The mystery of being, by Thomas Schenk
photo by B. T. Newberg
This week we dive into the matter of spirit and the spirit of matter in this reflection by Thomas Schenk.
In his book, “The Mystery of Being,” Gabriel Marcel writes:
“For in speculation and reflection we soar above every possible kind of mechanical operation; we are…in the realm of spirit.”
From a naturalistic perspective, this statement must be rejected. From this perspective, the ability to speculate and reflect must arise from some kind of “mechanical” operation, some operation of the brain.
But what can it mean that the ability to reflect is a mechanical operation? The ingredients of reflection include awareness, thought,
imagination, and judgment. It is also a purposeful and creative activity; its purpose is to come to a new truth (in some sense of that
hard to define word), and if successful it leads to a novel way of seeing some aspect of the world (novel, at least for the being doing
the reflection). In the standard dualistic thinking of the Western world, awareness, thought, imagination, judgment, truth, creativity, are all parts of the spirit; Marcel’s statement reflects the traditional Western view. The naturalistic view requires here a
rejection of the traditional view; and though itself a product of reflection, it offers a rather attenuated notion of reflection.
I wish to suggest that at least part of the problem here comes from a misunderstanding about what words mean and how they come to have meaning. To say that the so-called realm of spirit actually can be reduced to the realm of mechanism (the realm of matter and force and the regularities that operate in their interactions) is also to say that the realm of matter and force contain within them the potential to give rise to this realm of spirit, with its awareness, thought, imagination, judgment, truth, creativity, and such.
The ideas of science evolved in a dualistic cultural context, where the material and the spiritual were separate domains. To say that
the material contains the spiritual is to radically redefine these terms. It seems we are trying to use the words “mechanistic” and
“material” in their old sense which excluded spirit, and trying to push a new view of the world into these old containers. We are
perhaps caught in the Aristotelian idea that words have an eternal essence; when in fact words themselves change what they mean with new perspectives. And the naturalistic view that the inner world of our experience has a material base, is certainly a new perspective.
Put more concretely, if the first thing we think about when we hear the word “matter” is a rock, then it is hard for us to think of matter as something that can come to awareness and thought. If the first thing is an amino acid, we are a little closer. If the first thing is a photon, we are closer still, for the photon is the particle of light, and “light” is the most pervasive metaphor of the world of spirit. If the first thing we think of is the wave/particle duality of quantum mechanics, we may not have such a hard time at all
imagining how matter — which in the quantum view appears already as much an abstraction as a reality, already as ambiguous as any metaphor, already intertwined with the intention of the person studying it – can give rise to a reflective spirit. Indeed,
wave/particle duality is a good metaphor for the apparent dualism of spirit/matter. If we reflect on this, it should come as no surprise that matter has turned out to be so much more mysterious than the early materialists imagined. After all, it is this matter that is reflecting on these matters.
From the naturalistic perspective, we know for certain that matter/energy can evolve into a thing that can reflect upon matter/energy and its evolution into a being capable of reflection. From where we currently stand, we cannot eliminate – nor affirm – the possibility that matter/energy is the way it is precisely so that it can evolve into a being that can reflect upon the world. It is
questionable whether any words or schema, any model, any theory or paradigm can capture the deep mystery of this fact. But where a religious inspired writer like Marcel and the naturalist can come together, is in recognition that yes indeed, there is “the mystery of being.”
Thomas Schenk: “If asked, I’d call myself a Space-age Taoist, Black Sheep Catholic, Perennial Philosophy Pantheist, Dharma Bum. In other words I am a kind of spiritual and philosophical mutt. I’m not out to change the world, for I believe the world has a much better sense of what it is supposed to be than I ever could. But I do try to promote the value of the contemplative life in these most un-contemplative of times. I don’t know if the piece presented here has any value, but I feel blessed that I can spend my time thinking about such things. My version of the American dream is that here, as the child of a line of farmers and peasants going back through the ages, I have the privilege to live with my head in such clouds.”