THE CASE FOR “MATERIALISM” (3)

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 themFor 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.[1]

      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.[2]  “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,”[3] 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.”[4]

      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.[5]  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-emptyingis 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.[6]  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.

 so …

       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!

 


[1] Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) The Making of Man,  XXIII, 3 and 4. (emphasis mine)

 

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologíae, I, q3, passim

 

[3] Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, Part II, p2

 

[4] 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.

 

[5] We are reminded that Pseudo-Dionysius spoke of God as “non-being” and, following him, so did Eriúgena.

 

[6] Cf Nancey Murphy, The Moral Nature of the Universe, Fortress Pr., Minneapolis, 1996  John Haught, God After Darwin, Boulder CO, Westview Pr. 1999.

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2 comments on “THE CASE FOR “MATERIALISM” (3)

  1. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for part 3. Again I concur with much of this. But I think you could encounter a dilemma at some point regarding the moral nature of the entity you arrive at.

    You posit the entity ‘matter’s energy’, which has other features like creativity, potential etc. You do not want to posit something else (ie not identical with ‘matter’s energy’) to be, or contribute to, what others refer to as ‘God’.

    What strikes me though about the evolution of the living world is the abundance of waste and agony endured by sentient creatures. A principal driver of evolution (including the evolution, and therefore the existence, of ourselves), has been waste and death. An entity which started this or allowed it to continue is at best callous, at worst cruel.

    Any attempt to equate ‘God’ with ‘what is’ seems to me to encounter the problem of what to do with the positive moral qualities traditionally ascribed to God. Traditional solutions include dualism (God vs the Devil or the Demiurge in some sort of alliance or balance) or pantheism (God is everything, and is therefore morally neutral).

    This is not quite the familiar ‘problem of evil’ which is often countered by statements about human free will, as it is to do with sentience, not free will.

    So I agree with a lot of what you say about what we are justified in asserting about ‘what is’ (matter, energy, form etc). But my own view would be that to equate this ‘what is’ with ‘God’ could be either an arbitrary act of labelling or a step too far – if it leaps to the assertion or assumption that ‘what is’ is ‘good’.

    Hope this makes sense.

    Thanks again,
    Chris.

    • tonyequale says:

      Thanks Chris,

      I appreciate the point you are making. It is very important and speaks to the heart of the vision I am promoting. I am glad for the opportunity to address it. I alluded to it twice in that last posting, with emphasis at the very end … I have yet to say anything about “God.” The context for that is the question of “rationality” and the so-called “divine intelligence.” You ask: “How could ‘God’ permit suffering? Has “he” no ‘mercy’?

      I know I risk over-simplification here, and I will elaborate this more thoroughly at a later time, but now let me say that in my view all the traditional expectations about “God’s” intelligence are gross anthropomorphisms. They are absolutely off base. “God” doesn’t permit suffering, because “he” neither thinks nor permits anything. I use the words of Meister Eckhart:

      The authorities say that God is a being, an intelligent being who knows everything. But I say that God is neither a being, nor intelligent and he does not “know” either this or that. … Therefore we pray that we may be rid of God, for unconditioned be-ing is above God and all distinctions. Now I am sure you are totally scandalized by these outrageous words of a Mediaeval Catholic Theologian (1260-1327), a Dominican priest and disciple of Thomas Aquinas. But what he is saying is not that different from what I am saying. Hear me out.

      Rationality means the ability to “reason.” To reason means to see “reasons” … which mean “causes,” i.e., “why!” We say such and such happened for this or that reason, … or the “reason” why I am doing this or that is “in order to” produce such and such an ef-fect. “Reason” has to do with antecedent and consequent events that can only occur in a flow of time. “Reason” may have been born a posteriori, but the minute reason oper-ates a priori, you are dealing with purpose … teleology.

      The ability to “reason,” which is the ability to see the “antecedent-consequent” rela-tionship between events, is an absolutely perfect adaptation for survival in a material-temporal universe. That’s why “rationality” (the ability to see reasons), evolved. This is a very challenging idea … try to understand what I am saying. Rationality is not a “su-perior” spiritual faculty that stands at the “pinnacle” of mind. It is a secondary, low-level organismic response to the conditions of antecedent-consequent events in our universe. It’s a survival strategy. Rationality has no “spiritual” or “intellectual” priority or inde-pendent value whatsoever. Rationality is a survival tool, no more transcendent than a raptor’s claw or a saber tooth or a viper’s venom. But it has proven over the eons of geologic time to be the most effective survival tool so far developed. And the species that possess “rationality” in its most developed form has, in fact, come to dominate “sur-vival” to such an extent, that it now must calculate the costs of “living too long.” It must contemplate euthanasia … it must limit reproduction … it must curtail its control over the earth and its systems or it may destroy itself and everything with it.

      Matter’s energy, on the other hand, at the beginning, was not something like me, an “entity.” It was pre-entity. It was non-evolved substrate. If you want to call it “God,” that’s OK with me, but then realize that this “God” does not think, because it does not have to think to survive. It survives because it has to survive. It embraces itself in a paroxysm of self-love and that embrace produces the conatus … reactivations of the paroxysmal self embrace of existence … mindless … pointless … embracive love. Can you hear this, and understand what it means? Existence is not thought, but love … mindless, pointless, blind marvellous being-here together is at the heart of it all … as if we didn’t know!! There is no mercy in the universe because there is no interest in any-thing but continued existence. Thought comes later … much, much later, and is ancil-lary to Love. And if thought doesn’t find out how to serve love, this raptor’s claw evolved human rational ability to survive will destroy us all. Love is mindless, pointless, purposeless and … utterly indispensable!

      Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. Thought is not “bad.” Thought evolved as a product of love. So thought is “good.” It is very, very good. And it is also matter’s en-ergy in its most developed state. But if thought has forgotten how it got here, if it has usurped the place of its mistress, it becomes destructive. Do I sound a little too much like a mediaeval morality play, or Langdon’s Piers Ploughman? No matter! I’m trying to make myself at least understood in a context where all the words I use, “God,” “matter,” “thought,” “goodness,” “purpose,” have been shanghaid in service to our idolatrous Pla-tonic-Cartesian rationality. We worship our rational minds and the power we think it gives us. We have forgotten where we came from … even though the birth of every baby slams it in our face. The fly follows us from room to room. Do you ever ask why? There is no point to any of this , … no thought … no purpose. The only “purpose” is to be here together. How meaningless can you get? There is only a communitarian self-embrace. What does it take for us to see? The point of it all is what we all know we want and can’t live without … it is actually the most meaningful thing in the world … and what we all have without the possibility of loss.

      Will you challenge this vision with death? Then, I ask … what actually dies? Do the quarks and gluons, electrons and neutrinos of material energy die? I don’t think so. The only “thing” that dies is the experiencing self … whose stand-alone permanence the Buddhists have always challenged as pure illusion and the source of the anthropo-genic aggravation of suffering. Their doctrine is “anatman,” they say there is no-self …… their counsel is to let it go.

      So let’s leave it here. I said more than I intended, and the entire treatment of the subordinate place of rationality ― and the lack of rationality in the Sacred ― is still not fully developed.

      But stay tuned!

      Tony

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