Mysticism and Matter

 

                                                Mysticism and Matter

 

 

Consider a community of disembodied minds cut off from material reality. Not only are they immaterial themselves, they have no contact with matter, not even space. Their perceptions are purely abstract and psychological. They communicate with each other about things that interest them, but there is no talk about matter. We can suppose that they do occasionally speculate about a world beyond their common experience—they wonder if their immaterial world is all there is. Perhaps this is a matter of scientific and philosophical controversy, with some declaring themselves open to the possibility of such a world, some opting for agnosticism, and some rejecting the idea outright. But this is all speculation, since no one has ever seen or touched a material object; indeed, they have very little conception of what such a thing might be. They characterize the conjectured reality in purely negative terms—what is “not-spiritual”—and form fuzzy images of it. There are those who doubt that such talk is meaningful. They don’t doubt their own existence and feel clear about their own nature, but as for anything different and beyond—they regard the possibility as fascinating but fantastic.

            But suppose that one day a prophet arises—a seer, in the most literal sense. This individual, Marie, undergoes a strange and unexplained alteration whereby she gains the sense of sight: she sees the first material object ever beheld by anyone in our disembodied community. What does she see? She sees a tomato, red and plump, splendid in its materiality. She is much amazed by this object, so different from anything encountered in her experience hitherto. At first she is afraid, so alien is the tomato, so brimming with alternative being—as if it might pounce on her. But it just sits there, not moving, reveling in its volume and solidity. Marie immediately grasps the concept of extension (she is among the most brilliant of her people), and she is suitably astonished—nothing in her life has prepared her for such a thing. She becomes a believer, given the evidence of her eyes: she now knows that there is an extended reality beyond the wispy immaterial world of spirits and thoughts—matter really exists!

            Marie feels she must spread the news—her revelation must be made public. But she is shrewd enough to realize that this isn’t going to be easy: there will be understandable skepticism. Still, she has a solid (!) reputation for honesty and acuity, so some people will credit her report. She begins to tell of her strange experience. As predicted, some people reject her story outright, but many are convinced by her vivid description of the tomato, though they only dimly grasp its content. Thus there emerges a new creed—the creed of “Materialism”. Marie is accorded great reverence, and her vision of the tomato goes down in history. The world is much stranger and more magnificent than they ever thought. And maybe there is more where that came from—maybe the material world consists of many tomato-like objects! Doctrines arise and sects are founded, surrounding questions of the composition of the material world, which Mary has but partially glimpsed. An anthropologist would say that a religion of the material world has taken hold (though there may still be dissenters). And indeed Marie really did witness something remarkable, given her habitual mode of experience—something anomalous and unprecedented. She was right to be impressed. In due course others mysteriously acquire the gift bestowed on her and are also astounded by their visions: not just tomatoes, but apples and oranges, bits of coal, mud. There is a whole world of matter out there! It is so various, so pulsing with reality, so marvelously concrete. What is its nature, where does it come from, what does it mean? Is there perhaps a super-material god, large and heavy, that created it in his own image?

            What is the point of this parable? Not to prove that immaterial beings are possible or that matter is supernatural, but to suggest that perhaps we take matter too much for granted. We find it familiar and boring, as common as dirt, nothing to get worked up about. But that attitude is the result of the force of custom, which dulls us to the miracle of matter. Matter is ontologically remarkable, an object of wonder. Extension in space is itself an amazing fact of nature. Like my immaterial beings, we are conditioned by what confronts us every day—to what constitutes our very bodies—but that is just a psychological fact, not reflecting ontological triteness. Matter is not intrinsically boring; it is gorgeous and fantastical. We need to develop, or recover, our sense of its ontological singularity. We need to see it with Marie’s fresh eyes, difficult as that may be for us.  [1] It is what our universe is made of, after all, and so deserves our attention and appreciation, even our reverence. Maybe we should become Materialists—not in the sense that we think everything as is boring as matter but in the sense that we recognize how special matter is. Matter has its own charm and fascination, its own majesty.

 

  [1] I can report occasionally feeling a sense of how remarkable matter is (and not because of discoveries in physics), by patiently gazing at a chunk of the stuff. Drugs might aid in the process. Mystics might sense it naturally.

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