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What it Means to Be a Human Person – Part 12 - Naturalisms “Matter” is Void of Content

            Is it possible that matter is what Naturalists say that it is? As soon as we allow for the possibility that matter is just that, atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons or energy, we run into problems.

            First of all, giving a description of the physical characteristics of something does not tell you what it is. If I ask you to tell me what a refrigerator is, and all you give me are its accidental characteristics: it is hard, has handles, drawers and tablets, is rectangular, and black, white or metallic; you still have not told me what a refrigerator is. Your description may fit a certain number of refrigerators, but it does not describe, very well, the types of refrigerators that you find in hotels and big restaurants (walk-in-refrigerators), or the type of refrigerators that you find in dorms, hotel rooms and personal bars (compact refrigerators). There seems to be more to “being a refrigerator” than its “physical description.” The physical description is true, it is part of what it means “to be” a refrigerator, but using a term borrowed from the ancient and medieval philosophers, this type of description is called this its material cause, but, giving the material cause does not tell you what something is.

            To be more concrete, if I say that matter is hard, someone will point to water, or perhaps air, and ask, “is that not also matter, in some sense?” If I say that matter is atoms, or smaller entities, I still have not defined matter; I have simply made matter smaller. I still require a definition. Defining something by describing its physical characteristic does not explain it. Make the component parts as small as you want, add as many as you wish, in any composition, you still have yet to tell us what matter is.

            You might add that refrigerators are made by Fridgidaire, LG, Whirlpool, etc. However, you still have not told us what a refrigerator is, you have only told us who made the refrigerator, the efficient cause.

            You might add that refrigerators are things that are used to keep food cold so that bacteria is not able to grow on it as easily as if it was left on the counter. Refrigerators, therefore, are used to preserve food by keeping it cold. This is a teleological explanation of a refrigerator, the final cause, that for which it was made. Yet this is still not good enough, this type of description, though it is true of refrigerators, is also true of freezers. The point of this little exercise is to show that giving a description of matter, with only one of these types of descriptions does not tell me what matter is.

            Second, another way of defining matter, demonstrated by Dennett’s description, is by defining it in terms of whatever the natural sciences study, especially physics, chemistry, bio-chemistry, and micro-biology. This only seems to post-pone giving a definition, because the sciences do not define matter in order to do science, they simply assume its existence. 

            Furthermore, this way of defining matter is circular. Matter is whatever the natural sciences study. What do the natural sciences study? Matter. What is matter? Matter is whatever the natural sciences study. This could get long. W. H. Sheldon, who, in his article, has been trying to discover what Naturalism is, out of  despair, proclaims, “But surely the term [Naturalism] must have some positive distinctive trait. Surely naturalism is more than the vicious-circle imperative—‘investigate by scientific method that which can be investigated by scientific method.’”[1] Unfortunately, his cry of despair is not met with a positive answer. As he continues to examine the writings of the Naturalists of his time he discovers that, as far as the Naturalist is concerned, (and as we have seen, their opinions have not changed), “Nature means everything; apply scientific method to everything and you will find out what is sham and what is reality, what is genuine and what is shoddy.”[2] Naturalism is unable to tell us what its most important, and most basic, concept—matter—is.

            In fact, we will include Methodological Naturalism under this second critique because, as Sheldon points out, if scientific method is the only test by which we determine what exists, then, “Publicity is the test; the private and hidden is ruled out of court. And the only publicly observable things are the physical things. Thus the naturalist, when he investigates what men call mental affairs, has to treat them as bodily or physical affairs…When, then, it comes to a specific issue, to the issue fought over through the ages between idealist or spiritualist or dualist and materialist, he [the methodological naturalist] definitely takes sides with the materialist.”[3] So, even Methodological Naturalism must ultimately be Materialistic, and we still do not know what matter is.

            If, however, we pursue this idea, that, matter is whatever the natural sciences study and tell us is the basic foundation of all that exists, then, we must assume, based upon the history of science, that we will never know what matter is, because the scientific theory of one generation is always being supplanted by the theory of the next. It seems that Naturalism, in all of its forms is unable to tell us what matter is; all that it is able to do is to claim that matter is most basic, and then point to the advancements of science as if they amount to some type of proof.

            In the next installment of this, long series on what it means to be a human person, we will look at the Thomistic view of matter, and how it helps us to understand the form-matter composite which, due to its rationality, is called human.


[1]W. H. Sheldon, “Critique of Naturalism,” in Journal of Philosophy 42, no. 10 (May 10, 1945), 262.


[2]Ibid., 264.

[3]Ibid., 262.

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