What is Matter?

It seems to me that a great inadequacy of arguments is that too much is taken for granted. This is why we do philosophy—to get at all of these assumptions that we don’t even notice that we are having. But often (most of the time) philosophers do the same thing. They are human, all too human.

One such term in philosophical debate is “matter”. The term makes me wince whenever I hear about it, with an accompanying urge to ask the person: “What is Matter? What the hell do you mean? Why do you think you are justified in using ‘matter’ as if it is unproblematic? Is talking about Matter not much different than talking about Geist, in that we don’t know what neither terms mean?

It seems to me that our conception of matter, although hazy, is largely inherited from Descartes. Matter, for Descartes, is something that is unthinking and extended in space. And as extended, it is divisible. Immediately, certain problems arise when we try to match this onto atomic theory: how about atoms (or quarks, or what have you) that are indivisible? If we just think about it, there is something counterintuitive about indivisible atoms: how can something be extended in space but indivisible at the same time? For to be extended is to occupy a certain space that can be, at least mentally, cut apart. If we cannot intelligibly call matter extended and divisible, then we cannot really call it unthinking either, for the definition of “thinking” is just being non-extended and indivisible. Hence, our intuition fails us completely.

We may be inclined to point at the world, and, in a Moorean gesture, pointing at the world around us, saying: this, yes, this is just matter, matter is just what is around us. This may be what Descartes would be inclined to do. But from Locke onwards, there is a gradual insistence that what we have access in the world comes from our senses, and if we are to talk about matter in any meaningful way it must be what emits what our senses capture but is beyond our senses. Matter has to be the substance that underlies what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Only that, where Locke thought that we can still reasonably say that this matter qua undergirding substance has a size and shape, Berkeley insisted that this is simply inconsistent, because we simply cannot imagine something existing with size and shape without color, smell, etc.—we cannot isolate certain features of experience and say that they are primary, but it is of the nature of our mind to take the full package. To insist otherwise is to be talking gibberish. From here, matter—if we are to insist that it is something beyond appearance—simply dissolves into inconsistency. We need to find another way out, if we are not to become an idealist.

One can, of course, become a vulgar pragmatist, and just say, “What the hell. Matter is just what the equations of Quantum Mechanics point to when they do their calculations. It is the most useful model of the world.” This has two problems. Firstly, physics always updates itself—we cannot simply say that the best practical theory we have presents us with some significant truth about the world. This, to me, is plain defeatism, similar to people who say that “it is impossible to say what is the meaning of life, therefore we shouldn’t think about it, and settle for what is the most pragmatic.” Secondly, our physical theories are just a set of equations. They don’t indicate any stable ontology. Whatever meaning of “matter” under a scientific paradigm is always thought up by scientists or philosophers to best make sense of the equations (and they are not even, strictly speaking “interpretations” of the same theory—a different understanding of the ontology of a set of equations is just a different theory). The equations do not care about your understanding. They work even if you have no clue what is going on. Therefore, we cannot simply “follow the science” when it comes to matter, simply because science does not care about matter at all.

But should we simply dismiss matter as a concept? Perhaps not so soon. As Thomas Nagel (who is spectacularly readable in analytic standards) said, just because we cannot make sense of something, we shouldn’t throw the concept away if we intuitively feel that it is meaningful and significant, if we can sense its weight. What we have to do, simply, is to keep thinking and understanding, perhaps reformulate the question, perhaps try to invent new methods of dealing with the problem. What we shouldn’t do is to settle for a good-enough account, or to dismiss the question altogether. That is just laziness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s