22 Sep

Not “mere” matter

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/22/15

David Bentley Hart on the spirituality of the material world

“In the Western philosophical tradition, for instance, neither Platonists, nor Stoics, nor any of the Christian metaphysicians of late antiquity or the Middle Ages could have conceived of matter as something independent of ‘spirit,’ or of spirit as something simply superadded to matter in living beings. Certainly none of them thought of either the body or the cosmos as a machine merely organized by a rational force from beyond itself. Rather, they saw matter as being always already informed by indwelling rational causes, and thus open to—and in fact directed toward—mind. Nor did Platonists or Aristotelians or Christians conceive of spirit as being immaterial in a purely privative sense, in the way that a vacuum is not aerial or a vapor is not a solid. If anything, they understood spirit as being more substantial, more actual, more ‘supereminently’ real than matter, and as in fact being the pervasive reality in which matter had to participate in order to be anything at all. The quandary produced by early modern dualism—the notorious ‘interaction problem’ of how an immaterial reality could have an effect upon a purely material thing—was no quandary at all, because no school conceived of the interaction between soul and body as a purely extrinsic physical alliance between two disparate kinds of substance. The material order is only, it was assumed, an ontologically diminished or constricted effect of the fuller actuality of the spiritual order. And this is why it is nearly impossible to find an ancient or mediaeval school of thought whose concept of the relation of soul and body was anything like a relation between two wholly independent kinds of substance: the ghost and its machine (which, for what it is worth, was not really Descartes’ understanding of the relation either).”

—from David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press, 2013)

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