Saturday, November 05, 2005

Sticks and stones

While walking home from college the other day and thinking about the role of ritual in our lives (does it enhance or stultify mindfulness?), it occurred to me that I held a bit of ritual in my hand. Each day as I walk to and from my place of work, I reflexively pick up a round smooth stone from the path and carry it in my fist. A Queegish neurosis? A substitute of sorts for prayer beads? No, I think rather the stone represents an unconscious wish to be grounded to something hard and enduring. Something -- in a word -- material.

When I was in school back in the 1940s and '50s -- parochial school -- materialism was thrown up to us as the bugbear of bugbears. Not even "Godless communism" offered a more perfidious peril for our souls.

Later, at university, we learned that materialism was one of two philosophical categories by which humans have tried to explain reality, the other being idealism. Broadly speaking, materialists believe that matter is the essence of reality; matter exists independently of life and mind, but no life or mind can exist independently of matter. Idealists, on the other hand, believe that mind and spirit are the ultimate reality; spirit abides; matter is ephemeral.

Science has been pretty much materialist since the 17th century. Only the materialist view of the world offered a useful program for research or progress. Disembodied mind, vital spirits and the supernatural just don't lend themselves to quantification or experiment.

Meanwhile, our understanding of what we mean by matter has been radically changing. No more hard little particles rattling around in the void, as proposed by Democritus, Lucretius and Newton. Matter, as it shows itself at the turn of the millennium, is a thing of astonishing, almost "immaterial" subtlety -- all resonances, vibrations and spooky entanglements. A kind of cosmic music.

If the matter created in the big bang was only hydrogen and helium, as the cosmologists say, then those primeval atoms possessed the built-in capacity to spin out stars and galaxies, carbon, oxygen, iron, and ultimately life and consciousness. Maybe it is time to dump the old debates between materialism and idealism. The practical success of science should be enough to satisfy the most ardent materialist, and the shimmering, prodigiously creative and perhaps ultimately inexplicable potential of matter should be enough to satisfy the idealist's hankerings for spirit.