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The Matter at Hand

Preamble.


A momentous shift is currently underway in humanity’s understanding of reality, away from the old belief system known as philosophical materialism, and towards non-dualism, or the ‘consciousness-as-fundamental’ view. This shift is no less radical, and potentially more so, than that which took us away from the belief in a flat earth and an earth-centred universe.


Philosophical materialism, or ‘physicalism’ - the belief in a substance called ‘matter’ defined as the opposite of and thoroughly NOT mind - has been the dominant and largely unquestioned belief-system in most of the world for several centuries. It has therefore been thoroughly internalised, to the point where most people, though thinking and behaving in strict obedience to its principles, would not even recognise its presence or role in their understanding of reality. And to question the existence of ‘matter’ is usually greeted with charges of irrationalism, alleged with a conviction and intensity as if a heresy has been committed.


Yet the actual irrationality of materialism itself is not difficult to demonstrate. We might point out, for example, that to claim knowledge of a substance alleged to be thoroughly not mind, when knowledge itself is a phenomenon of mind, is a flat-out contradiction. By its definition, if matter did exist, we could never know about it. In this way, materialism deserves the classification expressed by CS Lewis in another context, namely that it ‘does not rise even to the dignity of error.’


And the non-existence of ‘matter’ as a rational proposition has now been corroborated by contemporary science in its discoveries that it does not exist in the phenomena of the world. As Gribbins and Davies comment in The Matter Myth, during the twentieth century (and even more so during the twenty-first) ‘the new physics has blown apart the central tenets of materialist doctrine in a sequence of stunning developments…The old assumption that the microscopic world of atoms was simply a scaled-down version of the everyday world had to be abandoned.’


This scientific revolution is not an abstruse matter for specialists and ‘geeks’. The differences which are being discovered between how things appear to work on the surface of reality - in the ‘everyday world’ of our senses’ first impressions - and how they are actually working at a deeper, more detailed level, are very big, such that it would be reckless to continue proceeding on the basis of the superficial impressions anymore. It would be like opening the bonnet of your car to discover that the radiator was leaking, but then closing it again and trying to prevent the car from overheating by keeping the air-conditioner on. It simply won’t work.


The current environmental crisis is a prime example. We have proceeded on the basis that nature is a collection of mostly inert resources for us to exploit, such that removing and changing its parts will be ok. Now we are finding that this approach is causing great harm and de-stabilisation, because nature, in keeping with contemporary science’s discoveries, is actually a thoroughly alive and interconnected array of phenomena. To adapt the union slogan, ‘touch one thing, touch everything’! We cannot continue chopping and changing nature to suit our own desires without doing potentially irreparable harm.


This contemporary perception of nature’s interconnectedness is, of course, not a new one. It is, to use the finance phrase, more of a ‘correction’: a correction, that is, to the mechanistic materialist model which took hold so strongly during the Enlightenment and subsequent industrial revolution, although that model was based firmly on the belief in the Christian creator God, a fact much neglected by contemporary champions of materialism. Contemporary materialist scientists who proclaim atheism are trying to use arguments whose essential premises have been removed. They are like those cartoon characters who have run off the end of a cliff and keep running in mid-air for a while before realising their true position. That position has now been realised, if not by them then by their colleagues who have conclusive evidence of it.


Most human cultures before the modern age recognised the aliveness and interconnectedness of reality. Modern materialism, then, is a great historical anomaly in this regard, especially in its total faith that our immediate sense perceptions provide us with absolutely reliable evidence as to the nature of reality. For materialists, seeing really is believing, and things really are just as they seem to be. The imaginary, impossible substance called ‘matter’ is a generalised inference from how reality appears to the first impressions of our senses: it seems to our immediate senses of sight and touch, for example, be made of solid, independently existing objects which are absolutely outside of us. The advent of the microscope did not at first disturb this belief in matter, because such instruments of observation did not achieve a minuteness of detail sufficient to reveal processes which contradicted the materialist theory. But as such instruments have come to facilitate observation of events at a subatomic, or ‘quantum’ level of detail, this has revealed that the dynamics which should apply if matter were real simply do not apply. For example, what appear at weaker magnification to be independently existing entities often cannot at greater magnification be isolated from surrounding phenomena, cannot be clearly located, and appear to be in two or more places at once. The Nobel Prize for physics in 2022 was awarded to a team of physicists for confirming that ‘the universe is not locally real’. This can perhaps be paraphrased as meaning that the universe is so thoroughly interconnected that we cannot securely identify any part of it in isolation from the totality.


And perhaps the most significant difference between the materialist and non-dual models is that consciousness, rather than its alleged opposite ‘matter’, is fundamental and ubiquitous. Consciousness is not a purely personal phenomena, as materialism proposed, but is, rather, universal. It’s important to note that this does not mean that ‘everything is in the mind’, as if we are merely dreaming everything up. Rather, our personal minds have their own temporarily distinctive dynamic of their own within this universal consciousness, much as a whirlpool persists within the general flow of a river, but they are never separate from it. This has profound ramifications on many levels. It means that the phenomena which we witness in the world are not absolutely separate from our consciousness, not different in kind from them, but are part of a continuum. The most famous example of this general discovery in science is known as ‘the observer effect’, where the wave function of an electron collapses at the point of observation.


These differences between the old materialist model and the new consciousness-only model are huge, therefore, and indicate the existence of processes and relationships in reality which are different in kind and far beyond the assumed limits of those postulated by materialism. And it indicates that we have been looking in the wrong place entirely for the root causes of phenomena. A helpful analogy of the mistaken nature of our perceptions of reality under materialism is provided by the cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman. Thus, we are like a computer game player who assumes that the interface with the computer provided by their headset is the ultimate reality of the computer itself. Yet a game player can successfully manipulate the interface without knowing anything of how the computer is actually working. This is also the response to those who would say that materialism must be an accurate model, because it has allowed us to have so many technological successes. Such successes have only been on the level of manipulation, not of deeper understanding, like the computer game player. Manipulation only requires careful observation of patterns, which then facilitate predictions. But what is producing the patterns remains unknown.


Given the flat out irrationality of materialism, and the scientific evidence disproving it, a business-as-usual approach to our understanding of reality and our interventions in it is no longer tenable, and as I have said, the potentially catastrophic nature of our materialist dealings to this point make a change of tack urgent.     


What I am trying to do here, then, is to identify and explore the role that the false concept of matter is playing in specific contemporary issues, the ways in which it is inclining us to go against the grain of reality, and therefore producing harmful rather than helpful results. I am not claiming that my analyses are definitive - I am to some extent thinking out loud, and more or less writing in note form, though with an effort to be as disciplined as possible - but I hope they may feed into present conversations in a helpful manner.


There are numerous clear and accessible demonstrations of the falsity of the concept of matter in both the fields of science and philosophy. Some very helpful ones which I have encountered include Friedrich Lange’s meticulous and often hilarious The History of Materialism, Howard Robinson’s Matter and Sense, Paul Davies and John Gribbin’s The Matter Myth, Philip Comella’s highly readable and thorough The Collapse of Materialism, Bernardo Kastrup’s Why Materialism is Baloney, Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter With Things, and Donald Hoffman’s The Case Against Reality. Explanations of the view which is now replacing materialism - non-dualism - a rejection of the division of reality into the two spheres of mind and matter, and the treatment of them both as aspects of consciousness, different in type but not in kind are also plentiful. These include core texts in various non-dual traditions such as the Vedic, Buddhist and Sufi. The introductory meditation “Our Essential Nature and its Apparent Veiling”, in Rupert Spira’s The Light of Pure Knowing, would not be a bad place to start, especially for a ‘westerner’.   

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