At the end of his “Managua Lectures” of 1986,  Noam Chomsky declares himself open to the possibility that “matter” may be more than simply the passive recipient of motion. The significance of that statement goes far beyond its place in his presentation. For Chomsky is suggesting that for the last three hundred and fifty years science has been performing its tasks without a definition of matter.
The historical background for this anomaly has to do with Descartes’ definitive division of all reality into two “things,” called res extensa and res cogitans … literally, whatever exists, will be either “an extended thing” or “a thinking thing,” — mindless matter or rational spirit. It is an early scientistic restatement of Plato’s dualism. Today the terms used are “body and mind.”
It may be difficult for us to appreciate the radical change which Descartes’ distinction represented for the way matter was understood in 1641. He replaced the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of an amorphous prime matter (a “principle” of being, not a “thing”) by redefining matter as a separate “corporeal substance,” which, regardless of form, “possesses properties all of which fall within the purview of mathematics.” What it meant for Western thought in the long run is that essentialism is replaced with reductionism and the existence studied by science became totally fibrotic — lifeless, dead — measurable but otherwise meaningless.
Matter for Descartes was a purely passive inert “substance” limited to the kind of interaction that Chomsky describes as “contact mechanics.” Spinoza — who was thoroughly Cartesian in this regard — defined it clearly: matter can be acted upon but cannot act. Matter’s inertness and passivity was so thorough and undeniable in their view that, according to Descartes, it was able to serve as a reliable indicator of the necessary existence of an invisible “second substance,” mind, needed to explain “that which went beyond the properties of matter.”
Descartes’ conception of matter was, ironically, refuted by the near-contemporaneous work of Isaac Newton who discovered that gravity was a force that “acted at a distance” without physical contact of any kind. Newton was himself a Cartesian and was perplexed by his own discovery, and despite the evidence that the limitations of matter are, in fact, not known, insisted that the explanation must be framed in mechanical or quasi-mechanical terms. What that means, says Chomsky, is that science has been operating without an adequate notion of the matter it studies. This should have undermined the theory of matter’s definable passive properties and erased the claim to know the existence and activities of the “second substance,” mind, which was predicated precisely on knowing the place where the properties of “body” stopped.
The general conclusion for Chomsky is that the Cartesian concept of “body” is untenable. “In short,” he says,
there is no definite concept of body. Rather there is a material world, the properties of which are to be discovered, with no a priori demarcation of what will count as “body.” The mind body problem, therefore, can not even be formulated. The problem cannot be solved because there is no clear way to state it. Unless someone proposes a definite concept of body, we cannot ask if some phenomena exceed its bounds.
The above paragraphs are taken from p. 59 of my new book, The Mystery of Matter. They may serve as an introduction to the intended import of the work. For what The Mystery of Matter attempts is nothing less than to respond to Chomsky’s challenge and develop a philosophical understanding of matter that can serve as a solid underpinning for the interpretation of humankind’s significance in a material world. It proposes to create a rational interface between the physical sciences and the human world of ethics, politics, art and religion that is not only acceptable but enriching for both.
The Mystery of Matter is currently available on Amazon. Search under “Tony Equale” and it will come up. I still have some paperback versions from the first run here at home, however, and if you want one, tell me in a comment here and we can proceed by e-mail. The paperback version is also available on Amazon; but on the “author” page, you will have to click on “paperback” in the upper left corner to buy it in that format. Here is the Amazon link:
An Unknown God is also on Amazon in paperback and available on the publishers website:. Here is the IED link: