Friday, September 18, 2009


The other day I mentioned "materialism" as the guiding paradigm of science since the Scientific Revolution, which sparked interesting comments from Carmen, Paul and Theresa. Let me add a few words.

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

We were never quite clear what materialism was. Our teachers might as well have said "Beelzebub." Whatever it was, we knew it made no place for God or spirit. It was the great eraser of soul from the world.

Later, at university, we learned that materialism was one of two great philosophical categories by which humans have tried to explain reality, the other being idealism. As a philosophy, materialism, like idealism, has a long and honorable history, going back (at least) to the Pre-Socratics, and listing among its adherents such luminaries as Lucretius, Hobbes, Hegel and Marx.

Broadly speaking, materialists believe that matter is the essence of reality. Everything comes from matter, including life and mind. Nature exists independently of mind, but no mind can exist independently of matter.

Idealists, on the other hand, believe that mind and spirit are the ultimate basis of reality. Spirit abides; matter is ephemeral.

The materialist/idealist split is behind all other dualisms in philosophy: natural/supernatural, body/soul, mortal/immortal, even, according to our elementary and high school teachers, the difference between the grim Satanic horrors of Soviet Russia and the God-showered blessings of American democracy.

Where did these philosophies come from? Presumably from our experience of the world.

Materialism may have had its origin in our experience of thunder and lightning, sun and moon, weight and force, the sharp edge of a knapped stone, fire, food, blood, bone.

Idealism may have sprung from self-awareness, dreams, the mystery of birth, the loss of death, the vague but incontrovertible intuition that there is more to the world than meets the eye.

Scientists have been both materialists and idealists, but science itself is thoroughly materialist, at least since the 17th century. Only the materialist view of the world has offered a useful program for research.

Disembodied souls, vital spirits and the supernatural just don't lend themselves to scientific investigation. Wherever progress has been made in science, it has started with the assumption that the world is material -- which may explain some of the popular antipathy towards science.

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. No more billiard balls writ small. Matter, as it shows itself at the turn of the millennium, is a thing of astonishing, almost "immaterial" subtlety, interchangeable with energy.

As physicists probe the structure of atoms, the particles dissolve into a kind of cosmic music, all resonances, vibrations and spooky entanglements. There is nothing at the heart of matter that is quite "material" in the way we previously understood the word.

If the matter created in the Big Bang was only hydrogen and helium, as the physicists say, then those primeval atoms possessed the built-in capacity to complexify and diversify, to spin out stars and galaxies, carbon, oxygen, iron, and ultimately life and consciousness.

Far from explaining away the mystery of the world, our new knowledge of matter rubs our noses in the mystery of nature. The more we learn, the more we become aware that matter -- ordinary matter -- is more than we had ever dared to guess.

It's time to dump the old debates between materialism and idealism, and the corresponding dualisms. 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 the transcendental.