Saturday, December 30, 2017

What's the Matter?

It's so cold today that I found it necessary to go down to the basement and dig out the Basque beret I bought in St. Emilion in 1978. Even the lightest stocking cap presses down on my head too much for indoor comfort, though the leather band on this beret is entirely shot and it isn't all that comfortable, either.

I haven't opened a bottle of wine from St. Emilion in many years, but double-checking the wine cabinet just now I found a bottle of Chateau Tour d'Auron 2014. It's "Bordeaux Superior," which may sound better than it is.

Soon I'll head out to the garage to fetch some firewood. They say it's going down to -16˚ tonight.

I realize that metaphysics has never been a required subject in high school or college. All the same, I'm often surprised by the illogicality of phrases I meet up with in popular discussions of the meaning of life, history, the universe, and all the rest. I came across one in the New Yorker just a few minutes ago. Reviewing the year's best books, Joshua Rothman remarks of philosopher Daniel Dennett that "I know of no other thinker who so convincingly shows how human life, in all its vivid, soulful richness, might make sense as part of a purely material universe."

I am not familiar with Dennett's work, though I was intrigued enough by the title of one of his books, Freedom Evolves, to purchase a copy a few years ago. The phrase that caught me up short in Rothman's remark, as you probably guessed, is "a purely material universe."

If we had all studied metaphysics in high school, we'd be aware that "materialism," in all its forms, is useless as a descriptive or an explanatory construct. In the first place, the theory itself, "materialism," is not material. Thus it harbors an inner contradiction. Beyond that, no materialistic theory can explain why, to take a simple example, a hydrogen atom is different from a carbon atom. They're both "made of" matter, along with a bit of energy. Yet their shape, their properties, their character, are entirely different. Why?

These molecules are different, of course, because they're organized differently. Thus even the most primitive materialist theory much acknowledge a second element at work in the universe—structure. Matter may "hold" the structure, but the structure is something other than the matter.

An omelet and a soufflĂ© are made from the same materials, but they aren't alike. Similar materials have been assembled differently.   

The first materialist theories were developed in classical times as a corrective to other theories in which gods, spirits, emanations, and other similarly vague and intangible forces and beings moved and worked. The best of them—that of Lucretius, for example—recognized that matter could be arranged in all sorts of interesting and distinctive ways.  But a major element in both their allure and their controversy lay in their conviction that nothing lay beyond or above matter. In short, there was no "spirit."

Yet this characterization of spirit as something separate from and somehow above matter is no less primitive than the undifferentiated matter it opposes--primitive, but widespread, and not entirely wrong-headed.  Most people feel the need for transcendence in a vague way, at least occasionally. I do. Seeing the brilliant sun on the crisp white snow outside the window makes me want to scream for joy, but I'd be hard presses to capture that effect, bottle it, or share it with others.

And looking a little closer at that snow, I see three deer huddled in the woods behind the house. There isn't much to eat there. And these creatures are a lot colder than I am.

Our "spiritual" moments might include encountering a deer, becoming enthralled by a novel, hosting a lively social event, or dishing out meals at a homeless shelter. In any case, the transcendence involved is often less a matter of escape than of connection, of greater or more expansive organization.

Alas, that word, organization, carries its own unfortunate connotations. We tend to associate it with rigor, set routine, "everything in its place." But the best organization isn't necessarily the strictest or the tightest. It's usually the case that sophisticated entities harbor a good deal of flexibility and "give" within their structure. Thus do the characteristics of "spirit" come more clearly into focus.

We don't live in a "purely physical universe."Anyone can see that. Light a fire, put the Well-Tempered Clavier on the stereo, grab that book you've been meaning to read, or spend a little time watching the amaryllis that your cousin gave you for Christmas grow taller by infinitesimal degrees.

Such shapely greenness. Such noble structure ... such spirit.

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