The Catholic View of Matter: Towards a New Synthesis

Editorial FAITH Magazine September-October 2006

The Underlying Issue: How Much is Matter, How Much is Mind?

An editorial article dealing with the subject of ‘matter’ may at first sight seem far removed from the pressing concerns of the Church today. And yet we all know that the dominant philosophy of our times is that of 'materialism'. This means more than just a worldly, acquisitive outlook. It includes the rejection of any spiritual dimension to human nature; in fact, in terms of philosophy proper, it entails the rejection of the notion of "natures" as such, dismissing any idea of objective meaning, purpose and values embedded in the structure of things. All existence ultimately reduces to randomly shuffling material energies with no other aim than survival for its own sake.
It has been this effective denial of transcendence in Western philosophy since the so called 'Enlightenment' which has led to our current cultural crisis and to the sustained decline of Christianity in the West. So many of the issues that trouble us now—how to uphold the enduring certainty of doctrine, which can yet be developed and deepened over time; the transcendence and the immanence of God; the absolute value and dignity of human life from conception to death; the debate between science and religion—all revolve at heart around this key question which concerns both Man and the Universe: how much is matter and how much is mind? Or to put it another way: what is relative and what is absolute? It turns out, then, that what we think of 'matter' matters far more than we may think.

Of course this crisis did not come about suddenly, nor without a certain cumulative logic to the error. We would argue that it was remotely and unwittingly rooted in the metaphysical real distinction which the ancients and the medievals made between ‘prime matter’ and ‘substantial form’. We must ask the untrained reader to be a little patient with us here as we explore the root of the question on a philosophical level. After all we have been promising to do so for some time. And in any case, issues in philosophy are not just of academic interest or of interest only to academics. How we interpret the material world and its relationship to mind or spirit will shape the fundamental categories through which we identify ourselves and interpret our lives. The answers we give—or even thepresumptions we make—translate directly into practical consequences, many of them very far reaching indeed.

The Scriptural Vision of Matter

Catholicism is par excellence the religion of the Incarnation. It’s guiding principle and its over arching aim is the communion of all humanity with the Blessed Trinity through God the Son who adopted human nature into the closest possible union with himself. In the theology we share and promote through this magazine, not only is human nature made for union with God, it is uniquely perfected and fulfilled through the Incarnation and the sacramental/Eucharistic economy that derives from it. And insofar as the human body derives from the physical fabric of the earth, we can also say that the whole material Cosmos, attains its final glory in Christ, and that it was intended to do so from the very outset of creation. The universe was made for Christ, not the other way around.

Such a perspective is in essence the vision of Christ and creation outlined by St. Paul in his great epistles when he wrote that “all things cohere together in unity in Christ” (Colossians 1: 15-18) and that Christ is the completion of the plan laid out by the Father “before the foundation of the world”, such that “all things are brought to their head in Christ” (Ephesians 1:1-7). It is perhaps easy to forget how radical and revolutionary this vision of the material world really is. It confers the highest dignity on the human body and indeed on the whole of the material world. Matter is the matrix of salvation, the vector of grace. It is the means of God’s intimacy with his mortal creatures, the cause of his greatest humility and therefore of his most perfect manifestation of majesty.

The Pagan Traditions of East and West

The great religions and philosophies of Asia are very different in their view of the physical world. They effectively merge the problems of matter and of sin, attributing suffering to a primal ‘fall’ by which the peace and unity of eternal Spirit was shattered into the divided and limited world of material existence. Every material thing therefore carries some shadow of scattered spirit and every spiritual entity is imprisoned by its surrounding materiality. The goal of life, in this world view, is to escape from the corrupting illusions of matter and recover primal bliss. Such an account of reality is hard to reconcile with any objective study of matter or with upholding the dignity of the human body. It also leads inevitably to pantheism as everything in existence is viewed as afragment of Godhead which is seeking to return to Itself.

The Ancient Greek stream of thought, upon which the Western tradition is largely founded, also struggled to grant any positive place to matter in the ultimate scheme of things. They likewise viewed the human body as a burden upon the spirit, hence the amazement of St. Paul’s listeners at the Areopagos in Athens when he mentioned the resurrection of the body. However, they did not ascribe evil to matter as such. Rather, their various schools tended to see mind and matter as two infinitely contrary poles of existence: perfect and absolute Being at one pole, and absolute ‘non-Being’—the emptiness of pure potential—at the other. In our view, this 'bi-polar' account of being has, in some ways, remained an unresolved tension in Western philosophy ever since.

Greek Thought: Pros and Cons for a Christian Synthesis

Nonetheless, the most positive aspect of Greek thought is that they did recognise in the things of nature around them an inbuilt intelligibility and purposefulness. They saw that things have a certain inner 'logic' of their own, independently of the human mind. The question they wrestled with, therefore, was how exactly the organizing principle of Mind—Logos—impinged upon the seemingly infinite possibilities of mundane existence to give them actual shape and dynamism. They also asked how these identities (that which makes an 'entity' what it is) come and go in an ever changing world? What mechanisms and relationships drive the creative interactions that are evident in nature, and which also have an apparent logic of their own? In short they wondered how the imprint of Mind works upon andwithin the flow of material events.

The neo-Platonic school, which all but dominated the late antiquity into which the Church was born, thought of the mundane world of limited entities as reflections of Light from Absolute Mind or Logos as it is refracted onto the sea of endless possibility. The lower forms of existence have a lesser degree of intelligibility because they are further from the Logos itself and closer to the void of non-Being. So creation was seen as a mingling of Being and Nothing, of the Logos projecting itself into Void.

The Intellectual Journey of St. Augustine

In the Confessions of St. Augustine we can read the fascinating and instructive record of a brilliant young mind as he made the intellectual and spiritual journey out of the Eastern dualism of the Manichees, through neo-Platonic metaphysics and finally into the Catholic faith. In Book VII he compares his pagan reflections with what he found in the Scriptures, especially in the prologue of St. John’s Gospel. He found there the corrective to neo-Platonic pantheistic emanationism in the knowledge that the transcendent Logos created all things freely and simply ex nihilo, not by diffusing himself into the surrounding darkness of ‘not-Being’ He found that there is nothing truly evil or alien to God in creation. He discovered that evil comes from the distortion of spirit, from creatures whorefuse to love in the likeness of their Creator.

He recognised with joy that God has made us for Himself and we are restless until we rest in Him and that this communion with Godhead is to be one of flesh as well as spirit, for matter too is good. And so, "the Word was made flesh in order that thy wisdom, by which thou didst create all things, might become milk for our infancy" in the Eucharist (BkVII c18). In such a perspective it finally made sense to him that God Incarnate should die and rise again in the flesh in order to heal us of our sins and gather our own flesh and blood into eternal union with Himself in the final resurrection. Drawing on the earlier Fathers of the Church, Augustine outlined a great synthesis of dogmatic, moral and spiritual theology, coupled with profound psychological insight. But he was a busy pastor and heleft no comprehensive philosophy of the material order with which to correct the secular schools in detail. The beginning of that task fell to the medievals.

Aristotle and the Scholastic Synthesis

St. Thomas Aquinas found in Aristotle’s metaphysical system a more useful model of created reality than that of Plato. In Aristotle’s thinking a thing has its own specific identity rather than being a vague emanation of Godhead. Everything has its own ‘form’ that defines its nature or species, making it the sort of thing it is within the universe. The 'form' is really the 'idea' of a thing, its blueprint or universal pattern. Indeed the word Aristotle uses for 'form' is 'eidos'. This formal idea, which is a universal and immaterial principle, is made concrete in the individual instance when 'prime matter'—which in itself is nothing other than infinite potential—is taken up into actuality by being enveloped in that particular form. One cannot avoid hearing an echo of the ‘two infinities’of pagan antiquity in this amalgam of abstract actuality and empty potentiality from which arise all substantial realities, especially as Aristotle maintains a ‘real distinction ’—objective not just notional—between ‘matter’ and ‘form’.

Aristotle’s philosophy was undoubtedly the best available approximation to reality for its time, and proved highly successful as the handmaid of theology, especially the dogmatic and moral theology of the Church, for many centuries. It has the supreme advantage of upholding an ordered and meaningful account of the world, which is nonetheless flexible and relational and truly accessible to the human mind. It is perhaps more subtle and dynamic than it might sometimes appear, especially as he sometimes uses the word ‘enetelechy’ to indicate 'form', a term which means ‘that which organises for a purpose’ (from the Greek telos). The mind principle in nature not only organises but energises towards an end perfection.

Weaknesses in the System

However the limitation of Aristotle’s system, especially in its epistemological development by Scholasticism, is that it cannot relate the forms to each other. The forms are, at the end of the day, static and inflexible. All variability and change is founded upon the ‘underlying matter’ which somewhat paradoxically remains in itself completely unchanged because it is pure potential, passive and without properties. All tangible properties of an entity are attributed to the form, and yet the form, being pure actuality, cannot itself be subject to change. And so a further real distinction is introduced between ‘substantial’ and ‘accidental’—meaning incidental—forms.

The true 'substance' of something therefore becomes a sort of soul in the machine, beyond and behind anything that ordinary perception would regard as reality. For example, when we consider an oak tree growing in a field, Aristotelianism would tell us that its leaves and acorns, being ephemeral, are not part of its substantial definition. Strictly speaking, anything we can see and touch, including the material properties of extension and mass, are accidents too. We believe that there is a vitally important truth in the notion of "substance" or "nature", but if the Aristotelian model as it stands is pushed to its unintended conclusion, when we try to grasp reality we are left holding a collection of incidental properties (accidents) inhering in a metaphysical alloy made up from abstraction(form) and non-entity (prime matter).

In fairness, this always was a theory in search of higher synthesis. Aristotle himself, his Arabic interpreters and the different scholastic schools have always struggled to adjust and harmonise the system with the facts of experience. In an age that had no detailed scientific knowledge of how the material world is put together it was the best attempt to wrestle with the broad structure of reality. Nonetheless we cannot avoid the impression that the whole framework of thought has been left behind by the development of contemporary science.

For example, in Scholastic terms the colour properties of something are due to accidental forms: ‘redness’ or ‘blueness’ etc. These are thought to intervene on a substance as metaphysical presets or optional extras. But we now know that colour arises from the interaction of molecular structures with the wavelengths of light. And even more importantly, Aristotle and much traditional Catholic metaphysics would account for substantial change—an animal’s body decaying into earth, for example, and then the earth being incorporated into the flowers that spring from it—by the successive swapping of abstract forms across unchanged prime matter. We know so much more about the atomic structure of matter and its chemical processes that it has long since been clear that scholastic philosophy ofmatter and form needs a radical rethink in the light of modern science.

Modernity and The Rejection of Metaphysics

The failure to meet this need has led to the rejection of metaphysics altogether among most scientists for whom the word stands for untestable and fantastic speculation. Following the thought of Immanuel Kant - who said that all we can ever know is the stream ofimpressions that strike our senses, which we interpret through the projected contours of our own consciousness - most reductionist philosophers of science reject any organising principle, any imprint of mind, in matter at all.

Kant did not actually say that objective natures do not exist, just that we cannot ever know that thing ‘in itself’, but modern empiricists do indeed say that matter is all and matter is ultimately meaningless (cf. Dawkins’ latest book, The God Delusion). On the other hand it is not uncommon to come across people trained in the Scholastic tradition who dismiss all science because it deals with only with the ‘accidental’ order, or—showing more of a debt to Kant than to Aquinas—because we cannot access ‘real’ reality through theories about mere matter. For them the world of ideas is wholly independent of empirical discovery and scientific progress. The rapid rise of secular materialism and the corresponding retreat of religious philosophy into abstract idealism is the outcome of theunresolved tension between the two infinities of Greek thought: unknowable matter and immaterial formalities. Both these opposing mentalities are lost on either side of a deep philosophical rift that desperately needs bridging.

Towards a New Synthesis

Edward Holloway attempted to bridge this gap by working out a new metaphysics that updates and realigns the philosophia perennis of Catholic tradition without losing the essential truth behind the idea of intrinsically intelligible 'natures' in reality, which lay behind the Greek ideas of form and substance. In answer to Kant and the empiricists he maintained that there is no such thing as raw phenomena with no ‘noumenal’ (objectively meaningful) frame of reference:

"A bird, for example, is a complex of basic energies, molecules, proteins, chemical and biological systems etc. But for all that it is still a bird, a definite entity with a unique place in its environment. Often this unity of meaning is simply presumed, so instinctive is its recognition to our minds and so it is overlooked in the modern world. Yet this was the essential truth of the Greek insight about the ‘form. We know from analogy with our own creative work and the machines we build that there must be an ‘idea’ behind anything that works together as a unity. That idea is the blueprint which gives something not only its identity but also its intended function in relation to the mind that made it". (Perspectives in Philosophy, vol 3)

In short, material things could not be intelligible to our minds unless they were already related to a principle of Intelligence. The whole material order bears the inescapable imprint of mind. Holloway was fond of using the analogy of the Boeing 747 to illustrate the point. On one level, a Boeing 747 is no more than a collection of bits and pieces. What makes them into ‘an aeroplane’ is the unity-idea which inter-relates the parts as a whole and also relates the whole thing as a function to the mind and culture of modern humans. And yet he did not accept the Aristotelian account of the ‘substantial form’:

“Man does not put an objective idea, a 'form' into the existential which is the Boeing 747. The form, the principle of meaning, suffuses the entire mechanism. As objective it is in the mind of man. In the last analysis it is a man thinking and willing. So it is with creation by God... There is neither being nor intelligibility apart from the foregoing reality of the Ultimate Existential,
God.” (Perspectives in Philosophy, vol 3)

Updating Metaphysics in the Light of New Physics

There is truth to the Greek notion of an objective "idea" to a thing which makes a thing more than the mere sum of its parts, and it does have a universal reference, but it is not abstract and unchanging or separate from it material properties. Rather the form or type of a thing is defined through the pattern or configuration of those parts as a fact and a function within the universal equation of interlocking energy patterns that constitute the unfolding universe.

Just as the 'idea' of a machine ultimately means "a man thinking and willing"—and therefore enacting—so the form of anything in nature is ultimately God a relationship to the creative Mind of God within the total relativities of creation. That last clause is important, for we do not mean that God maintains things in being in an arbitrary, piecemeal or 'occasinalist' way. God knows each one of us directly and intimately, yet he also knows us through our parents by whom we are brought into being. He loves us personally and totally, and yet his loving is always through Christ and the redemptive relationships that constitute the Church. So also God knows and wills every material creation within the network of causality which is the universe, set out as a plan to be fulfilled in Christ.

Holloway updates the idea of substance/nature defined through universal form, prime matter and accidental properties by synthesising them all into a single integrated concept of 'relative substance'. This is simply the existential fact of an entity set within, defined and produced by meaningful and dynamic energy patterns. Variation and variability within specific limits are already part of its definition. So there is no need for 'substance' and 'accidents' to be metaphysically distinct on this model. The colour properties of a mineral, for example, arise from the atomic and molecular structure of the substance itself as they interact with other material energies such as light and heat. A range of variability is written into the material substance.

Rethinking Forms in a Dynamic and Relational Universe

Neither is there any need for the forms to be unchangebale. No abstract idea of 'rabbitness', for example, is needed to define a given species of 'rabbit'. All that is needed is its genetic configuration, together with the whole fabric of relationships that set out its place and set its limits within the network of living things. The recent unravelling of the human genome has dramatically confirmed this point. It seems that we do not possess vastly more chemical triggers along the sequence of our DNA than any other life form. It is the way they work together as a unit that makes us physically unique and indeed any species specific. DNA in turn consists of just four chemical bases arranged in varying combinations. It is already a synthesis of meaning and purpose, a unity in complexity,which builds into the higher syntheses of form and function which we call living organisms. As noted in our Cutting Edge column, the Head of the Human Genome Project has just published The Language of God, supporting most of these insights.

The Concept of Substance in an Age of Relativity

We also have the Periodic Table which describes how the elements, each with radically different properties, are built from mathematically incremental formulations of identical protons, neutrons and electrons. The properties do not come from intervening ‘forms’ but from the unique ‘formulae’ of more basic patterns.

We also know more about the laws upon which even the subatomic packages are built. Scientists have even synthesised artificial elements with very useful properties because we understand how these patterns work. So at whatever level we look, we find organised unity framed in relation to other levels of unity in vast network of mutual causality in an unfolding series of being and becoming.

Are we saying, then, that relative substance is no more than the atomic structure or the genetic code? Not entirely. These configurations are only part of the 'formula' of a material thing in its totality. The full form of a substantial entity includes everything that defines its place and its purpose in nature—from the quantum relationships that shape its subatomic particles up to and including its final purposes in God's plan, or a substance defines all its relativities, and only God can know those to the absolute degree. We are saying that substance is not determined by something abstract and immaterial, nor is it formed out of a 'matter' that is unintelligible in itself.

Realigning 'Act' and 'Potential' in a Christian Perspective

By collapsing both the metaphysical ‘form’ and ‘prime matter’ into a single insight, Holloway abolishes the age old tension which came from trying to picture reality as the intersection of two infinitely opposed poles of being in mutual limitation: pure actuality and pure potentiality. Surely only God is Pure Act? Any attempt to maintain metaphysical 'forms' or 'ideas' which have unlimited abstract actuality must eventually tend towards philosophical Idealism and ultimately pantheism. For what else could they be but scattered particles or shadows of godhead? And similarly, any hint of an infinite Void of non-Being is the uncomfortable remnant of paganism which has no place in our Christian thinking.

We can now see that it is the nature of created things to be both actual and potential from the same principle. Created being is ‘actual’ because, whilst being distinct from God, it is contingent upon God and exists in simple relation to the Divine Being. In its very being it bears the imprint, the distant echo of Absolute Being. There is no other source of existence, no corresponding infinity of empty possibility. A created things remains ‘potential’, provisional, unfinished and interdependent in its basic definition, simply because it is not-God. It exists distinctly from the Absolute but in necessary dependence upon Him and upon other being in the community of mutual causality, which is in fact the basis of the serial relationships of being and becoming which we know as time andhistory.

It is very interesting that St. Augustine actually came to this same essential insight during the process of his conversion from the radical dualism of Manicheeism:

“And I viewed all the other things that are beneath thee, and I realized that they are neither wholly real nor wholly unreal. They are real in so far as they come from thee; but they are unreal in so far as they are not what thou art.” (Confessions Bk VII c8)

By so jettisoning any principle of intrinsic unintelligibility, or positive non-being, from the make-up of physical things we can show all the more easily that this whole complex of intelligible forms and functions makes no sense unless it is related to a single, absolute, transcendent Intellect, that is, God. A thing is what it is because God thinks and wills it through his one creative act of knowing and willing the entire structure and developmental plan of the cosmos, the Unity Law of Control and Direction.

Knowledge Through Insight, Not Abstraction

We can also answer Kant more easily about the 'knowability' of reality. If the substantial form of a thing is not abstract but its existential configuration within the universe under the Mind of God, then the human brain, which is formed through that same network of meaningful relationships, can instinctively grasp things as concrete unities—not just as an inchoate stream of sense impressions—and also what sort or what kind of thing something is. Animals routinely make this kind of recognition in relationship to their own survival.

When we speak of the "brain" here we are using a kind of short hand, for the brain is the literal and metaphorical nerve centre of the animal consciousness. But it is really the whole body with all its senses that exists in organic relationship of natural 'knowing' and interaction with its environment. Since the human soul transcends matter/ energy in the image and likeness of the Mind of God, so the human intellect will naturally and immediately enter this relationship, grasping the significance of the objects of experience not only as they exist 'for me' but also as realities independent of our minds.

So we can grasp 'the thing in itself' in basic objectivity. As children attain to reason they become capable of recognising things in relationship to other things according to the meanings and functions of their respective natures. However, given what we have said about the relative nature of substance, our grasp of reality will always be capable of further insight and development. We are always deepening our perspective on substantial forms through empirical experience, which is why the scientific, and indeed the philosophical enterprise is natural to us.

Ongoing Development

We are by no means at the end of the road in unravelling the secrets of matter, nor therefore of progress in metaphysics. But we are at last in a position to banish the ‘two infinities’ and lay out the details of a more truly Christian philosophy in which all created existence is good and immediately dependent upon the Creator. Professor Kwasniewski’s article later in this issue powerfully highlights this emphasis of the Catholic tradition.

The fundamental distinction which marks all of creation is between matter and mind, and the principle that both distinguishes and relates the two can be expressed as ‘Matter is that which is controlled and directed, Mind is that which controls and directs’. This thought has many far reaching implications and on careful reflection appears to open many doors in both philosophy and theology. They cannot be explored any further here without trying our readers’ patience beyond endurance. But one important thought does bring us back to the vision of St. Paul with which we began.

Man Known and Willed Unto God in Christ

In the case of Man, the material potential that is the human body can only take place through the living actuality of the spiritual soul. And so in this instance, the ‘form’ of the body is really distinct from the matter it informs. Distinct yet not designed to be separated from it. Man is made for life with God, and only Christ can grant this to us. He is the model on which Man is designed and therefore the Master Key to the meaning of Creation.

This is the end to which our realigned perspective on matter may carry us. For matter has a vocation. From the beginning of time it has been destined to form the Body of Christ: both his personal body born of the Virgin Mary and his wider sacramental Body formed through the Church from his brothers and sisters as they are sanctified and the exalted in body as well as in spirit to the Glory of the Father.

The gulf between the Church's theology of matter, which is more or less explicit in the Scriptures and in the mystics, and the philosophical tools she currently has at her disposal for deploying that vision in the light of modern science remains a great handicap in the evangelization of the modern world. A new synthesis on this level would do much to bridge the credibility gap between reason and faith in the twenty-first century.

Faith Magazine

September - October 2006