Memento, homo, quia pulvis es …

 If “spirit” exists, and has the qualities and character it is said to have, then the existence of matter makes no sense at all, and you have to explain it.  The old Platonists at least had the intellectual honesty to admit that matter was an anomaly in a spiritual world and they came up with the theory that it was a dungeon of punishment for an alleged “fall” from the world of ideas.  To become fully human, you had to escape matter (your body) and get back home.  Their offspring, the neo-Platonists 500 years later, were more sophisticated about it.  They claimed matter was “non-being” in the process of being “conquered” by being.  To be fully human you had to conquer your portion of it, your body, and fill it with spirit.  The program for “spiritualizing” your flesh was called “spirituality.”  The Greek Christians were inspired by neo-Platonism and, although they were restricted by the Hebrew insistence that creation was “good,” they still treated “matter” as a vile corrupted appendage that needed to be “spiritualized” through ritual and ascetical purification to make it human.  So, the ancients of our Greek dualist tradition all agreed that matter was a serious problem … it was a “spiritual” problem because it caused problems for the spirit.  Matter for all of them was real, powerful and fully alive — hell bent on the wrong things.  It was matter that accounted for evil in the world.  Spirit had to struggle with matter because matter was the agent of evil and could derail our spiritual destiny.

But with the onset of modern times, matter ceased being a “problem,” because by reducing it to utter lifeless inertness, supine before the awesome power of technology (mind), its “spiritual” significance was eviscerated entirely.  Technology took the spiritual struggle out of dominating matter; it ceased requiring personal engagement.  Moderns are complete “idealists,” and reductionism is the flip-side of idealism.  They don’t call matter “corrupt” and corrupting, that’s old wives’ tales.  Matter is no longer evil, it’s worse.  For them matter is treated as if it did not exist.  Nothing but “mind” really exists.  Humans are “minds” created by a “Mind-God,” and the presence of matter as the universal matrix is simply a minor (temporary)  glitch whose significance can be effectively ignored because technology (mind) has or will shortly dispense with it.  Matter does not matter.  We no longer need to “worry” about it.  It is simply manipulated out of the way, or manipulated for our whims and pleasures by our technology.  It’s treated as an obstacle to be eliminated … like the way time and distance disappear before the magic of high-speed travel and electronic communication.  Matter to the moderns is not real, it’s a trivial impediment to our gratifications with no intrinsic significance or meaning whatsoever. 

Modern religious dualists share this perspective. Two recent and otherwise excellent books by Paul Knitter and Harvey Cox, both focused on updating Christian thinking, do not even consider the issue of our material existence.  Of all the new knowledge and various cultural factors they use to confront and re-evaluate our tradition, the discoveries of the  material sciences and organic evolution are completely left out of both.  To me, these theologians seem lost in the mind.  Is it insignificant to them that we now know it was matter that evolved mind to serve its needs not the other way around?  It’s so easy to get lost in our heads.  And then we can’t understand what people are, and what they have to do … and so we construct societies and economic systems that are anti-human.  Our dualist religions are a cause of this mis-understanding.

 It means that our human cultural products, and religion is one of them, have no context, no ground. They just float there … like they hang from sky hooks.  Knitter for example, relates to “creation” from the point of view of a “God” who is love.  But beautiful as that is, please notice, it still retains the traditional image of the human being as a mind, the product of another mental agent — “God” — another mind.  The flesh, the body, the earth, even as medium, is left out.  It’s as if science and the world it has revealed over the last two centuries never existed.  The actual organic, material etiology for the entire panoply of human activities is simply omitted.  There is a Haitian proverb that says, “Behind the mountains, there are more mountains.”  For these cerebral theologians, there are only the near mountains they can see.  How can you talk about mysticism, as Knitter does, and not take the universal picture into account — the farther mountains and more mountains that stretch on out to the sea — the ground on which we stand?   Even if you really thought a “mental” God created by using material evolution only as a means for other “mental” ends … why isn’t the choice of means itself a significant element of your analysis of who this “God” is and why he does what he does?  Matter is ignored.  I am totally mystified.

To all this I respond: Given the utter incompatibility between matter and spirit, there is only one possible explanation why matter exists at all — and that is because it has to exist, there is nothing else.  There is no spirit, for if there were, there would be nothing else but spirit.  Matter is here because it is all there is; matter is existence itself.  It was matter that produced mind, not the other way around … mind is a material function.  From this you can get a sense of exactly how alienated we are from ourselves.  We have been “turned around” a full 1800.  “We turn the world upside down and then stand on our heads to look at it.”  Of course we are constantly frustrated — we have no idea who the hell we are. We live in a DisneyLand of the mind.  We have no respect for the sacred material matrix in which we live and move and have our being … which spawned us and owns uswhose family name we bear.   As a result, we’ve lost our sense of belonging, and the meaning of life, and we sleep-walk into never-neverland of the “mind” in search of it.  But what we come back with from that “other world” is a fairy-tale that evaporates like a dream at the “awakening” — i.e., when matter reasserts its proprietary rights in a way that cannot be denied — at the death event … when we are called home to the bosom of our “mother.”  “… et in pulverem reverteris.”

We must begin to re-interpret our religious traditions radically.  They encapsulate a great deal of human wisdom gleaned and garnered through the millennia, and they encourage us to a profound love of existence.  But their vision of that reality was flawed because they lacked the tools to see it clearly.  That’s nothing new.  It’s happened to us many times before.  Imagine what a shock it was for us to discover that the earth revolved around the sun and not the sun around the earth.  We still can hardly believe it when we watch the sun “rise” and “set” everyday for our delighted eyes as it has since the beginning of the human appreciation of the beautiful.  The same is true of our understanding of ourselves and “God.”  We are matter’s energy and so is “God” because matter’s energy is all there is.  There is nothing else.  There is no remainder.  Matter made mind … mind did not make matter.  And in us matter continues to make an ever clearer and more perfect “mind” with the love, compassion and respect for reality-as-it-is that our heritage inspires. 

 We must own up to our family name, and take pride in it.  We have to stop despising our grubby and grasping origins.  We are earth … we come from earth and unto earth we return.  We can trust it.  It spawned us and gave us eyes to gaze in wonder at this raucous “experiment in green.”  If we are already the result of such awesome marvels, what future must it hold in store?  As material energy we have been part of this creative evolving “family” for 13.7 billion years and maybe even more … we will always be part of it wherever it goes and whatever it does. 

Tony Equale

P.S.  The books referred to above are:

Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I could not be a Christian, Oneworld pr. Oxford, 2009

Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009


3 comments on “MEMENTO, HOMO, QUIA PULVIS ES …

  1. Tony – thank you again for a lovely post. As you know, I am in total agreement that modern theologians who try to come to terms with modern science without coming to terms with dualism have got a problem. And it’s not just an interesting philosophical dilemma. It is one which is fundamentally alienating.

    But I do have a problem. I understand your point when you say that reductionism is the flip side of the view that matter is corrupt. But what are you saying when you suggest – if I understand correctly – that this position is idealist? I cannot see that the whole endeavor of science is to conquer matter in the sense you describe. To understand it, yes. To participate in the creation of processes which it can accomplish, yes. But can to explain further, or perhaps give an example illustrating science treating matter as if it does not exist? this is not, in my view, the same thing as saying that there is much that we can effect, change, and yes, even in some sense, create.


  2. Tony Equale says:

    Terry, hi!

    Thanks for your comment. Your reaction is very pertinent because my post uses ter-minoology that may not be familiar to non-philosophers. You give me an opportunity to expand on a fairly terse statement of the issue.

    First let me explain that idealism is a philosophical term for metaphysical systems that characterize reality as the product of “mind.” There are many versions of it across the spectrum from mild to radical. Dualism itself is an idealism because its dominant category is “spirit,” which is mind. In the modern era, the reduction of matter to its inert but mathematically identifiable properties meant that matter did not run the show, except in the absence of any activity of mind. “Matter did not matter” does not mean in the physical sense, but rather in the sense of its heuristic (guiding, ruling) role. In the ancient dualism, matter had an (evil) character and intent of its own. Matter contended against the spirit. In the modern, post-Cartesian version, matter is metaphysically (and morally) neutral … it is supine … utterly subordinate to mind. Once mind “puts its mind to it” it will dominate matter completely.

    The post was a description of the “evolution of dualism” from a system that reflected the battle between good and evil, light and darkness, into a system that denied that matter was a principle of evil, or indeed with any intrinsic active character whatsoever – reduced to a mathematically measurable inertness. This reflected the modern religious belief that “God” as creative mind was all in all. There was no rival in the form of a rebellious or “sinful” matter. The absolute unchallenged dominance of “mind” was then recapitualted at the human level in the absolute unchallenged power of science and its technological applications (mind) over matter. Matter cannot actively resist mind, because matter is dead. Matter is inert and lifeless; mind alone is living, active and creative. Matter being inert can only resist as inertia. It’s the resistance of a dead body.

    So when I say that “reductionism is the flipside of idealism” I mean that radical idealist systems, like those that emerged after Descartes in Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant and Hegel (and many others after Hegel, like Schopenhauer, Emerson, Peirce and Bergson) that identify all creativity with “mind,” logically and necessarily imply that “matter” is not actively creative (or even actively resistant) in any way. And naturally, vice-versa is true as well – once you define “matter” as inert, lifeless and non-resistant, all “life” and creativity can only belong to “mind.” Or “spirit.”

    Now a materialist system such as the one I promote says exactly the opposite. It says that matter evolved “mind” not as a derivative of its inertness, but rather as a derivative of a necessary living potential resident in matter … that up to now we have failed to acknowledge. The biologically proven fact that mind emerged as product of material evolution proves that “matter” was always more than has been claimed through the millennia. As a matter of fact, there is no “spirit,” exactly as science seems to have been saying for a very long time. There is no evidence for the existence of a separate and separable “mind.” What we have been calling “spirit” is nothing but the flowering of the dynamic living potential resident in matter itself that explains everything that exists at whatever level and of whatever quality. Matter, in other words, cannot be reduced to its inert manifestations as studied by physics alone. Matter must be judged by what it does at all levels. Physical reductionism can only work in an idealist system. If matter is utterly inert, then “life” can only be explained by the presence of another “principle” namely “spirit,” or “mind” in one form or another.

    I hope this covers the bases. If not, let me know and I’ll give it another try.


    • Thank you, Tony. Your explanation does make what you mean a lot clearer for a non-philosopher like me.

      I once said that you think more like a philosopher than a scientist. That was not to suggest you didn’t understand science but that your first impulse is as a philosopher. My question illustrated, I suspect, that my first impulse, on the other hand, is to process things as a scientist. Both perspectives are valid and valuable, but they are often just slightly different. As you know, your “materialist” perspective, as you put it, has helped filled in a gap in my own world view that has been yawning for decades. It gave me the final nail in the coffin for a dualism that made me most uncomfortable but for which I couldn’t find any way around — until now.

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