“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Disambiguating Spirit and Matter (reflections on scientific materialism)

For several years now, I have from time to time engaged in philosophical debate with commenters over at Pharyngula (the atheist and biologist PZ Myers‘ well-traffic blog). It is often impossible to maintain a civil discussion or sympathetic reflection about the topic at hand (usually having to do with the ontology of life, the meaning of consciousness, or the role of spirituality/religion in contemporary society) because our complete lack of shared assumptions about the world quickly causes the conversation to degenerate into defensive ideological posturing. Myers (and the Sentinels who patrol his site always ready to beat back the vitalist and mysterian “trolls” who dare question scientific orthodoxy) displays a way of thinking that is perhaps the best contemporary example of what Alfred North Whitehead called scientific materialism. This mode of thought prevents its possessors (or those it possesses) from practicing what Keats once called “negative capability.” Negative capability could be described as the power or potency of the human imagination to think without acting, i.e., to contemplate the possibility of something without assuming its actuality. To practice philosophy, itself a spiritual and imaginative activity, one needs to have mastered this negative capability.

A recent post by Myers, wherein he ridicules the notion of “spiritual exercises” for atheists, illustrates well the conceptual blockage preventing scientific materialists from considering anything other than deterministic mechanical laws in their explanations of the natural world. Myers writes of spiritual exercises, like meditation, visualization, and breath work, that:

“…they are physiological exercises. [1]They do not manipulate ‘spirit,’ [2]they change the physical state of the brain. But these glib pseudoscientific quacks just love to borrow the language of science and slap the label of ‘spiritual’…”

Myers thinks he is able to discard the notion of “spirit” quickly and easily as a relic of pre-scientific dualism; but I think his concept of “spirit” is deeply confused. He seems to imagine “spirit” as some sort of super-matter, a subtler kind of extended substance capable of reaching in from the outside to direct physiological activity. He rightly dismisses this caricature of “spirit” in one clause [1], only to implicitly re-affirm it in the next [2]!

Who, exactly, changes the physical state of the brain? The language here is difficult, and some may argue that philosophy simply plays with the infinite ambiguity of linguistic reflexivity until all discernable meaning becomes entirely obscured. But if one is capable of any degree of philosophical sympathy with the likes of such difficult thinkers as Kant, Ficthe, Schelling, Hegel, Steiner, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson, James, Whitehead, etc., I think it becomes rather obvious that the sublimity of feeling resulting from consciousness’ attempts to understand its own conditions of possibility (whether cranial or celestial) lead straight into what can only be called “spirituality.” “Spirit” is an easily misunderstood word referring to one’s own present consciousness. It is the “I” that knows who it is, the “will” who intends, regrets, and foresees. Spirit is that in the physiologist that experiences the feeling of knowing the structure and function of the brain. A thinker cannot reduce his or her own thinking to the structure and function of the brain without a performative contradiction.

This defense of spirit as irreducible to matter is not a plee for dualism. On the contrary, it is an attempt to provide the mechanistically minded with an opportunity to discover the deeper meaning of what even their own language cannot help but admit. Spirit and matter are not opposites, but complementaries: the two faces of a single, creative process.

One possible antidote to the self-erasure of scientific materialism is the organic cosmology of the Romantics, for whom nature was visible spirit, and spirit invisible nature. I won’t try to say it better than Emerson, who in Nature, writes:

“Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass…The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics. Thus, “the whole is greater than its part;” “reaction is equal to action;” “the smallest weight may be made to lift the greatest, the difference of weight being compensated by time;” and many the like propositions, which have an ethical as well as physical sense. These propositions have a much more extensive and universal sense when applied to human life, than when confined to technical use…This relation between the mind and matter is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so is free to be known by all men. It appears to men, or it does not appear. When in fortunate hours we ponder this miracle, the wise man doubts, if, at all other times, he is not blind and deaf;

—— “Can these things be,
And overcome us like a summer’s cloud,
Without our special wonder?”

for the universe becomes transparent, and the light of higher laws than its own, shines through it. It is the standing problem which has exercised the wonder and the study of every fine genius since the world began; from the era of the Egyptians and the Brahmins, to that of Pythagoras, of Plato, of Bacon, of Leibnitz, of Swedenborg. There sits the Sphinx at the road-side, and from age to age, as each prophet comes by, he tries his fortune at reading her riddle. There seems to be a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms; and day and night, river and storm, beast and bird, acid and alkali, preexist in necessary Ideas in the mind of God, and are what they are by virtue of preceding affections, in the world of spirit. A Fact is the end or last issue of spirit. The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.”

More reflections on PZ Myers, science, and philosophy… 




21 responses to “Disambiguating Spirit and Matter (reflections on scientific materialism)”

  1. Gerald Avatar

    Very enjoyable read, thanks!

  2. Jason Hills Avatar
    Jason Hills

    I would give up on talking to such people except in the context of popular philosophy. One of my prized reserved insults–reserved in that I almost never use it–for such people is to say that they have a Nietzschean will to truth. If you recall the Genealogy, then you’d know that’s a weighty way to say that they persue science with a religious fervor and blindness to the point of denying life and vitality. Because the will must will something, even its own negation, rather than nothing at all.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I suppose I masochistically enjoy the rhetorical challenge of communicating with them. But in the end, I suppose it a distraction and is not helping the development of my thinking…

      1. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills

        Touch base with that kind of not-thinking from time to time, but spend more time with thoughtful opponents.

  3. John Anngeister Avatar

    Not a good idea I think to utilize the mindset of PZ Meyers and his acolytes as either thesis or antithesis for your philosophy – the whole new atheist crowd are deficient thinkers, and doing any kind of apology in that direction (or trying to pitch a theory of reality in terms intelligible to them) can only create a cul-de-sac or epiphenomenon of true philosophy.

    But Whitehead (and Emerson) I think also contribute to this cul-de-sac because they failed to understand Kant’s critique of transcendental illusion. Emerson and Whitehead were great reasoners, but prone to the weakness of reason diagnosed by Kant – that it is too uncritically monistic. Because the mind is structured for unity, it is capable of perceiving false unity – this is why it tends to interpret the concept of duality as either unnecessarily complex or as a kind of crude singular ‘dualism’ that is to be philosophically shunned.

    Mind on its own (without spirit insight) cannot see the resolution of the tension of the duality of matter and spirit in the reality of harmony – only spiritual insight interprets the tension rightly – not as crude dualism but in terms of the living harmonies of beauty, goodness, and truth.

    Maybe the reason matter and spirit cannot exist as a perfect substantial unity in time and space is because matter and spirit cannot both ‘be’ in the same space at the same time. Maybe the two may in fact be one only in the infinity of eternity (ie., with God, ‘before’ the current history of time that is measured by mathematical physics). However, here and now they do represent a marvelous and fruitful ‘duality’ whose truth is not to be shunned – for this truth may indeed exist in the harmony of a beautiful personality composed in such a way as to have spirit dominant over matter.

    In my opinion 🙂 .

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks for your opinion. I largely agree. I think this inclination toward the easy unity of an abstract absolute is why it is important to bring skilled dialectical thinkers like Schelling and Hegel into conversation with the likes of Whitehead and Emerson. Speculation must tread lightly upon the unknown to avoid reproducing transcendental illusions; but as the post-Kantian idealists showed, Kant’s thing-in-itself can itself become just such an illusion if duality isn’t ultimately overcome.

      I like your languaging of the difference between “mind” and “spirit.” It reminds me of Coleridge’s differentiation of Reason and Understanding. The latter is bound to the senses, forever attempting to bind disparate facts into fixed categories, while the former performs, often unconsciously, the ongoing unification constituting the dynamic order of self and universe, artist and artwork.

      1. John Anngeister Avatar

        I understand why Schelling and Hegel might appeal, since they accept the dogma of a mysterious Matter which is in itself already organic (rather than absolutely inorganic). But this organic representation of purely material reality only ‘holds’ by a rhetorical tour de force (like Emerson’s, or Whitehead’s).

        Kant still understood the metaphysical importance of positing the material reality of something that does not move of itself but is always ‘moved’ from outside itself (i.e. inert substance) – although he denied we could understand how this something could be in itself nothing-but-object. He was not caught up in the coming romance of ‘living matter’ to which Schelling and Hegel I think fell.

        I think the concepts of ‘organic life’ and ‘Spirit’ both deserve treatment independently of Matter. No matter how ‘lively’ the current scientific analysis of matter appears to make it – there is still a qualitative difference between sub-atomics and organic molecules like DNA. I just don’t think we can simply posit a kind of ‘spirit-matter’ to solve the apparent differences – which is a reservation I have against panpsychism, that it is an over-simplification riding on the back of a metanarrative.

      2. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills

        One could sidestep both dualism and simplistic monism with an emergent naturalism. In your words, I have little idea what “matter” denotes, and thus I have little sense of who your target is or whether Matt would be a target of it.

      3. Matthew David Segall Avatar


        What is it, exactly, that makes sub-atomic occasions qualitatively different than molecular occasions like DNA?

      4. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        Or rather, could you expand upon what you mean by a qualitative difference? Is this the same as an ontological difference? Or is it just an apparent difference?

      5. John Anngeister Avatar

        I use the term qualitative to characterize (1) all life and value-structures as different from (2) merely measurable facts about things – the quantitative.

        But I was also trying to assert an ontological difference between (a) the strictly unconscious thing-hood of the atomic elements and their inorganic molecules and (b) a primitive consciousness dwelling not at the atomic or inorganic level but only at the level of the organic.

        Obviously I take issue with Whitehead over his broader use of the term organic and ‘organism.’ But I do not require a dualism nor an emergent naturalism – only a concept of spiritual priority and supervenience. Admitedly this priority is not something I can argue to, but only argue from.

        So like you, I am sensitive about pre-Kantians like PZ Meyer writing off the spiritual as some kind of fond dualism. But I don’t presume to have an argument that can replace his need for spiritual experience. 🙂

      6. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills

        Why hold the quantitative vs. qualitative distinction? That appears to be an epistemic and not an ontological distinction. Moreover, I see no reason to take issue with either that use of “organicicsm” or Whitehead, especially since the organismic model predates much of Whitehead. Process thinkers often grant an ontological difference between the unconscious and conscious, but also insist on ontological creativity or real emergencel the conscious emerges from the unconscious. There’s no need on these views to oppose the two.

        Supervenience is at least very close to a dualism, depending upon the details, and in most cases it is dualism, sometimes in fancy clothing.

        I would insist that we do not need dualism, supervenience, etc. to preserve a “spiritual priority,” e.g., a priority of the person. But it would require a naturalism that is not “closed,” a “naturalism” not widely known by that name for decades. As I often say to the “reductive” naturalists; if it happens, then it must be natural. If I encounter God, then it must be natural, and we should not let our preconceptions close possibilities of encounter in advance. This need not be too much more than a different take on the principle of sufficient reason.

      7. John Anngeister Avatar

        Jason, the concept ’emergence’ gives me no clues for anything approaching a real solution to the problem of the time-space reality of life and spirit in causal, moral, or personal terms. It is merely descriptive, not explanatory.

        It may serve as a description of a pre-conceived process now manifest in terms of current appearances (if we reject supervenience), but it does no better at avoiding the fallacy of post hoc- ergo hoc.

        I don’t understand ’emergence’ as a bona-fide reality that exists in a state before the alleged emergence, and this lack gives it no advantage over ‘supervenience’ in my opinion.

      8. Matthew David Segall Avatar


        Thanks for your clarifications.

        I very much like your term “pre-Kantian.”

        I just don’t think it makes any sense to talk about something pre-organic, unless we are changing the Romantic definition of organism (that which is cause and effect of itself, i.e., self-organizing). The ‘pre-organic’ is an abstraction, something we can consider as a possibility in thought, but not something that actually exists in fact.

        I wonder, do you adhere to a kind of ex nihilo doctrine of creation from nothing (that is, from the nothingness of some chaotic matter)?

      9. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        To clarify on the mere possibility of the ‘pre-organic,’ I’d take the position that everything that exists is either alive or the by-product of life. The earth, for example, would be chemically, physically, and geologically quite different were it not for the utter transformation of air, land, and sea brought about by cellular metabolism. Even if there were such a thing as the ‘pre-organic,’ there’d be no trace left of it on this planet. But even at the extraterrestrial level, stellar organization has all the essential characteristics of living organization. Stars are perhaps even closer to the archetypal organism than the species of life we find on earth. Anything heavier than hydrogen or helium was born in the death of a star. As for these lighter elements, they, too, are self-organizing processes, systems whose cause and effect are identical. I believe this sort of holonic (“holon” is Koestler’s word for whole-part) organization goes all the way down. There are no mere quantities. The universe is made of an infinitely nested series of qualitatively different though still evolutionarily connected scales of organization.

      10. John Anngeister Avatar

        But if not pre-organic, don’t you mean, Matthew, that it makes no sense to talk about the inorganic either? What would a chemist say? Surely we are not merely talking about a mere convention here.

        In my view, I don’t see how we get from the concept of a field of 100+ elements held together individually and in groups by external and internal strong-forces, weak-forces, gravity, etc. . . . to self-organizing cell tissues. So my view of matter is like Hume’s ridiculous view of self – I look long and hard but don’t see that there’s anything really there that’s in and for itself (self-organized). It’s No-subject, all object, or, as I said nothing-but-object.

        What looks like ex nihilo in my explanation is I think only an illusion caused by the difficulty of understanding eternity and infinity. Not that I understand them myself. But I hold that logically and metaphysically eternity and infinity must represent more than a mere totalization of all physical time and all space.

        That is, there must be a real eternity and infinity, as divine modes of being, and this divinity, in these modes, must be real even before Hawking’s ‘history of time’ begins. It is from that divine mystery of eternal power and infinite potential that comes the ground for this our ‘created’ mode of physical existence in cosmic time-space. Creation is therefore from outside time-space, but not from nothing.

      11. Matthew David Segall Avatar


        As I understand it, with help from Schelling, the harmonization of the forces you mention into the microcosmic bodies of physics represents an achievement of the same infinitely differentiating and dynamically evolving Life that later gives rise to cellular organization.

        When we really look into matter, whether intrinsically organized or not, following it back through untold dimensions of space and time, we arrive, finally, not at a sort of empty nothingness, but at an infinitely potent singularity. It seems we can agree on this much.

      12. John Anngeister Avatar

        Well I’m still wary of the notion of ‘singularities’ because of the propensity of mind to force its way to a position of objective unity by means of monistic abstractions. I reject any implication that mind is inherent in matter. But we are in enough general agreement against scientific materialism I think.

  4. mary Avatar

    Tom Mellet’s essay…wonderful

    Elaboration on self-similarity regardless of scale…

  5. What Barfield Thought Coleridge Thought | Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] Disambiguating Spirit and Matter (reflections on scientific materialism) (footnotes2plato.com) […]

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