What is matter? Does the physicist's account of the nature of matter have a significant role to play in the philosophical dispute between the materialist and the immaterialist?

I always find it amazing what majestic edifices of pure "fairy dust"can be crafted on a foundation of a fundamentally flawed underlying premise.   In this case I would have to say that the entire philosophical search for the "true / intrinsic / nuominal nature"of "matter"is the consequence of a fatally flawed theory of meaning.

It is my impression that most of the philosophers I have encountered, either consciously or unconsciously adopt a sort of "natural kinds"theory of meaning.   This kind of theory of meaning maintains that what we label with words necessarily corresponds to some sort of naturally existing distinction.   When we properly recognize the naturally existing distinction, then we get the meaning of the word right.   In other words, words have a "correct"meaning dictated by the naturally existing things in reality.   Therefore, since we have coined the word "matter"it is assumed that it must necessarily refer to some specific discernable distinction (a "property") in reality possessed by all those things we include under that label -- when we use it correctly.

Naturally, this results in a search for what that specific property must be.   And from the associated premise that the definition of a word provides the meaning of the word, it results in a search for a definition of "matter"that is couched in terms of a distinct recognizable specific property of all physical things.   And because nobody can find such a property, it also, of course, results in philosophies which are founded on a critique of the very notion that such a property exists.   It is on the basis of this kind of theory of meaning that one can claim that "It is not logically necessary that the objects that make up our familiar world be composed of 'matter'".

The situation can be easily corrected if one adopts a different theory of meaning.   The philosophical "problem"presented by the question "What is matter?"simply disappears.   Let's suppose that we adopt a theory of meaning derived from a view of concepts as a mental integration based on recognized similarities of distinct existents in reality.   In my humble opinion, one of the more underappreciated contributions of Ayn Rand to the study of Philosophy is her Objectivist theory of meaning -

"A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to specific characteristics and united by a specific definition. . . . The units involved may be any aspect of reality: entities, attributes, actions, qualities, relationships, etc.; they may be perceptual concretes or other, earlier formed concepts. The act of isolation involved is a process of abstraction: i.e. a selective mental focus that takes out or separates a certain aspect of reality from all others. . . . The uniting involved is not a mere sum, but an integration, i.e. a blending of the units into a single, new mental entity which is used thereafter as a single unit of thought."
                                      Ayn Rand,   Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology Expanded Second Edition.
                                                Edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff; Penguin Books, USA, Inc. 1990; ISBN-0-453-00724-4; Pg 10

From this foundation, a "Conceptualist"[my label, so it may not be appropriate] theory of meaning can be constructed that holds that the word "matter"labels a concept that is a mental integration of all those existents in reality that are similar across a set of characteristics (properties) by which we recognize that candidates are or are not members of the set.   In such a conceptualist theory of meaning, the meaning of a concept consists of two mutually supportive parts: (i) the open ended set of existents which are recognizable as members of the set; and (ii) the open-ended set of similarity-characteristics across which the members of the set are in fact similar.   The definition of the concept "matter"is the sub-set of similarity-characteristics across which we currently believe we recognize that the currently known members of the set of existents are similar.  

[Notice that the definition of a concept is supposed to be a consciously chosen subset of the open-ended set of similarity-characteristics across which the members of the set are in fact similar.   So it is possible that the consciously chosen definition can actually be wrong -- can include properties that are not in fact within that set of similarity characteristics (perhaps we think we use one property to recognize similarity, but in fact use another).   And notice that the definition can change as we gain more complete knowledge of the full set of existents and the full set of properties across which the existents are in fact similar.   Notice also that the two sets (of existents, and of similarity-characteristics) are open-ended, containing not just those members that we consciously recognize, but also those that we aren't aware of.]

With this "conceptualist"theory of meaning, the "problem"of the nature of "matter"disappears entirely.   It is no longer possible to claim that "It is not logically necessary that the objects that make up our familiar world be composed of 'matter'".   The concept of "matter" is just the labelled set of those objects that make up our familiar world.   So it now is logically necessary that they be composed of "matter"since the meaning of "matter"just is that set.   Moreover, this logical necessity holds across metaphysical assumptions.   "Matter"would still exist as a concept in Berkeley's world of ideas in the mind of God.   Additionally, some of the suggested possible outcomes of a search for the property of "matter,"become totally irrelevant.   What is meaningful is the set of properties which we use to recognize that existents are or are not members of the set we call "matter".   It is not relevant if some or even all objects in reality are ultimately composed of an infinite hierarchy of constituent particles.   Nor is it relevant if some or even all objects in reality are ultimately composed of changes in patterns of the whole.   What is relevant is the existence of recognizable common characteristics such as "I cannot pass my hand through".   It is not relevant to the concept of "matter" why they are common, or why I cannot pass my hand through.

When it comes to acknowledging some particular sub-set of similarity characteristics in a definition of "matter", we can take whatever empirical answers we discover into account as to why I cannot pass my hand through.   We can then define "matter"as either a consequence of an infinite hierarchy of constituent particles, or as changes in patterns of the whole, or as whatever else we might empirically discover is common across all objects recognized as "matter".   But the definition of "matter"is not the meaning of "matter".   The definition is a consequence of empirical discovery.   The meaning is a consequence of mental abstraction across recognizable similarities for reasons of mental economy.

So even in a possible world wherein physics and the ultimate constituents of matter are chaotically disorderly, the concept of "matter"will probably still exist (we would still probably have the justification of mental economy for creating the concept of "matter").   Of course, in such an alternate universe, the open-ended set of similarity-characteristics would likely be radically different.   So the concept of matter would not be the same as it is in our actual world -- although it would have the same set of members, it would have a different set of similarity-characteristics.   But the word "matter"would be used to denote a concept that fulfills the same mental function in both worlds.

The only role that the physicist's account of the nature of matter has to play in this philosophical discussion of the nature of matter, is in the empirical discovery of the similarity-characteristics across which we recognize that things are "matter".   The only direct contribution by the physicist is to the selection of our definition of matter.   The physicist has nothing to directly contribute to the meaning of the word "matter", nor to our recognition of what things are "matter".   Indirectly, of course, by enlarging our awareness of the properties that are in fact similar across those things we call "matter", the physicist can contribute to our abilities to recognize what border-line or problematic entities should be included within or excluded from the set we call "matter".

From a foundation of a "conceptualist"theory of meaning, the dispute between the materialist and the immaterialist comes down to a dispute about the meaning of the word "matter".   The immaterialist maintains that matter does not exist because he has not been able to find any discernable property of things than can be recognized as "matter".   To a conceptualist, the immaterialist is looking in the wrong place for the wrong kind of thing.       The immaterialist is seeking what does not exist, because he has a fundamentally flawed notion of the meaning of "matter".

On the other hand, the metaphysical speculation that the "intrinsic nature of things"might not be material (a different concept from "matter") is only possible from the perspective of the Idealist metaphysical premise.   Only from a premise that consciousness is primary, and the "intrinsic nature"of what we experience is hidden behind a "veil of perception"is it possible to ponder the "intrinsic nature"(the hidden, underlying, nuominal nature of things are they are in themselves) of what we experience.   If, on the other hand, one adopts the Realist premise, the premise of the materialist, then "what we see is what there is" -- there is no question of things having an "intrinsic nature".   There is no question of what a thing is "as a thing in itself" -- what a thing appears to be (is experienced as) is what a thing is "in itself". The "intrinsic nature"of things is just exactly as revealed by our mundane empirical investigations of the physical nature of objects.

So the dispute between the materialist and the immaterialist is one or both of a fundamental metaphysical dispute about what is the primary given, or an epistemological dispute over the nature of the meaning of the word "matter".   The physicist, with his empirical discoveries, has no input to this dispute on either of its bases.

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