Materialism and Mystery

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The philosophy of materialism—the view that the physical world is the only thing that exists—pervades our era. Proponents of this philosophy often use the opinions of scientists to defend it. It isn’t surprising that some who devote their lives to the study of matter accept an idea that emphasizes its importance. However, the disregard for mystery in the materialist worldview undercuts and limits the findings of modern science. 

In order to demonstrate the damage done by materialism, we must distinguish between two types of mysteries. The first type vanishes with a satisfactory explanation. Ancient people viewed lightning and eclipses as incomprehensible. Our modern understanding of electromagnetism and astronomy explains these phenomena in a way that leaves no room for doubt. Often, this type of mystery is explained with a “god of the gaps,” a supernatural explanation for the misunderstood natural phenomenon. As our knowledge of these subjects increases, the gods of the gaps die.

There is a second type of mystery, however, that cannot simply be resolved. For example, the question of why a young lover is enchanted with his beloved can be only partially answered. It is true that his genes have been selected by a process that perpetuates a desire to reproduce, thus he feels drawn to women in their fertile years who exhibit traits that are beneficial to bearing and raising children. However, it’s clear to anyone who has had this experience that the evolutionary explanation isn’t the whole story. Love cannot be fully articulated by biology, psychology, or any other field. What distinguishes this question is that the more a person studies it, the less he or she understands the answer and his or her wonder increases. The mystery of love, unlike the mystery of lightning, becomes more mysterious and more beautiful the more one searches for an explanation.

The difference between mysteries of the first type and mysteries of the second type is not merely that the former are solved and the latter are unsolved. The disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the famous pilot, serves as a counterexample; it is an unsolved and likely unsolvable mystery, but it belongs to the first type. We will probably never know what happened to the beloved aviation pioneer, but, in principle, the mystery could be completely resolved. The discovery of the remains of the missing plane could give us evidence about what might have happened to her. The more evidence we have, the more we understand. This is not the case when we ask questions about the deepest things, the mysteries that are beyond human capacity.

The Christian tradition is quite familiar with this type of mystery. There is a story that the great theologian St. Augustine once walked along a beach trying to understand the Trinity. While he paced, he saw a child running from the ocean to a small hole with a seashell full of water. The saint asked the child about his strange behavior and the child replied that he was trying to empty the sea into his small hole in the ground. When Augustine told him that the task was impossible, the child replied that it was just as impossible to understand the Trinity. After making this remark, the child disappeared; and the great saint grew wiser.

Whether or not this story is true, the fact that Christian culture shared it indicates a medieval appreciation for mysteries. What is more, the story’s protagonist was a great intellectual whose thought covered such diverse areas as philosophy, child psychology, politics, and the nature of time. This indicates that the Christian tradition has a strong desire to solve mysteries that can be understood and a reverence for those mysteries that are beyond our understanding.

On the other hand, the materialist worldview sees only the first type of mystery. If everything is made up of matter, then everything can be reduced to the behavior of its physical components. We may not understand some of the phenomena, just like ancient people didn’t understand lightning, but everything can be completely explained by forces and particles. If we claim that a mystery cannot be resolved, we are no different than the people who invoked “gods of the gaps” to account for eclipses. 

In that situation, any metaphysical concept would be just an approximation. Things like love, justice, or freedom would say nothing about any truth outside ourselves. They would merely be statements about our preferences that follow from our psychology. And psychology could not claim anything about the rational and transcendent nature of human beings; it would be merely the inevitable conclusion of some sophisticated biology. And biology could not claim that life is unique or valuable; it would be merely the complex interactions of chemicals. And chemistry could not claim to be meaningful in any way; it would be merely the aggregate behavior of particles obeying the laws of physics. And with physics, we would hit rock bottom. The materialist would argue that every perceived mystery could, in principle if not in practice, be explained by the fundamental laws of physics.

The problem for the materialist is that the question, “What are the fundamental laws of physics?” seems to be a mystery of the second type. Over the past 120 years, the field has made some remarkable, experimentally confirmed findings. Broadly speaking, these findings tend to fall into two categories: discoveries characterized by the theory of relativity, and discoveries on the microscopic level. 

The theory of relativity gives a unified explanation of time, space, and gravity. This leads to a famous but seemingly impossible discovery. If an astronaut flew at near the speed of light, he might experience only a few days passing; but when he returned to earth, he would find thousands of years had passed. The theory makes other equally unbelievable claims about very fast or very large objects, and each of these claims has been confirmed by measurement. 

On the other end of the scale, several breakthroughs have been made regarding very small objects. This realm is described quite well by the theories of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory, which make several very strange predictions. Most notably, quantum mechanics gives some evidence that observation of an object fundamentally changes the nature of a system, that particles act in a different way when we are watching them than when they are unobserved.

Both the theory of relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics are as beautiful as they are bizarre. The challenge that modern physicists face is how to reconcile these theories. Each theory provides a complete description of objects on the scale it studies, but neither one can make accurate predictions for objects on all scales. Over the last century, many scientists have spent a tremendous amount of effort working to find such a theory, called a unified theory. But no such theory has been discovered. There is no set of rules that can accurately predict the results of experiments at any scale. Instead, the greater the knowledge of fundamental physics, the greater the mystery. 

It is, of course, possible that scientists will discover a single set of experimentally-confirmed rules that describe all the behavior of matter. At that point, the question about the fundamental laws of physics will be a mystery of the first type. But there is no scientific evidence that a unified theory that is comprehensible to the human mind exists. The materialist who only accepts statements justified by scientific evidence cannot consistently claim the existence of such a theory. The actual progression we see is that the greater our knowledge of the fundamental laws of physics, the greater the mystery and the greater the beauty. It’s quite possible that understanding the most fundamental laws that govern the matter in the universe is no easier than emptying all the water in the ocean into a small hole on the shore.

Thus, if one follows materialism to its natural conclusion, one is forced to confront the possibility of mysteries of second type, which contradict the basic assumptions of materialism. These mysteries point to things that transcend the physical world, things that are beyond our human capacities. In the presence of such mysteries, the only proper responses are wonder and reverence. We can hope that such wonder will lead to wisdom and that such reverence will ultimately be paid to the Author of everything material and immaterial. 

[Image Credit: Unsplash]

By

Daniel Sadasivan is an assistant professor of physics at Ave Maria University.

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