What’s The Matter?

On the subtle radicalism of materialism.

As sophisticated, modern homo sapiens, we take it for granted that things are made of stuff — physical stuff, to be precise. In fact, we largely take it for granted that all stuff — including the stuff that makes us, us — is physical stuff. As in, there is no other stuffs, only physical stuffs! And all this physical stuff obeys, of course, the laws of physics — which are themselves physical, of course, because, well, again, that’s all there is! It’s physical stuffs all the way down.

This view of the world — and its stuffs — is known as “materialism”, and it’s modernity’s prevailing metaphysic (that is, our sense of what’s ultimately what, philosophically speaking). And although we tend to take it for granted — intellectually, at least — it’s worth highlighting just how radical a proposition this is, and how starkly it juxtaposes against the history of ideas.

See, for the majority of human history, it’s been tacitly — or even explicitly — assumed that there are really two classes of thing in this world: physical things (like rocks and stuff) and non-physical things (like spirits and consciousness and stuff). To a pre-modern mind, such a distinction was not only justifiable, it was intuitively — indeed blatantly — obvious. For how could a mind, for instance, possibly be a physical thing? Such a notion, until only very recently, would have appeared violently absurd, so utterly at odds with our experience of things, as it is. So, what happened?

An alternative view of things began to emerge following the success of the “scientific revolution”. Given how productive the physical sciences had been — taking as their critical assumptions that all things are made of physical stuff, and that this physical stuff behaves in perfect accordance with natural, universal law — it was only a matter of time, it seems obvious in retrospect, before the next intellectual leap was made. That is, if all things are made of matter, then what’s this other stuff we’ve been banging on about for so long? What, in other words, is ‘non-matter’? Hmm.

Since the model of the world as a purely physical system — something like a giant clock — provided such potent explanatory power — and equipped us, as it did, with God-like technological powers — it seems natural, from our current vantage, that we would’ve challenged anything that failed to align with this conception of things. Everything, at the time, appeared to be succumbing to physical explanation, and yet there remained, most conspicuously, this curious belief in such things as non-physical things. Since there was no physical explanation for non-physical things (naturally), and since it’s not clear how the existence of such non-physical stuff could possibly interact with physical stuff — that is, how it could make a difference — the next logical step was to posit the non-existence of non-physical stuff. “Maybe everything is physical?!” Wuuuuuut.

This move was an application of Occam’s razor — the “less is more so long as it still works” principle. And its appeal here is obvious: do away with the entire notion of immaterial things and that’s one less class of thing you need to explain. *What a day at the office!* Plus, as a bonus, it also renders physical science the only epistemic game in town. For in a materialist world, physical science is the only legitimate Knowledge Project —science (physics) the new religion. *Easy and good for business!*

On some level, materialism was — and remains — a rebellion against animism, the view that everything is, well, animated, either by spirit or some other sacred, ethereal essence. As in, like, everything is alive, infused with Being. The mountains, the rivers, the trees. The whole shebang. Now as wild as it may sound to a modern sensibility, for the majority of human history — and in many cultures to this day in fact — this view reigned supreme. It is, in some sense, the default metaphysic of our kind. It is, indeed, the intuitive — pre-scientific — conception of the universe. It’s how things seem. Or so it sure seems. Eh?

While materialism is presented as a much more sober and parsimonious alternative to animism (and other forms of substance dualism), it’s in fact a most radical idea. In fact, more radical, in many respects, than the notion of spirits. How so? Well, see, in the case of animism, one can simply point to another substance — spirit — to account for the mysteries of experience, the utter bizarreness of things. Although it’s not an explanation, exactly, it maps onto the weirdness, at least. It fits our experience. The problem, of course, is that the buck stops there. There can be no further questioning. What is spirit? Well, they just IS. End of story.

Materialism, on the other hand, absolves us of the need to account for anything immaterial, any such thing as spirits, say. But it does nothing to explicate the ultimate mystery, the seemingness of things. It merely reframes the problem. Instead of having to account for the incredulity of experience, via reference to another class of thing, it simply lumps it all together. Everything that Is is material. Love, life, DMT entities, kaleidoscopic geometric landscapes. It’s all matter. But then, we must ask, what in the holy f*ck is matter? What, in other words, is all this Stuff?

To be sure, no-one really knows. Just like space and time, matter is largely a mystery. Again, like space and time — or spacetime, as we now think of it — matter is a fundamental primitive, a brute fact of our conceptual schema. Now, to be clear, that’s not to say that we don’t know an awful lot about matter — we do, for sure. Textbooks on textbooks, in fact. But this isn’t saying much, in the end. For if everything is made of matter, everything we know is, by definition, a thing we know about matter. So how can we know an enormous amount about something and yet it remain a mystery? Isn’t that a paradox? Well, perhaps, yet that seems to be the nature of things here — at least on this plane. Pursue anything far enough and things get swirly.

Let me illustrate. See, one could spend a lifetime studying matter at the level of physics, for instance, and still not learn all that we already know for certain (to the degree that we know anything for certain). However, one look at the subatomic — that is, quantum — level and things get weird fast. One learns, for example, that matter is mostly empty space. In other words, matter is mostly not even matter at all — it’s its absence! And that’s far from all. Indeed one learns that matter is all kinds of weird. First it’s a particle then it’s a wave, then it’s both. Like WTF’s up with that. Then there’s superposition and the measurement problem and entanglement. Shit’s crazy, man. And shit’s also matter!

The spooky stuff at the foundations of physics are open questions, and are largely acknowledged as such. Even the most hard-nosed materialist would likely agree that well sure we don’t know everything there is to know about matter. They might even agree that yeah matter’s kinda weird at the quantum scale. However, matter’s not only weird at the microscale — it’s weird at every scale. As in the way it behaves, the things it does, the properties it possesses, the stuff it says. The obvious examples here are life and consciousness. Just think: how could a thing made of dead stuff become a sentient ape? A living, thinking stuff. One that reads Shakespeare and makes computers and bitcoins and bombs and watches the Bachelor and stuff. That’s weird, man. Weeirrd.

All this kind of material weirdness is generally explained in terms of the concept of emergence. Like yeah, it’s weird but so is a wheel. As in put enough atoms together and you get a fucking wheel! Just think: nowhere in the atoms is there the property of “wheel-ness”, right, but there it is — a fucking wheel! And same goes with everything else. When matter is organised in a particular way, new and unpredictable properties emerge — like life and consciousness and wheelness, say. That’s just how it is.

While emergence is no doubt key to understanding the nature of Reality — certainly biological systems — saying “well, yeah, emergence” is hardly a cogent explanation for any given phenomenon. Replace “emergence” with “magic” and it’s basically the same thing. So, well, yeah, magic.

This ‘magic of matter’ is often sought to be explained by pointing out how almost everywhere simplicity begets complexity. The idea is pretty straight-forward. From simple rules or laws, highly complex, weird things pop out — that is, emerge — over time. Check out cellular automata, for instance. And so, well, that’s just the kind of universe we find ourselves in — one where the laws of physics are relatively simple but create complexity. True as this evidently is, it’s akin to a brute fact. It doesn’t, in the end, resolve the mystery. Matter is weird, but that’s the way things are, dude. It’s not magic — it just is what it is. Cop it.

At this point, I want to be clear that I’m not actually challenging materialism here. I’m not poking the bear. In fact my bet is it’s true — that everything arises from a singular substance, that all the weird stuff we see are merely properties, either intrinsic and emergent, of all this Reality Stuff. What I’m challenging here is the view that materialism is in any way more conservative than even the most radical forms of dualism. Materialism doesn’t relieve us of the burden of having to explain spirits, for instance. It simply focuses the burden. It requires us to explain not only how “spirits” exist but how spirits can exist in a purely physical Reality.

What I’m ultimately rallying against here is the way in which materialism is often proffered as an antidote to mysticism. “It’s just science, man”, or “Well, yeah, y’know, physics”. For materialism is, on closer inspection, the most profoundly mystical idea of all. Indeed, if it holds, it would have to be up there as the most remarkable fact of our existence — second perhaps only to the fact of existence itself. That there could be a singular, universal substance — a unitary fabric of Reality — and that it could possess such a myriad of mysterious properties — life, love, consciousness, self-transforming machine elves etc. — is an astonishing fact (if it is in fact a fact, of course). Everything there is, everything we care about — everything that matters — is made of matter. Woah, indeed.

Although materialism is presented as a sober, entirely rational alternative to such “primitive” metaphysics as animism, one must realise that the former is only ever the slightest crane of the neck away from the latter. For just think, animism is the belief that everything is alive, right, imbued with Beingness. Materialism, on the other hand, is the view that everything is ultimately the same. Therefore, everything is, by definition, imbued with the same essence that makes things come alive. The two aren’t at all far apart. Indeed they’re both a trip.

Ironically, materialism is often received as a cold, mechanical, lifeless view of the cosmos — something of a big clock or, to use today’s analogy, a computer. It’s seen, by members of a certain community, as a reductive contrivance cooked up by less-than-human scientists. Folk who are divorced from the beauty of a rainbow, say, or simply yet to get themselves properly laid. That’s why, if you pay attention, you’ll often see or hear the term “scientific materialism” used as scorn. It’s what the New Age reckons it’s fighting. However, in the defence of virgin scientists the world over, materialism implies no such thing. The problem, in the end, is not with materialism, as a metaphysical paradigm. The problem is with its popular interpretation. For materialism doesn’t imply that everything is dead. Not at all. Neither does it reduce the mystery — it simply places it inside matter. Thus if one considers it a dull proposition, one must surely wipe their lenses — repair the doors of perception. For materialism, when paid its due, truly is the most psychedelic vision of all. It tells us that from one thing, all other things arise. That all is indeed one. Now doesn’t that sound good?

It’s also worth emphasising here that, even if animism is a little off the money, materialism isn’t the only plausible metaphysic in town. While it’s certainly the consensus view, there are plenty of folk — mostly philosophers — worth their salt who advocate various forms of substance dualism all while maintaining their intellectual credibility. Among scientists, to be sure, even suggesting dualism will get you laughed out the room. Among philosophers, however, the idea is taken seriously. And although that might signal the absurdity of philosophy — the lack of constraints on the enterprise — it’s worth remembering that philosophers, not scientists, are the type of cats who ultimately tend to think about these things. Scientists are paid to study physical Reality. That’s their shtick. Philosophers, on the other hand, are paid to study Reality writ large — that is, how things (in the broadest sense) hang together (in the broadest sense). While philosophy is today regarded with a certain suspicion — a suspicion I consider healthy, to be sure — it’s worth recognising that they are in fact doing different things. See, science can afford to ignore metaphysics — though it invariably doesn’t — for it’s a purely practical regime. It needs no grand theory of the universe in order to be effective. Conversely, grand theories of the universe is what philosophy is all about. Without grand theories — that is, without metaphysics — as a philosopher, you might as well stay in bed. Or become a physicist.

Whatever the case here, whatever the ground Truth, it’s worth appreciating the incredulity either way. It’s also worth appreciating that neither has been falsified — for neither is falsifiable even in principle. So let us keep an open mind to substance dualism, for it wouldn’t be the craziest thing in the world (no more crazy than the world itself). And if it’s materialism, well let us remain connected to the mystery of matter. Let us, always, remember the profundity of the physical. But let us remember, above all, that we don’t know what we don’t know. And we never will.