Transcendent Materialism


In Sweet Dreams 2007 (SD), Daniel Dennett answers his critics.  But his attempts to show that human consciousness is not distinguishable from zombies and robots, explain why he has been so heavily criticized.  His efforts imply that “matter,” even in the human brain, is inert, mechanical … utterly devoid of life.  Dennett’s reductionist illustrations do not even come from biology or chemistry, they come from physics alone.  All his “thought experiments” are based on the paradigm of computer programming.  


The “computer model” of the human brain, it must be acknowledged, is not a fact; it is science fiction.  No one really knows how the brain functions.  And yet, basing himself solely on such a model, he claims to draw conclusions about human consciousness and experience.  It’s hard to see how this analysis doesn’t reproduce exactly what he claims to reject:  a “greedy reductionism” that sees all non physical phenomena as illusion. Dennett’s version of materialism, I believe, leaves him no other choice.  A dead, inert matter does not square with the emergence of life or with the human experience of a world of meaning.  


We humans live in a plane of meaning, a symbolic world that we have created for ourselves.  The human realities that we call culture, which include language, ethics, politics, art and poetry of all kinds, which includes religion, are the products and vehicles of meaning.  Meaning is an exclusively human phenomenon.  It is not a biological “thing” but it has, over time, hard-wired its symbol-making requirements into the human brain.  Dennett’s view of human consciousness defended in SD assumes a cerebral substrate that is similar to computer circuitry.  Such a barren image almost begs to be supplemented by a Cartesian “second substance” to account for meaning.  He fights back against that tooth and nail.  I agree with him; there is no “spirit.”  But the battle he wages, in my opinion, is born of his faulty definition of matter.  He himself summoned forth and now struggles to cast out, the spiritual daemon that always accompanies an inert matter. 


He calls his theories “thought experiments” instead of what they are … fantasies.  His omniscient robo-zombie is a metaphor.  We do not know how matter pulls its rabbits out of the universal hat.  By saying that they are not distinguishable from robotics, he implies that those functions are entirely exhausted at all levels in the laws and properties studied by physics.  It does not explain what we experience … it rather explains it away.  Despite his earlier claims to the contrary, if you embrace his vision, you must conclude that your conscious experience, and its symbolic products, are somehow an illusion. 


A different approach


I believe one can be thoroughly materialist and understand things very differently.  If we assume that what we see before us is what is really there, then we don’t need “thought experiments” employing robots.  We can let reality itself provide the imagery that illustrates what matter really is.  I claim that what matter does right before our eyes tells us what matter isHow it does what it does is another question.  Dennett, however, has decided that matter is to be judged by how it does things, not what it does.  Let me clarify the distinction:  What matter does is to produce emergent forms of life on earth, and in humans the ability to recognize their own powers of recognition, and produce the symbols we call culture.  How it does this is through mechanisms of astonishing complexity composed entirely of more primitive forms of matter.  The salient point is that how matter works does not necessarily establish the limits of what it is, or what it is capable of doing.


Let’s flesh this out.  If the existence of material mechanisms proves matter is only mechanical and inert, then matter is something different from the way we perceive it.  We experience matter as alive in its emer­gent forms and in human activity cognitively penetrating.  Dennett’s image of the zombie and the robot implies it is not, and he goes to great lengths to explain why we only think it is. 


The facts, as he presents them, are these: unconscious neurons, linked in phalanxes, and firing in the human brain, activated by a sensory input originating outside the organism, somehow produce not only consciousness (recognition and meaning) but a subject — a self.  How do we get from billions of unconscious cells and their bio-chemi­cal reactions to the conscious self when there seems to be no organic center of consciousness in between … no “soul,” no “pineal gland” or other cerebral structure where the self and its power of recognition resides and oversees the process? 


Put this way, the question emphasizes the direct, virtually unmediated relationship between mindless mechanism and the apparently intelligent behavior it produces.  Consciousness and self are the product of vast numbers of unconscious automatons — cerebral neurons.  Physically and metaphysically speaking, there is nothing else there but unconscious constituents … where does a conscious self come from? 


Dennett claims the “self” comes exclusively from “narrative.”  It is a story we tell ourselves.  Ancient humans, he says, discovered words, and began to communicate with one another about common concerns — survival.  Language is the key.  In trying to explain its motivations to others the human organism becomes aware of itself.  What emerges from this narrative is the self.  The self does not exist as a separate “thing” either organically or spiritually.  It is the product of human symbolic communication, a result of culture; it is mediated by language and occurs within a language community.  I find this view illuminating and I am inclined to agree with it in many respects, but not in all, as I will explain.

One of Dennett’s many critics reacted to his explanation this way:


… There is no internal witness, no central recognizer of meaning, and no self other than an abstract “Center of Narrative Gravity” which is itself nothing but a convenient fiction.  … For Dennett, it is not a case of the emperor having no clothes.  It is rather that the clothes have no emperor. (Voorhees, 2000, cited in SD, p.146).


The self and “narrative”


We have to go deeper and wider.  Cognitive science isn’t the only discipline in play here; for the phenomenon of “self” is not only humanEvery living thing similarly manifests symptoms of being a “self,” certainly not with our level of consciousness, but just as certainly aware of its own distinct and appropriated individuality.  This is true wherever we find life. 


The interpretation of common features that are found across a multitude of disciplines belongs to philosophy, not to positive science.  Dennett’s “narrative” explains “self” as a virtual reality emerging from processes emitted by human neurons firing in the human brain.  But what about the “self” which is evident in my cat “Toni” (yes, yes, narcissism has no limits!) who not only recognizes that I give her food and let her in out of the cold, but also manipulates me emotionally in between and well in advance of the moments of required service?  There is no language or feline community in her case.  What about the deer who exhibit a conversion of external stimuli into reactive self-awareness that is close to instantaneous.  No narrative here either.  What of the flies, whose brains are smaller than a grain of sand, that desperately struggle for freedom in the spider’s trap?  And then there are the protozoa that move toward food and away from enemies. These last have no brains at all, not even one “computerized” neuron, and certainly no narrative.  How do we explain their “sense of self”?  And finally the tree, the bush, the plant who do not transfer the nutrients and energy they have mined to any other organism but themselves.  They are also individuals.  This sense of “self” they all exhibit … where does it come from?


“Narrative” may richly characterize the phenomenon in its human apparition, but it doesn’t explain it in others, and that means it is probably not the ultimate ground in us either.  The universal extent of “subjectivity” is a clue to where the solution lies.  For IF the phenomenon of the self is found everywhere, the source of “selfness” must exist not only before human narrative and before the evolved nervous systems of the higher animals … it must exist even prior to the pyramid of terrestrial life itself. 

I ask rhetorically: Wherever could that be?


Self as subject of existential energy


I propose that the gravity-like “organismic individuality” we experience in living things, is in fact, an expression of a universal, ever-present property of every particle of matter itself.  It is not something welded to or added to matter, nor is it a “result” of matter’s mechanism, or the emergent forms that evolve from it.  I believe this “existentially thirsty” particle-based individuality is as intrinsic to matter as a dimension like length is to any extended thing.  Material particles are energetically driven to survive by aggregating and integrating with other like particles.  Matter is intrinsically communitarian. This energy, I maintain, is not merely a characteristic, it is the very nature of all material reality … and material reality is all there is.  Material energy is an existential dynamism that creates the arrow of time by insisting on existing through self-complex­i­fi­cation. 


It is indisputable that all living things are driven to survive.  IF there is a dynamism, a drive, it has to bear reference to a center.  A drive cannot be anchored in nothing.  If there is a drive, something must be driven.  That, I claim, is the primordial source of “subjectivity” in the universe.  It is rooted in matter itself.  


 In a final step, as this existentially self-orientated matter complexifies in its emergent forms, the original elements submerge their individuality in the unity of the newly evolved individual.  An example: at the atomic and chemical level, protons with their electrons coalesce to become oxygen in the heart of stars.  Two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen become water.  Water looks nothing like either of its components.  Are we deceived?  Is water not wet …?  That new “thing,” then, is the cumulative gathering of the energy-generated “subjectivity” of its de-individuated components.  The ensuing composite is a molecule of water; it is no longer either gas.  It is a new individual re-invented as a function of the integration of its parts.  This submergence of the individuality of the components in the single identity of the composite is an invariable feature of every example of emergence — whether living or not — throughout cosmic space and time.  It is a physical thing that is repeated at the chemical, and biological levels, and virtually at the sociological level.


To those who would say that the drive has no center, I would answer in that case it would have to be borne by the whole as a whole.  IF everything (as opposed to every thing) is the “driven,” then everything would have remained eternally as it is.  There would have been no change, no evolution, because there is no gradient — no differentiation — within an absolutely homogeneous totality.  Existential change (evolution) occurs because one part of the whole finds a way to transcend its current state by integrating with others.  And that can happen only because each particle bears the burden of the drive to survive. 


This scenario is completely different from Dennett’s, but in my opinion, it is more faithful to the evidence.  Material energy in itself — in all its states, whether primitive or highly developed — is a living dynamism, an existential self-embrace that manifests its potential in evolutionary emergence and the virtual realities of human culture.  The cosmo-ontological basis for emergence and “meaning” on the human plane, therefore, is to be found prior to the mechanisms that matter utilizes for its magic tricks.  This energy is naturally creative.  It produces new things … and new behaviors that emanate from those new things.  This version of materialism I call “transcendent materialism.”


My vision is not only compatible with what science has discovered, it also squares with reality as we experience it.   Dennett’s does not … that is why he has had almost two decades of vigorous reaction to his robotic metaphors.  People disagree with him vehemently not because they believe in the existence of “spirit,” — his critics are cognitive scientists — but because it is not the way we experience things.  He will counter that we experience the sun rising and setting, too, and our experience has been proven to misrepresent where the motion actually resides.  Reality, he declares triumphantly, is counter-intuitive.  But the examples don’t match.  Heliocentrism is a proven fact.  And once the reality of the spinning earth circling the sun is explained and understood, people can readily imagine it and they adjust.  Both are views of physical motion.  In the case of Dennett’s zombies and robopeople, however, there has been no adjustment because, besides there being no proof, the examples do not ring true to human experience.  We experience an abyss of difference between life and non-life.  To say that life is simply our way of mis-perceiv­ing the random fluctuations of a dead matter is a prejudicial interpretation of a “fact” that is still waiting to be discovered.  Dennett’s dismissive explanations of a lush and profoundly engaging human experience simply do not “compute.”


By my premises, a charged material energy, innately characterized by the drive to survive, has produced all the mechanisms and combinations necessary for its “purposes” (to continue existing).  These “mechanisms” in my view, may turn out to be the very same that Dennett claims science will discover at some time in the future.  How matter does things doesn’t affect my case, because the nature of matter precedes its operation and explains subjectivity.  What it does takes priority over and guides how it does it.  A richly human virtual “self” may emerge from the mechanism of narrative, but all mechanisms are grounded in the primordial “subjectivity” that is the anchor of the survival drive.


Of oaks and acorns


Dennett implies that mechanisms exist because matter is inertly mechanical.  But that’s a non-sequitur.  There is nothing that precludes the possibility that a primitive “intentionality to exist” — the very energy of matter itself as I have been defining it — may be what is responsible for producing the mechanisms that accomplish its goal.  This hypothesis does not constitute a teleology, because the word “intentionality” here is a metaphor.  There is no “purpose” involved.  I am not talking about a choice or a plan; and by “subjectivity” I do not mean a consciousness of any kind.  It is a blind, non-rational, mono-focused, paroxysmal self-embrace — an urge that is locked on survivalHow can I be so sure what it’s like?  Because not only do I see it all around me in every living thing, but I have it in myself, and so do you.  I am a specimen of matter’s energy and I know how this involuntary reflex for self-preservation functions in me.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with my mind or my will … or my species!  It functions even if I am in a coma.  It is similar to a myriad of other tasks that are accomplished by the organic substrate of my body mindlessly, apart from any input of knowledge or intention on my part.  It is an urge … and it dominates.  It is everywhere, observable in all living things and, I claim, explains the creative transcendence we see in evolutionary emergence at pre-life levels.  Spinoza called it the conatus sese conservandi, “the urge for self-preservation,” and everything obeys it.  In our universe, conatus rules.  It explains everything.  


Dennett’s thin and brittle matter has to explain away life and consciousness and art and culture as an illusion of some type — some form of misperception on our part, like the way we misperceived the motion of the earth as the rising of the sun.  This is emphatically true of the “realities” of human culture — the meanings and poetic “narratives” that we have used for eons to construct the intentional human world in which we live.  Matter has done this.  How could matter even randomly stumble upon a combination of its own constituent elements capable of conjuring a symbolic universe unless it possessed the potential that would allow it to happen.  With this hypothesis we are closer to a simple one-factor, Ockham-approved solution than we are with Dennett’s tin-man “zombie” that just looks like it’s alive and capable of creating art … but can’t really tell, and doesn’t care


An ironic twist is that Dennett’s arguments run in both directions.  If he can claim that the perceptions of a zombie or a robot cannot be distinguished from what we experience as living sentient organisms, then the reverse is also true.  There is nothing that proves that life cannot be present in the elements of mindless mechanisms and in potentia even before its observable emergence.  The presence of mechanism does not prove that the mechanism did not materialize under the intense pressure of an existential self-embrace — the drive to survive.


Some may respond by saying I have simply retro-fitted primitive matter with a dualist “spirit” that I deny to its later versions.  But I believe the objection comes from a “dualist” projection.  The objectors cannot get past the apparent inertness of matter.  Despite my clearly defining dynamic matter as one single unalloyed thing, they imagine “life” as a separate “something” glued onto or injected into an inert matter.  But any such imagery is gratuitous.  There is no evidence for it.  It is a result of the internalization of the Platonic-Cartesian spirit-matter paradigm.  A mechanistic view of matter like Dennett’s is a direct heir of that dualism.  Historically the existence of “spirit” implied the existence of an inert matter.  But they are correlates, so the inverse is true as well.  Start with an inert matter and you evoke its siamese twin.  I believe Dennett is trapped by this dualism; he chose the reductionist side of the coin and vainly tries to recover lost unity by exterminating the other side.  It won’t work, and besides, it’s not necessary.  The living unity of reality is primordial and doesn’t need to be proven.  There is no “spirit.”  Matter is exclusively responsible for what it has become.  What you see is what is really there.


To the argument that physics sees no evidence of the presence of this energy in unevolved matter, I ask, how then do you explain the atomic integrations that produced the elegant table of the elements all of which express their own unique properties even though built only of primitive sub-atomic particles; how do you explain the emergence of molecules, from simple to complex to self-replicating, to viruses, none of which a bio-chemist would call alive and all of which are increasing complexifications and manifestations of a cumulative individuality … and absolutely necessary to the later emergence of “life?


Here’s an analogy (but please note, it’s only an analogy):  the forest floor under a large oak tree is strewn with thousands of acorns.  What sign of life do you see?  They are like stones.  Cut one open and it’s still like a stone.  You will see nothing until you know the “code,” i.e., the mechanism of transformation  The “code” is acorn + moist earth + sufficient warmth + sunlight + time.  All those variables must be there for the equation to work, and an acorn will emerge into an oak sapling, otherwise it remains as dead as a stone.  But, an acorn is not really a stone.  Try using the “code” with a real stone, and nothing happens.  Universal matter is one thing or the other.  Dennett says it is like a stone.  I say it is like an acorn.  But then he has to explain how this stunning raucous spectacle of life and human artistry we see right before our eyes is not pure illusion.

The potential, like the oak in the stony acorn, is an energy that was always there — it is a real potential … for a reality … that does not yet exist.  


The ultimate question  


We have been able to identify the existence of a universal, creative conatus as the source of every emergent thing in the universe and the ground of subjectivity and human culture.


But the characteristic primitiveness of this universal “urge,” no less present in the most insignificant quark or electron as in myself, seems to bear no similarity to what our ancient religious “narratives” projected.  In the West, our ancestors imagined themselves spawned by a personal Parent, like us in every way except for the extent of “his” power.  This “God” observed the unfolding sequence of events and reacted as we imagined he might.  He was internally in touch with our hopes and fears.  He was powerful to intervene for us, but he had his own needs which served as conditions for his help and would reward or punish us accordingly.  Such narratives mimicked human parental and authority relationships.  It was natural.


But we have learned that the force responsible for our human life is not like a parent at all.  It is very primitive … as primitive and undeveloped as anything we have ever encountered on this earth … and it is “cyclopean,” one-eyed … mono-focused and to us, mindless.  It is more like a seed than a “person.”  The fact that these primitive bundles of energy have over eons and eons complexified to elaborate “mind” in humans as the current pinnacle of a vast pyramid of emergent forms, is as baffling as it is astonishing.  We spontaneously look for “mind” in the elemental building blocks themselves.  It is as natural as believing that we were brought into this world by a parent.


This is a conundrum.  I love being human, and having my friends and family, and all the things I do under the sun.  I am naturally grateful for what has made this all possible.  But it seems I cannot relate to material energy because what material energy has become in me now can only relate interpersonally … and material energy, as far as I can see, is not a person … and yet, I am a person.


All emergent forms are only and always made of the same primitive constituents.  Evolution does not mean that primitive matter creates something else, like a new kind of matter — life from non-lifeRather, evolution means that matter such as it is, has morphed its own primitive driven self into a new form and function, for there is nothing present in any emergent form that is anything other than the same primitive components. Thus all “things” in the material universe are emergent forms of the very same dynamic origins.  The universe is like an organism … and what it has become in us, is what we experience as ourselves.  We are nothing but material energy … and we are human beings.


Matter is unfathomable as mechanism alone.  We and what we do are real.  The fact that the human organism is simply pristine matter means that existentially energized matter has the potential for being human.  You can’t argue forward from potential to product — from “cause to effect.”  But once the end product is realized, it is a tautology to reason from the effect back to the potential.  If matter became something, it had to have been capable of becoming that something.  That is what continues to evoke in us the sense that matter is a mystery — meaning precisely what the ancient Greek word mysterion meant: a layered, multidimensional reality where you step into one dimension and you suddenly find yourself in another or many others … like a set of Russian dolls. 


So we continue to grope after what we are.  When we look into the past, however,  we don’t see a recognizable parent but rather a self-transcending energy that we humans understand thoroughly: a potential, a power, realized in us — matter with meaning.  We understand meaning; it’s our stock-in-trade, and we create symbols to work with it.  “Parent” is a metaphor, an evocative human symbol that means not what physics says about quarks and gluons at the beginning of time, but what they became — what they (we) really are here and now — human quarks and gluons.  The most important legacy of materialism is that if humans are matter then matter is thoroughly human. Yes indeed, we are dealing with counter-intuitive misperceptions: … we think we are looking at quark-gluon mechanisms and they are actually human beings. 

            What else are we looking at that we might not see?



Tony Equale

Dec 5, 2010



  1. This is simply a lovely, exhilarating post, Tony. Thank you.

    One of the things that I find so unfortunate is that thinkers like Dennett seem to believe that if we are going to dismiss our anthropomorphic authoritarian man-like and rather unforgiving God, the only intelligent alternative is scientific reductionism to the lowest level. And that is not the choice.

    Over the last several centuries, the view that all valid science must be reduced to the laws of physics has been seriously eroded. Today, even physicists recognize that when a new level of organization emerges, even on the level of atoms and particles, new laws emerge. The new laws don’t contradict or supersede the laws on lower levels of organization, but they do go beyond them.

    Dennett would have us believe that we must choose between God and his one-dimensional mechanical world as Newton understood it. Even our own experience must be sacrificed as an epiphenemnon, as a mirage.

    I do not, as you know, believe in “god.” And I am one of those people who find in science a glimpse of the transcendent, a sense of the unity of all things, even some sense that despite so much evidence suggesting otherwise, the world is evolving as it should. Others find it in poetry, in music, art.

    So like you, I am not objecting to Dennett’s thesis because it eliminates God. I’m objecting to it because his science is so fundamentalist. And frankly, I think, so out of date.

    Addendum: I’ve said this before, but for years I have pondered the mind-body problem. How does mere matter produce thought and feeling? not what are the physical mechanisms of the nervous system and the brain that support it, but how does matter produce something as seemingly ephemeral as the mental processes of which I myself am aware? I did not expect to get a glimmer of a solution to this question in my life time, though I did think it was parallel to the matter/energy problem solved by Einstein. The idea that matter is not essentially inert, is not simply a non-responsive mechanically manipulated blob, but instead is intrinsically dynamic is hugely enlightening. And liberating. Thank you, again, for introducing it to me.


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