Materialism

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.

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7 Comments

  1. Alan Aversa said,

    April 21, 2011 at 7:45 am

    Matter requires at least this: a part that cannot be broken apart any further.? That sounds like Democritan atomism. Matter is potentially infinitely divisible, no? If so, then there is no smallest part. Quantity (the having of parts outside of parts) is only accidental to matter, no?

    • April 21, 2011 at 11:49 am

      The basic process of figuring out what counts as “matter” or “an element” has always been the same: smash the thing until you can’t smash it any more, that is, into anything more basic. Even if one found matter in some other way, it would still be called “matter” in reference to this sort of physical analysis

      • Alan Aversa said,

        April 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm

        I think the ambiguity here arises from the use of the word “part.” Matter is pure potentiality, and “part” makes me think of something actual, e.g., a substance. “Part” is related to the accident of quantity, not to substance.

  2. Ed L said,

    April 21, 2011 at 10:36 am

    I don’t think it is necessarily atomism, Aristotle seems to have thought that there is a smallest possible part which can be actualized (see his refutation of Anaxagoras in the Physics or the beginning of On Generation and Corruption)

    • Alan Aversa said,

      April 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm

      So matter is not pure potency?

      • Brandon said,

        April 23, 2011 at 8:25 pm

        Prime matter would be pure potency. But we can only discover prime matter by reasoning about previously identified matter (namely, by recognizing that the series of material causes can’t regress infinitely and that anything actualized has a form). And that previously identified matter is always matter with respect to particular changes (what endures the breaking machine, in James’s phrase), hence Aristotelian elements and the like.

  3. Crude said,

    April 21, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    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.

    I think this is being too generous, along the lines of suggesting that young earth creationism never took on water as a view because the core belief of a young earth creationist is that God created the world, and an old earth and evolution has not disproved that. The materialism of actual philosophers was about more than the claim that something, anything was left behind once you broke a larger “thing” down and could break it down no more. There were metaphysical commitments about just what that thing was, how that thing behaved, what forces acted on that thing. More than once, those commitments turned out to be wrong.

    That’s not to say that someone can’t come up with new commitments, or a new view of matter. No doubt they can. But to paraphrase George Carlin, “There’s a reason they gotta come up with a new view. It’s ’cause the old view was wrong!”


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