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.


  1. Robert King said,

    April 25, 2011 at 8:39 am

    This raises a couple difficulties I’ve always had with the Thomistic account of hylomorphism.

    1) Matter is seen as “what remains through change” and yet Thomas denies the existence of “spiritual matter”; now, that God does not change is clear; but angels (pure spirits) do seem to change in some way, at least insofar as they may fall or remain faithful, and perhaps insofar as they may perform other distinguishable acts.

    That said, I found his account to help understand why the death of the body is the end of the soul’s moral ability to sin/repent/grow in virtue.

    2) Matter is seen as the “principle of individuation”; this leads logically to the conclusion that each of the angels is a distinct species; but seems also to imply that the only difference between me and my neighbor is the disposition of the matter that our soul got stuck with in becoming embodied. Moreover, between death and resurrection, what distinguishes one soul from another? This question is related to the first, of course.

    I’m sure I’m not the first to ask these questions, and I probably have overlooked the answers that Thomas or others have given. Any pointers in the right direction?


  2. April 25, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    This post is only one step outside of pure materialism, and so none of the insights here will be of much direct value to these questions. But here is as close as I can make them.

    1.) Angels don’t change. An angel is not a middle state between two terms that are other than the angel himself, the way that, say, a man is a middle state between an unensouled being and a corpse, or the way gasoline is a middle state between crude oil and an explosion pushing a piston. An angel might acquire new intellectual accidents (though this does not require any continuity of time) but he doesn’t change into anything, nor does anything change into an angel.

    St. Thomas’s arguments with spiritual matter arose from more than one source, but one of the main ones is largely forgotten and intrinsically forgettable, sc. the idea that whatever had a genus must have matter from the sheer fact of having a genus. Speaking generally, I haven’t read anyone defend the idea of spiritual matter, even if they were favorable to those who defended it in the past. The doctrine strikes me as a dead end in scholastic thought that deserved to be forgotten.

    2.) No one individual can exhaust all the perfection in the species, and that human beings are social by nature requires that this nature admit of a diversity that is not sheerly material or accidental, though this diversity does not arise because of division or diversity in the nature itself, but because an individual of the species is not adequate to express or actualize all of the perfection in the species (leave aside the question of Christ and the Virgin for the moment).

    Matter as a principle of individuation is a doctrine about the mere material multiplication of things, and it does not go into all the various relationships that may obtain between the various individuated beings in every species. In particular, it was not made to say anything proper about human beings, and it can say no more about individuality beyond the sort of enumeration that is common to ten hogs and ten men. There is, perhaps, an implied principle of degrees of individuality and individuation in the principle: the less perfect the species, the less it will rise above sheer material multiplication (in fact, on the lowest level of actual existence, the sub-atomic, it is not even clear that there are well defined actualities of multiplication. Two atoms aren’t two the way that two apples are two, as Eddington says.)

  3. Peter said,

    April 25, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Read Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, Chapters 80-81, where he explicitly takes up some of these questions.

    • Peter said,

      April 25, 2011 at 7:33 pm

      In regard to the response to the second objection (of the chapter I linked above), Ferrariensis gives the following commentary:

      In hac responsione duo sunt advertenda.

      Primum est, quod non sic intelligendum est diversitatem principiorum formalium facere diversitatem specificam formarum, quasi forma habeat aliqua essentialia principia quibus realiter componatur: (sic enim oporteret omnem formam esse intrinsece et realiter compositam) sed per principia formalia et essentialia formae intelligit S. Thomas proprium genus, et propriam differentiam, ex quibus formae secundum rationem componuntur, eo modo quo formae sunt in specie, unde dicere quod distinguuntur specifice secundum principia formalia, vel secundum diversam rationem formae, idem est, ac si diceretur, distinguuntur aut secundum partem aliquam suarum diffinitionum, aut secundum totam diffinitionem.

      Secundum est, quod commensuratio, duo potest dicere: scilicet fundamentum habitudinis, et habitudinem, sicut et similitudo: fundamentum commensurationis in anima, est ipsa animae substantia, sic secundum suam essentiam, et secundum suum esse huic corpori proportionata, ut propria forma propriae materiae, quod alii corpori non proportionatur: super hanc autem essentiam productam huic materiae adaequatam, fundatur habitudo commensurationis, secundum quam haec anima dicitur formaliter commensurata huic corpori, sicut super albedinem fundatur relatio similitudinis qua hoc dicitur illi formaliter simile, sive illa relatio sit idem quod fundamentum, sive non.

      Quum ergo dicitur diversitatem animarum esse secundum diversam commensurationem earum ad corpora, non accipitur commensuratio formaliter, ut relationem importat, quia sic non distinguerentur secundam substantiam, ut hic dicitur, sed tantum secundum accidens superadditum, si ponatur relatio distincta a fundamento; aut secundum rationem nullam facientem diversitatem in re, si formaliter sumatur relatio; sed accipitur relatio fundamentaliter: quia enim haec anima est secundum suam substantiam et secundum suum esse ita propria forma hujus corporis, quod non alterius, et est substantialiter ita huic corpori adaequata, quod non alteri, habet quod substantialiter ab alia anima alii corpori proportionata distinguatur. Et quia ad hoc substantiale fundamentum necessario consequitur habitudo commensurationis, potest dici etiam quod animae separatae secundum habitudines distinguuntur, secondario quidem, sed non primo.

      Ex his patet, quam male S. Thomam intellexerunt, qui illi atribuunt, ipsum velle animas a corporibus separatas, ex sola habitudine ad corpora habere distinctionem. Hoc enim nunquam somniavit S. Thomas, nedum non intellexit.

      Sed contra hanc responsionem, dubium occurit. — Secundum ipsam enim erit verum dicere, quod animae distinguuntur seipsis, si commensurationibus distinguuntur, et commensuratio nihil aliud sit, quam ipsa animae substantia huic corpori commensurata. Hoc autem non videtur in doctrina S. Thomae verum esse.

      Respondetur, quod utique distinguuntur seipsis identice, hoc est non per aliquam entitatem illis superadditam. Formaliter autem non distinguuntur seipsis, sed per commensurationem ad corpora, quae ab ipsa anima formaliter est distincta; sicut homo specifice seipso identice distinguitur ab equo, quia non per aliquam entitatem ab ipso distinctam realiter; formaliter vero, sua differentia specifica, scilicet rationali, ab ipso distinguitur: ita enim in istis se habet gradus individualis ad substantiam animae individuam, sicut differentia specifica ad speciem.

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