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.



  1. thenyssan said,

    April 29, 2011 at 9:29 am

    This was a really strong series. Very useful. Two thumbs up.

  2. RP said,

    April 30, 2011 at 2:10 am

    A problem with the notion of “prime matter” is that it is pure potency and nevertheless Aquinas is forced to say “it in some way exists” which is contradictory. And you have to admit that every change we experience or indirectly observe is from one composite to another.

    It could be said that there is “something” underlying change is also an a priori assumption stemming from a faulty imagination.

    • April 30, 2011 at 6:03 am

      When St. Thomas says “in some way” it’s not a vague adverbial modification, as though he is saying it “sort of exists”, it’s a well defined distinction between a predicate said simpliciter and secundum quid, or (sometimes) between the per se and the per accidens. Plato was the first one to see the need for a distinction like this (the whole last part of his dialogue Sophist is about it). If we don’t make this sort of distinction in speech, and if we assume that “exists in some way” (secundum quid/ per accidens) is really just a way of saying that it exists simply speaking (simpliciter/ per se), our whole system will immediately collapse into sophistry, which is a perennial danger in human thought.

      If you are holding a baseball in your hand, you are holding one thing. But what if someone pointed out that it was also round. Is the roundness nothing at all, or does it exist? It’s clearly not nothing. So are you holding two things in your hand? If you say no, then roundness is nothing, if you say yes, you are well on the road to holding an infinity, and, more importantly, you are saying a bunch of fast talking nonsense. You need a set of distinctions that allows you to preserve the truths that a.) you are holding only one thing and b.) roundness is something. This is the sort of distinction that is in play when one speaks about prime matter existing.

      • RP said,

        May 2, 2011 at 3:20 am

        Aristotle didn’t like the notion of being from non-being (who does?). So he renamed non-being “principles” and came up with two of them: form and matter. From these two non-beings all being (substance) is composed.

        Is this what is meant by “a set of distinctions”?

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