Material vs. Immaterial – A Worthy Debate?

by walterm on November 12, 2014

A continuing scientific debate surrounds the idea of mind as an immaterial substance. Ever since Descartes advanced the notion of a radical substance dualism where the mind and body are two fundamentally distinct things, the mind (immaterial) and the body (material), there has been the ongoing argument against the notion that an immaterial mind cannot interact with a material body. The argument has been that it is properly incorrect to expect that the immaterial can have a causal influence on the material, particularly with the Cartesian notion where since there is no unity between mind and the body we have substantively a “ghost in the machine.” In contemporary science, this Cartesian notion is fully rejected in view of a monistic (or physicalist) enterprise that posits literally everything is material. Now dualism of the immaterial and material has been, in some form or the other over the centuries, the default view since people have a strong propensity to see their minds as having some distinction from their bodies, even though it has some form of unity which may not be as radical as that of Descartes. Yet the naturalist objects to any form of dualism, substance or otherwise.

But is the debate here really and truly about the immaterial vs. the material? Is this an argument over semantics? Or are the naturalists simply shortsighted about what precisely defines the “immaterial”? I would argue that it is both, and that there is another way of viewing mind-body interaction that doesn’t constrain us to what I believe is a shortsighted debate on both sides. For a moment, let’s step away from the debate and consider what matter is. In this universe there are really only two “types “of things: the fundamental forces and energy. According to Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2, there is mass-energy equivalence. In other words, the mass of an object is simply a measure of its energy content and they are proportional to one another based on the speed of light squared. So anything we call matter is at core energy. Matter is made up of atoms, which have a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons, surrounded by a cloud of electrons. There is the strong nuclear force, which binds the nucleus, and the weak nuclear force that governs the decay of sub-atomic particles. The electrons are bound to the nucleus by the electromagnetic force. These are three of the four fundamental forces, with the force of gravitation that we all know and love rounding out the four.

In any given atom, the nucleus contains 99.9% of the mass of the entire atom. But its diameter is only 1/100,000th of the surrounding electron cloud. Given that the size of the atom is determined by the orbit of the outermost electron (for our purposes) the atom is thus 99.9999999999999% open space. So though we think we see typical objects in the world as “solid,” they actually are not, and the reason one can’t simply move one object into the same space of another is due to the repulsive electromagnetic forces of electrons in each object. In fact, it is electromagnetic forces that keep us from slipping through a chair when we sit on it. What we see is the aggregate on the macro scale, whereas at the atomic scale, the world looks completely different and behaves completely different (at the quantum level) from what we normally see. Now as this relates to the subject of the material vs. the immaterial, let’s grant that the four fundamental forces we discussed above are indeed “material.” They may be material, but nonetheless, we can’t see them. They are forces operating under (ostensibly) natural laws that are invisible to us. But how can something invisible act on something material? Forces act at a distance, but how do they act at a distance with no “physical” connections between them? Even Newton declined to attempt to explain how gravity worked. He could only describe it with mathematical equations, but he couldn’t say how it worked or why it works the way it does. The same is true today.

Now the four fundamental forces don’t have intelligence. They simply act according to some set of laws and don’t vary. But what if there were otherwise invisible forces that actually do behave intelligently? The four fundamental laws may not be intelligent within and of themselves, but somehow they do exist and the mathematical equations that describe them are often called “beautiful” by physicists not only because of their simplicity but also because of the perceived ability that these fundamental forces have shaped the universe that we call home. So wouldn’t it be reasonable to posit that if we can have unintelligent, invisible forces, then we could also have an intelligent, organizing force also invisible with the creative activity to provide the organizational structure undergirding unintelligent fundamental forces as well as the matter that these forces influence? Thus, that organizational force would be able to interact with matter in the same manner as the four fundamental forces, exerting its will on the universe as it sees fit. It would uphold and support the universe for its own purposes, including the powers it has given to the fundamental forces that do the “grunt” work of dealing with matter based on a set of established laws created by the intelligent force.

The force of gravity, as demonstrated by Einstein in his general theory of relativity, is a geometric property of space and time. He actually didn’t believe gravity was a force at all but is a distortion of space-time (rather, the “fourth dimension”). Gravity influences the passage of time by dilating it, causing observers that are measuring time in regions of gravitational potential to see time advance differently. The closer the observer is to the gravitational potential, the more slowly time passes for that observer. So even if gravity is not a force as Einstein asserted, but is simply a curve in space-time, it adds another dimension to the universe that we experience. It is a dimension that we can’t see, but a dimension that has known effects on us. So again, we have something that is not visible, in a dimension beyond three-dimensional space, having a causal effect in the universe. Therefore, I believe the argument that immaterial substances cannot have a causal effect on material substances is an utterly foolish argument to make because first, we don’t know what it means to be “immaterial” in the first place, and second, whether you believe the fundamental forces are material or immaterial they’re still invisible, have causal powers, and so it makes no fundamental difference whether they are material or not. So if there is an organizing force or dimension, then we can accept that it makes no difference if it is material or not.

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Typically I try to ignore the uninformed ramblings of the atheistic scientific community when it comes to matters of God and origins.  But I think it’s time to get back to regular writing and focusing more on science, though I will continue on with politics. I read a recent article at Tech Times where Stephen Hawking (once again) declared that science provides a “more convincing explanation” for the universe than God. Of course, the article, which you can find here, starts off with the expected charge that for Christians, the Bible is sufficient to explain the story of creation through some all-powerful flip of the hand of God. Perhaps some Christians do believe that, but it is certainly not the view of Christians who are engaged in science and the discussion of origins of the universe, galaxies, solar systems, biospheres, and biological organisms. Personally, I am a Christian because of the historical testimony of the Bible, and the fact that Jesus Christ walked this earth 2000 years ago. He is not a myth but a real person, and the only thing truly in dispute is if he actually raised from the dead. If he did not raise from the dead, then Christianity is false, and I’m perfectly willing to accept that.

Nonetheless, I don’t depend on the Bible as a book of science.  It is a book about God’s relationship to man, and is not a scientific text.  What I believe is that science simply confirms the biblical story, particularly the creation of the universe ex nihilo (i.e., out of nothing). Hawking certainly believes as I do that the universe had a beginning 13.7 billion years ago, and that it was created from a singularity. He has no knowledge of what happened before that, no matter how brilliant his math is. He notes in the article that the creation of the world is scientifically explainable and has nothing to do with God, but his logic is terribly poor on two fronts. First, science doesn’t explain the universe and its contents. What science does for the most part is describe the universe and its contents, and is always provisional because new discoveries are always being made. I can imagine five hundred years from now scientists will look back on Stephen Hawking and see just how quaint his work was since it was revised numerous times. Perhaps they will say it was good for its time, but he was a man of his times and he couldn’t escape that so he did the best he could given the technology available at that time.

The second flaw in Hawking’s reasoning is the fact that whether he can explain the universe or not, the ability to explain something is in no way related to what caused it. Even Newton, a theist, could not explain gravity though he could mathematically describe it. Forensic science today can explain human agency in a crime scene in startling detail because all sorts of evidence is left behind as the result of agency that cannot be explained by law and chance. You wouldn’t expect the forensic scientist to then declare no one committed the crime because they could explain what happened in excruciating detail. You would expect them to say they have detected agency even though they don’t know who the agent or agents were. It’s the same with the universe. Perhaps we don’t know who the agent was or even if there was an agent, but what we do know is that we don’t see organized complexity on this earth outside the biological world unless there is human agency. So it is entirely reasonable to believe the universe had some ordering principle or agent that brought about its complexity. That does not imply that the agent is necessarily beneficent or benevolent, but it is a reasonable inference that should not be disparaged, particularly by the purely philosophical, and not scientific, musings of Stephen Hawking.

The point is Hawking doesn’t know if there is a God or some organizing principle in the universe. It is fine that he is an atheist and he is entitled to his belief, but to make pronouncements that there is no God to those who believe otherwise is simply not for him to judge unless he has proof of his position. Likewise, it’s not my place to judge someone who doesn’t believe there is a God. People who believe in God are not making up fairy tales or are afraid of the dark, as Hawking asserts. They make a simple inference from the design they see in nature and in everyday things that other humans make. So I can’t think of a more condescending and detestable thing for Hawking to say about his fellow man, as if we’re all simply rubes that need to bow down to his superior intelligence. Hawking can no more tell us how or why the universe came about than he can tell us why his body has been ravaged by such an awful disease as ALS. My only hope is that this man does not ultimately end up losing his soul too. May God bless Hawking.

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Mozilla CEO Ouster Shows Why “Diversity and Tolerance” Movement Is a Sham

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Walter’s Healthcare Reform Plan

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Liberals and Big Government Have No Claim to Moral High Ground

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Last Friday I watched the Sean Hannity show, which was a special on Obamacare.  It was in a forum format consisting of various liberal and conservative pundits. What never ceases to amaze me is the smug, self-righteous demeanor of these liberal commentators who believe themselves to be morally superior, but in truth are drowning in […]

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