Materialism – Breaking the Spell
“The ontology of materialism rested on the illusion that the kind of existence, the direct ‘actuality’ of the world around us, can be extrapolated into the atomic range.” (Werner Heisenberg)
To the enlightened elite it is unthinkable to cede any limit to human understanding. If some poor fellow should suggest the incomprehensibility of the universe absent a “higher power,” he’ll quickly find himself banished from polite society, charged with committing the unpardonable sin of invoking the “God of the gaps.” Yet those who dismiss him as a glassy-eyed fundamentalist trapped in the “demon-haunted world” of religious superstition are drones of a fundamentalist movement all their own: materialism.
Materialism – The Material World
Materialism is a worldview based on a naturalistic understanding of reality. In materialism, the natural world is all there is. There is no supernatural—neither spirit nor soul nor God. There is only “nature”: the cosmic matrix of matter and energy operating according to physical laws. Reality is what is objective, observable and reproducible. For the materialist, the science is “in”: everything is a product of physical processes. On the surface of things, this would seem correct.
Our everyday experience is one of matter and energy: we program iPods, plant gardens, drive cars, and marvel at stars; we struggle against an unseen force as we climb the stairs; we are stung by a hidden power after touching the door knob; and an invisible, intangible force guides our compass needle to true north.
But what are these things, really?—these things of matter and energy. What do we even mean by a “material” world?
Materialism – The Vacuous Desk
As I write this article on materialism, I am sitting at a desk made of composite wood material. It is no Chippendale, by far; but it is amply sturdy to support the weight of a computer, printer, and peripheral gadgets, not to mention a pile of reference books. Its appearance and feel lead me to believe that in a fundamental way it is solid. After all, wood is composed of chemicals, which are made of atoms, which are rock solid, right? Not by a long shot.
Consider one the carbon atoms in my wooden desk. Surrounding a compact nucleus of six protons and six neutrons is a cloud of six electrons. Although the physical size of the atom is infinitesimal, the relative distance between the nucleus and its electrons is enormous.
It is like our solar system on a microcosmic scale. The solar system contains a huge amount of material in the sun, planets, and interplanetary media, yet physical matter makes up less than one part in one trillion of its volume. With all of that empty space, the solar system is one gigantic vacuum that contains a few impurities.
Now imagine if Rick Moranis entered my computer room and stumbled into a “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” mishap on a subatomic scale. What the incredibly-shrinking Rick would find is that each of those gazillion atoms in my desk is a tiny micro-void that mysteriously gives rise to our perceptions of color, texture, and hardness. If you think that’s quirky, it is only the tip of “material world” weirdness.
Materialism – From Certainty to Mystery
In 1689 Isaac Newton provided both a physical explanation and predictive tool for the planetary laws of Kepler. The comprehensiveness of Newton’s brilliant formulations enabled investigators to determine the precise motions of everything from falling apples to rotating galaxies. It triggered the belief that the universe was a cosmic “clock” in which the outcome of any event could be determined once all the initial conditions and forces involved were known.
But when later researchers peered deep into the clock’s interior, they found that the clockworks were not as well-defined as Newton might have thought. In fact, they were downright fuzzy.
Consider one of the atoms in my wooden desk. If I try to determine the movement of one of its electrons, I quickly find that I can either measure its position or its velocity but not both. Unlike the Earth’s orbit which can be precisely determined, the flight path of the electron and its whereabouts between any two measurements is unknowable. While I may be tempted to consider this a limitation in my experimental technique, it turns out to be a mysterious feature of the subatomic world itself. But that’s not all.
Materialism – The Quantum Potential
We know from experience that when an object, like our car, absorbs energy by crashing into another object, it suffers damage. If we want our car repaired, we don’t expect it to return to its original condition by itself. Rather, we take it to a body shop, where it will be restored by the skillful hands of trained technicians.
Now this is strange—when one of my desk’s atoms is damaged by bumping into one of its neighbors, it quickly returns to its original condition, all on its own.
Equally strange is the phenomenon of the electronic “orbit.” Unlike the earth, whose orbit is slowly spiraling toward the sun, the electrons in the atom are held in fixed regions. But the real stumper is why, with a positively charged nucleus and a negatively charged electron, the atom doesn’t quickly self-destruct. In fact, according to the laws of electrodynamics, atomic annihilation should occur in less than a microsecond.
The stability and very existence of the atom suggests a guiding hand from an outside Agent. But in materialism there can be no such Agent; there is only physical matter and physical processes, which leaves the mysterious phenomena of the microcosm to be explained mechanistically.
In the mechanistic account, atomic weirdness arises because tiny particles, like the electrons in my desk, do not exist in any objective sense. Rather they are observer-dependent products resulting from our investigative disturbance of something called, the “quantum potential.”
Neither matter nor energy itself, the quantum potential is, as its name implies, “potentiality”—an invisible substrate that permeates the whole cosmos and provides the potential of being. Thus, when physicists talk about an electron, what they are really talking about is an abstraction whose existence is described by mathematical constructs and probability functions. As quantum theory pioneer Werner Heisenberg once wrote, “elementary particles...form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things and facts.”
So despite its appearance, my cheapo desk is a vacuous object comprised of a vast throng of “potentialities” materialized by physical disturbances in the quantum mist, giving my desk the sensible properties of color, rigidity, texture, and mass. As it turns out, this “mist” is the eternal foundation of nature, credited with everything from keeping the atoms of my desk intact to Creation itself.
According to the current models of cosmogenesis, the entire contents of the universe popped into being after a freakish fluctuation of the quantum potential. So, in extreme example of getting something from nothing, the quantum potential is the source of all being.
What’s more, the quantum potential is the end of all things, too. As some theories suggest, gravitational attraction will eventually overcome cosmic expansion until the whole universe is squashed back down to a quantum nugget of pure potential—an alpha and omega, if you will.
Let’s see: immaterial; omnipresent; omnipotent; ageless; the ground of all being. You know, the quantum potential is sounding a lot like the One who made a blazing appearance in a desert bush ages ago.
Materialism – A New “Gap-Filler”
Is Materialism a new kind of “religious” fundamentalism?
Over 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Anaximander posited an eternal, ubiquitous substance he called the “apeiron.” Like the quantum potential, Anaximander’s apeiron was thought to be the fountain of all reality.
In the intervening time, we have come no closer in a fundamental understanding of this mysterious substance. Now, as then, questions remain as to where it came from, what fuels it, and why its creative ability is limitless? Is the quantum potential even a “something” in the materialistic sense?
Those under the spell of materialism will answer, “Yes.” For them, any hole in our understanding of nature must be plugged up with physical mortar.
But since this “mortar” is neither matter nor energy, it is not physical. And because of its numinous nature, neither can it be observed. Rather, it must be inferred from its influence on what is observable.
If you think this sounds a lot like the “God of the gaps,” you’re right. The main distinction is that this “god” neither communicates, nor obligates, moral duty. And that’s the point.
In a “materialism of the gaps” fundamentalism, the emperor’s “wardrobe” is a dressed-up label for something that, otherwise, is unexplainable in a Godless cosmos. It is a stranger-than-fiction machination, in which the immaterial has been co-opted as material in the desperate attempt to exclude, what C.S. Lewis once called, the transcendent Interferer.
"Truth must be stranger than fiction, because we have made fiction to suit ourselves." (G.K. Chesterton)
Regis Nicoll is a Centurion of Prison Fellowship’s Wilberforce Forum. He is a columnist for Breakpoint, Salvo Magazine, and Crosswalk and writes for Prison Fellowship’s blog, The Point. He also publishes a free weekly commentary addressing the pressing issues of the day.