Subjective Materialism?

I was reading an article on Ralph Waldo Emerson the other day that called his metaphysical view “objective idealism.” I don’t share Emerson’s idealism, objective or otherwise, though his essays have been a great source of inspiration to me.

Though I believe the world is matter-like rather than idea-like, I’ve never been comfortable with materialism, either. It’s not just that materialism has the connotation of being focused on material things, but that materialism doesn’t really explain the complexity of this world.  

While considering the term “objective idealism,” I realized that my view could be called “subjective materialism.” (I had never heard that term used, and it didn’t come up when I searched for the term on Google, so I’ll lay claim to it 😉

So, what do I mean by “subjective materialism”? I will try to answer that question here (though in a rather roundabout way).

What’s Matter?
The “atomists” of ancient Greek thought that there was a smallest, thus indivisible, particle of matter, which they called the atom. In a way, this was just common sense. When you grind something like wheat, you can grind it into very fine-grained particles. It would seem there should be some smallest, indivisible, particle. 

What in modern science is called the atom is not at all like that. What we call the atom is not only divisible, but a rather complex and organized collection of smaller entities. When you smash an atom in an accelerator, a whole zoo of particles emerge. The more powerful the accelerator, the more particles. The search for the smallest such particle has not ended. For a while, it looked like string theory might provide it, but that hope seems to have faded.

Einstein, with his famous E=MC2 showed that matter and energy are two aspects of the same thing, as water vapor and ice are two aspects of H2O. Einstein also theorized, and other physicists proved, that matter in its basic forms, such as the components of an atom, have both wave and particle characteristics. Further, quantum mechanics has shown that these subatomic particles behave in ways that had long been thought impossible for matter. In the hands of modern science, matter has been shown to be incredibly “unmaterial” seeming. And we’re far from arriving at the end of the story. (For the sake of brevity here, I will use the word “matter” to refer to what should more properly be called matter/energy.)

If the nature of matter is mysterious, information, it seems, is all the more so. As with matter, we know a great deal about how to manipulate information (for better or worse) even while we don’t really know what it actually is.

The first appearance of what we can confidently call information is the genetic information contained in the nucleus of cells. A cell’s DNA is encoded with the information necessary to give rise to a complex organism. 

After this early emergence of something we can call information, we can note the further evolution of information into brains capable of learning and into at least one post-biological form –  human culture. Perhaps the Internet represents the emergence of yet another level of information.

Although the information contained in DNA may be the earliest appearance of what we can confidently call information, there are some that think that information is actually the most basic aspect of the world, and the properties of matter are a manifestation of information.  Something like this view is theorized in string theory. It suggests that the properties of matter arise from vibrations on one-dimensional “strings.” Such vibrations would seem more information-like, than matter-like.

Whatever else information is, it is a kind of organization. A gene is a precise organization of base pairs; change the organization even a bit and you’re likely to get a mutation. The letters that comprise a sentence are a definite organization; a small change in the letters can create a different meaning. A computer program is a precise organization of a binary code; a small failure in the organization and the program crashes. 

That matter has a penchant to self-organize should be obvious. From the structure of the atom, to the far-flung galaxies; from the regularities of crystals to the geology of the planets, we find matter forming itself into organized complexities. And of course, on top of at least one planet, we find the emergence of another level of organization: the million or so different types of organisms, all arising from the information stored in genetic material. And out of one of those types of organisms, the human, there has emerged an ever increasing realm of highly-organized artifacts: buildings, machines, artworks, ideas. All mediated by information processed in brains.

Whatever matter, information and organization are, we only have any inkling about them because we possess awareness. As the idealist might argue, the only thing we really know for certain is that we are aware. If we aren’t aware, we know nothing.

If the idealist is right, awareness is first and gives rise to the manifest world. If the materialist is correct, only matter/energy and space/time are primary, and the rest emerges over time from these basic elements. As stated earlier, in this matter I consider myself a materialist.

In either case, we only know this world as it is represented in our mind. (A materialist might insist that we should say represented in “the brain,” but since we can only conceive of a brain because it is a representation in the mind, I consider “mind” the correct word to use here.)  Thought of in this way, we only know an objective world through our subjectivity. 

The division of the world into the objective and subjective is quite important to science. In the hands of science, objectivity has been valorized while subjectivity has been devalued. Yet, if we only know the objective world through our subjectivity, it seems that subjectivity should hold a higher, or at least as high, value.

A thought I find rather interesting to contemplate is that from the objective point of view, the mind exists in the world, but from the subjective point of view the world exists in the mind. Subjective materialism recognizes the truth of both points of view and the different values of both ways of viewing things. Indeed, it recognizes that we can only see truth from a point of view, and there is always a different point of view. (This does not deny that there are some simple facts out there; things that are true regardless of point of view.  The moment, however, that we go from simple facts to developing ideas about these facts, we take up a point of view.)

At any rate, information, organization, awareness and subjectivity are all a part of this world. If materialism of any kind is correct, than these are all facets of matter.

Divine Matter?
Pondering the penchant of matter for creating novel and organized entities and the fact that out of this penchant has arisen life, awareness, consciousness and subjectivity, it seems that matter has become somewhat God-like. Matter in-forms itself, en-lightens itself. From it comes Genesis.

Or one might adhere to the old dualism and say to me no, no, no! Matter is just passive, it is God and the logos within God that brought forth Genesis. But if we reject that dualism, as I do, then does it is not make sense to attribute the God-like aspects of the Creation to matter?

And if we agree to that, can we really consider “matter” as it has traditionally been understood by physics the full story of what matter is? Science understands a great deal about matter from the reductionists perspective, but if we are really to understand the propensity for matter to self-organize in such complex, novel ways, perhaps we need to adopt a more holistic perspective. An organization, it seems, is more than the sum of its parts.

* * * * * 

All the above is part of what I mean by subjective materialism. But even more important to me is that it recognizes that one way to improve the world is inwardly, through a spiritual transformation of ourselves. The other is outwardly, by changing the material conditions of our environment. Both can make things better. In this it is like spiritual naturalism which embraces both spirituality and science.

There is an unbridgeable gap between idealism and materialism. But between objective idealism and subjective materialism that gap is quite narrow. That is why I can find so much truth in an essay like Emerson’s “Oversoul,” even while I am at odds with the metaphysical assumptions of its objective idealism.

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1 thought on “Subjective Materialism?”

  1. Thanks for another mind-stimulating article!
    Unlike Emerson, I don’t think Emerson’s “Over-soul” exists. But I’m not a materialist either. During my long adult life, one of his key passages from his long essay “Nature” keeps coming back to me largely because such incredible transcendent experiences have happened to me, also.
    “Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into
    infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent Eyeball…the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God….I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.”

    You wrote, “…one way to improve the world is inwardly, through a spiritual transformation of ourselves. The other is outwardly, by changing the material conditions of our environment. Both can make things better.”

    Remembering back to my village-Nebraska childhood, when adults sometimes responded with one word in agreement. “Amen.”;-)


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