If matter is a material thing then either materialism or substance dualism is true, and vice versa. If it is not a material thing then both doctrines are false, and vice versa.

Materialism (end)

Materialism, our first metaphysics, discovers its need to grow in two ways: first, it seeks to explain individual things but it appeals to something that cannot explain them as individuals; and second, it recognizes something that remains through change but it cannot account for change having some definite order from this to that. What is most fundamental to matter – and I stress that this is anyone’s account of matter, from Democritus to now – requires that matter itself be neither definite nor an individual. Matter simply has a different sort of being from the definite material individual it is invoked to explain.

The error at the root of materialism is a simple but ultimately false and inconsistent apriori assumption that matter has the same sort of concrete, definite individual existence as material beings have. Such an assumption is not given by experience or by a proper understanding of the nature of matter (it is in fact contrary to the nature of matter), but is imposed on matter because of the way we imagine it. A correct analysis of matter requires that, in the measure that we understand it more perfectly, we must divide it from what is definite, individual, and possessing order of itself. Aristotle’s doctrine of prime matter is an anticipation of the endpoint of the analysis of matter – an endpoint that actual physical analysis can never reach, but which it approaches more and more as it comes to a greater understanding of matter. Many of the quantum oddities, for example, can be understood as concrete instances of this indefiniteness and lack of individuality that characterizes matter. Atoms do not appear to have any one definite shape – different shapes are simply useful models for different things. Again, the oddity of superposition shows that even if one wants to speak of “one” atom, it can’t be said to have “one” place. As Eddington explained, while Democritus deprived his atoms of scent, color, and many other properties, he insisted they had a definite shape, number, position, etc. Democritus erred by not going far enough: a better understanding of matter requires that even this sort of individuality and definiteness needs to be done away with too.


Matter is really distinguished from some X that makes a thing this concrete particular, and this same X is a source of order for matter. A difficulty immediately arises: if matter is divided from what makes something a concrete particular, then how can the concrete particular be material? This is a certain recapitulation of the problem of matter: how can we preserve both the truth that an individual thing is made of matter, and that matter gives no account of it as this concrete individual? Materialism solves the problem by (at least implicitly) denying that “this individual thing” is actually a being – it is a mere appearance or accident of a more fundamental impersonal reality. The only other option is to deny change, which has been done. But to preserve the truth of both individuality and change we have to introduce some X which is a.) a source of being as concrete and individual and b.) a source of order for matter.

In visualizing X, we will first place it spatially outside of matter, in order to account for its real division from it. So considered, the fundamental structure of reality is visualized as a block of matter being moved around by some aetherial ghost located outside of the block.

Materialism III

Materialism is the basis of metaphysics – not because it is (entirely) true but because it is the first sort of metaphysics that a human being can know. But since everyone is embarrassed to be taken for an intellectual infant, human beings tend either to think materialism is true or that they need to refute it in the sense of coming to see it as entirely false and even evil. The middle between these two extremes is to accept that all our thoughts are based on an intellectual infancy, and that the first things we know are at the same time a.) the source of all our later thoughts and b.) the place from which we can make the most mistakes. The closer we are to home, the more we know about what’s around us, but (by definition) it is also the place from which we can take the greatest possible number of wrong turns if we want to journey from home. We cannot “refute” materialism if we mean by this that we want to remove it from the basis of our thought; not necessarily as a doctrine, but at least as an objection with a tremendous deal of force.

The force of materialism is from seeing matter as what remains though change; but the insufficiency of materialism is that it can’t explain the first thing we know about change: that it is from this to that. The reality of change requires the reality of this and that: i.e. of something that is individual and distinct. But what remains from this to that isn’t this individual or distinct – this is, in fact, one of the few things that is required in order for it to be matter. Irrespective whether one is thinking of Democratian or Daltonian atoms or Prime matter or Gell-Mann’s quarks, matter can’t be determined to this or that individual that it comes to be. This is not to deny some determination to (some of) these things, but only to deny that they can’t be what is individual and distinct in the change.We need some reality other than matter.

We are forced into a reality other than matter in a way similar to how we are forced to admit points in geometry. Points are partless and therefore unimaginable, and one shouldn’t admit such things without a very good reason. But unless we admit the reality of the partless in geometry, everything else we are trying to explain dissolves with them: squares become tinker-toy posts joined by circles, which is to say that they cease to be squares at all.

Very well, so the term of change is some reality distinct from matter, irrespective of what theory of matter we are dealing with. Now it’s easy enough to close your eyes and imagine points as the terms of a line being drawn from one point to another, but all this is a metaphor for what a term is, and not the term itself. The various changes in the world don’t terminate in points, nor is their change a line from here to there. The metaphor of the line requires at least this, that the term is a source of order for the change. It is the term that determines what will count as before and after in a change, what will be a principle and an end point, and all such things belong to order. And so we have to admit some real distinction between matter and the source of order.

Materialism II

When we see matter as the parts that remain though change, the arguments for materialism become clearer and more convincing. This is a good thing – a metaphysician must start off as a materialist since he attempts to explain all things, and the simplest such explanation is that they are all material or sensible or tangible, etc. The arguments below are a bit longer than they need be – most can be seen in an intuitive glance, namely the first glance at all things which, for a human being, should be materialistic.

Matter is what remains though change. The simplest way to understand this is that various parts are gathered together and separated – that is, that all change is change of place or position. But to change place does not change the nature of the thing that changes place (no one says that moving something from here to there gives rise to a different thing.) Given the definition of matter, it follows that it doesn’t change its nature by the change.  Now in order for materialism to be false, there would have to be some nature different from matter, but no such nature ever comes to be.

Again, if there were a new and unique nature, it would have to arise from matter. But each material part has its own nature before the change, therefore it must get a new nature after the change. Therefore we must posit some other matter that allows matter to change from one nature to another, and then another matter for that matter, ad infinitum.

Again, the definitions we give of things have to be able to do real work in illuminating the natures we are dealing with. Aristotle insists on this as much as anyone, saying in the De anima that a definition that doesn’t show us the properties of a thing is simply worthless. But to see natures as simply collections or conglomerations gives us the greatest illumination about what they are, since it allows us to understand them as machines, and therefore in relation to what we know best.


Matter requires at least this: a part that cannot be broken apart any further. This means “matter” is whatever can pass from one side of a breaking machine to another. By “breaking machine” – which is certainly the wrong word – I mean a fire, an acid bath, a particle accelerator, an intense beam of light etc. Matter thus is what remains through a change, and is a proper and essential account both in metaphysics and natural science.

Matter is burdened by any number of dead-end accounts and assumptions about its nature. False imagination tends to make us take matter is “extended stuff” or “the tangible” – though this account would be of no value to the scientist (what work would it do to help him determine what matter is?) Again, for several centuries after Newton, matter was seen as the determined and mechanistic smallest parts of things (corresponding to point-values in quantitative descriptions). This account was purely theoretical and died off about a hundred years ago, which has led to confusion over whether “materialism” is has been disproved by contemporary science, and whether we should try to replace a doctrine like “materialism” with “naturalism” or “physicalism”. The answer is no. All that has fallen away is a theory about matter, but the essential account of matter as what remains through change hasn’t gone anywhere, and was assumed by Newton every bit as much as Aristotle or Nils Bohr.  Nothing has changed about the validity of materialism as a doctrine. If it is false, it was false before Quantum Mechanics; if it is true, it is true in spite of Quantum Mechanics.

While the problem of mechanism has not disappeared, the question of materialism as mechanism has. The debate needs to be shifted back to a consideration of change, and specifically whether the being of things is nothing other than that which they arose from, and what they will resolve into.

The fourth way as relating to exemplar causes in natural science

There are two key general premises in the fourth way: “what is more and less is such by its relation to what is most” and “what is most such in a genus is the cause of all in the genus”. St. Thomas holds that both axioms have application in physical science, though the example he gives of their application is incorrect – namely that things are hot because they are mixed with fire, just as cookies are sweet because they are made with sugar. While we must abandon this particular example, it is still important to understand the axioms of the fourth way in such a way as to preserve their application to physical science. We can understand them in this way if we see them as speaking to the existence of an exemplar cause which is taken for granted as existing whenever we try to give an explanation of some reality that is common to many things, and, in the case when some reality is more or less, provides us with an insight as to what exactly  makes certain realities exist in degrees.

The inquiry we are making here into natural science is one that seeks something “fact- like” and not “law- like”, that is, we are seeking not to derive a conclusion from observations but rather to speak about the criterion by which we will judge various possible observations and judge certain explanations to be dead ends. The question is this: what would count as an explanation of things that admit of degrees? This much seems clear: we’d have to toss out all explanations that appeal to something that has the thing that admits of degrees by the action of another and not by themselves. Things on earth might be more or less stable, but one can’t explain the stability by invoking turtles for the earth to rest on. But what about sharpness or aerodynamic form? Knives and cars have these things of themselves, and so it is not a matter of looking for some other thing by which a knife is sharp or the car is aerodynamic – but in both cases there is an intelligible reality, which simply waits to be known, which provides a measure that illuminates exactly why each of these things can admit of more and less. This does not mean that there is, say, one and only one perfectly aerodynamic shape,  but rather that one can find a single equation for the drag that we seek to overcome by various shapes. One misses the point if he critiques St. Thomas’s axiom by saying “just because things are more or less aerodynamic doesn’t mean that there exists something perfectly aerodynamic”. What is “most such” here is the drag equation so far as it articulates a single reality in nature and is actually used to discern what is more or less of some kind. The sort of causality that the equation has when used in this way is exemplar causality.

We stress the objective existence of the exemplar cause. The exemplar is what we are seeking for when we seek to answer the question “what is this X that we see can be more or less in things?” This is some intelligible reality which we take for granted in any investigation – which is in fact a given prior to the investigation being possible. Though objective, however, the exemplar of some multitude will not alaways have the same existence, since the existence of various things that can be more or less is variously tied up with finite existence, matter, and other such things. In the examples we gave above, all of the exemplar causes were of things that required matter and finite existence; for example, the whole existence of drag is tied up with pressure, mass density, velocity, etc. and the whole existence of sharpness is tied up with thinness, rigidity, pressure, etc. But what do we do with a notion like good, which is not only distinguished from the finite, but even in some way opposed to it, since we can’t love any good so far as it does not give us something desirable, and every finite good must be such? Here the exemplar cannot be given among the finite.

Just what sort of existence this exemplar has is not always clear – and the diverse answers to the question serve to divide the schools of Plato and Aristotle. Nevertheless, there is still an agreement between them about the objectivity of the exemplar. Setting aside the particular controversies, it is enough for us to say that the exemplar we seek is not an inquiry into the structure of our own minds. Among the things of natural science, the exemplar is clearly bound up with matter, though it is not exactly the same thing as the various concrete individuals. The exemplar of things like “goodness, truth, dignity and other such things” does not and cannot have this sort of being, for the reason given above.

Is the ontological argument the source of modern thought?

When one begins to catalog all the differences between Anselm’s ontological argument and the ones given by contemporary philosophers, he is almost tempted to say that they are completely different arguments. Almost but not quite. The definitive element of the ontological argument remains constant: one concludes to being, that is, the first time one encounters a being that actually exists is as a conclusion. The ontological argument therefore either proves or presupposes that some thoughts are prior to being, and therefore that not every thought is necessarily dependent on being.

St. Thomas has very little to say about ontological arguments, but what he says makes far more sense when we see him as critiquing the idea that some thoughts are prior to being. We cannot say that the premises of the ontological argument presuppose any being, for then the argument would simply be a cosmological argument, concluding from the being of various creatures (effects) the existence of God (the cause). What then? We have either disengaged being and thought or we are claiming that “to be” or “being” does not first mean what actually exists. In either case thought is disengaged from being or real existence, which of course raises the problem of how we know when thought attains to it.

Seen from this angle, modern thought is simply a working out of the logic of the ontological argument. This shows us a fundamental logic of Descartes’s Meditations, where Descartes strives to attain to the actual world through an ontological argument. The very problem that Descartes is trying to solve is one that is implicit in the ontological argument itself.

Note on the history of thought

Ideas can only advance if they are persuasive, but this aspect frequently gets left off of accounts of the history of ideas. We can easily talk about the advance of ideas as though they propagated by microbes – as though subjectivism, nominalism, nihilism, etc. were all transmitted by coughing or rats or a failure to wash our hands. In fact they were propagated because a great number of people found them convincing, or found some other reason to believe them.

Ideas aren’t believed by everyone for the same reason, and historians can’t be asked to read minds, but there should be more of an effort to figure out exactly what was so convincing in those ideas we see as catching on, especially when they define whole eras or movements.

Dialogue: God as supreme good

A: I can’t see why St. Thomas’s account of good requires it to have some difference in meaning between God and creatures.

B: Why is that?

A: Because he is pretty clear that by “good” he simply means “that which all things desire”, and it is not with a different desire that we desire God and creatures.

B: But God is clearly the supreme among all these things desired?

A: Yes.

B: So are you visualizing things like this: there is a kind of vertical line, on which various degrees of goodness are marked off, and God is like a point on the top of the line?

A: Something like that.

B: But one deficiency in this image is that we can still imagine an extension being put on the line,  which would mean that God would not be that than which nothing greater could be thought, or supremely good by necessity. So could we correct this element of the image while still preserving the truth you are trying to express by it?

A: I suppose we could make an image of the divine goodness like this:  goodness is like a cone extending infinitely downwards, a cone where the degree of goodness is inversely proportional to the area of the circle made by a horizontal cut, and God is the apex of the cone. If we visualize it like this, then it is not possible for there to be a goodness greater than God.

B: But doesn’t this correction in the image help to show how goodness cannot be common to God and creatures? After all, God is not found by a cut, but by a tangent; and if “goodness” is like an area, then goodness certainly can’t be the same between God and creatures.

A: Still, God is a sort of limit on which finite goods converge, and so there seems to be some homogeneity in our idea of goodness.

B: Well, I wouldn’t agree that the limit and the series tending toward the limit are homogeneous – the straight can approach the curved without being curved.

A: This doesn’t strike me as right – but I don’t know how we would resolve this. The doctrine of limits is tricky, especially in the way we are trying to use the idea now – as a metaphysical idea that is only inspired by mathematics, though not identical with it. And at any rate, even if the straight and the curve are distinct, there is still some homogeneity of quantity between them. This element is what corresponds to “goodness” in the image I am using of things converging on a limit.

B: Let’s say you’re right that there is a kind of homogeneity between the series and the limit – there is a larger difficulty. Isn’t the whole point of these images for us to visualize what we mean when we say God is the supreme good?

A: Right.

B: But on all these images, God is not a supreme good! After all, by seeing all goods as on a measured line, or by an inverse width of a cone, we have in fact made the supreme good nothing other than the whole line or the whole cone!

A: That seems right – but I don’t see any way around it: God is different from the things in the world, and so the one who has God and the things of the world must have more than one who has only one.

B: But then you are saying that God isn’t the supreme good.

A: No – I’m articulating how God is the supreme good. How can we mean anything other than that he is the best? This is simply a consequence of God being different from creatures.

B: This doesn’t change anything. You are really arguing that it is unintelligible to say that God is the supreme good and that, in fact,  God and all actual creatures together are the highest possible good.

A: This might be what it comes to. I don’t like the conclusion but I don’t see the way out of it.

B: And so if goodness is homogeneous, or even if God’s goodness is the limit of an infinite series, then God is not the supreme good; and if God is the supreme good, then this goodness is not homogeneous, or a limit of an infinite and converging series?

A: That’s right: we either affirm the antecedent or deny the consequent – but I have reasons to do both.

B: And the basic problem is that the division of God from creatures means that to have both must mean to have a greater good than to have only one?

A: That’s right.

B: And what do you make of the idea that our love of all things is truly a desire for God – that all our love for creatures is simply like a reminder or participation in the love of God himself?

A: I don’t know what to make of this. This just looks like more division and multiplication. I certainly would rather have an actual person that I loved rather than just their picture, but this doesn’t mean that the person themselves can take the place of every possible value that the picture might have. Why would we even bother to invent pictures if they could?

B: So the sort of participation that things have in God would have to be different from this sort of relation in order for “participation” to make any sense of how God could be a supreme good.

A: Yes.

B: But we can at least sketch out what would be necessary for God to be the supreme good: his division from creatures could not be understood in such a way that he was rendered any way finite by the division; and creatures that take part in his goodness could not do so in such a way so as to increase the measure of goodness that there would have been without them. For God to be the supreme good requires that the goodness of God and creatures in no way constitute a whole.

A: That is exactly right.

B: And so St. Thomas, who saw God as the supreme good, was forced to admit that there was no sense of goodness that could form some common whole, even in thought, between God and creatures?

A: This seems right. Maybe so.

« Older entries


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 144 other followers