matter does not yet say anything about God … and especially, from my point of view, it does not obviate those many earlier postings dedicated to rejecting the anthropomorphisms that inevitably are evoked by the use of the word “God” … one of which is our inveterate habit of imputing to God a rational mind. That last point was alluded to but, I want to emphasize, not yet fully discussed. This posting is part of breaking into new territory … giving rise to new questions. It was not intended as a definitive answer to anything!
But stay tuned!
Gregory of Nyssa (4th
century) The Making of Man,
XXIII, 3 and 4. (emphasis mine)
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologíae, I, q3, passim
 Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, Part II, p2
 An intelligence that did not have to cope with the individuations, and separate antecedant-consequent phenomena that are characteristic of matter, would apparently operate not by subject-to-object apprehension and reasoning ― inference, induction, deduction and interpretation (i.e., rationally), ― but by a direct and infallible self-identical intuition. We can say those words, but they are pure projection. We have absolutely no idea what they mean.
 We are reminded that Pseudo-Dionysius spoke of God as “non-being” and, following him, so did Eriúgena.
 Cf Nancey Murphy, The Moral Nature of the Universe, Fortress Pr., Minneapolis, 1996 John Haught, God After Darwin, Boulder CO, Westview Pr. 1999.