Reductionism vs. Transcendent Materialism

 This post is intended as one response among many in a multi-logue of commentators who have responded to the previous post, “Just because …” Aside from its content, it provides an extended platform for added commentaries if people want to continue the discussion.  But it is also intended to clarify the parameters within which this blog will function.

Among many other things, this blog, from its inception, has been dedicated, quite self-con­sciously, to materialism. But I have been very insistent from the start to have those who wish to dialog with me understand that what mainstream discourse has traditionally called “materialism” is really a truncated version of dualism, and as such was not what I meant.  “Materialism” in the “modern” (i.e.,. traditional ,Cartesian, positive scientistic) sense, is what is left when you eliminate “spirit” from your spirit-matter dualism but do not change the definition of either matter or spirit.

I start from the assumption that there is no “spirit.” This has ramifications for culture in many areas of interest, but on the question of the nature of matter, what it meant for Western thought was that the principle of vitality and consciousness had disappeared.  Matter and Spirit in the Platonic-Cartesian universe are a dyad.  Together they explained everything … from “God” to the most fundamental components of the material universe, be they matter or energy.  Every attempt to separate them and imagine the universe in terms of just one of them alone always foundered on the reefs of reality.  Hegel and others’ attempts to explain everything as a function of idea (thought, mind), while logically it cannot be indisputably disproven, does not convincingly explain our experience of reality and has been effectively abandoned.  The forms that matter has evolved appear to follow processes that have nothing whatsoever to do with purpose and plan which are the earmarks of the operation of “mind.”  (There are justifications omitted here that I don’t want to pursue in this short summary.)

The corresponding attempt to explain everything as a function of Cartesian “matter” which is defined, to this day, as “that which can be acted upon but cannot act,” (and variously as “matter as it functions at the level of physics and chemistry”) ran into a dead end as well, because it meant trying to explain life and consciousness as a function of some complicated arrangement of the equivalent of dead, inert billiard balls. The most extreme version of this view, expressed by Daniel Dennett, claims that indeed life and consciousness, like computers, only seem like life and consciousness, but they are nothing but illusions that impact us at the macro level … not unlike the way a movie film is really nothing but a series of still photos which, when run in sequence at the proper speed appear to move. If a robot had been programmed to appear to have consciousness, indeed, there would be no way of knowing whether it did or not, and similarly, we ourselves may be so programmed that even in our own case there is no way of knowing whether we are really conscious or only think we are conscious. There is no way to tell the difference between us and a robot or a zombie.  Partisans of this position have been heard saying, typically, that the “cherished characteristics of consciousness … are most likely illusory.”

This version of materialism has been criticized because it also fails to account for experience. The reality of our universally experienced individual self-consciousness is not so easily dismissed by Dennett’s thought experiment.  Critics of Dennett have said that in attempting to eliminate “the ghost in the machine” instead of showing that the emperor has no clothes, Dennett really ends up declaring, most implausibly, that the clothes have no emperor.  Sam Harris also hovers like a drone in this neighborhood, suggesting as he does in Waking Up that the self is an illusion.  But people know who they are and they know what they experience about their own conscious identity.  The subjective self is real … transitory, highly determined and ephemeral, yes, but illusory, no. But lest anyone mistake my drift, I hasten to add immediately that a real self does not in any way imply a separable “soul” constructed of a “second substance” called “spirit.

The confusions surrounding this issue have recently been given a much-appreciated clarification by Berkeley philosopher John B. Searle in the October 9, 2014 issue of the New York Review of Books in an extended review of two books dealing with exactly this subject.  The title of the article is “What Your Computer Can’t Know” p.52ff, and I recommend to anyone interested in this issue that they read it.

In contrast to the idealist or materialist monisms derived from attempting to split the Cartesian dualist dyad, I have consistently proposed an entirely new definition of matter, an hypothesis derived from a more faithful perception of the phenomena. Recognizing that the very word “matter” is overlaid with the inert mechanistic connotations given to it by a truncated Cartesian dualism, I said, as far back as 2008 in An Unknown God that there is no more matter or spirit … that neither of those words has meaning any more, but that we are faced with one reality, call it what you will, I give it various names: matter’s energy, material energy, existence, being-here and the overall metaphysical system “transcendent materialism” (and there may be more labels to come) … whatever it is called, it is one single homogeneous substance that has the potential for all the behavior that we actually see it performing, wherever and whatever it is doing and by means of whatever organism it has evolved into — at all levels — the physical, chemical, biological, psychological, sociological.  An element in this acknowledgement is the recognition that every organism of whatever kind, and however capable of varying behavior, is an evolved form of this one homogeneous thing — matter’s transcendent energy — which comprises the entire universe. It is this awareness that inspired the choice of the label “transcendent materialism.” Material energy over the last 13.7 billion years, has transcended itself over and over and over again, evolving into organisms which at this point in the timeline of universal history display an amazing range of behavior, some of which, like life and consciousness, do not make it immediately apparent how they can be rooted in the same matter that at an earlier stage of evolution displayed only the capacities studied by physics and chemistry.  But the phenomena require an acknowledgement: if there is life and consciousness in the universe, and the universe is exclusively made up of one substance — material energy — then material energy has the potential for evolving versions of itself that exhibit life and consciousness.

Such an approach, I want to point out, amounts to little more than a tautology. It is a simple identity that confirms its validity; it is more faithful to the phenomena.  For if, according to the hypothesis, all things are material, then whatever I see matter doing, is also a material function emanating from a “matter” that is capable of it.  That’s an a priori derived from the materialist hypothesis.  The mystery as to how material energy can so re-arrange itself and exploit its various resources and potentials to produce effects that seem diametrically opposed to what we once thought it was, is something for science to solve.  My contribution is the fidelity of the hypothesis to the phenomena, not the science.  The philosophical hypothesis I propose is open to science disproving it, but it is not within the competence of science to dismiss it as an hypothesis beforehand and without proof, calling on obsolete dualist Cartesian prejudicial premises about inert matter as grounds for the dismissal.

Matter, phenomenologically speaking, is directly experienced behaving, variously, as much like mind as like billiard balls. Matter’s energy, in our human organisms, displays the characteristics of consciousness … in billiard balls, the characteristics of inert kiln-fired ceramic spheres.  Neither display is privileged, and neither can claim a priori to be the exclusive domain of material reality to the exclusion of the other.  The resolution of what appears to be contrary phenomena emanating from the same material energy must be left a posteriori to science, but not to a philosophical maneuver calling itself “science,” that has already prejudicially reduced matter to what is studied only by physics and chemistry.  The attempt to do that is not science, it is a philosophy and hypothesis called reductionism.

The transcendent materialist hypothesis explains everything, which is, after all, what a metaphysical hypothesis is supposed to do, and it has a right to be tested.  Science cannot pause at the doorstep and even before beginning its work, claim that all non-physical, non-chemical phenomena are illusory (or, for die-hard dualists, not material). Those who claim to do that are not doing science, they are grinding axes.

The transcendent materialist hypothesis is truly minimalist in the sense that it simply follows through on the phenomena.  It is rather reductionism that has pretensions for it would declare matter to be inert and unconscious even before science begins its investigations.

There is a another extended review in that same issue of The New York Review of Books on the irreducibility of the subject matter of the various disciplines.  The author is Thomas Nagel reviewing a book by T.M. Scanlon.  The article is called “Listening to Reason.”  It divides our pursuit of truth into “domains,” and it confirms Frank Lawlor’s observation that scientists themselves have abandoned the reductionist position as prejudicial and unfaithful to experience and to the discoveries made in their various domains.  I recommend that article.

This blog is dedicated to exploring the hypothesis of a Transcendent Materialism. There are many areas for exploration, from the critique of the proper way of articulating the problem, through an examination of how others have dealt with it (or failed to deal with it) throughout our intellectual / cultural / religious history, to the practical implications for our moral and social and political structures of this new view of existence (or the consequences of ignoring it or applying it improperly). Scientists, for their part, could use the blog to try to prove or disprove the hypothesis or provide enough data to show that it is inadequate as stated and needs to be nuanced, modified or perhaps even thoroughly re-conceived and re-configured.

All sorts of angles, positive and negative, can be pursued here. But one thing this blog will not tolerate is the prejudicial reductionist dismissal of the hypothesis ad liminem on truncated Cartesian materialist grounds.

6 comments on “Reductionism vs. Transcendent Materialism

  1. rjjwillis says:

    I am in the midst of cataract surgery; I have not been able to read your last two postings till today. I think there is a lesson here: even psychologists depend on their own lenses. Each one to his own perception.

    Some years ago my practical father asked me what I was studying. I replied by describing the position of the solipsists: all reality is simply a projection of one’s own inner world. When I finished, my father responded by slapping me in the face. As he turned to leave, he said, “Stop hitting yourself!”

    I experience myself as undoubtedly material. I also experience myself as transcending my individuality, i.e. I am more than myself. For me that adds up to transcendent materialism. Anything else that I may conclude is simply a first order abstraction, one that moves away from the given data of my experience. So much then, for me, for reductionism and for spiritualism. They can be fun to speculate about just as long as I acknowledge that I am playing.

    Till I see you again in person … Bob

  2. Ian Fraser says:

    Hi Tony,
    I took some time to comment on this post because, while I felt something was missing, I wasn’t sure what it was. I was also unsure that I would be adding anything of value, even if I could identify what I thought was missing. Upon re-reading, several factors became more apparent:

    1. I am commenting on a post which appears to be mainstream to the purpose of your blog site, and following several preceding posts on the same theme. As such, I am a late entrant, missing the “story so far” on why you so strongly assert the materialist position. The first paragraph clarification of what you mean by ‘materialism’ is therefore a boon which prevents me going off on a ‘truncated’ dualist tangent. Thank you for directing your readers so clearly away from such a tangent. Consistently, your following paragraphs emphasise problems with the Platonic-Cartesian definitions of spirit and matter, including your very succinct demolition of Dennett’s attempt to dispose of the everyday experience of conscious self.
    ‘The subjective self is real … transitory, highly determined and ephemeral, yes, but illusory, no.’

    2. You immediately follow up your assertion of the reality of the subjective self with an equally assertive: ‘I hasten to add immediately that a real self does not in any way imply a separable “soul” constructed of a “second substance” called “spirit.”’ And we, your readers do not have long to wait for your proposed definition of matter, a definition which encompasses all the characteristics of the phenomenal world without recourse to the old dualism of matter and spirit:
    ‘… we are faced with one reality, … I give it various names: matter’s energy, material energy, existence, being-here and the overall metaphysical system “transcendent materialism” … whatever it is called, it is one single homogeneous substance that has the potential for all the behavior that we actually see it performing, wherever and whatever it is doing and by means of whatever organism it has evolved into — at all levels — the physical, chemical, biological, psychological, sociological.’

    3. Your elaboration starts with acknowledgement that your approach is actually a tautology, however one you see as justified because ‘It is a simple identity that confirms its validity; it is more faithful to the phenomena.’ More faithful than what? The context indicates more faithful than the matter-spirit dualist perspective. Consistently, you argue that matter, as you define it, can behave like mind, in a way impossible for billiard balls. This is an elaboration of your definition, not a justification. Indeed, you state that it is not for philosophy to resolve contrary phenomena of your hypothesis; such is the function of science – provided that science can free itself of Cartesian pre-conceptions. But this is where I feel there is a gap. It might well be that the rational justification of your philosophical position will be developed over later posts, quite apart from any empirical support or even “proof” which might develop from scientific exploration of the hypothesis. But to take seriously your hypothesis, it would be encouraging to know in what way is it more rational than the existing Platonic-Cartesian dualist explanation of two forms of existence – matter and spirit – to account for the observed phenomena of the human world? What is the rational basis of your initial assumption? – ‘I start from the assumption that there is no “spirit.”’

    4. While you do not offer a justification as such, you do support your hypothesis with reference to its minimalist character. A significant advantage your hypothesis has over the dualist perspective is that ‘[it] is truly minimalist in the sense that it simply follows through on the phenomena.’ As Ockham argued, this makes for a better hypothesis than one which is more complex, as for example, the dualist matter/spirit explanation. The simpler the proposed hypothesis, the better the explanation.

    5. Another factor supporting your hypothesis is how closely it aligns with the strictly monist advaita of the Upaniṣads, of which I am reminded because, at present, I happen to be reading M. Hiriyanna’s Outlines of Indian Philosophy. Because the Upaniṣads are believed by Hindus to be revealed truth (śruti), no further rational justification is required – a religious belief that is irrelevant in our discussion. Putting aside any belief in revealed truth, similarity with an ancient perspective from another culture does strengthen the feasibility of your hypothesis adding weight, if not actual validity.

    6. I note that my comment follows the traditional analytical method of Western philosophy while your post reflects more of a synthesising approach, as is found more often in Asian systems of thought. I must admit an emotional bias in favour of synthesising thought processes. However, after more than 45 years working in science and engineering, I find it difficult to get away from using an analytical approach to find or construct an explanation of observed phenomena. I feel this will also be a challenge for any scientist who sets out to resolve any ‘contrary phenomena’ in your philosophical hypothesis.

    • tonyequale says:


      Thanks for your comment. Recently a friend wrote to me and suggested:

      “Material is subject to the law of entropy, but energy remains since energy is neither created nor destroyed. Hence, I suggest that we may truly live in a spiritual universe since energy could be characterized, analogically, as spirit or Spirit. Thus, my material form may one day cease, but my energy will live on.”

      I think the following response of mine, while it doesn’t specifically address your observation about the “gap,” expands on what role the transcendent materialist monism I espouse is being called on to play.

      As suggested in the post, once you acknowledge that there are not two different diametrically opposed “substances” (matter and spirit) that comprise being, you are finally rid of the problem of how these two things could possibly have come into being to begin with, and then, how they could possibly function together. But now you are faced with the new problem of explaining reality in terms of some kind of monism, i.e., that there is only one kind of “stuff” that must explain phenomena that up until now have been considered of two different orders of being altogether. Since our former categories of matter and spirit were developed to, between them, explain all the different kinds of phenomena there are, we naturally think that reality must be either one, spirit, or the other, matter, and a kind of truncated dualism endures resulting in a either a Berkeley-type idealism where matter is illusion and “becoming” is a function of thought, purpose and plan, or in a reductionist materialism where life and consciousness are illusion and all becoming is a matter of meaningless random serendipity.

      But if we can get rid of the two word-concepts (matter-spirit) altogether, we might have a better chance of not being dragged back into the categorical imagery that divided our thinking and made us believe that our organisms were split in two and that there is another world besides this one … making us schizoid in our morality and our spirituality and hopes for survival. But this is not easy to do because these categories are like cultural lenses, and we tend to see everything through them so that the very phenomena we witness come into our brain already pre-classified as one kind of thing or the other, even without attributing metaphysical density to them.

      While I agree that “energy” is at the very base of it all, conceptually speaking, the invisible energy that science observes and measures not only is convertible into visible matter but also appears to achieve its most spectacular and “uncharacteristic” effects, like consciousness, only through specialized configurations of visible matter, like our neurological and endocrine systems. This energy, in other words, as it manifests itself, is a material energy … it cannot be assimilated to the former notion of “spirit” whose very definition included its independent existence and the ability to function without matter, and even to do what matter supposedly could not. Your material form IS your energy, and if your energy lives on, it will live on only in a material form. We’ve more than enough evidence for this. We know quite well that as my body decomposes after death, the energy of the various components and sub-components of which it was made, are taken up by other material forms and used in the sustenance and expression of their lives, just as we used the energy of the sub-components of plants, animals, minerals and microbes to sustain and express our lives while we were alive. This energy is thoroughly and inseparably material, and it is shared among all forms, living and non-living, intelligent or not, without distinction or preference, equally.

      But, for me, ironically, therein lies my hope for future existence. I am a specialized form of material energy congealed out of the homogeneous material energy in a universal totality of material energy. I awake in an ocean of my own “stuff” — myself. I AM THAT. Every particle and sub-particle of which I am made, and which I use for sustenance and expression every day, has been here, in one form or another, for 13.7 billion years … and according to the first law of thermodynamics, every ounce of it will be here, in one form or another — but, most certainly, in some material form — for ever.

      If I am ecstatically happy that material energy metamorphosed, evolved, mutated and re-configured itself over and over during those eons until my species and finally my particular organism congealed out of the totality, imagine how ecstatic I will be as this evolving, self-transcending, self-elaborating totality, using the very same stuff by which I am-here, extrudes new and undreamed of forms of itself (myself), over and over, endlessly achieving zenith after zenith, each more spectacularly expressive of the infinite power of existence to create than the one that went before. It is a self-transcending material energy. The question is: can I identify with the totality … is that an achievable ascetical goal … or am I locked into my individual “self” claiming it alone is “real”?

      Teilhard thought that there must be an end to all this creative self-extrusion, he called it Omega. Maybe he was right . That would be fun too, I guess. Though, given what we’ve seen about the way material energy functions, it’s hard to imagine there could ever be an end point. No more creating? What would it do with itself … what would we do with ourselves?



  3. Ian Fraser says:

    Thanks Tony. As you said, while not speaking directly to my observation about a “gap”, your response does elaborate further on “material energy” as the context of our living and the disintegration of our bodies after death, allowing the material energy which had been ‘me’ to be re-integrated in different ways in perhaps other life-forms into the future.

    I’ll pass on reference to entropy, a parameter which, the more I investigate, the less I understand. Over 40 years ago, I had sufficient awareness of entropy to understand why different smelting temperatures are required for copper sulphide ores compared with iron oxide ores; but entropy as a parameter in the deceased body compared with in the living body is as easy to grasp as a feather from an eagle in full flight.

    How I do relate to your response is through my impression of life as a form of energy – comparable to heat, light, electromagnetic radiation. Life is a specific form of energy present in a living body, not present in a deceased body. At least, not in the deceased macro-human body, although we know that at least the alimentary canal of the human body is populated by millions of microscopic biota in symbiotic relationship with said human. When the human host dies, that biota population have to relocate quickly or they also will die.

    The deceased human body buried in the earth is literally consumed over the next few months, a process in which the chemical energy of the dead human is transformed to life energy of the bacteria, ants and worms which consume it.

    Emotionally, I prefer the less graphic picture you have painted about how my molecules and my atoms will be redistributed after my death. But death as a form of energy loss and the transformation of chemical energy into life energy are areas of exploration not too far away from your central theme of ‘matter’s energy, material energy, existence, being-here and the overall metaphysical system “transcendent materialism”’.

    • tonyequale says:

      The “gap”

      Ian, thank you for the dialog.
      Lest anyone should think I was trying to dodge your question about the “gap,” I want to return to it briefly.
      I begin with the last sentence of your third paragraph and what follows is my response:

      But to take seriously your hypothesis, it would be encouraging to know in what way is it more rational than the existing Platonic-Cartesian dualist explanation of two forms of existence – matter and spirit – to account for the observed phenomena of the human world? What is the rational basis of your initial assumption? – ‘I start from the assumption that there is no “spirit.”’

      I have consistently offered a version of the presentation of the problem made by Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century Christian mystic, one of the three “Cappadocian Fathers” responsible for the final developments of Trinitarian doctrine after Nicaea. His analysis is found in his treatise “On the Making of Man,” chapter 23. The chapter is reproduced on p.249 of my book, Religion in a Material Universe, where it is more amply dealt with. Briefly, Gregory says, if “God” is Pure Spirit, and “diametrically opposed” to matter, where did matter come from? It could not have come from “God” because he could not have even thought something so opposed to his nature, and it could not have independently pre-existed or co-existed God and his creative action or there would be two eternal principals and two “Gods.” He concludes by saying: “… 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 …” In other words, he can’t understand it and has given up trying, having recourse to his “faith.”

      I add to that, what I mentioned in my last response, (1) the difficulty of explaining how two diametrically opposed substances could possibly function together (this has a modern reprise in the “mind-body” problem) and (2) how is it that there is no evidence of “spirit” functioning independently of a material vehicle? Human conscious intelligence only functions with a healthy brain, neurological and endocrine systems. If these are damaged or diseased there is s loss of function, even to the point of self-identity. Any claim that the “soul” functions independently of the body after death is challenged by the same evidence: Anyone that has witnessed the progressive deterioration of “spiritual” functions in those who suffer from Alzheimer’s or other similar diseases will find it very difficult to believe that it is all suddenly reversed at death when the systems that were affected cease functioning entirely.

  4. Ian Fraser says:

    Thanks Tony for answering the question in my third paragraph. Particularly in light of your comments re the absence of spirit or soul functions when there is no healthy physical body, your assumption in response to Gregory of Nyssa is a logical counter assumption. Therein lies its validity.

    As per your post, supporting evidence and resolution of any contrary phenomena can be left to empirical science; it is not the function of philosophy to provide these buttresses.

    Cheers, Ian

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