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What it Means to Be a Human Person – Part 11 - Defining Matter

             In order to understand hylomorphism we need to understand what matter is. However, the term "matter" has been hijacked by modern Naturalists and Materialists. In the next couple blog posts we will look at the concept of matter so as to come to a better understanding of what it means to be human. We embarked upon this journey in order to discover the foundations upon which moral theory will be based. We began by saying that before we can talk about what is right or wrong for humans to do, we need to know what humans are. For example, in order to determine whether or not a certain electronic device is supposed to perform task A or task B we must first determine what kind of electronic device it is, what sets it apart from other electronic devices, and what it's primary purpose is. We will now turn to the question of matter to help us understand what we mean when we talk about a form/ matter composite.

              In order to interact with Naturalists and Materialists, on the question of matter, it would be good to see how they define it. This is, however, a notoriously difficult task to perform. Especially in light of the fact that many, perhaps all, Naturalists define matter as whatever the natural sciences tell us is the most basic element of reality. This, of course, has changed with the years and with advancements in the capacity of science to go deeper and deeper within the cell. We will however, attempt to see how contemporary Naturalists define matter, and we will begin with D. M. Armstrong.

It seems that Armstrong equates matter with physical bodies. “A pure Materialist allows man nothing but physical, chemical and biological properties which, in all probability, he regards as reducible to physical properties only.”[1] For Armstrong, then, matter, the foundation of reality, is defined in terms of the physical properties that the natural sciences tell us are most basic. This fits with what we mentioned just above.
             Colin McGinn’s definition of matter also coincides with what we mentioned above. He says that, “Material objects are combinations of physical atoms, determined by physical laws…The atoms make up the molecules that make up the cells that make up the organs that make up the bodies. And the atoms themselves are made up of simpler things yet.”[2]

            Daniel C. Dennett, in Consciousness Explained, concurs with his fellow Naturalists. “There is only one sort of stuff, namely matter – the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology – and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon. In short, the mind is the brain.”[3]

            Most Naturalists, at least those who are willing to tender a definition of matter, seem to agree that matter is physical stuff (which seems to be somewhat redundant), atoms, smaller bits of matter, or perhaps energy, whatever it is, it is the stuff examined by the natural sciences. They all agree, as well, that whatever this matter is, it is the basis, the ultimate foundation, of reality. This, however, causes a problem. For it seems that there is somewhat of a vicious circle involved in such a definition. Luckily for us, hylomorphism, which we have just looked at, however briefly, is able to help the Naturalists define matter. 

            Though this may be a slight over-simplification, in general, the pre-socratics defined matter in terms of some one form of matter from which all other things were composed, and into which all other things decomposed. For example, Thales, the first philosopher, held that “water was the origin of all things, and that the earth was supported by water.”[5] Democritus held that “what really exists is atoms and void.”[6] As such, all of reality was empirically verifiable, “The older ‘physiologists’ have tried to explain the multiplicity of the materials to be found in experience by assuming one kind of matter to be basic and showing how the other kinds originated from it.”[7] To make sure that it is clearly understood that there has been very little change in the Materialists definition of matter in over 2000 years, it is interesting to note that the Atomists maintained that “matter, which is conceived as that from which, that of which and that into which, consists of an infinite number of atoms each of which is a plenum.”[8] The Atomists description of the foundation of ultimate reality is, interestingly enough, almost exactly the same as that of the contemporary Naturalists like those that we mentioned above. Due to the fact that the naturalistic theory of reality has not changed substantially since the time of the Atomists, it cannot escape the critiques of the philosophers of the past. All it can do is claim supremacy based upon the success of modern science,[9] and hope that no one discovers that they have just reheated an already moldy plate of bad left-over’s.

              Having seen how Materialists define matter, we will go on, in our next post, to give reasons why such a definition of matter is not precise enough.

[1]D. M. Armstrong, A Materialist Theory of the Mind, (1968; repr., London: Routledge, 1971), 37.

[2]Colin McGinn, The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 56.

[3]Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1991), 33.

[4]For an interesting discussion of Methodological Naturalism, see: Angus J. L. Menuge, "Against Methodological Materialism," in The Waning of Materialism, ed. Robert C. Koons and George Bealer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 375-94.

[5]Edward Hussey, The Presocratics (1972; repr., Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1995), 19.

[6]Ibid., 123.

[7]Czeslaw Lejewski, “The Concept of Matter in Presocratic Philosophy,” in The Concept of Matter in Greek and Medieval Philosophy, ed. Ernan McMullin (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1965), 29-30.

[8]Ibid., 35.

[9] There is, of course, no necessary correlation between the success of modern science and Naturalistic metaphysics. Such a claim is an unsubstantiated claim. Science would be just as successful if the main metaphysics of its scientists was hylomorphism.

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