The mind is made of matter! So I’ve been told, and I don’t disagree. But I have to wonder what this really means.
What is matter? The keyboard I type at is made of matter; I see it with my eyes and feel it with my fingers. The seeing and feeling, though they appear to be outside my mind, are in fact in my mind. How do I get from these appearances to something real? Logic tells me it must be real, otherwise the whole world is just an appearance in my mind, and such solipsism leads to absurdity. But logic is just in my mind, too. Yet I will trust it on this matter and have faith that there is reality behind the appearances.
Now all of this consideration of appearance and reality has been contemplated and analyzed in subtle details by the great Enlightenment-era philosophers going from Locke and Hume to Kant and beyond. There is no final conclusion to be drawn from this long, wonderful discussion, but following it certainly helps us appreciate how large and interesting the question is.
As I trust that matter is more than an appearance, I also trust that the scientific analysis of matter, which leads to modern atomic theory, is on the right track. This theory tells us that matter is made of atoms. The word “atom” was borrowed from the ancient Greek materialists, and it means that which is utterly simple and indivisible. But the modern atom can be split, it is not indivisible, and it is certainly not simple. In fact, the atom as understood by modern science is bewilderingly complex.
For starters it has three main ingredients – protons, electrons and neutrons. Protons, however, are apparently made up of quarks, three quarks per proton. And neutrons are made of protons and electrons and a little entity called the neutrino which seems to be about the closest thing to nothing that something can be. Further, the electrons aren’t really things that occupy a particular space and time in the atom, but are smeared out over space and time, except when an experimenter decides to take a peek. And indeed, all these little particles of the atom are as much energy as matter. And then we have the gluons that comprise the strong nuclear force that holds the quarks together but also serve double duty to hold the protons together. Protons are about as happy being near one another as a husband is being near an over-bearing mother-in-law, but the gluons make them stay put.
Protons and electrons carry electrical force, which is yet another ingredient of the atom. The electrical force is pretty strong, at least compared to the force of gravity. It is about 38 magnitudes stronger than gravity (each magnitude represents another zero). What this means in concrete terms is that all the gravity of the earth does not create enough force to make the protons of one atom invade the territory of another atom – it takes the weight of a star to accomplish that. When protons from one atom invade the space of another, it creates a huge amount of energy and a heavier atom, which means it’s a different element.
Now as strong as the electric force is, the strong nuclear force is even stronger, about 137 times stronger. This allows the strong nuclear force to hold up to about 90 protons together (after that things get increasingly unstable) and this allows our universe to have about 90 different types of stable elements, each with different properties. Why the universe needs so many elements is any body’s guess, but without a rich diversity of elements, we wouldn’t be here; make of that what you will. Now you might be thinking that, wow, since the strong nuclear force is so powerfully attractive, why hasn’t it pulled everything together in one big lump? The answer is that despite its great strength, the range of that strength drops off steeply, so steeply that it is not felt beyond the atomic nucleus. Could a force be more perfectly designed for the task of creating a multitude of different kinds of elements? Oops! That’s a terribly unscientific question.
In sum, the atom is not the ultimate constituent of matter, but a complex, dynamic interrelationship of parts, none of which seems to be any more ultimate than the other. So coming back to the original statement, “the mind is made out of matter” we have the problem that we don’t really know, ultimately, what matter is. Further, we clearly have no sensory information about this ultimate thing; as it stands, the ultimate constituent of the world is but a vague idea in the mind (an immensely tiny string perhaps?). So is it possibly equally correct to say that “matter is made out of mind”?
Scientific dogma would say that there is no necessary dependence of matter on mind; the physical world would still be there even if there was no mind to perceive it (but then again, science is an enterprise driven by values, goals, and a special quality of attention, and some adherents of science deny that values, goals, quality and even attention have any real existence). On the other hand, science insists that there is a necessary dependence of mind on matter — mind exists in and is dependent upon the nervous system and the body that nourishes and protects that nervous system and the environment that provides for that body and the earth that holds that environment and the solar system that holds the earth and the galaxy that holds the solar system and the Universe that holds the galaxy and whatever it was that gave rise to this intricately organized universe where even the merest atom of matter is a complex relationship….
And here typing away is this tiny mind, which I fondly claim as “my mind,” and it holds thoughts of this earth and solar system and galaxies and even the whole Universe.
A potter might shape a cup from clay, out of which he can sip his morning tea. Has the Universe shaped the mind so that it has a vessel in which it can collect itself and reflect upon its mysterious beauty? Over a cup of tea perhaps? Well the Universe needs to shape a whole lot better mind than mine to get an answer to that question! But at least I have been able to raise the matter and sip its mystery. Not a bad way to spend the morning.
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.”
Thomas is also the author of the naturalistic spirituality blog Golden Hive of the Invisible.
Check out Thomas’ other posts:
- The mystery of being
- Bicycle meditation
- Encounters with the Goddess?
- Seton sitting: Something special may happen
How do you balance rational truth and inner meaning?
Meaning and truth, by Treeshrew
Appearing Sunday, July 14th, 2013