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.