A Phenomenology of Matter

As I begin my meditation on “matter” in search of what Edmund Husserl would call the “essence of the phenomenon,” I immediately realize that the traditional historical deconstructions already performed have amounted to an epoché, a bracketing, that has taken away all the specification and characterization with which my natural wordview had clothed the word “matter.”  First, the top layers of scientistic positivism were peeled away dismissing mechanistic reductionism as, mini­mally, a premature and prejudicial assumption, and acknowledging the validity of conscious experience.  Hence, the first conclusion: the experience of consciousness, despite the erstwhile claims of Daniel Dennett, cannot be dismissed as illusion.  Consciousness is real and its apparent incompatibility with its own material substrate is not sufficient in itself to prove the null hypothesis.

Subsequently, that first reduction revealed a sedimentation ― more layers underneath ― that also had to be held in abeyance.  This second deconstruction bracketed the age-old pre-scientific traditional assumption that the “self” was a substantial “spirit” (soul) able to exist without the matter of the body, and that consciousness was one of its sui generis operations.  It was precisely as spirit, i.e., not-matter, that the apparently immaterial characteristics of con­scious experience could be present alongside a material organism.  That view held that human beings were body and soul.

Effectively now, with both those worldviews suspended, I shouldn’t even use the word “matter” because its ancient traditional con­struc­tion in both cases had made its characteristics a cor­relate of spirit.  For even in the positivist reductionist view, matter was given its exclusively physicalist charac­ter with the distinction of body and soul in the background.  Once spirit was eliminated by the naive materialism of the modern era, the well established traditional inertness of matter was left to explain everything.  It’s no surprise that it could not do so.

Descartes claimed matter could be acted upon but could not act, because he was convinced that alongside dead matter there was also a living immaterial force in the universe.  All degrees of con­scious­ness as well as the ability to initiate activity were explained by that “second sub­stance.”  It was called spirit.  Without it matter was a dead mechanism.

Stripped by this double reduction of its correlative spirit, phenomenologically speaking, the word matter has become free floating and indeter­minate.  It has lost its exclusively mechanistic character.  Without these physical / metaphysical presumptions pre-empting the determination of meaning, the perception of matter is open to the meaning that I, in my first person experi­ence, can discern in it.  I am now free to ask the question: how do I expe­rience matter and what do I mean by it … or perhaps better, highlighting the inten­tion­ality that impels my enquiry: what does the matter I experience mean to me?

Asking the question of meaning emphasizes the restrictions that a phenomenological enquiry imposes.  There can be no question here of resolving the ultimate nature of the object that the phenomenon intends by introspective examination alone.  Phenomenology cannot deter­mine the nature of matter.  Further clarification of “what” matter might be, is the domain of science, where already vetted and purified phenomena are subjected to painstak­ingly thorough and detailed observation, measurement, analysis and mathematical represen­tation.

Erasure     Given the extent of the ignorance that the phenomenological bracketing introduces, If I continue to use the word matter (and I have little choice because as yet there is no other), I realize I have to use it under erasure, as Jacques Derrida would say, because its conventional meaning has been “deconstructed.”  He would represent this by writing it with a strike­through, like this: matter.

So in the first instance I am aware that the very word, “matter,” can no longer refer to the inert, mechanical thing of the Platonic / Cartesian dyad.  By matter I now mean something universal and utterly neutral ― an experience of “physical stuff” that makes no pretense of describing or defining physical reality beyond what is experienced, and especially not its traditional primary denota­tion: in contrast with and opposed to spirit.  Effectively for me, with reference to this “stuff” that I experience, the words and erstwhile concepts spirit and matter no longer exist.  I am already faced with the need to adjust the imagery associated with each word so that it includes that of the other.  Henceforth both words, spirit and matter will be erased with a strike­through; from now on, each word refers to exactly the same phenomenon which I experience meaningfully but whose “nature” remains to be determined by science.

the experience of matter

What is this experience that we have been calling matter? I have no trouble saying that I know this stuff.  I know it like the back of my hand.  Where and what is it?  It is every­where and everything, inside and outside of me, regardless how alive or how conscious, without exception.  My first encounter with reality is that it is a physical field ― a  totality in which I am immersed like a sponge in the sea.  It is my-world-with-me-in-it whole and undivi­ded.  I am aware that I have / am a body precisely because “I” am a material organism directly and conna­tur­ally in contact with my material matrix which is everything I can see, hear, touch, smell and taste.

This realization that the “I” that is doing the perceiving, and the “world” around me that is per­ceived, which might appear to present a clearly demarcated subject/object (S/O) polarity as the first item of observation, is immediately subordinated and rendered secondary because my initial awkening, like a newborn baby’s cry, is driven by unconscious connatural needs that straddle the S/O divide.  My mindless needs reveal that my “self,” my organism, perceives itself separate and distinct only through and after experiencing its own needs reaching out to the surrounding world for a presumed homogeneous sustenance in the form of food, shelter, emo­tional warmth and existential assurance.  Initially, all such needs are undefined.  I instinc­tive­ly know, however, that my “stuff” and the “stuff” around me are homogeneous: they are assumed to be compat­ible and complementary with me, for I reach out without hesitation or doubt, expecting to find there exactly what I need, and I have done so, apparently with uninter­rupted success, since before the dawn of my own self-awareness. 

The existential anxiety from which I reach out reveals itself as an assump­tion of primordial non-polarity ― as if I were driven to reconnect with an originally prior unity.  The “stuff” in me and  my world is integral; it is the same.  That this assumption is quite unmistakably innate in my organism is itself a discovery ― the result of a learning experience beginning in infancy even before the advent of memory and continuing throughout life.  Even now my felt needs reach out and precede my awareness of them; those needs mindlessly assume they will be met.  I feel hunger first, and then the anticipation of its satisfaction.  Then, in a final step, I know and am able to say: “I am hungry,” and “I am thinking that I will find food in the world.”

It is this spontaneous reaching out that gives detail and meaning to my perceptions; my con­sciousness of an innate first person intentionality reveals itself as an expectation of a perfect correspon­d­ence between my organism and the surrounding physical field.  Concretely realized in the very early nurturing contact with mother and family, I discover I belong intimately and in an effective and satisfying way to the matrix into which I emerged.  Later I come to understand this global complementarity as mediated through separate but coordinated sensory connectors in my biological organism.  I experience light in and through my eyes as my capacity to see; events that vibrate air or water in and through my ability to hear, objects with weight and texture in and through my sense of touch, etc.  This is all part of the field of matter of which I am a part and reveals my body to be a mirror of the external side of the physical field, “the stuff” that surrounds me, matter.

The meaning of my experience of matter.

I can see that “total correspondence with my perceiving organism” accounts for the primordial structure of my most basic first person experience.  I can say without doubt that my interpreta­tion of the meaning of what I contact in the world is totally dependent on what my organism’s physical structure and needs demand from the physical stuff in the world.  That correspon­dence ― between my needs expressed by my organism’s structures and what physically exists in the environment ― determines my continued existence.

One simple need, the need for food, illustrates this interaction perfectly.  The sensory medi­a­tors that interface for the food connection are a clear example of this correspondence.  Identi­fy­ing food depends on my organs of sight which correlate quite narrowly with certain wavelengths of light.  Light will have the par­t­i­cular meaning I assign to it because my eyes make lighted objects intimately familiar to me, so familiar, in fact, that I can see and effectively iden­tify food in the environment.

I know and understand light innately; I cannot define or explain it in any terms other than itself.  If I had different organs of sight, like the fly whose 3,000 to 6,000 simple eyes arrayed within the composite organ on the top of its head, which may resonate with wavelengths of light beyond the red or the violet that constitute my range of vision, I suspect I would “see” some­thing different from what I see now, and it would have a corres­pond­ingly differ­ent meaning for me as I tried to locate and identify food in order to survive as a fly.

I may see things differently from a fly, but what I share with it is my need to survive in a world where patterns of light synchronize with my body’s needs.  My visual apparatus, like the fly’s, determines how I am going to interact with the lighted world other than myself, and what the result of that interaction will be.  It is clearly the specific homogeneity between my self and the objects of perception that allows this to happen.  The meaning of the experience of matter is limited by the organismic sensory connectors  ― my senses ― that interface my needs to the world.

This is true of all aspects of the physical world. I do not have eyes in the back of my head, so I cannot see what is behind me; I cannot walk on water like the skimming beetles whose foot parts are like outriggers; I cannot fly through the air for I have no wings. But I do what I can do because of the specific sameness of my body with what I encounter.  Clearly my species’ body, its structure and range of activities constitutes the specific meaning I impose upon the world, for my world can help me survive only to the degree that my human body corresponds to my world.  All I know of the world is what my body matches and tries to grasp and incorporate for its own survival.

The conatus sese conservandi

From my side of the relationship, the world l live in is exclusively made of matter and  it means everything to me, for it is by it that I, made of matter, survive.  For me surviving, being-here, is to die for. Why?  I don’t know.  I don’t have a rational answer to that question.  It’s not a choice, and I can’t help it.  I want to be here just because I want to be here; the desire is built into me;  I CANNOT NOT WANT it.  And it’s not a mere preference activated in serenity.  It is a passionate violent thirst, a hungry craving that will not be dismissed.  It is organic bedrock.  I’m inclined to say that insofar as I am totally matter and this implacable urge is innate, I assume that it is matter that “needs” to be here and my wanting simply reflects the ground that I am made of. 

Thus the first person experience of my “self” in my “lived world” provides me with a confirmation of what my “natural” worldview has claimed all along.  The word and concept “matter” has become indeterminate enough (through epoché) to discern the essential features of the experience; and for me everything I have is matter, and everything I don’t have ― every­thing I need and reach out for ― is matter.  Without making any claims for its ontological status, phenome­no­logically speaking matter for me is the transcendent and universal condition of my first person experience of being-here.  If there is something other than (different from or more than) matter in this universe, limited as I am to my “lived world,” initially I have no way of knowing it.  The meaning of matter for me, is identified with my survival.  Therefore it is fundamentally existential ― I experience it as inescapably connected to my being-here.

“Matter,” the physical reality around me that impacts my body’s survival, is either the direct and originating energy source of being-here itself, or it is the thoroughly commensurate and transparent first-display (or vicarious agent) of some unknown wellspring which is the unper­ceived source of the the energy of being-here.  If that second possibility should be true (and in any case, it is science that has to determine that), then it means matter is the primordial emanate of the foundational energy of the cosmos.

NOTE: This hypothetical question has had many historical antecedents.  In one of them, the Christian worldview, following the Trinitarian innovations taken at the start of Christianity’s Roman Imperial phase in the fourth century, the primordial emanation ― the analog to Plato’s Demiourgos (“Craftsman”) of the Timaeus ― was called the “Son of God” and identified as Jesus of Nazareth.  Those who would pursue the effort to assimilate a materialist worldview to the traditional Christian imagery, would perhaps be inclined to see matter as the logos, the first-born Son of God, the creative agent playing the role of “Wisdom” of Proverbs 8, Philo’s equivalent of Plato’s Demiourgos, and the Stoics’ logos / fire / energy in which “we live and move and have our being.” The analogy is reinforced by the scientifically confirmed creative role of autonomous material energy.

That means matter is my only (necessary and sufficient) connection to being-here as far as I can see.  It is the matrix in which I live and move and have my being.  There is nothing else that plays that role.  If I want to survive, I must interact suc­cess­fully with the material reality that is my matrix.  If I fail at that endeavor I will die.  The matter of my body will cease to cohere as an organic entity.  But it is not my body that controls what successful means.  It is my lived world.  If I do not find out what, in the lived world, really, factually, objectively, unerringly corresponds to the matter of my body and can sustain its being-here, I will die.  Being-here, that is my ulti­mate, absolute and unsuppressible desideratum, the one and only proper object of my conatus, the exclusive and permanent guarantor/guardian of my self identity, depends totally on that submissive correspondence on my part.  I am subjectively constrained to hew objectively to the outside world.

This can be said to provide an inescapable and undeniable bridge from my first person (interior) experi­ence of matter to an external world that does not depend upon my perceptions for its reality.  Death is the final and ever-present, ever-active arbiter of the correspondence between my organism and the rest of the physical field, my subject and its objects, in which I live and move and have my being.

An imaginary world? An imaginary “self.”

The imagery that when I die I “go somewhere where there is no matter” (traditional and still common in our culture) must also be reduced out of the equation, for it is not compatible with what I experience.  Being a material organism, I do not know what experience I could possibly have in a world where there was no matter.  My survival or its equivalent (my body’s “meaning” to my intending self) depends totally upon the accuracy of the correspondence between the matter of my body and the matter of the world I live in.  Matter is what I am and therefore this material world is where I belong.  I can’t go anywhere else.  My very organism arose symbioti­cally.  My body was formed over eons of geologic time by living matter interacting with earth’s material environment.  We are like lock and key, hand and glove.  There is nowhere else I could go.  If there is another world where I can live as this material organism which I am, it must be made of the selfsame matter and in the same proportions.

Correlatively, one of the assumptions I have to suspend is that my own inner sense of my “self,” which feels to be totally mental and quite separate from my body because it can observe bodily functions and feelings as if they were “other,” is actually “other” than my body.  It is not.  A thorough and repeated examination of this “sense of self” in many and varied circumstances reveals that its very function is body-dependent.  In the various stages and levels of sleep, for instance, I see the imaginary nature of my sense of self with great clarity.  I dream, my identity morphs serially through various “selves,” often from exchanging places with antagonists, who perceive themselves undergoing experiences that upon awakening turn out never to have occurred and the “selves” that authored them equally unreal.  In conditions of illness or intense stress I expe­ri­­ence myself with my ability to judge reality impaired, even at times to the point of tem­p­orarily losing self-focus and becoming confused about my self-identity.  I see tragic situa­tions where serious damage to brain, spinal cord, horm­onal distribution result in signifi­cantly altered or even absent affective, cognitive and identity perceptions that could only be ex­plained by my “sense of self” being dependent on bodily functions.  Finally when the body dies, the self is no longer experienced by others as being-here.  Whether that is an accurate indicator that I, too, will not continue to experience “my self” remains unknown.  No one has ever re­turned to resolve the issue one way or the other.  Since the body no longer inter­faces with the material universe, my own conjecture is that my “experience” also ceases.  This suggests that my “self” was a function (an action or product) of the living body all along.  The living organism had produced a set of images to stand for a profound but inexpressible self-awareness, and then callsed those images its “self.”  It’s a narrative generated to characterize a lifetime of the events and choices of a particular biological organism. 

There is no ”self” apart from the biological organism.  My “self” is something I do, not what I am.  When I die and can no longer do anything, my carefully elaborated “self,” my story, disappears.

There is no “intelligence” apart from the body.  Intelligent awareness pervades the entire body.  This militates against the traditional imagery of a “soul” as a separable entity, made of some­thing different from what makes up the body and performing exclusively mental operations.  My experience challenges that.  For example, my ability to accurately “sense” the speed, dist­ance, weight, density and tactile properties of a moving object ― like a baseball ― that is clearly “other than” my own moving body, indicates that my ability to navigate within my lived-world is resident and functioning in all parts of my body in a coordinated fashion and not just in my mind.  The encounter between “me” (my moving body) and the baseball is precise and “meaningful” without any recollection of a “thought process” guiding the whole procedure.  I am able to achieve the desired result, “catching” the ball, without consciously thinking.  So, just as my “mind” and “body” are one thing, my “sense of self” is not an indication that the “self” is limited to the brain nor, as traditionally believed, that it is due to  the exis­tence of something other than the material body, like a spiritual soul traditionally identified with the mind.

Matter is existence

The utter transcendent universality of matter in our universe ― that everything that exists is matter ― raises the suspicion that “being,” which Plato and the dualists claimed was comprised principally of a kind of invisible stuff along with matter called “spirit,” is really only the one thing I encounter everywhere and in everything ― matter, spirit.

Even within Plato’s lifetime, Aristotle saw clearly that there is no evidence for the independent existence of immaterial ideas as “forms” or “essences,” and that fundamental matter (without form) was not a “thing” but a metaphor for the reality of an apparently infinite “potential” in the physical field of the universe.  Matter, for Aristotle, was a kind of energy.

At the same time, what Plato was calling pre-existent forms (to which he assigned a kind of parallel substance, called spirit) are really only our a posteriori concepts ― generic ideas drawn after-the-fact from the examination of a multitude of similar singular examples.  The concept “horse,” for example, does not reside as an independent spiritual “entity” somewhere, as Plato thought, ready to be utilized by a divine Craftsman who will insert a carbon copy of the “idea” of horse into a heap of formless matter in order to create an individual horse.  There is no “formless matter.” There is only matter in its multitude of forms.  Prior to formed matter there is only the infinite potential of material energy able to take on new and unexpected forms forged by the insistence of the living conatus to be-nere.

“Matter” before it is “formed” is pure potential: an unidentifiable energy; it doesn’t exist as an entity, a thing.  And the concept horse is our human distillation of a multitude of experiences of individ­ual horses.  It Is an idea, but it is our idea, a temporary configuration of the electric and chemical interactions of neurons in the human brain which we use to interface accurately between the subject and object of experi­ence.  There is nothing “substantial” about ideas.  The human organism exists as an entity, but its ideas do not; they are only temporary mental states.  Ideas are not entities.  They are not “things.” They are real, but temporary and do not exist on their own.  In Aristotle’s terms, they are not “substances” they are “accidents.”  They are something we do. And if we stop doing them, like the “self” they stop being-there.

Even DNA as a template that encodes the processes for making horses and “communicates”  them to the molecules that are used for building horses, is itself an a posteriori development of matter, and is totally explainable as the result of matter’s incremental deep-time evolutionary adaptations.  Equine DNA is not an idea or a rational plan; it only becomes an idea in our human minds after we have encountered it in the real world and conceptualize (make an abstract representa­tion of) it.  What brought the first horse into existence was not an idea, it was the insistence on being-here that drove its ancestors evolving a mutating DNA that eventuated in that of the present day horse.  All this appies to human beings mutatis mutandi.

The obvious plausibility of Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s theory immediately entails another. If Plato’s concept of the human form, what has come to be known as the “soul,” was imagined to have a spiritual composition by being a form, an essence which defined and gave purpose to man, then, since ideas are not entities that exist apart from the brains that think them, “ideas” cannot ground the alleged self-subsistent substantiality of the “soul” which Plato imagined pre-existing its entrance into the human body at birth and surviving its decomposition at death.  The very reason for assuming the self-subsistent character of the soul ― that ideas are substantial entities ― has disappeared.

We have to realize there is no direct evidence of the continued existence of the disembodied “soul” after death, so the only source of “knowledge” for claiming such a phenomenon is the reasoning process by which Plato assimilated the human essence or form to an idea; in his view ideas were self-subsistent and resided in a World of Ideas, hence the “soul” which produced ideas was self-subsistent and came from and would return to its true home in that other world.

The fact that Plato’s theory was debunked within his lifetime by his own chosen successor did not in the least deter the Mediterranean world, in large measure, from embracing the notion of the soul as a disembodied spirit that survives the decomposition of the body at death.  The added anomaly that the fledgling Christian movement of the early second century rejected Plato’s theory as contrary to Christian beliefs, similarly, did nothing to prevent the Roman Catholic Church, even before its absorption into the Imperial State machinery, from embracing it as the linchpin of its religious practice: the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and rituals turned.  For “salvation” came to mean only one thing: that the disembodied individual human soul would not suffer the eternal torment it deserved as punishment for its sins and the sin of its primaeval ancestor.

I believe that the concurrence in ancient times between the far-from-proven belief in the immortal, immaterial, separable “soul” and the cultural, moral, social and political benefits of its universal internalization by the variegated populations of the Empire, impelled both Rome and then its Sacred Consort to embrace, promote and dogmatize that belief.  From a philosoph­i­cal / theological theory, it became an indisputed cultural meme, eternal truth.  We are the inheritors of that culture and religion.  We can try to subject it to epoché for our thought ex­peri­ments, but once the roaring of intellect has stopped, in the quiet of night, it will come creeping back

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