Materialism’s Unnoticed Achilles’ Heel


While major arguments take place between classical theists and metaphysical materialists over central claims about whether the God exists or whether man has a spiritual and immortal soul, the most important claim of materialism, namely, that to be is to be material, can be tested in a much more modest fashion.

I am referring to the interesting fact that the more sophisticated animals, including ourselves, appear able to apprehend external sense objects as well as internal images in a unified act of sense experience, whereby the object known is grasped as a whole. I will explain this observation’s exact meaning and full implications at a later point in this article.

Materialism’s Nature

Materialism goes under many names, for example, physicalism, scientific materialism, metaphysical materialism, and atomism. What they all have in common is the insistence that all that is real is solely physical or material things. For the purposes of this paper, what is physical or material shall be understood to mean that which is extended and located in space, and has parts outside of parts.

The first clearly-affirmed materialism in Greek philosophy was expressed by Leucippus and Democritus, who taught the theory of atomism.1 They claimed that all reality was composed of tiny, indivisible, eternally-existent, solid particles. The macroscopic things of our experience were simply combinations of these particles. Early nineteenth century scientists adopted this line of thinking when atomic chemistry and the kinetic theory of gases became successful.2 The atom was, like Democritus claimed, thought to be indivisible.

The discovery of subatomic particles some two millennia later proved a bit of an embarrassment to the chemical term, “atom,” since clearly it was divisible after all.3 Nonetheless, the discoveries of modern science served to support a materialist worldview in which all explanations of reality were left to natural science, even though the basic units of reality became smaller and smaller physical particles. Indeed, the very notion of matter was extended to energy states, force fields, and even the curvature of space. Whatever these now ultimate units of matter might be, they still are parts of the physical universe, extended in space and located in space-time coordinates. Nothing else is considered as real.

Thus, with the advent of modern scientific materialism, a general mindset has developed among many scientifically-oriented materialists which insists that the only realities that exist are the fundamental particles or forces, as properly described solely by the science of physics — either in its experimental or theoretical aspects, the latter being largely expressed in mathematical formulae.4

The Achilles’ Heel

Given materialism’s dominance in academic and public arenas today, finding clear proof that some reality is not material is significant. Rather than offer some complex demonstration of God’s existence or of the human spiritual soul, this article’s proof that some immaterial reality exists shall be based on a simple cognitive act that even a literal dumb bunny can perform.

While the starting point of this proof should be clear for all to see, some people will encounter an impediment to their understanding which is most difficult to overcome. It arises from the fact that those persons who have the best scientific education will also have been conditioned to think, in many cases, that the only reasonable explanations for sensory phenomena are the ones that natural science describes — something physical or material. Anything other than those “scientific” explanations may be viewed as the product of some sort of “archaic” philosophy, proposed by those who “don’t really understand science.”

If you ask most people with a good scientific background how we are able to perceive the world around us, they will say that the sense organs receive and transmit physical data along afferent nerve pathways into the brain which then interprets that data, thereby giving us a sense experience of the world around us. They will say it is simply the function of the sense organs and the brain to do this, and no philosophical speculation, especially one not even empirically verifiable, will add anything worthwhile to what science has already explained.

This almost inevitable pre-conditioning of persons with a good science background creates a mindset which is, probably unwittingly, automatically hostile to the argument I am about to present — a mindset that makes understanding this genuinely philosophical proof difficult, if not impossible, for many people to grasp. Nonetheless, so forewarned, I will now present the proof for the immateriality of sense experience based on our direct experience of external physical objects as well as of internal images.

I am talking about simple acts of sense perception, especially vision. These are not spiritual acts, such as those of intellect or will, which Thomistic philosophers insist are completely independent of physical matter. Rather, I refer to acts that any animal with the power of sight automatically performs. Since we human beings also see, I will describe it in human terms.

The Unity of Sense Experience

In one and the same act of sensing, we see the whole of objects: cars, dogs, trees, other humans. We see them all at once — top, bottom, left, and right sides. When I speak of sensing a “whole,” I do not mean the total content of an object, such as an MRI might depict. Nor do I even necessarily mean even the whole of the side of an object facing me. It suffices that merely some extended patch of color be seen, since that which is not extended at all could not be seen at all. When we see any extended surface, we see all its parts at once — and that is to experience a “whole.” In that sense, all visual sense experience unifies wholes.

There are those who maintain that all we know are the neural patterns in the brain that are the result of the physical/physiological sensory sequence. This claim itself is the product of misapplying materialist philosophy to the sensory process.5 Nonetheless, since even an “internal representation” is physical and experienced as a whole, this starting point would be all this article needs in order to prove its case.

We take this ability to experience whole sense objects for granted. But how do we do it? Do we do it like a recording device of some sort — a camera, an iPhone? Well, if we do, then we do it like they do, that is, by recording bits of data that represent different parts of an observed object on different parts of a recording medium, such as film or a chip. This is easily seen on a television or computer monitor, where hundreds of thousands of tiny points of light create an image of something that we can see as a whole tree or dog on the screen.

The problem is that, while a physical device can produce an image of some object, it can do so only by having distinct parts of itself representing distinct parts of the object being imaged. For example, if a tree is imaged on a TV screen, the pixels at the top of the screen represent the top of the tree, the ones at the bottom represent the bottom of the tree, and so forth. But no single pixel represents the entire tree all at once. That is why TV screens can form an image of an object, but it would be ludicrous to suggest that a TV set “sees” the objects it images. Yet, that dumb bunny mentioned earlier could instantly see the whole of a carrot imaged on the screen — just like dogs will bark at dogs imaged on a TV screen, while the screen itself sees nothing.

The screen is “blind” not just because it is not a living thing (although that is the root problem). The obstacle is that physical things can record data of other physical things solely by having diverse parts of the recording device represent diverse parts of the object depicted. There is no other way for physical things to operate. That is why a DVD can “contain” many thousands of images, but does so solely because it itself contains huge numbers of data points, digitally recorded as bits of information. No single data point can represent an entire object for the simple reason that it is either “on” or “off,” but can never be more than a single such data point. Real physical things are composed of huge numbers of diverse parts, which can never be represented in their composite totality by means of any single “data point.”

Even a neural pattern in a brain in an animal or a man, which materialists often confuse with an image, is physical in that it is extended in space and composed of distinct parts. This neural pattern has distinct parts which are assumed to represent distinct parts of what the imagination presents as an image or what is given to the external senses as an extramental physical object. But no single neural part of the pattern can represent the entire image or object.

The old electron gun televisions make the problem even clearer. The picture tube represents an image by having its electron gun fire huge numbers of electrons at phosphors on the screen, sweeping the screen in such fashion that a pattern of illuminated phosphors depicts the entire image. But no single phosphor depicts the whole image. To get the whole image reduced to a single point, the horizontal and vertical output stages would have to collapse, thus sending all electrons to the center of the screen surface. This essentially puts the entire “image” onto a single point of the screen, giving the characteristic spot of bright light seen on these old sets for a few seconds when they are turned off. Now you have unity, but you also have just lost the picture! Unity on an extended surface can only be achieved by overlaying data on top of data, which results in an indecipherable mass of data obliterating all intelligible content!

And yet, our dumb bunny sees a carrot as a whole — with all its parts distinct from its other parts. Seeing something as a whole means apprehending the entire object and all its parts at once (at least as seen from a single perspective) — something no merely physical device can do. And neural patterns in the brain suffer the exact same problem as does a television set, that is, that distinct parts represent distinct parts of the object — be it an image or an externally-sensed object — so that no single part “sees” the whole object apprehended. Attempting to achieve unity would entail collapsing all the distinct parts on top of each other, which would only completely destroy the intelligibility of what was being viewed.

The basic reason for this inability of material devices to “see” a whole in a unified manner is because every physical entity is extended in space. This means that it can intelligibly depict another object only by having one part of it representing one part of the object and a diverse part representing another part of the object. No single part can “see” the whole. This, in fact, is how artificial recording and observation devices as well as the corresponding neural receptor patterns in biological organisms work. This is true at the macroscopic level, as exemplified by the television example. But, it would also be true at a submicroscopic level (assuming such artificial or natural physical “observation mechanisms” existed.)

Even were such “perception of wholes” said to take place at the submicroscopic scale by the smallest possible subatomic particles or energy or force fields or even the curvature of space, the same absolute impediment obtains. That is, as long as one is dealing with a material “recording” or “perceiving” entity, one part must represent one part of the depicted object and another part represent a diverse part. Nothing — no single part — “apprehends” the whole all at once without destroying the coherence of the object due to data overlaying data, making it indecipherable.

In simpler words (since many find this insight difficult to grasp), things physically extended in space can only represent an object by using their multiple parts to do so, with each part containing only a part of the total image. Otherwise, their extension in space would be irrelevant to their function, since their having parts outside of parts would entail no function for the parts as such. Were there no such use of multiple parts, then the only way to achieve image unity would be if all data falls on the same part or point, in which case the overlaying effect destroys the intelligibility or decipherability of the content.

The key insight is that, in whatever is physically extended in space, the data is necessarily by its very nature, physically separated part outside of part, whereas in the actual experience of the whole, the data is necessarily, by its very nature as unified, NOT physically separated part outside of part, although the parts are still known as distinct from one another within the whole.

Physical separation requires the property of parts being outside of parts in space, whereas distinction of parts within a unified whole can be known in sense experience without physical separation of the parts in space.

The bottom line is that purely physical or material things cannot experience in a unified manner objects that are extended in space. Dogs and bunnies can see objects as a whole; non-living material entities cannot. A world of purely physical things, such as materialism proclaims, simply is not a world in which experience of wholes is possible. And yet, some living sentient organisms do experience things as wholes, which entails that their acts of sense experience must not be material. Metaphysical materialism’s or physicalism’s essential claim that all reality is material is false.

Sense experience is immaterial because it is not extended and located in space. That is to distinguish its immateriality from the claims of physicalism or materialism, which maintains that every real thing must be extended and located in space. This immateriality is not to be confused with ascribing a spiritual nature to something, which means, not only that something is not itself extended and located in space, but also that that something is not even dependent on anything physical (that is, extended and located in space).

Some Physical Dependence, but Not Itself Physical

While subjective experience of extramental things as wholes, or of intramental images as wholes, may not itself be extended in space, some still might argue that such experiences are entirely physically dependent on matter. The alleged proof of this is that any defect in, or cessation of operation of, the involved sense organs, including the brain, will result in a defect in, or cessation of, the sense experience itself. From this fact, it is argued that the sense experience is clearly dependent on material organs, and thus, is still material in nature.

But, this conclusion goes further than what the evidence warrants. All that the evidence supports is that sense experience has some sort of dependence on the organs associated with it.

And yet, sense experience can do something that mere matter cannot do, that is, unify the whole of what is sensed in a single act of apprehension. In so doing, the sense experience shows that it itself must not be extended in space — as proven above.

But still, some argue that the unity of sense experience is simply a property that, while not itself extended in space, nonetheless, somehow “emerges” from physical matter. This is the position sometimes referred to a “emergent materialism.”

Still, to assume that somehow a new property “emerges” is to pull a rabbit out of an empty hat. It is to get something from nothing. It is the question begging assumption that what “emerges” was really there already somehow. But if that new property was not there before, with respect to that new property of actual unity, the physical representation or image is actually non-being. And, non-being cannot beget being. The whole point is that to “emerge” is somehow to come from what was already there beforehand in some manner. But, if it really was not there beforehand, there is nothing to “emerge.”

Because the sense organs, including the brain, are themselves material and thus extended in space, they cannot, as such, unify what is experienced into an apprehension of the whole. But we do sense both extramental objects and internal images as wholes. Hence, the sentient organism is doing something that mere matter alone cannot do. This means that, while sense experience is material in the sense that its sense object is always “under the conditions of matter,” there is also something genuinely immaterial about sensation.

It is precisely this immaterial aspect of sensation which matter alone cannot explain. This means that the immaterial aspect of the sense experience — grasping of the “wholeness” of the object sensed — is precisely that which does not and cannot “emerge” from matter alone, but must be explained by some other proportionate cause. That is, an immaterial effect requires an immaterial cause. Something must exist which is immaterial in order to account for the immaterial aspect of sense experience, namely, its ability to unify the sense object so as to apprehend it as a whole. Once again, it is critical to recall that “immaterial” need not mean “spiritual” in this context.

Conclusion

All the foregoing might be cast as “much ado about nearly nothing,” except for the dominance physicalism enjoys in both academe and social policy today. To discover that a reality, in fact, the very sense experience that make all sentient organisms different from the rest of the universe, is not physical in nature, strikes at the heart of materialism. It tells us that sense experience, which makes sentient beings different from and able to do something that non-sentient beings cannot do, is based on immateriality.

In this whole fiery and explosive, but overwhelmingly lifeless, ever-expanding cosmos, the appearance of sentient living beings is radically connected — in their very sentience itself — to something that breaks the chains that bind blind matter to measurable extension and location in space. Some limited form of immateriality appears — like the tip of an ontological iceberg.

Immateriality appears as that which enables sentient organisms to be superior to lower creatures that lack sensation. This makes the dumb bunny look not so dumb after all, since he can do something non-knowers cannot do, simply because of the immateriality of his sense experience.

This finding is central to our scientific understanding of the world. Sense experience is where all our knowledge begins. It is the coin of the realm for positivists who demand that all knowledge claims should be empirically verifiable.

But, there is no empirical verifiability without sensation, and there is no sensation without the act of sense knowledge itself being immaterial. The immaterial is not, as such, empirically verifiable — and yet, as has been shown, it is real!

This is just the beginning of the story. For, these immaterial sense-experience acts then demand an ontological basis — one which, as just shown, transcends all purely physical explanations.

Could this be clear evidence that at least some living things are, at the heart of what makes them so special as sentient beings, constituted of immaterial principles, like, say, Aristotelian forms?

After all, from the materialist perspective, nothing really exists except the “atoms,” that is, whatever ultimate, infinitesimal physical particles are assumed to be the basis of all physical reality. But unless there is some additional non-material uniting principle that makes macroscopic entities into substantially unified existing beings, how do things above the atomic level really exist? The logic of atomism entails that, while the philosophy of atomism may exist, atomists, themselves, do not — since nothing but the atoms really exist and beings above the atomic level are merely temporary, accidental chemical unions. A man would be nothing but a buffered solution of chemical soup, existing as a pile of atoms in a brief state of physical equilibrium!

On the other hand, if some real principle of substantial unity (substantial form?) makes things — from worms to carpenters to kings — actually exist as whole beings, then perhaps those immaterial unifying principles are precisely the ontological foundation on which other immaterial entities, such as the act of sense experience, find their existential support.

Could it be that the most intriguing aspects of the cosmos rest on immaterial, not material, principles? If so, then materialism is the most hollow of philosophical doctrines.

And this does not even begin to examine what human beings can do cognitively that mere brute animals cannot.6 Suffice it for the present, though, to have broken the intellectual bondage of strict physicalism or materialism — merely by pointing to the immaterial nature of the sense experience we share even with irrational animals. For it is all we need to notice in order to discover that materialism has an Achilles’ heel.

  1. “Leucippus and Democritus,” Encyclopedia of Philsophy, Encyclopedia.com, encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/leucippus-and-democritus.
  2. See “Chemical Atomism in the Nineteenth Century” in “Atomism from the 17th to the 20th Century,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, plato.stanford.edu/entries/atomism-modern/#CheAtoNinCen.
  3. Marcelo Gleiser, “The Smallest Bits Of Things: A Brief History Of Matter,” Cosmos & Culture 13.7, NPR.org, npr.org/sections/13.7/2012/03/28/149457512/the-smallest-bits-of-things-a-brief-history-of-matter.
  4. See “Substantive issues in materialism” in John Jamieson Carswell Smart, “Materialism,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, britannica.com/topic/materialism-philosophy/Substantive-issues-in-materialism.
  5. Dennis Bonnette, “Materialism’s Failures: Hylemorphism’s Vindication,” Strange Notions, strangenotions.com/materialisms-failures-hylemorphisms-vindication/.
  6. Dennis Bonnette, “A Philosophical Critical Analysis of Recent Ape-Language Studies,” Faith and Reason 19.2–3 (1993), 221–63; online at godandscience.org/evolution/ape-language.html.
Dennis Bonnette, PhD About Dennis Bonnette, PhD

Dennis Bonnette, PhD, retired in 2003 as a full professor of philosophy at Niagara University in Lewiston, New York, where he was chairman of the philosophy department from 1992 to 2002. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame in 1970. Dr. Bonnette taught philosophy at the college level for more than 40 years, and continues teaching, offering free courses at the Aquinas School of Philosophy. He has published many scholarly articles and two books, with the third edition of his Origin of the Human Species (Sapientia Press) appearing in 2014. His web site is www.drbonnette.com.

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